Millroy: Should You Pay To Fund Local News?

9

If they’re asking for handouts, does that mean local digital news sites are experiencing the same cash-flow problems that have taken down so many newspapers in small markets?
That was the question that sprang to mind when in early May I read the appeal by Frank Rupnik, community editor at SooToday, to the public for financial help to “build something amazing.”

“As proud as we are of our vital reporting, we have exciting plans to serve you even better,” Rupnik wrote. “ Our ultimate goal is to produce the most outstanding local journalism possible. More breaking news. More in-depth features. More resources to chase down facts and discover the truth.”

“Can you help us accomplish our critical mission? Your financial support of robust, reliable journalism – any amount, big or small – would be a direct investment in the health and prosperity of your beloved hometown.”

“Consider this a joint venture between you and SooToday – with the dividend being a stronger, more transparent community,” he said. “When local news thrives, everyone benefits.”

The seeking of handouts by news outlets being totally new to me, I naturally put the obvious questions to Rupnik:

“Is this being done in all centres in which you operate? Does this mean the company is having trouble with money or does it want it to expand operations? Has it considered charging for its news service? “

I never got a reply so last week I went higher and got a response from Jeff Elgie, CEO of Village Media Inc., parent of SooToday and many other sites around the province Village Media operates under the Today banner.

“First: SooToday and all of the sites in our network have a regular ongoing ‘ask’ for reader contributions,” Elgie said in his email reply. “I want to be careful in that we do not use the term “donations” because they are not eligible for a tax receipt. It is simply asking local readers who value our journalism to support it via a voluntary contribution.”

“From time to time, we do run campaigns where we will in particular ask our email subscribers more proactively to participate. Otherwise, it is a passive ask that is sometimes found at the bottom of certain articles or other links on the websites. This has become fairly common throughout the industry now.

With respect to experiencing problems like newspapers:

The business model of local news – whether it be newspaper or digital – is extremely difficult. Village Media is one of few companies recognized in North America to have found and executed a sustainable business model for digital local news and we are now recognized globally because of it.”

Elgie said from a revenue standpoint, “while local sales are the primary source: we also depend on many other sources: national/programmatic advertising, sponsored content, video advertising, newsletter advertising, classifieds/business listings, and reader revenue, those voluntary contributions (which makes up only 2 or 3% of total revenue).”

He said Village Media provides free and full access to its content and intends to stay that way.

He does not intend to put up a paywall as many others have done. He said since the start of the pandemic, Village Media has doubled in size to over 140 staff, including almost 90 journalists.

Although Elgie said asking for financial support from the public now has become fairly common throughout the industry, it was certainly news to me. I have never seen it but, of course, I see very few of the digital sites that operate in small centres.

In any event, although I find it surprising, I suppose there isn’t anything wrong with it. It just seems strange coming from a news operation that began with a single outlet in the Sault but now has operations spread over the province.

I don’t think I would be able to do it. I get an uneasy feeling just thinking about the choice I would have had to make when I was editor of The Sault Star if the head office had said this was what we were going to do with each of our papers.

Could I take that embarrassment?

I guess I was lucky to be the editor of The Star in its heyday when advertising and circulation were at their highest.

Now, if any operation has its hand out, it should be newspapers in small markets. More than 250 media outlets closed across Canada from 2008 to 2019, according to a 2019 study by the Local News Research Project, and it is a trend that is continuing.

Some just didn’t adapt to the changing world, a world that demanded shorter, sharper stories as the number of pages in an edition was so drastically reduced, a trend that is also continuing.

However, I am not in favour of government financial support for news outlets and that includes the CBC, which I have long believed with its government subsidies has an unfair advantage against those in the private sector. I can’t escape the suspicion that when it comes to dicey stories involving the government, some news organizations just might think twice about cutting off the fingers of the hand that has been feeding them.

So, to be blunt, no matter what our local digital news sites SooToday and SaultOnline, which General Manager Bruce Clement says accepts contributions but does not seek them, do to improve or just stay afloat, I will be prepared to live with it.

They provide in capsule form a window into the daily workings of Sault Ste. Marie that we sorely need.

Doug Millroy can be reached at [email protected].

9 COMMENTS

  1. The days of advertising revenue being the only significant revenue generator for media are gone. Media does need to find new business models, that include subscribers paying for content (including investigative journalism) they want. Real journalism takes risks and doesn’t constantly fret about upsetting the people who pay the bills, whether it’s taxpayers, advertisers or others. People want the truth; they want journalists to ask good questions that push people with power beyond their talking points, so that we can all make informed decisions about issues that matter.

  2. You still have the problem of local online community information sites (LOCIS) defining, for themselves, what is “news worthy”.

    The extent to which those LOCIS permit unfettered, respectful user comments, and Letters to the Editor, is a rock solid indication of their dedication to raw, and relevant local information.

    There was a time very recently when SooToday did not have that dedication at all because it didn’t allow user commentary, and it’s still only slightly better because they highly moderate the commentary/Letters they allow.

    Then, you’ve got the other extreme dedication to facilitation of the public’s voice here on Saultonline even going so far as to permit/encourage certain staff journalists to produce articles that seek out the facts of the opposing, downtrodden, less “newsworthy”, albeit still factual, side of the most impactful issues facing the citizens of Sault Ste. Marie.

    I prefer the Saultonline approach because it gives me a voice, and lets others decide what they think about my opinion, and then either adopt it, ignore it, or discard it according to their lived experience.

    Saultonline’s approach, my friends, is as close to Democracy with a capital D that we are likely to ever get from a LOCIS.

    The reason this Saultonline LOCIS is not more financially successful is probably because there are a lot of powerful people with lots of money who want to control the message as best they can, but they can’t do that here so they attempt to starve Saultonline by not advertising here.

    Offerings by the little guy who consume the Local Information here on Saultonline, say even $5 a month, is likely the ONLY WAY Saultonline will flourish because the big local advertising money will NEVER come here.

    There’s just too much truth, and “we cannot be bought”, here at Saultonline for them to even try to control the local message here on Saultonline.

    Bottom line: Donate to Saultonline if don’t want the Big Fish in our small pond to starve Saultonline.

    Change your account to a Voluntary Subscription here:
    https://saultonline.com/membership-account/membership-levels/

  3. It’s my opinion that we are moving further into the media vs. journalism divide. Currently, and in future, we have/will have to pay directly for most journalism, while media is freely shoved down our throats in order to deliver propaganda.

    Media= CBC, CTV, Global, CNN, FOX, CBS, NBC, ABC, CNBS, MSNBC, BBC, Maclean’s, Globe and Mail, newspapers still standing, FaceBook. Mostly ideological propaganda.

    Journalism= Local news sites with investigative journalism into local issues, pay sites like Blacklock’s Reporter, older journalists that have left “media” for Substack, their own podcasts and You Tube blasts.

    The funding models for media and true journalism is in transition.

  4. They don’t need donations they need to conduct themselves like a real business should and start moderating their classified section. This would stop the loss of substantial revenue every day.

  5. This is a country where left-wing “leadership” is actively sabotaging our own economy.

    We’re maintaining and even increasing carbon taxes during unprecedented global fuel price hikes that are adding 40-50 cents at the pump now. The “you get it back at tax time” turned out to be a fraudulent talking point, like most of Justin’s failed election promises.

    The hardworking Canadian people have been bled enough. They shouldn’t be reaching into their already overdrawn pockets and bank accounts to provide more mandatory handouts to self-styled “news organizations” peddling ineffective lockdowns, agenda-pushing fear porn over American gun crimes, and other needless fifth column propaganda.

Comments are closed.