The purge of print continues to worsen with news outlets merging under the guidance of venture capital firms and large corporate amalgamations in a few big cities, leaving both journalists and audiences with an uncertain future. Fewer outlets means fewer jobs for reporters, while the ones who are employed are pushed into digital platforms dominated by SEO and ad revenue — it also means a lack of nuanced, unique news coverage for readers.
“We now have a very rigid structure and a small ecosystem where similar stories essentially get told from only a few perspectives that are actually very similar,” explains Oumar Salifou, host of Is This For Real? Breaking the Blue Wall, a Canadian investigative journalism podcast dedicated to detailing systemic racism within the Edmonton Police Service. “You don't have the proper perspective and the proper diversity in these institutions to tell the stories that need to be told on the ground.”
To fulfill the mission of getting diverse stories and diligent reporting in front of the people who need them, local and indie-publications need the purview and resources to dedicate journalists to long-term investigative work. But as local newspapers and independent digital media companies fold or are bought out, the autonomous publications left standing are forced to downsize staff to a distressing degree.
With a shortage of available writing opportunities both staff and freelance journalists have to become ultra-hyphenates, taking on super-heroic levels of writing, researching, audio/visual storytelling, photography, and social media — not to mention spending unpaid time promoting their individual “brand” to ensure their stories drive clicks.
Naturally, the stories that result from this overworked, overstretched, small pool of reporters tend to lean toward bigger national or international headlines, all written from a limited point of view within a constant, steamrolling deadline.
“Journalists today always need to have a plan B,” Salifou says, accurately describing the systemic issues at the core of modern journalism. “They can’t put all their eggs in one basket because this basket has so many holes in it.”
While the modern media landscape presents many challenges to today’s writers, it has a silver lining. Journalism is no longer a one-way conversation — whether it’s through social media, email newsletters, or membership through Patreon, the days of only knowing a reporter through their byline are over. The result of this intimate connection online between writers and their readers is that journalists are no longer tethered to any one publication; instead, they can dedicate their time and energy to the stories that most matter to themselves and their audience.
“It's very hard to encourage someone to get into digital journalism right now, which is why direct support models like Patreon are so important,” explains Zoë Hayden, the editor/founder of the women’s sports publication The Victory Press. “We're going to have to change something in the wider economy of digital media in order to make it sustainable and something you can truly make a living off of.”
Take Hayden, for example, who founded The Victory Press to publish in-depth coverage of women’s sports, a segment of sports that is chronically under-reported on. Due to The Victory Press’s patron supported business model, Hayden and her pool of freelance writers can tell the stories of female leagues that often get passed over for headlines, such as the Women's National Basketball Association, the The National Women's Soccer League, and more. Plus, they can go deep on the often glossed-over issues that lie at the intersection of sports and gender.
Since the dawn of newspapers, advertising has been something of a balancing act for publishers and writers, a tight-rope walk between the on-the-ground work of reporters and the desires of advertisers. But, by funding projects by way of a community, journalists are able to decide which sponsors and corporations to partner with — or, if necessary, to opt out of that process altogether. That model gives Salifou and fellow Is This For Real? cofounders Bashir Mohamed and Avnish Nanda the creative freedom to make powerful editorial choices on their own. As one example, because the podcast is dedicated to lifting the voices of those in Edmonton who haven’t been given mainstream media access, Salifou explains that he will step back as host for the podcast’s second season so a Black woman or non-binary individual can host in his stead.
“While it's still extremely important to follow ethical guidelines and journalism best practices, the creative freedom that you get when you have significant editorial control is fantastic,” Salifou says. “We really want to make sure we meaningfully reflect the community, to create a platform or organized group that is able to bring more people into the fold and give them skills, training, and resources so that if anyone wants to start a project, they can.”
Outfitted with a newfound creative free will, this rising breed of community-funded journalists are able to pay it forward to their audience, giving them access to bonus content, educational resources and extra podcast episodes. This business model is a natural fit for writers like Touré, a journalist and podcaster who’s based his career on having “multiple balls juggling in the air all the time.”
After establishing himself as a television personality and a writer at numerous legacy publications, including Rolling Stone, Vogue, and the Village Voice, Touré used the skills he learned over his career to create his own podcast, The Toure Show. And, by giving his patrons access to a second episode of his podcast each week, Touré now has the space to explore new topics and conduct in-depth interviews without worrying about the expectations of sponsors.
“Patreon has been great because chasing advertisers is a pain in the butt,” Touré says. “It's one thing to have, say, Warby Parker want to advertise on your show, but brands want something in exchange. Having a regular person say, ‘I like your show, I'm going to sign up and give you a little money is truly special.”
As a culture, we rely on journalists, writers, and storytellers now more than ever. When we lack understanding, they help us make sense of the rapidly changing world we live in, and when we need a moment from it all, they help us escape until we’re ready to dive back in. But as much as we need them, they rely on us, too. By being a part of a journalist’s community, we aren’t just helping them navigate the growing pains of modern media — we’re also giving them the nod that when they create their next great thing, we’ll be there with them to take it in.
“I am deeply grateful to people who are kind enough to pay for my content — and it’s critical to have the work live up to their expectations,” Touré explains. “I already put everything I have into every interview, but knowing that there’s this premium audience that’s very important to me, I’m always thinking about how I can give them value for their money.”