For many years, a regular topic of discussion between Mack Male, a longtime blogger, community organizer and software developer, and Karen Unland, a former journalist turned entrepreneur, would often revolve around the difficulties being faced by local media in Canada. But when cuts made by Postmedia in early 2016 resulted in 35 people being let go in Edmonton, the pair decided to do something more than just talk about the challenges.
Drawing from their own experience in community journalism, they decided to launch Taproot Edmonton, a website that uses topics provided from its paying members as the sole source for story ideas.
“This is our attempt to figure out what the future of local journalism looks like from the ground up,” Male said.
Article topics for Taproot come from the website’s Story Garden, which allows paying members to plant story ideas by asking questions they’d like to see answered. When a particular question receives enough attention, Male and his partner assign the story to a freelancer. Once an article is finished, everyone who contributed to the idea from the very beginning is given credit.
“We’re thrilled with the participation of our members since the launch and continually impressed with the questions asked and the comments they share,” Male said. “There has been a good range of topics so far, from the herd of deer that lives in the south side of the city to why we treat homicides and pedestrian deaths differently.”
While everyone can view content on Taproot, members must pay either $100 per year or $10 a month to log into the Story Garden and offer ideas for future articles. The site currently has more than 80 members and a dozen or so freelancers. Every writer is a member first, and encouraged to actively participate in the Story Garden as well.
Male acknowledged that Taproot is ultimately looking for quality, not quantity, when it comes to the number of articles they decide to post. Through the end of 2016, the site averaged one story per month.
“Taproot isn’t likely going to be the place where dozens of new stories are posted each day,” Male said. “We’re not chasing eyeballs and we don’t have space to fill. We’re focused on publishing informative, impactful stories about our city.”
For Male, the most important goal for the industry remains continuing to experiment with different ways of using journalism to serve the community and developing new business models to sustain it.
“There’s not likely to be any single advance that ‘saves’ journalism or dramatically turns things around for the journalists and media companies that are struggling right now. Although there have been some exciting journalistic advances made in recent years focused on global or national issues, there has been far less innovation when it comes to journalism concentrated on local communities,” Male said. “That’s where we’re putting our energy and where we think we can have the biggest impact.”