How The Discourse scaled its business model to 34 local news sites
The media startup developed a membership model that involves asking the audience what news should be covered.
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When Jacqueline Ronson started her job at Canadian media startup The Discourse in 2018, she went in with all sorts of assumptions about what she’d cover. She was hired for an initial six-month pilot program that required her to report on the Cowichan Valley, a region in British Columbia with about 83,000 residents, and though she wasn’t new to journalism — she had a graduate degree and had worked at several different news jobs — she’d only moved there a few years prior and still considered herself new to the area. “I had these ideas that I was going to write about environmental issues and talk about drought and salmon and water and all these things,” she told me. “And I got to The Discourse and they were like, ‘well, how do you know this is what your community wants you to report on?’”
Ronson’s colleagues had a different idea. “They suggested I just do some engagement work and talk to different people in the community about what stories need to be told, which is what I did.” Through her discussions with local residents, one topic kept resurfacing over and over again: a motorsport race track that had been built without any consultation with the surrounding neighborhoods. “The neighbors nearby suddenly woke up to this quite noisy development that was interfering with their lifestyle,” she said.
The residents Ronson spoke to also made another shocking accusation: the local print newspaper, which was owned by a large chain called Black Press, was intentionally ignoring the controversy in order to appease its car dealership advertisers.
So Ronson got to work by interviewing dozens of sources and combing through reams of public records and documents. A few months later, in July 2018, she published her first blockbuster report: “Trust in local news shaken over racetrack controversy in B.C.’s Cowichan Valley.”
Not only did it contain some of the most comprehensive reporting on the issue to date, but it also provided fairly compelling evidence that Black Press had barred its editorial team from covering the race track. Ronson established a pretty strong correlation between car dealership ads being pulled from the newspaper and a sudden pause in coverage. Black Press executives denied the accusations, but many within the community considered it a smoking gun.
Ironically, the story also encapsulated why The Discourse has seen so much success in scaling its local news model — a model that depends largely on paid memberships from the communities being covered — in areas where legacy newspapers have either shrunk or closed down entirely. Since Ronson’s initial investigation, the company has expanded its presence to six Canadian regions. It also launched a subsidiary that licenses its software to other local news startups. All together, the company powers 34 publications that serve 12 million people.
I wanted to get a better sense of how the company developed this model, so I spoke to its founder and two of its editors.
Let’s jump into my findings…
A rocky start
The Discourse didn’t start out with a focus on local news. In fact, it didn’t even publish its own content.
It was founded in 2014 by Erin Millar, a journalist who had written for various outlets since 2003. While working at the Globe and Mail, she grew frustrated by the economics of the digital media business. “I felt like I was under this pressure to just crank out a ton of content that was of no value to my audience, all to grab whatever shrinking piece of the digital advertising pie we could get,” she told me. Not only was the work becoming less rewarding, but she and her colleagues lived in constant fear of layoffs.
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