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Feb. 5, 2018, 12:14 p.m.
Business Models
LINK:  ➚   |   Posted by: Christine Schmidt   |   February 5, 2018

Discourse Media had set an ambitious goal: $1 million to fund the three-year-old organization’s national expansion across Canada, with $500,000 of that raised via crowd-investing.

“How do you write about audacious goals nearly achieved? How do you report on a campaign that was almost — but not — as successful as we ambitiously dreamed?” wrote Erin Millar, Discourse’s CEO and cofounder, in an update to supporters last month. “Still, our story is a remarkable success. Discourse was the first media outlet in Canada to ask its community to invest in its future by buying shares through a relatively new legal framework that enables small investments in private companies from people who aren’t accredited investors. Close to 300 investors said yes, contributing a whopping $350,000.”

In total with the funds from traditional investors, Discourse has raised $600,000, and the appeal to traditional investors is ongoing. The investment round is scheduled to close on March 15 and is still set to raise a total of $1 million, though less of that will come from crowd financing than originally planned.

Now Discourse is launching a beta test for its new membership platform. Millar wants to recruit a thousand members to sample the platform that will replace Discourse’s website to deepen interaction between reporters and readers, from story ideas to financial support to fact-checking assistance. She explained the membership platform to me in November:

Our readers will be able to identify the issues they care about, which sort of voices they want to be hearing from…to expand the public dialogue around issues of national importance. Based on the data about what they’re consuming, we’ll be personalizing feeds to help break down silos, rather than just feeding them more information [they already want…They really do care about the future of our country and these complex, wicked problems, and they know we have to hear from these voices to solve these things — but they don’t even know how to find them.

Ultimately, Millar hopes to attract 30,000 members over the next 18 months, with 10 to 12,000 of those coming in 2018. These memberships will offer a lower bar of entry for supporting Discourse than the crowd-investing platform, which Millar said turned off some supporters based on the number of hoops that the investing process required users to jump through.

After a few years of planning, Discourse is also kicking off a local news fellowship funding three freelance journalists for six months. The fellows are based, respectively, in Cowichan Valley outside of Vancouver, in the rural area of central British Columbia, and in White Bear First Nation in Saskatchewan, and will be focusing on energy and environmental issues.

“Our hope is that we both produce some really impactful investigative reporting and that we also really learn about setting up local news markets in a sustainable way,” Millar said. The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and the Catherine Donnelly Foundation are financially supporting the initiative.

More teamwork is also planned: “We’re redesigning how we work with organizational partners to increase our impact — and theirs. We look forward to announcing soon a first cohort of journalists and social change practitioners dedicated to using storytelling and engagement to improve public discourse about complex issues,” Millar noted in a recent update.

Media in Canada, like everywhere else, has been undergoing seismic shifts in the industry and markets. Postmedia’s hedge-fund roots have dictated cuts upon cuts for local newspapers, the Canadian government has been studying the potential of civil democracy without news organizations, and reports have called attention to the “serious decline in original civic-function news.” But also, the podcast industry has been growing and stubbornly optimistic entrepreneurs have emerged with projects such as Millar, The National Observer’s Linda Solomon Woods, and Phillip Smith with the Uncharted Journalism Fund. (Millar is a trustee of the fund.)

Millar probably isn’t the only one with this mindset: “Discourse will invest every resource we have into creating the most valuable, highest-quality journalism product we can. Something so good, Canadians will pay for it.”

A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Discourse had fallen short of its total $1 million fundraising goal. It fell short of raising $500,000 from the crowd, but the full funding round hasn’t closed yet.
The story also incorrectly stated that Discourse wanted to raise $30,000 in membership fees; it actually wants to attract 30,000 paid members.

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