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May 6, 2021, 9:15 a.m.

Overstory Media Group wants to provide cover (and salaries) for local journalists

Two years after a cofounder launched Victoria-based Capital Daily as a daily newsletter, Overstory will try to replicate the success. The new media group has plans to grow to 50 publications and 250 journalists by 2023.

Overstory Media Group cofounders Farhan Mohamed and Andrew Wilkinson bonded over a common frustration: when it comes to local news, there’s got to be a better way.

Mohamed previously served as editor-in-chief and co-owner of the online news site Daily Hive and Wilkinson is a cofounder of Tiny Capital — which owns digital businesses like interface design firm MetaLab, design social network Dribbble, and the podcast app Castro — and launched Capital Daily as a daily local newsletter in his hometown of Victoria, B.C. in 2019. As they saw it, ads made reading local newspapers online a terrible experience and, bloated with syndicated national and regional stories, the coverage wasn’t feeling all that local anyway. Overstory was launched with a different vision: high-quality journalism, starting with a daily newsletter to regularly deliver the local news and events, and expanding from there.

Overstory refers to “the highest layer of vegetation in a forest,” and the new media group will replicate, in some ways, Tiny’s model of providing cover through the pooled resources of a larger organization and growing by building (or acquiring) new businesses along the way. The media group is launching with 10 outlets — including the flagship Capital Daily, Vancouver Tech Journal, Fraser Valley Current, and Burnaby Beacon — and more than 30 full-time staff. The plan is to expand to 50 publications and 250 journalists by 2023.

The model brings to mind Axios, which has expanded into local newsletters by hiring and launching from scratch in some cities and buying existing media companies in others, or — a bit closer to home — IndieGraf, a Canadian network that shares resources to support independent local journalists. Each has predicted that a regular email newsletter is key to gaining a local audience.

Substack and Facebook have also announced local newsletter initiatives in recent weeks. Mohamed said he and Wilkinson had a laugh at all the fanfare around the Substack Local announcement, which promised $1 million split between “up to 30” local news writers. (We wrote about the announcement, which would leave local journalists with around $30,000/year before benefits or other costs.) Overstory, meanwhile, estimates it’s investing about $500,000 into each new publication, including salaries, benefits, and legal support for journalists from day one.

Mohamed says the idea is to make every brand sustainable within 12 to 16 months. (From the “Join Us” page: “We understand ideas are cultivated and quality doesn’t happen overnight, so we’ll give you the time to create thoughtfully for your community.”) Overstory will drive membership and audience growth and provide technology and legal support but expects to leave editorial decision-making to individual publications.

Mohamed said that though the various publications will serve different cities and communities, he and Wilkinson are looking for a “50-50” mix of subscriber revenue (through memberships and perks including events) and securing long-term community partnerships (up to 30 on an annual basis) across them all.

“We’re betting on those two things: that we can bring in a handful of community partners and then we can also turn to our community of members or readers and say, ‘This is what we need in order to succeed in order to be here long term,” Mohamed said. “Every single thing that we do is centered around really high-quality content and having really well-designed brands.”

Part of that design is eschewing banner advertising. (“When you look even at any one of our websites, you’re never going to see a display ad, because we want to focus on quality and we want to focus on user experience,” Mohamed said.) As the former editor-in-chief and co-owner of Daily Hive, Mohamed said he knows, from personal experience, how much money littering a site with ads can make. He said he also knows about the exhaustion and stress that comes with chasing revenue based on page views.

“I was part of the problem. I was the one that was asking for this sort of stuff. I was asking journalists to create 30 pieces of content on a weekly basis, go nonstop, and put a 10-minute deadline on a story that we could get hits from quickly,” he said. “I learned that it’s not the way forward. That’s not how we’re going to create long-term, long-lasting, connected and engaged communities.”

What Overstory thinks will work? Journalists given the resources and time to create high-quality content that their communities actually want. Capital Daily, for example, has seen its email newsletter list swell to nearly 50,000 subscribers, representing roughly one in eight residents. Mohamed said the publication has acted “as a bit of a sandbox for us.” Since 2019, the publication has expanded to include a website, daily podcast, and jobs board. The Vancouver Tech Journal, as another example, has grown from a passion project into a daily publication with two full-time staff within four months.

For Capital Daily‘s managing editor, Jimmy Thomson, being able to focus on what he knows best is a relief.  “I don’t know how to work a sales funnel. I don’t know how to make money,” Thomson said, with a laugh. “When you have people that worry about the money for you, you can do the journalism better.”

Thomson described Victoria as fairly well-served in terms of daily news, but said Capital Daily has been able to fill a hole by producing “magazine-quality journalism” focused on the city. He pointed to a recent investigative feature “The man who stole a hotel” and its companion podcast episode as an example. The theft was a much bigger (and more damning) story than police reports had, originally, led them to believe.

“If it were up to journalists who have two stories to file that day and six stories that week, and editors that need a lot from them on a day-to-day basis, that story never would have gotten told at its full length and full depth. That’s the real luxury of where we are,” Thomson said. “As a news consumer, I’m glad that there’s something like this out here, that’s able to devote that kind of resources to a story. Because I don’t see anyone else doing it.”

Other Overstory publications are brand new. At Burnaby Beacon, managing editor Simran Singh said she’ll lean on Overstory’s head office as well as fellow managing editors Thomson and Tyler Olsen, who leads Fraser Valley Current, as she builds the publication alongside reporters Srushti Gangdev and Dustin Godfrey. Just outside of Vancouver, Burnaby is the third-biggest city in the province by population but Singh said the city gets short shrift in news coverage. She was inspired to join the project, in part, because she realized she didn’t know her neighbors — or the goings-on of the local government — s well as she thinks she should.

“When I really break it down, I want to make sure that there’s a place for the community in Burnaby to access the news — news that they feel connected to, and not just news that tries to chase a headline or get a lot of shares on social media,” she said. “I think when we do that with journalism, especially local journalism, we build really important connections to each other and we bolster our sense of community and belonging.”

Mohamed said the cofounders were focused on sustainability, not profitability. (“We’re not in this to make to make a boatload of money.”)

“I look around at these news organizations and publications that say, ‘We’ve been around for 50 years or 100 years.’ Well, they started somewhere. Why can’t we be that same thing?” Mohamed said. “Our goal is to be around 50 years from now, 150 years from now, and create that new beginning of what the future of community media looks like.”

POSTED     May 6, 2021, 9:15 a.m.
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