After years of newspapers closing, merging, and downsizing, journalists are setting out on their own. Karen Unland, one of these new entrepreneurial journalists, was a reporter and digital editor at the Edmonton Journal for 14 years. She quit to build Taproot Edmonton, a site for local journalism, because the industry wasn’t changing fast enough. “I was willing to trade security for control,” she says. Unland started the site in May 2016 with co-founder Mack Male, a software developer, entrepreneur, and social media expert. They met on Twitter when she was still at the Journal, and a mutual interest in journalism planted the seed for Taproot.
The name “Taproot” comes from the largest, most dominant root of a plant. After growing downward, it then produces smaller lateral roots. The gardening metaphor works well because the heart of Taproot is the Story Garden, a forum that looks like Reddit, where members discuss issues they want investigated. “We encourage members to share with each other what they are curious about. They indicate on a sliding scale how interested they are,” says Unland. Members pay $10 a month (or $100 a year) to suggest, vote, and comment on local story ideas. If an idea is popular, freelancers (who must become Taproot members) are asked to pitch. Writers are paid $50 for proposals and, if accepted, a further $450 for the story. A recent story looks at Edmonton’s effort to use its Indigenous heritage to find culturally significant names for city buildings. With 98 members, Taproot’s pace is slow but steady. In order to bring in extra money, Unland also works as a media strategy consultant. “This is a lean start-up,” she says. “When introducing a new impetus for journalism, it changes everything.”
Unland shares what she’s learned so far about being an entrepreneurial journalist:
1. Test your idea. “Get reliable feedback before you launch. Think about where your potential customers are (in-person and online), and then develop a landing page outlining your vision and offering an opportunity to pay or sign up for updates. Attracting traffic means going to conferences, buying Google ads, or targeting Facebook posts to get reliable feedback.”
2. Be smart about business. “This will be a fun but gruelling hobby unless you figure out where the money is coming from and you dedicate a big chunk of your time to pursuing it. Find a partner with complementary skills who will give you time to concentrate on the business of journalism. Don’t rely only on people buying ads, subscriptions, or merch out of the goodness of their hearts. You’ve got to sell, and you do that by solving your customer’s problem, not your own. We sell the ability to participate in the story from the beginning.”
3. Build a community. “Be sure you are using social media to build your reputation and that it’s all connected. A lot of my audience is on my personal Twitter account, with 9,000 followers (mostly in Edmonton). They are the people I want to talk to. I have a podcast and a local media blog called seenandheardyeg.com, and Mack Male has his civic issues blog, mastermaq.ca. We use those to promote Taproot. If you draw attention to what other people are doing, they are more likely to pay attention to you. This is the currency of social media, and it can help you ll the top of your fun- nel toward paying members or advertisers or contributors.”
4. Make time for face-to-face networking. “What converts people into members the most is a face-to-face meeting. A few hours every week, I’m either going to events or having a one-on-one coffee with someone. If you’re not an extrovert — and I’m not — you have to speak the language of extraversion and get out there. I sit on a few boards, attend entrepreneurial events, speak on panels, moderate panels, and use my journalistic ability to ask questions in order to insinuate myself. The more we talk, the more people sign up. Every time we publish a story, it gets more people to sign up.”