In December 2016, Discourse Media editor-in-chief and chief executive officer Erin Millar published a post announcing the organisation's rebrand and new digital presence, and outlining its main aim: to "address trust in media and the impact it can have on community connectedness" by inviting the audience into the reporting process.
This year, the Canadian media company, whose projects are often shaped around solutions journalism, is evolving its model to focus on just six issues for a minimum of 12 months: the future of energy (which Discourse Media already started tackling in 2016 through its Power Struggle investigation); gender and sexualised violence; welfare (looking at the foster care system in Canada); environment, resource development and the future of the Canadian economy; indigenous land rights and reconciliation in Canada; and one more area of coverage which has yet to be chosen.
"When we looked at where we're at in Canada in terms of the disruption of the traditional media, there's still people covering the daily news, going to press conferences and responding to news events, but where we're really short on capacity is in any kind of in-depth reporting on systemic issues," Millar told Journalism.co.uk.
We ask our reporters to spend about as much time out in the community talking to people as they do actually writing and producing contentErin Millar, Discourse Media
"That could be investigative work, solutions journalism or data journalism (...) and it's really not that different to traditional beat reporting, which is one of the areas we lost as our infrastructure continued to erode with the business model."
The topics chosen are "really complex issues that can't really be sufficiently reported on by a general assignment reporter in a typical news cycle", she explained.
Each issue has been assigned to one reporter on Discourse Media's core team, who will also be working with other freelancers and contributors that often come on board through different fellowships or because they have expertise in a given area.
Before the areas of focus were chosen, the team spent time conducting a discourse analysis, looking at media coverage, social media conversations, and talking to influential figures to understand what was happening and what value they could bring as part of their aim to advance reporting on a subject as opposed to just reacting to the news agenda.
"The decision making is really about whether or not there is a real need for in-depth reporting on a topic.
"Sometimes we find that it's an issue that is not at all well known and all we need to do is inform people about it, like we did with our package on press freedom in indigenous communities, an issue that's not on anybody's radar, so all we had to do was put it out there and that was our contribution.
"Or we have a situation where we know this is a problem and everybody has reported a lot on this, but nobody knows how to move forward from here, so that becomes a solutions journalism project."
Discourse Media reporters spend a number of months building networks and meeting with people in relevant communities before producing and publishing any reporting, which is also indicative of the organisation's approach to engagement.
For example, work on the welfare beat started in September, but any pieces are likely to start being published at the end of February or the beginning of March. Because they were having conversations with children who didn't necessarily have a legal guardian to consent on their behalf, the team spent more time to develop a safe space based on trust, where they could learn more about the issue and help the children understand the risks and implications of sharing their stories as part of a media project.
"We ask our reporters to spend about as much time out in the community talking to people as they do actually writing and producing content.
"We see engagement as being part and parcel of the process throughout and as we move forward, we become more and more public in our engagement and outreach."
Once a piece or project is published, Discourse Media will often host events, some public and some behind closed doors, where journalists, sources and people who have the power to make a change in that space can exchange ideas, share their stories and discuss what the next steps could be.
"One of the things that comes out of that discourse analysis exercise at the beginning is who the audience is for our work, which sometimes can be pretty narrow.
"Where do we know that people are going to read it? We make sure the work will end up in one of those big national publications like The Globe and Mail, CBC and other places people pay attention to every day."
Whenever you do a long investigative report, such a small piece of that research ends up in a piece that's intended for a more general audience and you have all of this valuable information and original data analysis leftErin Millar, Discourse Media
The strategic approach to building audiences around specific topics is also tied to how Discourse Media thinks about the impact of its stories, which at an individual level is measured in three ways: getting people to think differently about an issue after engaging with its coverage; building empathy, which means giving people the ability to understand a different perspective and have a conversation with someone regardless of "political, ethnic or generational lines"; and opening up information and data resulting from reporting that individuals can use as a starting point to take action.
Impact at the network level, which the organisation recently started measuring, is looking at the influence its coverage has had on the groups of people who are working in energy or foster care, for example. Millar referred to this as "journalism as convenor", where reporting helps map out a landscape and show where different players, from individuals to companies and influential figures, stand.
The third and final rung of the impact ladder is long-term impact, defined by changes in the system, that Discourse Media cannot accomplish alone.
"We're definitely not going to be the ones to lower the number of people who are suffering from energy poverty but that's something we can go back to once a year and see if it has changed. So that might be policy change or a change in the number of kids in foster care in British Columbia."
Millar also hopes Discourse Media will be able to generate new revenue from developing editorial products around its six issues of coverage that could be valuable to organisations and individuals working in those areas, similarly to the model of The Economist Intelligence Unit.
"Whenever you do a long investigative report, such a small piece of that research ends up in a piece that's intended for a more general audience and you have all of this valuable information and original data analysis left.
"So we're asking, can we develop editorial products that are so valuable to those people whether they are foundations, non-profits or the public sector, that they would pay for that because it can help inform their strategy?"
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