Taproot Edmonton is an online publication recently launched by Mack Male, an award-winning urban affairs blogger who loves Twitter and all things Edmonton, and Karen Unland, one of Edmonton’s most outstanding journalists. Taproot Edmonton is a home for local journalism created with the community and not simply for it. Members are invited to ask questions, cultivate ideas and support meaningful local journalism
Taproot is primarily member-funded, with other revenue streams developed over time in service of the members and the journalism they make possible. Unlike many subscription-based services, Taproot will not sell access to exclusive content. The stories (or videos or infographics or whatever suits the journalistic needs of an idea) will be published openly. Rather, paying members will have the power to be involved in the process from beginning to end. Here’s how it works:
And here’s what Mack Male has to say about this innovative local journalism project:
We believe the idea of journalism as a service is especially applicable to local journalism. There’s an abundance of information available to all of us, but extracting real value from all that information is hard. When it comes to news, there are plenty of ways to find out what happened, where it happened, when it happened, and who did it. It is less common to explore how and why it happened, even though that’s often where the real value lies. It’s that “how and why” journalism, with context, analysis, and insight, that we want to focus on.
We know this kind of journalism is expensive and that means we’re going to need a new approach to fund it. Advertising isn’t going to cut it (and this kind of journalism doesn’t lend itself to chasing pageviews anyway). While staying open to other potential revenue sources, we think focusing on memberships is the way to go, but with a twist. Our stories will be made available openly to all. If we think a story is worth publishing, we want it to reach as many people as possible and to have as big an impact as possible. The twist is that members will pay not for access to the stories (the paywall or micropayment model), but to be involved in the process from beginning to end.
As a member you’ll have access to the Story Garden, which is our list of story ideas. There members can plant new seeds (suggest a story idea) or they can cultivate existing seeds, by upvoting, commenting, and sharing their insight and perspectives. Our editorial team will assign thriving stories to paid freelancers who will produce the story. When that story is published, all members who contributed will be acknowledged and we’ll do our best to report back on the impact that it had. There will be other perks to being a member of course, which we’ll develop and share over time, but being a part of that process is fundamental.
We believe there’s a great deal of untapped potential in the current model of publishing for an audience. We are confident that collaborating with the community is a better model that will ultimately result in more meaningful stories about Edmonton.
Every week for the last few years I have chronicled the many challenges facing local media organizations in my Media Monday Edmonton updates. Layoffs, consolidations, and plenty of other cost-cutting measures have been undertaken and more are surely on the way. The doom and gloom reached new heights in January when Postmedia merged the Journal and Sun newsrooms and laid off 35 people. After the cuts, many Edmontonians I spoke to lamented the loss of local journalists and their work. And certainly we have seen the paper continue to shed pages. The good news is that there are still plenty of talented journalists doing great work at the Journal/Sun, but for how much longer remains uncertain. Many other local media organizations are not faring much better.
We can continue to focus on the doom and gloom or we can do something about it. Karen and I have decided to put our energy toward the latter. We hope you’ll join us!
Why ‘Taproot’? We love the gardening metaphor and think it works exceptionally well for what we’re doing. You can learn more about taproots at Wikipedia, but essentially a taproot is the largest, most dominant root. In some plants like carrots and radishes, the taproot as a storage organ is so well developed that we eat it. It takes plenty of nourishment to get there, just like good stories. And finally, taproots grow very well here in Edmonton!
We’re building a way to commission and promote curiosity-driven stories, the kind of how-and-why journalism that helps us understand Edmonton better. Our members will participate in the process from the beginning, by asking questions, voting on other people’s questions, and suggesting ways to make the stories richer. Freelancers will be paid to write the stories, and Taproot will publish and promote them. Anyone can read a Taproot story, but not everyone can participate in the creation of one — you have to be a member to do that. So please join us, and help Mack Male and Karen Unland cultivate interesting local stories.
Taproot represents the culmination of the kind of work we have engaged in for over a decade, sometimes separately and sometimes in collaboration. The conditions are right to go all in on this. We are deeply steeped in the current thinking about the future of local journalism, and believe strongly that Taproot can help advance that conversation.
Frequently Asked Questions [from their website]:
What is Taproot Edmonton?
Taproot is a member-supported home for local journalism in the Edmonton area, created with the community instead of simply for it. Taproot will commission stories prompted by “how and why” questions asked by members.
Why is it called Taproot?
We love the gardening metaphor and think it works exceptionally well for what we’re doing. You can learn more about taproots at Wikipedia, but essentially a taproot is the largest, most dominant root. In some plants like carrots and radishes, the taproot as a storage organ is so well developed that we eat it. It takes plenty of nourishment to get there, just like good stories. And finally, taproots grow very well here in Edmonton!
Is it affiliated with anything else called Taproot?
No. We know there are other things with that name, but you’ll find if you try to name anything nowadays, someone has beat you to it. To avoid confusion, we’ll usually refer to it as Taproot Edmonton or @taprootyeg, using the airport code for Edmonton.
How does it work?
The essence of Taproot is something we’re calling the Story Garden. In that garden, paying members will be able to seed stories by asking a question that they’d like us to answer. Other members will be able to cultivate that idea by upvoting it and/or commenting on it. When we see that an idea has garnered interest from the members, we will assign the story to a freelancer, then publish and promote the finished product, crediting everyone who contributed from the beginning. We’ll try to keep track of the impact of our stories and report back in the newsletter.
Why does it cost money to belong?
We think a membership-supported model is better for this kind of journalism than an advertising-supported model, which tends to create incentives for page views at all costs. Our idea benefits more from quality than quantity. We want to pay our freelancers competitive rates (no writing for “exposure”), and we want to turn this into a self-sustaining business. A membership fee is also a good way to see how strong the support is for this kind of thing. We know that if you’re willing to part with your hard-earned cash to make this happen, we might be onto something.
Where will the stories be published?
Definitely on the Taproot Edmonton site, and probably on Medium or some other open platform. We’ll be looking into Facebook Instant Articles and Google AMP, too, and we would not be opposed to partnering with a mainstream media outlet to publish there as well. Our stories are the opposite of paywalled. We want as many people to read them as possible.
Why aren’t the stories exclusive to members?
If a story is worth telling, it’s worth sharing as widely as possible. If journalism makes society stronger and democracy work better, it doesn’t make sense to keep it locked away. We think we can put a premium on participation in the process, and we think there will be other revenue we can derive from convening such an engaged community. But we don’t think selling access to the finished product makes sense for us.
How often do you publish?
We don’t know yet. It will depend on a lot of factors: the quantity and quality of ideas in the Story Garden; how much money we have to commission stories; how long it takes the freelancers to turn them around. We aren’t beholden to advertisers to deliver a product on a schedule regardless of how ready it is. That said, we’re in this to get some good journalism into the world, so we have reason to move things along.
What if I subscribe to the newsletter but I’m not a paying member?
We’ll keep you informed of our progress, and we hope to prove Taproot worthy of your financial support over time. You won’t have access to the Story Garden, but feel free to ask us questions or give us feedback by email.
What do I get for my membership fee?
You get access to the Story Garden, where you can plant ideas by asking a question that you’d like us to answer. You will also be able to cultivate other members’ ideas by upvoting them or commenting. Perhaps you have a supplementary question or you know someone who would be good to interview about that story. Members will also likely be eligible for other perks down the road. We’re contemplating live events, merchandise, special deals and other benefits, once we get the essential parts of Taproot built.
How do I participate?
Watch your members-only newsletter for access to the Story Garden. Turn on your curiosity and plant the seed of an idea. Help other members’ ideas grow. Spread the story once it’s out in the world.
What makes a good Taproot story?
It starts with a question, usually one that begins with “How” or “Why.” This isn’t a place to engage in conventional PR, where you’re trying to sell a journalist on doing a story about your company or yourself. That doesn’t mean you don’t have a personal interest in finding the answer. It means that you’re motivated by a desire to understand something better, rather than being motivated by a desire to get other people to understand your thing better.
How do you decide whether to assign my idea?
If an idea is getting a lot of attention from other members in the Story Garden, that will be a good indication that it’s worth pursuing. That said, we will always exercise our own editorial judgment as well. If a story doesn’t seem like a good fit, we’ll weed it out, to continue with the gardening metaphor. We will be as transparent as possible about our decisions as we go along, and we will be guided by an attitude of service.
How will you prevent trollish behaviour?
We will be tending the Story Garden carefully from the beginning, and we will insist that our members treat each other respectfully. This is not a set-it-and-forget-it comments section at the end of a story. This is an ongoing conversation among people motivated to understand things better. We are inviting members into our yard, so to speak, and we expect them to behave appropriately.
Where can I see a list of members?
The member list is not currently posted anywhere. Our intention is to build a members-only area of the website where you can see and interact with the other members. Members who help cultivate a story will also be acknowledged on that story.
How do I get on your freelancer list?
When you become a member of Taproot, we will send you a survey that asks if you want to be a storyteller. If you say you do, that will put you on our list, and we’ll follow up with more questions once we get set up so we can better understand what kind of stories you’re good at.
How much do you pay?
We’re still working that out. It will depend in part on how much effort we think a story will take. In print newsrooms, there is often a distinction between daily stories that can be turned around in about a day, and features that take longer to put together. We imagine a similar distinction here, with a lower rate for a story that can be turned around quickly and a higher rate for a story that takes a lot more reporting. We will be more specific as we determine our budget and learn more about the market.
Can I seed my own story idea in the story garden?
Yes. In fact, that could be a very good way to find out if anyone else is interested in your story before you put in a whole bunch of work.
What stops someone from stealing my idea?
Honour. We recognize that it can be risky for a freelancer to put an idea out there before it’s finished. But the kinds of stories we’re interested in are very local, and there aren’t that many local outlets, so whoever stole your idea is going to be pretty easily detected. We also aren’t that hung up on exclusives. It’s unlikely we’d kill a story just because someone else did it. There’s always more to say if it’s a truly interesting idea, and we can link to the other related stories for an even richer experience for the reader.
What is the editing process like?
We don’t know yet, but we do know that we will be editing stories. We love blogs, but this is not a blog. We’ll be applying Karen’s journalistic experience and Mack’s knowledge of civic affairs to help make the stories as strong as possible.
What if I’m not a writer?
Some questions might be better answered in video, infographic or audio form, and all stories will benefit from some kind of image to go with them. So please join as a storyteller if you’re interested in contributing in that way, regardless of whether you’re a writer.
How can you help support Taproot Edmonton?
Sign up for their free newsletter to keep up to date with the progress of Taproot Edmonton or, best of all, become a member at: https://www.taprootedmonton.ca.