These 270 independent news businesses are a bright spot in Canada’s local news ecosystem

LION has identified 270 publications in Canada that are independent, digitally dominant and serving a geographically-based community or single-subject topic.

August 30, 2023 by Julie Sobowale

Map with indicators in Canada
Image via Project Oasis

Over the past 25 years, the Canadian news market has experienced many exogenous trends similar to those in the United States — rapid advances and adoption of digital technology and platforms, a decline in advertising revenue, and significant contractions at community newspapers through layoffs and closures. And, as we’re seeing in the U.S., local independent media is trying to fill these gaps and better serve audiences who have often been overlooked.

While we still need more research into Canada’s burgeoning local independent media ecosystem, with help from a partnership with the Google News Initiative, LION has started this work by compiling a list of 270 publications that are independent, digitally dominant and serving a geographically-based community or single-subject topic. We’ve added these Canadian publications to our Project Oasis database, and anticipate updating this list as we identify more. 

We’re also sharing what we’ve learned so far about the country’s local news trends and the challenges these publishers face. It’s our first step to understanding Canada’s ecosystem and how we, and others wanting to support strong democracies in communities across Canada, can support its development.

Local news trends in Canada

Since 2008, 474 local news outlets have closed across Canada, affecting 335 communities, according to The Local News Research Project’s June 2023 report. These closures have had a significant impact on rural and smaller communities in particular, where there are already fewer media outlets. Yet in the same timeframe, according to this report, 217 local news outlets opened in 154 communities. More than 42 percent of those new outlets are independently owned.

“There’s a lower barrier to entry for digital startups,” said April Lindgren, principal investigator at the Local News Research Project. “Starting a digital community publication is cheaper than a printed community newspaper, so most of the new outlets we see are going to be digital.” 

Lindgren said digital first companies are facing major uncertainty and the potential for significant challenges with the fallout of Canada’s Bill C-18. The new legislation, which will be implemented later this year, requires technology companies like Google and Meta to compensate news organizations for news links on their platforms.

In response to this legislation, Meta blocked news links on its platforms entirely, resulting in users not being able to post or share Canadian news links on Facebook and Instagram. Google has said it will remove Canadian news links once the law is implemented and will continue to meet with the federal government about the bill.

Independent news organizations, particularly those that don’t have the brand recognition of more established news sites, are worried this will dramatically impact their ability to drive traffic to their reporting, which will ultimately hurt their audience growth and financial bottom line. In 2022, more than 100 independent news outlets wrote an open letter to the federal government calling for changes to Bill C-18 to support independent media, which ultimately were not incorporated into the law. 

“Before Bill C-18, we had developed a viable business model,” said Erin Millar, CEO of Indiegraf and founder of Discourse. “The industry has been experimenting and developing audience channels, but that innovation is still at an early stage. We lost the largest distribution channel, and that breaks the business model,” she said.

She points to independent news publications like The Narwhal and Village Media, which built business models that relied on social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram to build new audiences, drive membership conversions and increase traffic that could be monetized through advertising. 

Millar underscored how the response to Bill C-18 will disproportionately affect communities of colour and the publications who serve them. For example, publications like Cabin Radio now have a diminished ability to distribute news about the wildfires affecting Yellowknife, which has a large Indigenous population. 

“Not all communities use the Internet in the same way,” Miller said. “Facebook is more critical to Indigenous and immigrant communities. People from those communities are able to facilitate and reconnect with others. What’s happening is a real setback.”

Insights into Canadian independent news publications 

LION identified 270 independent news publications in Canada that are digitally dominant and focus on local news— which we define as geographically-constrained or serving a specific topic/audience. Here are a few trends we identified from this dataset, and from a more in-depth dataset we collected from 33 publications.

Most publications are based in Ontario.
Ontario has the highest number of publications, with 40 percent of news outlets based in the province. The Prairies have the next highest percentage, with 21 percent of publications based in Alberta and Saskatchewan, along with a few publications in Manitoba. Eighteen percent of publications are based in British Columbia and 12 percent are in Quebec.

LocationNumber of PublicationsPercentage

*=Of the 270 publications, we identified location data for 267. 

There’s a fairly even split between publications serving rural and urban communities.
Of the 224 publications focused on geographically-constrained news, 54 percent report on urban cities and 46 percent on rural communities. (We defined an urban area as having a population of at least 52,000— the cutoff point for the top 100 largest municipalities in Canada). Twenty publications are located in Montreal and 18 are in Toronto. 

We looked at each publication’s objectives and mission statement and found that the majority are focused on covering local municipality news (rather than provincial or regional news). We identified: 

  • 191 organizations focused on local news within a town or city
  • 20 publications focused on news at a regional level
  • 13 publications focused on national news 

We also identified 33 publications focused on single-subject news, which we define as covering a specific topic/audience. About two-thirds of these single-subject publications are focused nationally. Examples include The Logic, which covers Canadian business news, and Cold Tea Collective, which covers the Asian diaspora in North America. 

Twenty-one publications are exclusively focused on serving BIPOC communities. In particular, six publications focus primarily on Black communities, nine publications focus primarily on Indigenous communities and two publications focus on the immigrant experience. We decided to include these publications in our analysis because they can play a major role in helping fill news gaps.

Most independent news publications were founded in the last 10 years.
Of the 166 publications for which we could identify a launch date, 124 were founded between 2000 and 2023, and 88 of those were founded within the last 10 years. British Columbia has the highest proportion of new publications, with 63 percent founded in the past 10 years. 

Independent news publications have more diverse leadership teams than the industry average.
About half of the publications in our in-depth survey have members of their leadership teams who identify as Black, Indigenous or People of Color. Seventy percent of publications have female leadership and a few have leaders from the LGBTQ+ community. These rates are much higher than Canada’s industry average of 18 percent for BIPOC leadership and 45 percent for female leadership. This generally mirrors a trend we see in the U.S. as well: independent news publications tend to be more representative of the communities they’re serving. 

Most publications serve English-speaking audiences.
More than 90 percent of the 270 publications publish solely in English. News publications that publish in other languages include:

  • French only: 15
  • English and French: 4
  • English and Inuktut: 1
  • Greek: 1
  • Italian: 1
  • Portuguese: 1
  • Russian: 1

Generating revenue is the top concern for Canadian independent news publications. 
How to generate more revenue to ensure long-term sustainability is the number one concern for independent news publishers in Canada, according to the in-depth data we collected from 33 publications. 

About half of those publications said they are reader-supported, but this is a tough road in a market in which only 11 percent of Canadians pay for online news and a decrease from 15 percent in 2022, according to the 2023 Reuters Institute Digital News Report Canada profile. 

In terms of philanthropic funding, nine of the 33 publications rely on foundation or corporate funding of any kind; this is the largest revenue stream for five of those nine publications. Canadian media organizations have fewer opportunities for philanthropic funding compared to the U.S. and other countries. In the Public Policy Forum’s 2017 Shattered Mirror report, one of the recommendations for addressing this is to remove regulatory obstacles preventing public and private foundations from giving to journalism organizations. For example, Canadian foundations can only donate to other registered charities. The Registered Journalism Organization (RJO) program is meant to bridge that gap by enabling publications to receive philanthropic funding. To date, only eight publications in Canada are registered journalism organizations, and all of those are independently owned. 

The federal government plays a role in publications’ sustainability.
While we didn’t collect data on how many publications rely on government funding, we know that it is an integral part of Canada’s news ecosystem. The Public Policy Forum (PPF) issued a 2018 report on funding models that identified two major challenges for news organizations: the rise of digital ad sales from foreign competitors and the increased competition with major U.S. outlets for limited subscriber revenue.

The federal government decided to step in and help, implementing the following new programs in 2019 that have benefited digital startups: 

  • The Local Journalism Initiative, which provides funding to hire journalists in news deserts, has been used by independent online publications to grow their teams. 
  • Publications can register as a Qualified Journalism Organization (QJO) to receive labour tax credits to offset 25 percent of employee costs and for subscribers to receive a tax credit as a way to incentivize paying for online news. 
  • The Canadian Periodical Fund, established in 2009, provides funding to print magazines, community newspapers and digital publications. 

Summary and next steps

Our findings have revealed the potential for significant growth in the local independent news ecosystem in Canada. We will continue our research to explore what LION can do to support these independent news organizations and how that support can make an impact in increasing sustainability in the market. 

Are you an independent news publication in Canada covering local or single-subject news? See if you’re in our Project Oasis database, and if not, submit your publication here to be added.

We’re also looking to interview independent news publications for the next phase of our research. If you’re interested in sharing your experience and how an organization like LION could better support your challenges, please email [email protected].

Thanks to the Google News Initiative for funding our research into Canada. Learn more about our partnership.

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