We’ve identified six key challenges facing Canadian independent news publishers

We summarize our research takeaways and share what’s next.

February 7, 2024 by Anika Anand

Group of reporters sitting and holding notepads
Photo by The Climate Reality Project on Unsplash

Last year, LION Publishers completed research into Canada’s independent news ecosystem, and today, we want to share what we learned about Canada’s ecosystem and the biggest challenges facing independent news publishers. 

Canada’s independent news ecosystem has potential but is fragile

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 significantly impacted 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.

Based on our own research conducted in August 2023, LION identified 270 independent news publications in Canada that are digitally dominant and focused on local news — which we define as geographically constrained or serving a specific topic/audience. These publications were added to LION’s Project Oasis database. Learn more detail in the post we published, “These 270 independent news businesses are a bright spot in Canada’s local news ecosystem.”

Here are a few trends we identified from this dataset:

  • The majority, 40 percent, are based in Ontario. The second highest, 19 percent, are based in British Columbia.
  • Of the 224 publications focused on geographically constrained news, 54 percent report on urban cities and 46 percent on rural communities.
  • 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.
  • More than 90 percent of the 270 publications publish solely in English.

The six biggest challenges facing Canadian independent news publishers

Based on LION’s Oasis survey research and an additional 11 one-on-one interviews with local publishers and journalism-support organizations, LION has identified six key challenges facing independent news publishers in Canada.

1. Obtaining seed funding: Securing initial capital and seed funding is a critical hurdle for Canadian independent news publishers, particularly due to the limited size of local markets and the lack of access to early-stage capital. This lack of financial resources hinders their growth potential significantly.

2. Reaching existing and new audiences in the absence of Facebook: Canadian independent news publishers can no longer deliver their news content on Facebook and Instagram, given Meta’s response to Bill C-18. Digitally native publishers are disproportionately affected by this legislative change. The sudden absence of these platforms leaves a gaping hole in their strategy, making them particularly vulnerable.

3. Accessing government support: Publishers said they struggled to navigate the complexities of securing government funding due to limited resources and a lack of necessary knowledge about them. They require comprehensive resources to help them identify and access the different government programs and tax credits, many of which remain underutilized due to publishers’ unfamiliarity with them.

4. Developing and accessing business infrastructure: Publishers lack proper business infrastructures for their news businesses. The prohibitive costs and logistical complexities of obtaining essential professional services such as legal, accounting, and insurance are substantial obstacles. There is a notable gap in both the funding to procure these services as well as the knowledge about the necessary services that are required, their procurement, and evaluation. 

5. Building a talent pipeline: A key challenge is the broken talent pipeline. Many news organizations struggle to find and keep skilled journalists. This issue is not just about attracting talent but also about the lack of effective connections with universities, which could be a valuable source of new journalists. While some publishers with direct university ties, particularly through teaching roles, have access to student talent, this is not the norm. The general lack of collaboration with academic institutions means that many community newsrooms miss out on the opportunity to build a sustainable pipeline of young, skilled journalists. 

6. Lack of peer learning and coalition building: Canadian publishers often find themselves operating in silos, with limited opportunities for collaboration and peer learning. Publishers highlighted the need for exchanging ideas and resources, discussing common challenges, and acting as incubators for partnerships and collective problem-solving with fellow independent news publishers.

How LION could help

In 2019, when LION became an official nonprofit organization and hired its first full-time team of employees, we began receiving some inquiries from Canadian independent news publishers asking to join our membership. While we made clear that we did not specifically serve Canadian publishers, we did formally change our membership eligibility criteria to include Canadian publishers who wanted to learn from our existing support and programs for U.S.-based publishers.

Fast forward to 2023, and LION has grown its membership to 500 members, 31 of which are based in Canada across eight provinces. Over the past four years, we have begun to experiment with ways to more directly serve Canadian publishers:

Looking forward, we see the potential and value in developing offerings specifically for independent news publishers and the ecosystem in Canada. Everyone we interviewed for this project acknowledged that there is no Canadian equivalent to LION Publishers. This presents both an opportunity and a challenge. LION needs to identify and address the specific needs of the independent news segment, ensuring that its services are tailored to the needs of independent Canadian publishers. And this gap also presents LION with an opportunity to occupy a unique position in the Canadian media landscape, addressing the needs of a segment currently underserved.

We’ll continue to make our existing offerings available to Canadian publishers, and start fundraising this year to be able to offer even more Canada-specific resources and support to our members. If you’re a LION member, funder, or supporter of independent news in Canada and want to share your questions or feedback on how we might do this, please reach out to Deputy Director Anika Anand at [email protected]. We look forward to sharing updates on our progress with you soon.

Thank you to Nikita Roy and Julie Sobowale for contributing to our research efforts, and to the Google News Initiative for funding this research project.

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