Taproot is my focus

I am always surprised when I’m talking with someone and they don’t know that Taproot has been a full-time endeavor for me for a little over a year now. But I shouldn’t be surprised. Though Taproot has grown significantly over the last few years and reaches more Edmontonians than ever, I haven’t written much about my working situation. My last update here was an embarrassingly long time ago in January 2017. So let me address that!

Taproot was still very much a side project throughout 2017 and into early 2018, though we did continue to take small steps forward. Karen Unland and I officially incorporated the business in 2017, for instance. For the most part we continued with our original membership-based model and we did publish a number of high-quality, original stories that explored questions posed by our members. We also built an award-winning microsite for the municipal election that fall.

In early 2018 we made a short-lived foray into chatbots which we thought might mesh well with our curiosity-driven approach. It didn’t work out (though I still think the idea has merit and could work some day). One of the key things we learned during that time was the importance of "priming the pump" for curiosity. So in mid-2018 we launched our first official roundup, the Tech Roundup. It was inspired by the Edmonton Notes and Media Monday posts I have been posting here for years, and immediately it found an audience, which was certainly encouraging. We added a few others in the months that followed and developed a second revenue stream by offering sponsorship inside the roundups. We also launched our first podcast, Speaking Municipally, that summer after Troy Pavlek approached me with the idea.

Looking back, 2018 was a defining year for me. My daughter Emily was born (she just turned two!), my longtime day job ended, and I made Taproot my full-time focus. I also stepped away from most volunteer commitments and became more hesitant to say yes to things (well, I tried).

Becoming an entrepreneur again (still?)

As you probably know, I started working at Questionmark in 2008 and led their worldwide product development team from 2014 onward. That relationship came to end in early 2018 when my position was eliminated. Questionmark has since exited the Edmonton market. I never anticipated staying as long as I did, but there were always new opportunities and challenges to tackle. I learned a lot working there.

I always knew I wanted to get back into entrepreneurship though. Growing up, my family owned and operated a pet store. That’s where I learned many of my earliest lessons in business. I started my first software company when I was in high school. While studying at the University of Alberta a few years later, I co-founded a podcasting company. Being an entrepreneur is something that I enjoy and identify with.

Focusing on Taproot

With my full-time focus on Taproot in 2019, we launched a few more roundups, attracted new customers, and spent plenty of time learning and building our products. That led to our third revenue stream and newest product: a curation-driven briefings service for organizations. Think of it like our roundups, but customized and personalized for a particular organization’s needs.

While subscriptions and membership are a key part of what comes next, they won’t make up for all that has been lost in local news. We need a way to capture more of the money that used to be spent on local news via advertising. That’s what we think our briefings service can do.

ATB X Graduation
Meghan Dear, Karen Unland, Mack Male, Curtis Stange

In the fall we were accepted into the first Edmonton cohort of ATB X, a business accelerator run by ATB Financial, to iterate on the idea further. It was a great opportunity to work on the business (rather than in it) and we took plenty away from the experience.

In the year ahead we plan to grow significantly. We’re iterating on our products, exploring options to increase our resources, and focusing on sales. We’ve got a solid foundation and are working hard to make the operation sustainable and then scalable (and replicable). The whole reason we started Taproot in the first place was to make it possible to tell important, valuable stories about our city and to use that experience to strengthen local journalism everywhere. That’s what we’re going to do.

How you can help

So that’s the update! I am focused on Taproot full-time. We’re building what comes next in local news. Our mission is to help communities understand themselves better.

Here’s how you can help:

Edmonton Election 2017: Nomination Day Recap

Nomination Day took place on Monday, September 18. A total of 132 Edmontonians filed their nomination papers and paid their deposits to run in the 2017 municipal election. Michelle Draper was the only candidate acclaimed on Nomination Day, so she’ll continue serving as the public school board trustee for Ward B. Barry Koperski had filed his paperwork to run for council in Ward 4, but withdrew his nomination by the deadline on September 19.

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So that leaves us with 131 candidates in this election:

  • 13 mayoral candidates
  • 70 city council candidates
  • 20 Edmonton Catholic School Board trustee candidates
  • 28 Edmonton Public School Board trustee candidates (including one acclamation)

A total of 131 candidates is a new record for municipal elections in Edmonton. The previous high was 120 in the 1986 election. The 2013 election came close, with 119 candidates filing their paperwork.

Linda Sahli
Returning Office Linda Sahli

“This morning ran very smoothly – now it’s the voters’ turn,” said Edmonton Elections Returning Officer Linda Sahli.

Andrew Knack, councillor for Ward 1, was running unopposed until Nomination Day, when three challengers came forward. “Thankfully people will have a choice in Ward 1,” he tweeted. It’s actually Ward 2 that has the fewest candidates for council, with just three, a significant decline from 2013’s seven. In the 2013 election, Wards 4 and 9 had just two candidates each.

There are 24 female candidates for mayor or council, which is about 29%, and that’s up from 17% in 2013. Counting all the races, 36.6% of the field is female (48 candidates), which is up from 32.7% in 2013 (39 candidates).

Election Candidates by Year

Edmonton Elections has made the full candidate list available on its website and in the open data catalogue.

You can see more photos from Nomination Day courtesy of Dave Cournoyer. Here’s my recap of Nomination Day for the 2013 election.

Your Guide to the 2017 Municipal Election

We’ve combined open data from the City with other data that we’ve collected to build an election microsite at Taproot Edmonton. You can browse the full list of candidates, all the wards and voting stations, and a list of election-related events. On Election Night, you can watch the results dashboard to see who your new elected officials are.

For a more personalized experience, try our Election Guide feature. Simply put in your home address and we’ll tell you everything you need to know – which wards you’re in, who your candidates are, where to vote, and more.

We’re also publishing a weekly roundup of election news and other links. Here’s our latest edition and here’s the archive. You can sign up to receive the newsletter in your inbox each week.

If you find the election microsite and/or newsletter updates useful, spread the word! Maybe we can bump the voter turnout numbers up a bit. And if you want to support the work we’re doing at Taproot Edmonton, become a member. It’s just $10/month.

Taproot Edmonton: We’re making progress!

Karen and I have made a lot of progress since announcing Taproot Edmonton nearly five months ago. I’ve been including some updates in my weekly media notes and we have a regular newsletter that we use to keep everyone updated but I thought it would be useful to summarize our progress in one post.

Taproot Edmonton

If you want to skip all of this and jump right into becoming a paying member, you can do that here. We’d love to have you!

What is Taproot Edmonton?

Here’s how we’re answering that question today:

Taproot Edmonton is a source of curiosity-driven stories about our city, cultivated by the community. We are building a new way to do local journalism, and a new way to fund it. We don’t sell eyeballs, and we don’t put up paywalls. We enlist our members to tell us what they’re curious about, we commission writers to explore those questions, then we publish the story for all to see.

We recently put together a video outlining what Taproot is and what we’re working to achieve:

As anyone who has tried to craft an elevator pitch knows, it’s not easy! We continue to iterate on the best way to communicate what we’re all about.

Members

Without our members, there is no Taproot. They give us the fuel we need to publish great local stories. Members share their curiosity with us and their questions are the starting point for our writers. In that way, members act as our assignment desk. They also provide us with the financial resources we need to pay writers fairly for the work they do.

We are very thankful to the more than 50 members who have joined us thus far – your support is making Taproot happen! But we need our membership to grow in order to continue moving forward. A Taproot membership is $100/year or $10/month. We hope you’ll consider joining us to help build the future of local journalism in Edmonton!

Story Garden

The Story Garden is central to how Taproot works. It’s the place that members go to post their questions, to comment and vote on other questions, and to interact with one another. In the early days we prototyped the Story Garden using online forms (we used Typeform) and we learned a lot through that process. It was a free, simple way to validate some assumptions and it allowed us to keep moving forward.

In August we launched the first version of our real Story Garden. We have big ambitions for the site but it’ll take time to achieve those. Our first version is a solid platform to build upon and we’re improving it as we learn from our members. We showed off the Story Garden on September 22 at DemoCamp Edmonton 32 and received some great feedback from the crowd there too.

Stories

We have published two stories so far:

I’m incredibly proud of both! Mel and Anna did some really great work and we have two high quality stories as a result. I hope you’ll check them both out if you haven’t already.

It took quite a bit of effort to get our first stories published. We had to make our theoretical process real and there was a lot to figure out and setup along the way. Now that we have, we are working toward ramping up our production of new stories. We’re not the kind of place that you’ll find ten new stories a day, but we would like to publish more frequently than once a month.

Future of Local Journalism

We are building Taproot because we know that the business model that used to support local journalism is broken. We want to find a new, sustainable approach that can ensure quality local journalism will exist in Edmonton and beyond. We know we’re not the only ones experimenting in this space, and that’s a great thing. We want to learn from others, collaborate when appropriate, and do our part to push the industry forward.

That’s why it was important to us to be a part of this list of 30+ examples of Canadian media innovation. And it’s why we wanted to be at Hacks/Hackers Connect in Toronto last month. Organizer Phillip Smith posted a recap of the event today, saying “we knew that by bringing participants together from coast-to-coast we had a unique moment to start some critical conversations about the shifting landscape of media facing Canadians in the next months, and years.”

What’s next?

We are thrilled to be one of the presenting companies at Launch Party 7 on Thursday evening. If you’re curious about Taproot and want to learn more, please come and talk to us about it.

Next month we’re going to be attending the People-Powered Publishing Conference in Chicago. We’re excited about the opportunity to connect with others working on innovative new approaches to participatory journalism.

We have a number of stories in the works and we can’t wait to share them with you! We’re working with some great local storytellers and our members have given us fantastic questions to explore. We’re also focused on improving the Story Garden and adding new value to our members.

You can help us do all of this by becoming a Taproot Edmonton member today. Thank you!

Announcing Taproot Edmonton

I’m very excited to tell you about a new project that I have been working on with Karen Unland called Taproot Edmonton. Taproot is a home for local journalism that is created with the community rather than simply for it. It’s our attempt to figure out what the future of local journalism looks like and we’d love for you to be a part of it!

Radishes

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!