Reflections on a year of The Current

Starting a new enterprise is always a gamble. It’s a bet on yourself, on those who will help you, and on your audience. What we’ve learned after Year One.

Starting a new enterprise is always a gamble. It’s a bet on yourself, on those who will help you, and on those you hope to reach and serve.

The latter two are definitely the most important.

By the end of 2020, I had been a journalist for nearly 15 years, spending most of that time working for small newspapers in Vernon, Chilliwack, and Abbotsford. As the calendar ticked over to 2021, I became part of what I later heard has come to be called “The Great Resignation.” The Fraser Valley Current launched three months later, on March 22, 2021.

Since I joined my first newsroom in 2006, I had seen huge shifts in journalism in small- and mid-size communities. When I started in Vernon, my hometown, I was part of an 11-person newsroom that produced three large papers each week. By the end of 2020, that newsroom was less than half the size and it produced only a single newspaper a week. In Chilliwack, the second stop in my journalism career, the newspaper I had worked at was closed down. In Abbotsford, the third stop, there were four journalists in a city of 150,000 people.

The basics of journalism—collecting facts and presenting them to readers—haven’t changed. Journalists haven’t suddenly become corrupt or biased. But journalism is facing a resource crisis. There are more stories than ever, but fewer people to tell them.

Meanwhile, media organizations increasingly prioritized social media to connect with their audience. At most (not all) publications, the result has been that fewer reporters are being asked to write more stories, the quality of those stories has declined. The stories are useful. They provide information. But the stories aren’t as good as they could be and, because the job isn’t as much fun as it once was, many journalists are burned out.

I thought there was a better way. At least, I hoped there was. But I couldn’t do it on my own.

I had begun kicking around ideas in 2020, but determined that trying to do things on my own was doomed to failure. I have a family to feed, and making money through journalism requires an audience. Attracting a readership doesn’t happen overnight. What does happen overnight? Those kids (and the writer himself) get hungry.

But I was lucky. (Throughout my career I have been extraordinarily lucky both in the opportunities that have materialized, and the people who have been gracious enough to decide to work with me.) In Victoria and elsewhere in North America, a new journalism model was showing new promise. That model relied not on social media, radio waves, or hand-delivering newspapers, but on email.

In Victoria, what had started as a small newsletter had found an audience of more than 40,000 people, all who had signed up to receive a newsletter each day. It was a simple idea with the potential to change how people got their news and, crucially, how journalism was created in local communities.

The success of Capital Daily in Victoria led to the creation of a company to emulate that model across Canada. I was one of the first hires at what would come to become called Overstory Media Group. (You can read more about the company-side of things here.)

Having an actual company behind me allowed me to take a leap into the unknown. It allowed me to leave the accounting, registering of websites, and setting up web programs to the experts. It meant I had, even at the start, someone to proofread my work and spot out errors. And after a month, it allowed me to bring a second reporter on board.

Of course, since she joined me last April, Grace Kennedy has never just been a reporter. For years, I had followed Grace’s work at the Agassiz-Harrison Observer. Her stories showed curiosity, cleverness, and smarts. In Agassiz, she was a one-person newsroom, responsible for everything that happened in that paper.

But even when she started in April, I didn’t really know how important she would become. Her fingertips have been on every story we have published since April, and have been critical both for catching little things like typos and spelling errors, and to shape the tone and content of stories to ensure that each thing we publish meets our bar for quality. (It was Grace who hacked this piece down to a semi-manageable length.)

In November (a day after the atmospheric river began to devastate the Fraser Valley), Joti Grewal joined us. Joti came to us from the Langley Advance Times and started in the midst of the region’s largest disaster in decades. Joti’s poise and talent helped us keep our head above the metaphorical waters during that tumultuous time. And ever since, like Grace before her, Joti has added her own voice and perspective that has made The Current what it is today.

That, in a nutshell, is how we got here. But if you will indulge me, I also wanted to write a bit about the stories we choose to write and our general philosophy of journalism.

The mix

We cover an ambitiously geographically large region (roughly from Langley to the Fraser Canyon) with more than 400,000 people. If everyone has a story, then the Fraser Valley has enough to fill 1,000 years of The Current.

But, despite the near infinite number of stories, there is a very finite number of reporters. Given that: what do we choose to spend our time writing about? It’s an incredibly complex question that isn’t as simple as “the most important ones, of course.”

First there is the regional angle. Ideally, every story we write is interesting enough to appeal to readers across our area. But local journalism requires writing about local people and topics. So some stories are going to be more relevant to readers in a certain town than others. On the most basic level, we try to vary stories enough so that readers across our region see themselves and their community reflected in The Current.

Tone is also important. We don’t want every story to be grim-faced seriousness about something Very Important. But if our stories all suggested that our world was perfect, we would be failing in our duty and wasting our considerable power to inform and enlighten.

We also need to vary our topics. Health care. Education. Emergency preparation. Politics. Outdoor recreation. Urban development and planning. The environment. Transportation. The list goes on. And just as we hope to address the diversity of issues that impact readers’ lives, we also want the people with whom we speak to reflect the region’s diversity of backgrounds and lived experiences.

And finally we need to account for the fact that people live very different lives and those lives impact how they experience and interact with people, governments, and our built environment. We aren’t all the same. Whether you own a house or rent an apartment may change your perspective on many housing-related issues. The same goes for those with first-hand experiences of discrimination or who are dealing with intergenerational trauma. Different lives provide insight and experience that can help our communities improve.

But ambition must also be balanced by reality. In trying to provide a broad range of stories, we must also be wary of trying to always publish more stories. Because, as I mentioned before, journalism has a resource problem; if you try to do more, usually the quality suffers. And from the start, the idea has been to create good journalism that happens to be locally focused, rather than locally focused journalism that may or may not be good.

Our newsletter-based business model helps insulate us from the pressure to always be writing more. A dependence on the loyalty of our newsletter readers, rather than social media algorithms, incentivizes us to focus on the quality of stories we deliver each day. That focus means that each story we produce goes through a longer, more-substantial editing process than at any newspaper I have previously worked at. The first draft of a story is only the starting point, and each article is a collaborative process. No story is perfect. But each becomes better as more time is spent refining its language and logic.

At the same time, no journalism organization is immune from the need to reach and grow an audience.

We have promised our readers something new and interesting in their inbox each day. We need to deliver upon that promise, and that influences how we spend our time and the mix of stories we produce. Some articles take longer to research, write, and edit than others. Completing one story relatively quickly can buy time to devote to more complex articles. (This is another element that influences our story mix.)

So The Current, like all journalism organizations, is a balancing act.

Love and hate

I want to write about one other unique thing about The Current: the love we get and the hate we occasionally see.

We get a very small amount of negative feedback, especially compared to all the very nice emails our readers have sent us. The emails are great and, frankly, surprising. They are immensely rewarding. At no previous job did I so consistently hear from readers.

We all very much appreciate the kind words, and it genuinely inspires us to continue to work hard. We know The Current isn’t just going into an email inbox to be deleted. And that knowledge brings with it responsibility: Many of our neighbours have made The Current part of their morning (or evening) routines; we need to respect that time and continue to earn that privilege.

However, some of the positive feedback we get is occasionally accompanied by comments about the supposed corruption or dishonesty of the “mainstream media” or certain national broadcasters.

That is less great.

I know and respect many journalists who work at such organizations. They, like us, are good people trying to do a hard job.

The journalism we produce is fundamentally similar to those at other organizations. We source facts and collect information, then try to present it in a way that helps people make sense of their world. We do so to the best of our ability. That ability has its limits and we sometimes make mistakes.

Of course, there are different qualities of journalists, editors, managers, and companies. But if you dislike the story you’re reading, it’s probably not because of some nefarious plot. Maybe there’s an innocent error. Maybe someone had a bad day. Or maybe the story is accurate and you just find it hard to digest the contents.

It may also be because your perspective is different: two people can look at the same set of facts and come to different conclusions about what is important and what is not. Perspective can even change what one determines to be true: on a partly cloudy day, whether it is “sunny” or not depends on where you stand. A similar thing is going on with news stories. Reporters will write what they know. But the facts on which that knowledge rests may be different from their readers.

One reason, I think, that our feedback is so positive is because each newsletter begins with a short personal introduction by Grace, Joti, or myself. Readers realize we are human, for better or worse. We are trying our best. We make mistakes. We probably don’t agree on everything or see everything through the same lens as each other or our readers.

I think other news organizations can learn from that and should allow their audiences to see the human side of their reporters. But I also hope the public can realize that we aren’t unique, and that the men and women on your TV and writing the stories in other publications are also people trying to do their best in a complex world.

I’ll bring it back to the start of the The Current.

Journalism is not a lucrative job, but it’s one that can be incredibly fun, interesting, and fulfilling. In fact, it needs to be because there are a lot of other jobs where a person can make more money and endure fewer headaches. It may surprise many right now to learn there is a shortage of reporters in BC. Many jobs are going un-filled. Many stories are going untold.

Like in many industries with a shortage of workers, the problem has been building for years. Part of it goes back to an exodus a decade ago, when companies began slashing publications and laying off workers. But the other challenge is that most journalism jobs are less fun, less interesting, and less fulfilling than they were a decade ago. Many also require handling increasing amounts of abuse.

The Current started, in part, because I was experiencing all those things. The last year has been thrilling and provided me a chance to rediscover and share those reasons that I became a journalist in the first place. If this birthday piece seems a little self-indulgent, well, it’s because The Current itself is a bit self-indulgent. Or at least it began that way. But that’s where Grace, Joti, and our colleagues at Overstory come in.

They, and you, have made The Current what it is: something not about a single reporter taking a gamble, but about a community sharing a voice.

So thanks for indulging us and may our second year be as exciting as our first.

Want even more? I recently discussed The Current with Aaron Pete on his Bigger Than Me Podcast. You can watch/listen here on YouTube. It’s also available on Spotify and Apple Podcasts.

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