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The Tyee has found British Columbians willing to pay for journalism that reflects their worldview, for good and ill

News

The news media in Canada is in crisis. Policy responses to date are failing to solve for the information that citizens need to make informed decisions about important issues and debates. The Future of News series brings together leading practitioners, scholars, and thinkers to imagine new business models, policy responses, and journalistic content that can support a dynamic future for news in Canada.

Twenty years ago, when The Tyee launched in 2003, it encouraged readers to spread the word of British Columbia’s latest digital magazine by printing off and passing out physical copies of its articles. 

Two decades is a blip for legacy Canadian newspapers, born in the 1800s. But it’s an eon in digital media, making The Tyee a bridge between two very different eras of news. Amid decades of change in how readers are reached, its emphasis on interacting with them has remained constant. 

Founded by editor-in-chief David Beers after a wave of layoffs took his job as The Vancouver Sun’s features editor, The Tyee (“Tie-yee”) was envisioned as a progressive left-leaning alternative to the province’s mainstream news sources. Its name is a reference to the “feisty and free” Chinook salmon, a creature emblematic of values Beers describes as “a commitment to high journalistic standards, focusing on our part of the country, holding power accountable, and profiling positive change.” 

Paying for everyone 

As most publications employ hard paywalls or cling to ad-based models, The Tyee offers memberships without locking away any content. This isn’t unheard of— U.K. newspaper The Guardian, for example, does something similar—but it’s rare enough to be held up as something of a news unicorn. In 2015, The New Yorker called The Tyee “a fascinating case study” in local journalism. A 2010 NiemanLab profile, which said The Tyee “pounds out left-leaning daily content with a Slate-y verve,” highlighted its “kooky” fundraising methods that included renting out unused office space. 

Today, about half of The Tyee’s funding comes from regular and one-off donors, which publisher Jeanette Ageson says numbered just shy of 10,000 people last year. The Tyee also receives a chunk of government funding from the Local Journalism Initiative and tax credits, and a sliver of ad revenue. The rest of the money comes from Eric Peterson and Christina Munck. In 2001, Peterson sold his medical imaging company, Mitra, for about $300 million. The couple has been involved in a variety of philanthropic efforts ever since. 

Peterson and Munck have no editorial input but, to state the obvious, not every publication can rely on wealthy patrons to keep the lights on. Cognisant of this lynchpin, The Tyee has been working to reduce its financial reliance on the family. 

“Last year we got [Peterson and Munck] to under 20 percent of our budget, which is important because that’s what we need to keep our Registered Journalism Organisation status,” says Ageson. The federal designation entitles recognized outlets to government funding. “And that’s our long-term plan, to reduce dependency and keep growing our donors. 2022 was the first year we passed a million dollars in donor revenue.” 

The Tyee became a non-profit in 2022. While this was more of a technical shift than a philosophical restructuring, it will allow the publication to issue tax receipts. This, Ageson hopes, will attract additional donors. 

“If you give, you’re keeping it free for everybody. That’s always been one of the selling points,” Ageson says. “A paywall sacrifices reach. For certain publications, the exclusivity is the point. It gives the reader a competitive advantage, that works really well with business or financial publications. But we deal with public interest issues. Part of the value proposition is that it will be part of the public conversation. That seems to resonate with people.” 

Chad Skelton, a journalism instructor at Surrey’s Kwantlen Polytechnic University, says this model can change how people view the news, and that it’s a shift that seems necessary for the industry’s survival. 

“News organisations using the donation model have had a fair amount of success,” Skelton says. “If you’re paying for a subscription, you think about whether you’re getting enough value. With a donor model, you want to support the mission. It’s not what you get, it’s what you give back to the community. It’s almost like donating to the symphony or a homeless shelter.” 

Soliciting opinions 

To convince your readers you offer a public good, you have to understand their worldview. The Tyee is therefore enthusiastic about soliciting reader opinions. 

“[Journalist] Jennifer Brandel says, ‘Don’t be an askhole,’” Ageson explains. “If you’re asking for input from your audience, make sure you’re actually using it. We get a steady drip of emails. People tell us what they see as missing.” 

Elections are particularly fertile ground for audience polling, and The Tyee has a “quite detailed process” to determine what readers see as important during the campaign. 

“We give readers an open text box, so we’re not feeding people answers. We’ll see if a lot of people organically mention the same issue. We pick out things we’re well-placed to report on. That can create a mandate for our newsroom,” Ageson says. “People like to be heard, they like to take part. It’s also a great way to ask people for their email addresses.” 

Beyond elections, steady reader feedback ensures journalist coverage matches reader interest. Notably, The Tyee has a significant climate portfolio, mirroring other indie publications like The Narwhal. Ageson says reader questions like, “What needs to be done to transition to a cleaner economy?” are consistent. 

“Every time we survey our audience and ask what issue deserves more support, climate is usually one of the top answers,” Ageson says. “People want reporting to add to their understanding and identify what can be done.” 

This, Skelton says, is the strength of a membership model. Digital media can meet demands that legacy publications, which skew towards an older readership, may not be aware of. 

“Being an instructor, I spend all day with [younger people],” Skelton describes. Climate change really does have this existential bent when you talk to them. Mainstream organisations have been slow to pick up on how important that issue is to some readers. Online publications have done a better job of tapping into that.” 

With social media traffic moribund, publications need to ensure readers have a real reason to visit their website. Traffic sources can vary wildly with time—Flipboard, a news and social aggregator, has become a notable source of traffic for The Tyee—but Ageson has noticed direct traffic is increasing. Or, in her words, “People are making an appointment with our site.” 

While Skelton is a fan of this give-and-take between reader and publication, it does have a downside, as outlets can feel they owe their audience a certain perspective. 

“It comes with risks in that you want to support the news organisations you think are in your corner,” the instructor says. “That can make it harder for publications to run stuff that challenges their audience.” 

A pedestrian walks past a 24 Hours Vancouver newspaper box in Vancouver, B.C., on Wednesday, May 1, 2013. Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press.
Echoing your readers 

All publications have their perspectives, and it is reasonable to say The Tyee maintains a left-wing one. Skelton finds their work “well-reported and fair.” But he does see their model as one that touches on a broader risk for the future of Canadian media. 

“I do worry that the left-of-centre people only read and donate to The Tyee, the far-right read The Rebel, the really left-wing people read Ricochet. I don’t want to over-romanticise the way it was before, but if we expect news organisations to be in our corner, and if there are incentives to flatter their audience’s preconceptions, that can create an unhealthy environment where we only read the organisations we support.” 

Wanting to be read and paid is a reasonable goal, and this is a hypothetical future that goes well beyond just The Tyee. But as distrust in the media grows, and as every publication claims to be a unique panacea to misinformation, it does suggest something of a siloed future. At the very least, however, that’s a future where news still exists. 

“I’ve become more laissez-faire, partially because of the crisis in the journalism industry,” Skelton says. “I see The Tyee doing high-quality work that otherwise would not exist. It sometimes creates a bit of an echo chamber, but news organisations are always fooling themselves into thinking their story selection is some ideal of objectivity and fairness. They’re serving what their readers care about.” 

These concerns aside, The Tyee’s symbiotic relationship between reader and publication appears to be working so far. 

The Vancouver Sun, CBC, and Global used to dominate the Webster Awards, the big B.C. journalism awards,” Skelton says. “Now they’re dominated by The Tyee and places like The Narwhal. And the Vancouver Sun will be shut out. That would have been unheard of even 10 years ago.” 

An idiosyncratic future 

Beyond their ideological leanings, Skelton sees digital publications like The Tyee as homes for journalists who don’t fit the mould elsewhere. 

The Tyee’s left-of-centre, but it’s also just idiosyncratic. They let talented people run with their interests,” Skelton says. “Christopher Cheung, he’s done a lot of articles about the immigrant community. Those stories don’t have ideology, they’re just interesting. If you’re a young, talented journalist who doesn’t fit into existing beats at the Vancouver Sun or The Globe and Mail, these smaller pubs are willing to take risks.” 

That’s reflected in The Tyee’s most successful 2023 stories. Public issues and politics—police misconduct, housing, plenty of shots at neighbouring Alberta—dominate. However, a deep look at an all-but-abandoned mining town and a story about a distinctive glass house in Burnaby also found success. That suggests an audience appetite for the sort of cultural reporting mainstream publications have retreated from. 

“Some donor and philanthropically supported organisations…it’s all serious and depressing [reporting],” Skelton says. “ProPublica is all the ways the world is falling apart. Whereas The Tyee has a more traditional mix [of reporting]. Some is serious, some is just interesting stuff in your community.” 

According to Ageson, The Tyee managed 8.7 million pageviews in 2023. They have plans for slow, steady growth. But is their model replicable? “It’s really hard to start something from nothing,” Ageson says, admitting The Tyee was fortunate enough to attract patient, hands-off investors. 

“We’ve been able to grow our team and find and bring in more revenue because we’ve had that kind of support. That’s not really available at scale across the industry. I wish it were.” 

As valuable as The Tyee has been to a province where mainstream media continues to struggle with the kinds of layoffs that led to the digital outlet’s creation in the first place, there’s no clear path to having an equivalent publication in every province. 

“It’s hard to start a news organisation,” Skelton says. “If no one’s ever heard of you, it’s not clear what avenues can change that now. But the one thing nice about this age is that the cost of experimentation is relatively low. You don’t have to buy a printing press. If you have an idea, you can start it. But there needs to be avenues for building audiences.” 

The 2003 The Tyee was founded in is long gone. But if someone can think of the 2024 equivalent of printing out articles and handing them out, then maybe—maybe—funding and loyal readers will follow. 

The Future of News series is supported by readers like you and Meta.

Hub Exclusive: Many Canadian Conservatives want Trump to win despite believing it would be bad for Canada

News

In the lead-up to the November 2024 U.S. presidential election, The Hub and Pollara are teaming up to provide insights into what Canadians make of the race as it unfolds. Pollara senior advisor Andre Turcotte will provide exclusive polling and analysis to Hub readers, helping them understand how fellow Canadians are making sense of the election and its implications for Canada.

The theory of cognitive dissonance was first introduced by psychologist Leon Festinger in 1957. It refers to the discomfort a person feels when their behaviour does not align with their values or beliefs. Accordingly, cognitive dissonance is recognized as a psychological phenomenon occurring when a person holds two contradictory beliefs at the same time. Our latest findings suggest that many Canadian Conservative voters may well be suffering from this affliction. It will be something for them to ponder over as many of them gather in Ottawa for this week’s Canada Strong and Free Networking Conference.

In a study conducted between March 15th and 22 with 1,500 adult Canadians, we at Pollara found that 41 percent of Conservative voters would like to see Donald Trump win the next presidential election, compared to 37 percent supporting Joe Biden, and 23 percent unsure. This stands in sharp contrast with our national results where 61 percent of all Canadians preferred Biden compared to 18 percent for Trump. What’s perplexing is that while Trump is the preferred candidate for Canadian Conservatives, 42 percent of those same voters think a second Trump presidency would be bad for Canada. Only 27 percent of Conservative voters think it would be a good thing for our country.

Graphic credit: Janice Nelson.

A majority of Conservative voters also expect Trump to implement a series of policies that would directly affect Canada. These include: 

  • Increase oil and gas production (64 percent of Conservative voters believe Trump will implement this policy);
  • Insist that Canada increase its military spending to meet its NATO commitment (59 percent); 
  • Cut aid to Ukraine (54 percent);
  • Impose new tariffs on various Canadian exports (52 percent);
  • Restrict immigration to the U.S. from Canada’s border (51 percent).

Some 45 percent think a new Trump administration would renegotiate the United States-Canada-Mexico Agreement (USMCA) trade deal and another 49 percent expect a decrease in financial support for building electric vehicles. This is not to suggest that all of those potential policy developments would be frowned upon by Conservatives. In fact, many would welcome a reduction in aid for Ukraine and less emphasis on electric vehicles. But even the most protectionists among Conservatives should be worried about the potential Canadian economic consequences of a second Trump victory.   

Many Conservative voters also think that a Trump return to the White House would have a negative impact on several policy areas. While they take a more nuanced stance than Canadians in general, a plurality think Trump would have a negative impact on the future of the United Nations (39 percent), the flow of goods between Canada and the U.S. (38 percent), the Canadian dollar (38 percent), the future of NATO (37 percent), and the protection of the LGBTQ community (36 percent). Given all those findings, why do Conservative voters prefer Trump over Biden?

What explains Trump’s popularity?

Trump’s appeal among Conservatives appears to be largely rooted in emotion rather than rationality. But measuring emotional appeals is a challenge for public opinion research. One way this question is addressed is to ask which candidate appears to be the “most authentic.” While hard to define, authenticity is considered important in influencing vote choice. 

Our data show that 79 percent of Canadians feel that authenticity in a leader is very (32 percent) or somewhat important (47 percent). We therefore asked Canadians: “Between Joe Biden and Donald Trump, who do you feel is most authentic”?

Among Canadian Conservative voters, 40 percent think Trump is “most authentic” compared to 32 percent for Biden. The remainder (29 percent) are unsure.

In sharp contrast, 74 percent of Liberal voters think Biden is “most authentic,” as well as 66 percent of NDP voters and 75 percent of Bloc voters. In short, Conservative voters connect with Trump on an emotional level. Interestingly this connection is strong enough for them to overlook possible adverse outcomes.

Graphic credit: Janice Nelson.

There is no denying the importance of authenticity in politics. In the year 2023, Merriam-Webster declared “authentic” as their coveted word of the year, defining it as “worthy of acceptance or belief as conforming to or based on fact.” This acknowledgment highlights the term’s significance today, reflecting its prevalence in our thoughts, writings, aspirations, and judgments more than ever before. It is hard to articulate what makes a leader “authentic.” But understanding authenticity is important even if it is “in the eye of the beholder.” And it appears to be influencing vote choice. Experts and pundits like to discuss the importance of policies in shaping vote choice but the existence of the truly rationally-operating voter may be a myth. It remains that regular people spend very little time thinking about politics. They are more likely to be influenced by how they feel about a candidate than by policy platforms. This explains why a factor like “authenticity” overrides policy concerns. 

Justin Trudeau’s authenticity problem

If this is the case, our data is worrisome for Prime Minister Trudeau. While Canadians will not be voting in the U.S. election in November 2024, there will be a Canadian election at some point in 2025. When our polls asked “Who is the most authentic Canadian federal party leader,” 31 percent of Canadians chose Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre, ahead of NDP leader Jagmeet Singh at 25 percent.

Graphic credit: Janice Nelson.

Only 14 percent of Canadians selected Liberal leader Justin Trudeau. There are several factors suggesting that Prime Minister Trudeau is facing a major uphill battle for re-election. A lack of authenticity may well be the most ominous.