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Posted by Chantal Braganza on May 20, 2015

Amanda Panacci

Passion and determination with a dash of crazy: these are ingredients required to succeed as a journalist in today’s ever-changing climate. When combined, they ensure that optimism prevails in face of monthly, if not weekly, industry cutbacks. 

During my research for my Spring 2015 Ryerson Review of Journalism story, I was happy to discover that several journalists still possess these qualities. In “Silenced Spring,” I write about environment reporters who are asking the public for money in order to write in-depth, quality stories that they feel are lacking in mainstream media. Although these stories may not reach a mass audience, the characters in my story are willing to take this risk, knowing that if they don’t, the state of environmental coverage may never change. 

Take Stephen Leahy, for example. The freelance journalist sacrificed his house, moved in with his in-laws, and lived below the poverty line, all to pursue a career he believed was important. He produces the kind of work that addresses climate change as a problem, and offers solutions to keep the planet from warming past repair. 

For some this may sound like the kind of crazy that they would best do without. But for me, this sounds like the kind of entrepreneurial attitude necessary for journalism to evolve. 

Silenced Spring

Stephen Leahy is passionate about the environment. So passionate, in fact, that the 61-year-old Canadian journalist is willing to live below the poverty line in his in-laws’ basement apartment so he can continue reporting on environmental injustices.

Those sacrifices seem worth it when Inter Press Service agrees to publish his story about the Ninth World Wilderness Congress in Mexico. It’s November 6, 2009, and Leahy has a huge scoop—a group of scientists has concluded that in order to preserve the earth’s wildlife, more than half the planet will need protection from the effects of climate change.

But Leahy soon learns that four fellow journalists tried, and failed, to sell the same story to mainstream news outlets. Never mind environmental sustainability—what about the journalistic ecosystem? As his colleagues consider careers in public relations, Leahy hatches a plan. He jots down the facts: Canadians want to stay informed about the environment, and he’s a qualified journalist with a loyal following. If traditional publishers won’t pay, then he’ll go directly to the public. Leahy calls his brainstorm “community-supported environmental journalism.”

The crowdfunding website Kickstarter launched in April 2009, about seven months before Leahy attaches a PayPal account to his website. The timing for crowdfunding appears fortunate, as journalists in this country have had to endure a string of massive budget cuts—the Canadian Media Guild reported that roughly 2,000 industry jobs were cut from January to May in 2009. At the same time, environmental reporting had started to lose its permanent home at traditional news organizations.

Some newspapers, such as the Guelph Mercury, have seldom maintained an environmental beat, while others, including The Hamilton Spectator, have seen such coverage decrease. Many newspapers publish sporadic stories from freelance writers and general assignment reporters that tend to focus on political conflicts instead of environmental consequences.

Today, almost six years after it launched, Kickstarter is no longer just a niche option for quirky indie musicians trying to record an EP; it’s a powerful method of innovation. Crowdfunding success stories include the Pebble smartwatch, which raised millions of dollars, and the Coolest, a high-tech portable cooler with more than 60,000 backers. Meanwhile, user-supported environmental reporting is still waiting for its Pebble or Coolest.

Crowdfunded journalism offers the public an opportunity to engage with the material they’re funding and make suggestions before it’s published. But the risks and challenges of journalism by donation are numerous. Can it reach the same number of people as mainstream media? Will its content remain engaging enough to sustain funding? And, finally, can it prevent longform journalism—including quality environmental stories—from getting stuck on the outskirts of the internet?

To read the rest of “SIlenced Spring,” please go to the Ryerson Review of Journalism’s website, where it was originally published.

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J-Source and ProjetJ are publications of the Canadian Journalism Project, a venture among post-secondary journalism schools and programs across Canada, led by Ryerson University, Université Laval and Carleton University and supported by a group of donors.