Episode 124 – Narwhal On The Prairies

On this episode, our correspondent, Oumar Salifou, finds out about the award winning, non-profit, online magazine: The Narwhal.  The Narwhal publishes investigative journalism about Canada’s natural world.

The Narwhal first launched in 2018 and has since won several awards and grown its coverage across Canada. Most recently opening a Prairie bureau here in Edmonton.

Check out The Narwhal’s stories from the Prairies.
See more stories from The Narwhal.
Find out more about their journalism.
Hear more of Oumar Salifou’s work on  the Is This For Real? podcast.

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The Well Endowed Podcast is produced by Edmonton Community Foundation. And is a proud, affiliate member of the Alberta Podcast Network.

Picture for this episode is courtesy of Taylor Roade at The Narwhal.


[The Well Endowed Podcast theme music plays] 

Lisa [00:00:25] Hi everyone. Welcome to The Well Endowed Podcast. I’m Lisa Pruden.

Graeme Lummer

style="font-weight: 400;">[00:00:29] And I’m Graeme Lummer. We know! Not your usual hosts. We’re filling in this week as we work our way through some transitions. Lisa and I are usually in the background of this podcast, but here we are with you today.

Lisa [00:00:41] It’s always fun to pop into the hosting chair. So… this podcast is brought to you by Edmonton Community Foundation, and we are a proud affiliate member of the Alberta Podcast Network.

Graeme [00:00:51] Edmonton is full of generous donors who’ve created endowment funds at ECF. These funds are carefully stewarded to generate money that supports charities in Edmonton and beyond.

Lisa [00:01:01] On this podcast, we share stories about how these funds help strengthen our community… because it’s good to be well endowed.

Graeme [00:01:09] On this episode, we learn about the award-winning non-profit online magazine, The Narwhal. The Narwhal publishes investigative journalism about Canada’s natural world.

Lisa [00:01:19] I’m super excited for this one because these folks are up to some very cool things when it comes to investigative journalism, both in their approach to journalism and in their funding model that allows for independence.

Graeme [00:01:31] So instead of being dependent on ads, The Narwhal is completely ad-free and is funded by individuals and philanthropic foundations… like Edmonton Community Foundation. 

Lisa [00:01:41] Oh hey, that’s us. And that is what allows them to pursue their independent investigative journalism. On their website, they note just two rules. One, follow the facts. Two, tell it like it is. And readers of this publication have come to know that The Narwhal isn’t afraid of tackling complex or even downright messy topics.

Graeme [00:02:01] The Narwhal first launched in 2018 and has since won several awards and grown its coverage right across Canada. Most recently, they’ve opened a Prairie Bureau right here in Edmonton. 

[The Well Endowed Podcast jingle plays in background]

Our correspondent, Oumar Salifou, brings us more on this story.

Oumar Salifou [00:02:16] Hi, I’m Oumar Salifou and what you’re about to hear is an interview with Emma Gilchrist and Sharon Riley from The Narwhal, an online magazine that publishes in-depth and investigative journalism about the natural world.

Emma Gilchrist [00:02:30] So my name’s Emma Gilchrist and I’m one of the co-founders of The Narwhal. I grew up in Northwestern Alberta, so about four hours, um, north of Edmonton in a town called Valleyview. Um, you know, and it’s a town that exists because of oil and gas, and most of the people who I went to high school with work in oil and gas to this day. Um, so that, I think, definitely… impacts the way that I think about storytelling. And I think it’s part of what made me so frustrated with the way that, you know, stories about the natural resource sector were being told in traditional media is you would just see a lot of polarization and, you know, like— it’s always, like, environmentalists pitted against, uh, resource workers and things like that when I think the reality is much more, um, complicated than that.

[00:03:20] And so, yeah. I-I ended up, you know, going off to do journalism school in Calgary and then starting my career in England. And when I moved back to Alberta from England, I was just really struck by how little, um, information and conversation there was about environmental issues. This was around, like, 2006, 2007 and I ended up, uh, starting a column at the Calgary Herald called The Green Guide. And it was, like, a weekly advice column on how to take action on the environment. And I just ended up… learning a lot through writing that column and taking my own advice as well and just got deeper and deeper into it. And, um, ultimately, yeah. That led… that led to The Narwhal.

[00:04:02] Back in kind of the late 2000s, I was working at The Calgary Herald as an environment reporter. And at that time, most regional papers in Canada had an environment reporter. And then really, what I saw happen over the next decade was almost all of those positions were eliminated. So traditional media has largely relied on advertising as a revenue source. And as more and more advertising dollars have gone online to places like Facebook and Google, that has really led to traditional newsrooms struggling for sources of revenue. And so newsrooms have just shrunk and shrunk and shrunk. 

[00:04:37] And as a result, we’ve lost a lot of beat reporting positions and beat reporters have the luxury of getting to actually know a topic inside and out, and to be able to, you know, cut through the spin and get beyond the press releases, get beyond those headlines to actually help readers make sense of the world. And I think that’s a lot of what we’ve lost over the last 10 years. And so that’s sort of the context in which The Narwhal came about is, you know— I often say the Narwal’s kind of like the environment section of the newspaper, except there isn’t an environment section of the newspaper. Um. [laughs] 

[00:05:10] And, you know, in a time when the climate and biodiversity crisis is, you know, one of the leading challenges, uh, in the world, there just isn’t enough coverage of those topics. And I think a lot of the coverage that we do see in traditional media, it’s often in the business section of the newspaper. So it’s played through a very particular lens. And at The Narwhal, what we try to do is we try to centre a different set of concerns. So we do— we centre those concerns about, uh, the natural world that come from the perspective of the science, um, the people who live on the land, people who rely on the land. And that includes the voices of, you know, resource workers who very much rely on the natural world as well. You know, if you’re a fisherman, um, it’s quite important that there are fish in the ocean. 

Oumar [00:05:57] In terms of expansion, you’ve been able to move into the prairies with a new Prairies bureau. Do you maybe wanna talk a little bit about how that’s been made possible and how your publication has been able to move across the country?

Emma [00:06:08] Part of the… reason behind the crisis in journalism is journalism has been able to… be… not connected enough to the communities that it— that it pretends to serve. And so with new models like The Narwhal where we really rely on audience revenue, we have to be connected to our audience. Um, we’re producing, you know, content… that fulfills a need. Um. We wouldn’t exist otherwise, right? So we do that by being really in touch with our audience, learning what it is that they’re missing, what they need, what they need to hear, and producing it for them. 

[00:06:48] And then on The Narwhal, like, we don’t have a paywall, so we don’t force anybody to pay. You don’t need to be a subscriber to pay to read The Narwhal. Our model is— works based upon the premise that a certain percentage of people who come and read us will voluntarily pay because they like it so much. Um, so yeah! It kind of takes the traditional model of paywalls and advertising and throws it out the window ’cause we also don’t run any advertising. 

[00:07:16] Um, and yeah, so far it’s been working really well. Our membership has been basically doubling every year since we launched. And I think it’s, you know, kind of a bright spot in the Canadian media landscape. And there’s certainly other cool examples as well that have, you know, really been able to reinvigorate the audience’s relationship with journalism and therefore also build reader revenue.

Oumar [00:07:40] The Narwhal’s expansion has led to more environmental reporting on the prairies, and the growth and launch of a dedicated Prairie bureau with two new reporters in Manitoba and Calgary. This move is made possible thanks to a grant from the Edmonton Community Foundation and a new federal government designation called the Registered Journalism Organization that exempts publications from taxes and allows The Narwhal to receive funds from charities along with tax receipts to individual donors. 

[00:08:11] I spoke with Sharon Riley, one of The Narwal’s first employees on the prairies, to understand her origins and the publication’s and hear more about the editorial approach at the magazine.

Sharon Riley [00:08:23] I’m Sharon, I’m the Prairies Bureau Chief at The Narwhal, which means I do a lot of editing for our other reporters in the Prairies Bureau, and I also do some of my own reporting as well. I started at The Narwhal as The Narwal’s Alberta investigative journalist. Um, I was the only reporter on the prairies working for The Narwhal at the time. And to be honest, when I first started, um, looking around at The Narwal’s website, I hadn’t heard of it. I started pretty much right at the beginning. The Narwhal was launched in May of 2018, and I started in September of 2018. So when they put out their job posting, I remember they said, “Alberta is an investigative journalist’s playground.” And I liked that idea a lot. So I looked into The Narwhal and… and who our founders, Emma Gilchrist and Carol Linnitt, were. And I thought it looked like a pretty exciting, brand new project.

[00:09:08] Um, so I applied to get involved. That’s how I got started at The Narwhal. And my background before that was as a freelance journalist and fact-checker. So I had started fact checking as an intern in New York and continued on from there with a lot of different publications all across the US and Canada. Started doing some of my own writing, um, for magazines like The Walrus and Maisonneuve and The Tyee, and was really looking for a staff position. And The Narwhal just really spoke to me right from the beginning. Alberta, it has an outsized position in Canada’s political landscape, I think. There’s a lot of attention on Alberta and our energy sector in particular. Um, and that’s what my position was focused on, is in— on the energy sector and, you know, the environmental issues that arise from that.

[00:09:53] There’s… there’s so much going on in Alberta when it comes to energy. There’s the oil and gas industry, there’s… there’s coal, there’s, you know, a-a new hydrogen industry going on in the Edmonton area here. And yeah, in terms of it being an investigative journalist’s playground, a lot of what goes on in the energy industry either plays out behind closed doors or just not in the public’s… realm of understanding. I think there’s a lot of things that maybe people don’t know about the energy industry and its impacts on landscapes and people and, you know, just the world. Um, and as journalists, especially at The Narwhal, we have the time to really dig in and… and try to find answers to some questions people might have about the sector.

[00:10:35] One story that I’ve talked a lot about, and it was a story that I did early on in my reporting for The Narwhal, was the story about coal miners losing their jobs in Alberta. Um, and I think that really speaks to the idea of going into a story with questions rather than with preconceived answers is, um, the coal industry. It uses coal fires. Electricity in particular is incredibly, um, pollution intensive. It’s greenhouse gas intensive, has a lot of negative impacts for the environment. It’s seen as the low-hanging fruit when it comes to what sources of energy we’re going to eliminate, um, to battle climate change. But, um, getting rid of that industry or phasing it out, as we’re doing in Alberta and in Canada, comes with impacts on communities and on people.

[00:11:20] And so for that story, I really wanted to know “What do coal miners think about losing their jobs and the industry, the coal-fired electricity industry, uh, disappearing?” And just the people that I met through the course of that reporting were so diverse and had such different political opinions, such different— such different opinions of the coal industry itself. I think it really was a story that humanized workers and, um, made it more possible for readers to look at it not as a “we need to get rid of coal and just get that done with” story, but “we need to get rid of coal and think about the impacts that that transition has.” And it’s really a story about the idea of a just transition and what that means, um, for this particular community of coal miners. But I think, um, you can take that and apply it to any transition that’s happening in the energy sector right now.

Oumar [00:12:09] Gathering a story like Sharon’s exploration into coal mining is only possible because of the editorial approach taken. 

Here’s Emma’s take on how the team approaches stories.

Emma [00:12:20] Part of what’s important to us in the way that we tell stories at The Narwhal but especially on the prairies, is to do it in a way that is cognizant of the polarization on these issues and so tries to really reach people where they’re at. And so I think some of the reporting that I’m proud of that we’ve been able to do lately, you know, looks at… for instance, you know, a small community in southern Alberta, um, that’s being forced to relocate due to flooding, um, which is exacerbated due to climate change. And, you know, these aren’t raving environmentalists by any stretch of the imagination. Uh, they’re people who, you know, have lived on that land for… for sometimes decades, um, or even multiple generations. And who thought that was their home forever and-and now it’s not, right? And it’s a really human way into the story of how climate change is going to impact people.

[00:13:10] Um, so yeah, we’ve been able to expand our coverage on the prairies, and I think that’s— I think it’s really, really important. Like, if we aren’t able to reach audiences on the prairies with stories about how the natural world is changing, um, I think that’s a real problem because a lot of the… big issues that we have about, um, the environment and natural resource extraction and changes to the natural world are playing out on the prairies, you know? You’ve got everything from droughts and wildfires to oilsands and pipelines, right? So y-you have it all. And, you know, being able to reach, uh, you know, farmers and ranchers and, um, people— you know, those are a great example of people who are very impacted by changes in the natural world, um, and reaching those people is really important to us.

[00:13:57] We really look for stories that, um, avoid kind of, like, black and white thinking and… and stereotypes. And so we look for ways to embrace complexity and… and bring in, you know, ideas and perspectives that maybe shed light on the gray zone. And, um, the fact that these issues are really complex, we also really try to amplify voices that often aren’t heard in the media. Um, so, you know, that might be the voices of Indigenous communities who often, you know, don’t have as much of a voice in the media as they should, um, or racialized communities in urban settings. So we’re looking for ways to kind of lift people up and to… you know, dig into those complexities.

[00:14:44] And then another thing that’s really important, uh, to the way that we tell stories is… is the visual storytelling. Um, part of the wonderful thing about not having any advertising on our site is that we get to have, like, amazing full-width images and a very beautiful website. So we put a lot of emphasis into visual storytelling. And also, a lot of the stories that we tell are places— about places that are kind of out of sight, out of mind. And I think we have a unique opportunity to kind of take our readers to those places, into the living rooms of those folks in southern Alberta who are being, you know, forced to… to leave their homes or, um, you know, up to, you know, the fracking wells of Northwestern Alberta or, you know, up to the oilsands. And so, yeah. The visual storytelling is also a really important part of the way that we try to tell stories at The Narwhal.

Oumar [00:15:38] Another important factor in the story process for Sharon is complicating the narrative: the idea of adding complexity and having stories with multiple focuses.

Sharon [00:15:48] One thing that I come across all the time, um, when I’m reporting for The Narwhal is people go and they look at the website, they see that we cover environmental issues, and they assume that we’re just a bunch of environmentalists. Um. And I really work hard to advocate for the idea that that’s not the case. That we’re journalists that cover the environment in the same way that, you know, a business reporter covers business or whatever, you know, we’re beat reporters. Um, and so we really try to go into our stories looking for nuance. Um, I really encourage our Prairies reporters not to go into stories with an agenda or with a— as… as I’ve said before, with, like, a preconceived idea of what the answer’s going to be to their question. Again, we’re looking to complicate the narrative, which is a idea that was popularized by Amanda Ripley, who’s a New York-based journalist. Um, and just the idea of adding more complexity to our stories. So not just focusing on the political narratives, not just focusing on, um, the easy takeaways, but really getting into the nitty-gritty of our stories.

[00:16:51] You know, we follow what’s going on and we try to— Pre-COVID, I was— as a journalist, was trying to attend a lot of in-person events just across the province to see what people were talking about. So going there, not with an idea for a story, but just wondering. You know, and a bunch of, um, people that get together in a community, what are their concerns? And then as a journalist, taking those concerns and looking into them more deeply. Um, that’s a little bit more difficult during the pandemic to do those in-person events.

[00:17:19] But another way that we really look for stories is from our readers. So we’re largely reader-funded, um, and are— we like to be very engaged with our readership. So when our readers reach out to us with a story idea, we try to take those very seriously an-and look into those as well. Um, and in terms of what we do once we get a story idea, I think it’s really important to go into reporting with a question rather than with a preconceived idea of the answers. So, um, I personally, and I try to encourage other reporters that I work with to, go in with an open mind and try to find the answers to the things that they’ve been wondering about rather than falling into the trap of, um, just the same old narratives that we hear over and over again. Um, I think if you go with an open mind, you are much more likely to discover something that’s a little more complicated.

Emma [00:18:06] I think it’s really important to… to humanize climate stories. So, you know, concepts like climate change that can seem overwhelming, far away, you know, out of our hands. Maybe for some people, like, it doesn’t even feel that relevant to them. Um, so I think it’s really important to report on the climate and biodiversity crises in ways that really hit home for people. Um, so looking at, you know, ways that, um, you know, climate change is coming home for roost in… in communities and what can be done about it. So I think that solutions lens is also really, really important. Um, you know, you always run the risk of people feeling overwhelmed and fatigued and just not wanting to read about it anymore, right? Or just turning off because the problem seems too big. Um, so we try to, you know, kind of balance that out with stories of, you know, deep, deep solutions to these, you know… to these problems as well as looking at how the issues are, yeah, really affecting ordinary people.

Sharon [00:19:18] We’re looking at just having a lot more coverage of the environment and energy issues in the prairies, um, based here in Alberta, that’s where I am. I’m in Edmonton and Drew is in Calgary. Uh, so I think our readers can look forward to having a lot more prairie-focused stories. Um, The Narwhal started in— well, Emma and Carol, our co-founders, are based in Victoria. So we had a lot of BC-based stories initially and really looked to expand across Canada. We now have an Ontario Bureau and we have the Prairies Bureau, we have the BC Bureau. Um, I think we can look for expansion to just covering every corner of this country, especially the areas that have traditionally been news deserts. 

[The Well Endowed Podcast jingle plays in background]

We… we know that there are so many journalists in Toronto, uh, there are less journalists across the rest of Canada, and we wanna fill those gaps.

Lisa [00:20:03] A big thanks to Oumar Salifou for bringing us this story. 

Graeme [00:20:12] And thanks to Emma Gilchrist and Sharon Riley for sharing their time with us.

Lisa [00:20:16] If you’d like to know more about The Narwhal, check out their website at TheNarwhal.ca. We’ll have that link in our show notes along with a link to the Prairies topic. 

Graeme [00:20:25] And we’ll have links to our upcoming granting deadlines. Be sure to check those out to see some of our funding opportunities. And you’ll also be able to see ECF’s new webshow and the latest on our blog.

Lisa [00:20:35] Well, that brings us to the end of the show.

[The Well Endowed Podcast music plays in background of outro]

Graeme [00:20:37] Thanks so much for sharing your time with us.

Lisa [00:20:39] We hope you enjoyed it. If you did, please share it with everyone you know. 

Graeme [00:20:43] And consider leaving us a review on Apple Podcasts. Those reviews help new listeners find our show.

Lisa [00:20:49] You can also connect with us on Facebook where you can share your thoughts and see some pictures.

Graeme [00:20:53] Thanks again for tuning in. We’ve been your hosts, Graeme Lummer—

Lisa [00:20:57] And Lisa Pruden.

Graeme and Lisa [00:20:58] Until next time!

Elizabeth Bonkink [00:21:00] The Well Endowed Podcast is produced by Edmonton Community Foundation—

Andrew Paul [00:21:05] And is an affiliate member of the Alberta Podcast Network.

Elizabeth [00:21:08] The show is edited by Lisa Pruden.

Andrew [00:21:09] You can visit our website at TheWellEndowedPodcast.com.

Elizabeth [00:21:13] Subscribe to us on iTunes—

Andrew [00:21:14] And follow us on Twitter at @theECF.

Elizabeth [00:21:17] Our theme music is by Octavo Productions.

Andrew [00:21:19] And as always, don’t forget to visit Edmonton Community Foundation at ecfoundation.org.

[theme music continues playing for a few seconds after dialogue ends]

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