Can a new investigative news site shake up the Victoria media market?
By Rui Yang Xu
Over the past six years, venture capitalist Andrew Wilkinson has made a name for himself investing in a variety of tech companies through the Victoria-based holding company, Tiny Capital, run by himself and business partner, Chris Sparling.
On an episode of the podcast My First Million, which aired July 31, 2020, Wilkinson told hosts Shaan Puri and Sam Parr that Tiny Capital had about 30 companies they were invested in—“and we’ve invested in another 80 business in a minority capacity.” (Wilkinson declined to be interviewed by Langara Journalism Review.)
“One of the ones I’m really loving is local news,” said Wilkinson in the podcast. “I pick up all the big papers, like the New York Times, Washington Post—physically or on my iPad. I realized that there was this incredible revolution happening in journalism in the States, but in Canada, where I live, we just had a shitty local paper. And it was slowly dying, to the point where it was owned by a big media company. They fired all the journalists. They just have wire service articles. And I was really bummed.”
Wilkinson said that he decided, with a friend, to launched a newsletter, called Capital Daily, “where we summarize everything that’s happening in Victoria, every single day. Kind of inspired by The Hustle: super simple, here’s a cleverly written summary of what’s up.” On September 14, 2019, Capital Daily sent out its first edition via a controlled email circulation list.
“Before we knew it, we had crazy numbers of subscribers,” said Wilkinson. “We’re now at about 40,000 subscribers in a city of 200,000. We’ve got 25 percent of the population. We’re now bigger than the local paper—and we did it all for a couple hundred grand.”
In the podcast—where he revealed that Tiny Capital considered making a bid for The Toronto Star went it was for sale last year—he said that his original goal was just to be able to open his inbox and know what was going on in his city—what events, what news stories. “And now, we’ve actually started hiring journalists. We now have an actual news team of journalists who are out there doing original reporting and pulling on threads—investigative stuff.”
Jimmy Thomson, the managing editor of Capital Daily, is one of those tasked with producing the investigative stuff—hired in November 2020 to replace Tristin Hopper, the outlet’s original editor. Thomson says that the website is filling a niche that has been left vacant by other outlets on Vancouver Island. “There’s great news media here. And they do an excellent job of covering the news,” says Thomson. “But they don’t often have a lot of resources to do long-form investigations and so that’s the niche that Capital Daily fills.”
“We’re writing about communities that are under covered. We’re writing profiles of people that that are active in their communities. And that’s one other way to reach people,” Thomson says, “because those people have profiles and they don’t necessarily all high profile people, but there are people who other people want to know what they’re doing.”
One example of this is Capital Daily’s story on Quadra Village Community Centre’s youth program called “the CREW,” a leadership program that trains the youths of one of the island’s financially worst neighbourhoods to have the skills needed for employment and success in adulthood.
He also says that one of his goals as editor “is to find readers who want to support us.” He sees that support in readers sharing their content, across social media platforms, and also sending tips to the newsroom. “And part of that support eventually will be financial,” he adds. However, Thomson says that before they’re able to ask for donations, Capital Daily needs to show that their outlet is worth supporting in the first place.
Figuring out how to make money off of this community-driven, long-form niche is the job of Tom Gierasimczuk, Capital Daily’s vice-president of partnerships and monetization. Gierasimczuk was hired in November 2020 by Wilkinson to build a larger audience within the Victoria community.
The Capital Daily newsletter continues to grow at about 500 subscribers a week. Currently, the website’s content remains free for readers, with Capital Daily’s costs supported by partnered content—advertising, in essence—that promotes local businesses on its social media and in its newsletters.
“I think we’ve come across a really good way to give [readers] a magnifying glass on their local community—in a way that hasn’t been done before—and a kind of convenience that hasn’t been done before,” Gierasimczuk says. The focus on community was clearly a great area to start for Capital Daily as it attracted readers quickly, he adds.
“Anecdotally, we’re hearing they’ve used us to replace their legacy media—citing things like, ‘It’s just very convenient’ and ‘You guys go deeper and pursue stories that legacy media typically can’t afford to or doesn’t really bother with because it’s not their core business model.’ So that validation is great to hear.”
One of the legacy media Gierasimczuk is referring to is Victoria’s Times Colonist newspaper, which traces its history back to 1858. Then known as the Daily British Colonist, the newspaper, set up by Amor de Cosmos, a future premier of British Columbia, is considered the first paper in the province.
Dave Obee is editor-in-chief and publisher of the Times Colonist—and while he thinks there’s great potential for another online news operation in Victoria, he’s not convinced that Capital Daily is much of a threat. “I’m not seeing a whole lot of competition from them at this point,” Obee says. “If anything, I’m quite disappointed in what I see. They could be doing a lot more than they’re doing. It’s not having any real meaningful impact on us.”
Obee notes that a lot of the content on the Capital Daily website is, in fact, a rehash of work that has been published by the likes of the Times Colonist. “For a while, they were going through a whole phase where they were running historical stuff and saying, Wow, our investigation has revealed this, and they revealed something that we covered in the 1970s,” Obee says. “That’s hardly a scoop. Digging something out of the files is not a scoop.”
Thomson acknowledges that Capital Daily relies heavily on establishment media like the Times Colonist to fill its newsletter pipeline: “Probably about half of our newsletter comes from the news media directly…We don’t want to take their place and we don’t want to attack what they’re doing.”
Obee says that, ultimately, Victoria residents want and need to get their news and information from “three or four sources.” And while he doesn’t necessarily think Capital Daily is that source quite yet, he does hold out hope. “I think there’s actually great potential there. I just would love to see it come together at some point.”
While the broader media industry has taken a hit in recent years, where there has been a ray of light is in small, community-centric startups. Alfred Hermida, a UBC journalism professor, has been researching media startups in Canada for the last 20 years. From his research, he’s identified 70 digital startups launched during that timeframe—news websites that aren’t related to any established media outlets.
“The key thing with these startups is mostly they’re quite small,” says Hermida. “They’re usually doing local news. They usually run by the founder, and maybe a couple of other people. Most of them—because until recently, it was really hard to get charitable status as a startup—had been for-profit commercial enterprises, relying on a mix of advertising, sponsorship, and some reader funding.”
As much as Capital Daily might hope to shake up the media landscape, says Hermida, legacy outlets like the Times Colonist have certain built-in advantages. “Media institutions are remarkably resilient because they have institutional power,” he says, adding that for new outlets like Capital Daily to survive, their goal should be to fill in the local gaps that traditional media miss. “Provide the kind of relevant local information that resonates with the people there.”
The challenge, as Hermida observes, will be getting audiences to pay for that information. “Only a small percentage of Canadians are willing to pay for ‘the deeds,’” he says. (A report in 2011 by Hermida and his colleagues revealed that only four percent of Canadians were willing to pay for their news online.) “So if you have a local outlet, like The Tyee, encouraging its readers to donate, they may find enough to sustain operations up to a certain scale, but then it’s hard to get any bigger.”
Currently, the team at Capital Daily includes six people, all based in Victoria. Gierasimczuk says that there are plans to grow the team—and even expand the operation’s focus beyond Victoria, to other cities across Canada. “We really want to reverse that course of, ‘Media is dead, journalism’s threatened. It’s not useful. It’s extinct.’ All this stuff is just ridiculous,” he says. “We really want to establish the fact that journalism has never mattered more— its utility and its place in our community has never mattered more.”
As for Capital Daily’s editor, his goals are more modest: “We want to do better work. We want to do more work,” says Thomson. “And we want to redouble that focus on long-form stuff, and not get caught up in the desire to just always be publishing as soon as things come out—following the bouncing ball.”
“We’re funded for the next couple of years and after that, we are expected to spread our wings and do our own thing,” he adds. “So if we haven’t been able to do that by then, maybe we won’t exist in five years. I hope we will. Because I think that we’re doing something valuable.”