How The Discourse reconciles its work with Facebook’s news accelerator

Founder and CEO Erin Millar explains how she expanded her media company's reach and how she's passing on the knowledge she gained.

“I don’t want to reject Facebook on some sort of purist position,” says Erin Millar. “This is the most powerful platform in the world. How can we work together? I want to engage in this.”

Millar is founder and CEO of independent digital media company The Discourse, which specializes in bringing news to communities that are underserved. She says she knew going into Facebook’s Local News Accelerator that it was going to raise some eyebrows. The relationship between Facebook and other media companies – from legacy media to independent digital entities and everyone in between – has been adversarial at times.

The latest controversy that has driven a wedge between some in digital media and Facebook has been the fallout of the “pivot to Facebook video” trend, which saw companies such as CollegeHumor lose revenue due to miscalculated video metrics. And, at the time the 12-week program began, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg refused to appear before Canada’s House of Commons’ privacy and ethics committee.

Millar says she was not blind to that, and the timing of her company’s participation in the 12-week program, which began earlier this year, had her feeling “a little trepidatious.” With some of her readers questioning the partnership – and how the company reconciled its position, Millar penned an op-ed about The Discourse’s relationship with Facebook, and how it saw working with the platform as a necessity to reach a point of financial sustainability.

She says the team at Facebook assured her prior to the program, which included The Discourse along with 10 other publishers (such as Village Media, London Free Press, The Tyee and others) that Facebook would play more of a convening role than a promotional role. The point of the accelerator program is to understand different media companies’ needs, connect them with mentors (including experts from The New York Times, The Walrus) and provide grant assistance (around $75,000 per participant).

“We saw our role as being the conveners. It wasn’t really about us talking, which is why it was important for us to involve the Facebook Journalism Project and the other outlets,” Marc Dinsdale, head of media partnerships at Facebook Canada, tells MiC. The Facebook Journalism Project launched in 2017 as part of an effort by the platform to support more news publishers. “Especially in Canada, it doesn’t feel like we have the same infrastructure, the same industry events. The act of actually bringing everyone together was a huge value. Canadians are quite engage with that kind of cross-talk.”

Millar says her expectations felt met. Every outlet went into the program with a different business challenge. For The Discourse, which aims to bring journalism to communities with less access to local news, it generates most of its revenue from a membership-based model. Conversion and engagement rates are high, but audience growth was a struggle. “How do we take these really strong conversion results that are proof of concept with a small audience size and scale them?”

The accelerator program prompted The Discourse to launch a new email newsletter and revise its marketing strategy in the rural region of Cowichan Valley (where multiple news sources had closed in recent years). Its tactics included better SEO, optimizing strategies for lead ads and boosted posts. The result was double the newsletter subscription among the Cowichan region, and triple-digit growth in audience revenue over two months.

“We didn’t change our philosophy at all. It was about taking what we do best and making it better. We increased our frequency of content, but we didn’t change the product.”

Winnipeg Free Press’s main goal was to increase registration for readers on its paywalled, ad-supported site. During the Accelerator, it updated its registration process, taking the steps down to six (from 11). It also incentivized with a three 30-day trial for registrations. The number of readers converting to paying subscribers after going through the new system increased by 167%, according to the publisher.

French daily Le Soileil focused on email subscribers, creating targeted pop-ups and expanding its marketing through its own website to increase subscribers. It acquired 12,000 new email subscribers in two months.

Still, Millar assures MiC the Toronto-based wasn’t a Facebook love-fest. “Is everything they do as a company good for the news industry? Obviously not. But the people who are involved in the Canadian Journalism Project are genuinely trying to use it as an opportunity. Media’s not going to be like it was before. So let’s lean into this.”

The Discourse is now taking this one step further, partnering again with the Facebook Journalism Project and the Inspirit Foundation (a Toronto-based grant organization) to launch the Independent News Challenge. The partnership will challenge small and independent publishers that serve underrepresented communities in Canada to grow their audiences and revenue.