Phillip Smith

Announcing the Uncharted Journalism Fund

Collective citizen action to advance adventurous reporting

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On Monday evening, to a room full of close friends, I announced the intention to bring a new model of funding for journalism to life by the end of May. Here’s the most exciting part: you can help make this happen.

There is still much to finalize, but the basic idea is quite simple: a new people-powered journalism fund that will make small grants to directly support experimental and enterprising reporting projects.

As has been much reported recently, Canada’s media ecosystem is facing a crisis. This has many in journalism circles wringing their hands and wondering what to do. My response has been to agitate for bold experiments, and this is just another small effort to help encourage and enable people to explore new directions.

How it will work

Where will the money come from, you ask? It will come directly from a “board of trustees” — roughly ten individuals who commit to support the fund financially for a year (at the somewhat-accessible level of $100/month per trustee). These individuals will meet in person every three months, review the proposals, and select a project to fund.

Do the math and you’ll see that this will generate approximately $12,000 annually to invest. That may not seem like much at first, but I’ve worked with publications over the years with even smaller editorial budgets than that! The point is: it’s a start.

The aspirational goal is to provide approximately 4-5 grants in the first year for amounts ranging from $2000 to $3000. The grants will go directly to individuals who propose bold, uncharted ideas for experimental journalism undertakings. For now, the fund will be focused on British Columbia’s Lower Mainland1.

A proven model

If this funding model sounds familiar, it is because it was brazenly taken from the shoulders of giants: specifically, the Awesome Foundation and Awesome Journalism. Haven’t heard of the Awesome Foundation? It’s an ever-growing worldwide community devoted to forwarding the interest of awesome in the universe. And what could be more awesome than that?

Five years ago — thanks to some very astute friends and a chance meeting with Tim Hwang in Boston that involved a lost Moleskin notebook — I became a founding trustee of the Awesome Foundation Toronto, and the impact we had with this small undertaking of citizen-powered action has stuck with me ever since. But the idea of applying this idea to Canada’s journalism crisis didn’t cross my mind until a few of weeks ago.

And while the Awesome Foundation is most certainly awesome, several conversations lead me to believe it wasn’t quite the right model to achieve the outcomes I had in mind. Specifically: small, achievable, undertakings that explore new ways to tell stories and experiment with new approaches to informing people about the world around them. For that, the grants need to be larger, given out less frequently, and chosen with an eye for the uncharted waters of tomorrow’s journalism.

Join me in this experiment

Here’s the really exciting part of the Uncharted Journalism Fund: you can help bring it to life.

To make it work, we’ll adopt the Awesome Foundation’s structure, which is eight trustees, and two “deans.” A dean’s role — like a chairperson’s — is to coordinate the meeting of the trustees, and to help navigate through any stormy waters that arise along the way. Deans and trustees are asked to commit to a one-year term, each month contributing $100 to the fund, and committing to meet once every three months2 to review proposals.

Right now, I am seeking six additional trustees and one dean. That could be you, or someone you know.

What does it take to make a good board of trustees? It’s a great question and one that will require some experimentation of its own; but I do have some intial ideas. Ideally, the board will:

  • Represent the interests of the diverse communities that make up BC’s Lower Mainland;
  • Have the ear of people who can help eliminate barriers for grantees’ projects;
  • Provide journalistic wisdom and guidance, as needed, to help funded projects succeed.

To achieve this mix, I imagine at least two individuals with a history of reporting and editing, with the balance coming from a cross-section of city issues like environment, justice, business, education, and so on. It would be great to have someone from one of the local city councils involved. It would also be great to have an inventor or artist, too.

So here’s how you can help: ask yourself, “who do I know who might want to be part of the founding story of an entirely new and experimental journalism fund?” When a name comes to mind, just ask them to drop me a note here3.

Before the end of May, I’ll convene a meeting of everyone’s who’s expressed interest and we can collectively bring the Uncharted Journalism Fund to life.

Questions, comments, shameless plugs or rants? Leave a comment here, or find me on Twitter.

  1. The focus is BC’s Lower Mainland for now because meeting in person makes the process more enjoyable, and I happen to be based in Vancouver currently. If this works, perhaps new chapters will sprout up across Canada. One can hope! 

  2. We’ll meet once every three months, both to lighten the administrative load and increase the grant size to a level that can adequately fund a small project. 

  3. I hate to use a contact form – so impersonal! – but this eliminates the risk of missing an important e-mail from you! 


Hi, I'm Phillip Smith, a veteran digital publishing consultant, online advocacy specialist, and strategic convener. If you enjoyed reading this, find me on Twitter and I'll keep you updated.


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