Left-Wing Media Is Expanding Its Reach in Canada

Alex Cosh

To amplify their impact, two Canadian left-wing publications, Passage and the Maple, have recently merged. We spoke with Alex Cosh, news editor of the Maple, about the merger, their mission, and the state of both mainstream and left-wing media.

In Canada, left-wing publications Passage and the Maple have merged to increase their reach. (Roberto Machado Noa / LightRocket via Getty Images)

Interview by
David Moscrop

Independent left-wing media in Canada is having a moment. Recently, two left-wing publications — Passage and the Maplemerged to increase their reach. Meanwhile, outlets like the Breach, Ricochet, and Canadian Dimension continue to challenge the prevailing media consensus in a country where the media landscape is dominated by a handful of concentrated outlets. Jacobin recently spoke to the Maple’s news editor Alex Cosh about the Maple, the merger, and the state of Canada’s mainstream and left media.

David Moscrop

Independent, left-wing publications are refreshingly explicit about their objectives. Unlike many mainstream outlets that often pretend not to have a mission, left-leaning publications openly acknowledge and pursue their goals. So, what’s the mission at the Maple?

Alex Cosh

I would say the mission at the Maple is intricately bound up with how we are funded and how we obtain income to do the work that we do. We are a 100 percent reader-funded publication. Now, that sounds like a buzz phrase. And a lot of publications have a large chunk of their funding that comes from readers. But I think we’re among the only ones where it’s 100 percent — every dollar we make is from subscriber fees and from individual donations from our readers.

That really does give us a degree of editorial independence and freedom that is rare and very difficult to replicate elsewhere. Even organizations or news publications that might have the majority of their funding from readers may have substantial chunks of their funding from third-party organizations or perhaps even government grants. And I’m not knocking that at all. People must and should do what they need to in order survive and do their excellent work. But I think that’s the main distinguishing feature of the Maple, the degree of editorial independence that is afforded by our reader-funded model.

What that looks like in practice is that we’re giving our subscribers a daily product. They get a newsletter that breaks down a big story each day. They get opinion content delivered to their mailbox. And with that editorial freedom, we’re able to explore things. We’re able to upset people that other publications might feel are too risky or just not advisable for their supporter base. So, I’d say that’s the main thing that distinguishes us in terms of a mission.

The Merger

David Moscrop

You recently merged with Passage. How did the merger come about?

Alex Cosh

Passage and the Maple, although they were separate and editorially independent publications, were owned by the same nonprofit association, the organization that was formerly known as North 99. And North 99 was basically a network of social media pages that produced viral media content for a progressive audience in Canada.

In 2019, North 99 crowdfunded to create Passage, which was initially a kind of commentary and opinion-based conversation — again, 100 percent reader-funded. Passage came to operate as its own independent thing managed by Davide Mastracci, now my colleague at the Maple. And then North 99 was kind of choked by changes to social media algorithms that made it much harder to get viral content to audiences. So, North 99 transitioned into the Maple, this kind of newsletter-first, reader-funded, left-wing news publication.

We were operating two separate publications, although joined by this common ancestor in North 99. But as time went on, we realized sort of independently that our editorial visions were pretty closely aligned. Me and Davide worked together on a couple of projects. The Maple was doing news; Passage was doing opinion. It just seemed like a really obvious fit. We tentatively discussed the idea for a while and then just agreed amongst ourselves that it logistically made more sense to operate as one stronger publication.

We wanted to gauge what our readers thought of the idea and whether readers from each publication were familiar with the other publication. And we found to our relief that many readers were very much familiar with each publication and were very happy with the idea of us merging to become one publication. We went ahead with the merger last month. And now we’re one publication with an opinion section and a news section.

Reaching the People

David Moscrop

How’s the Maple’s reach? Is it growing? Has it been constrained by changes in social media?

Alex Cosh

Social media continues to be a challenge. Despite the challenges, we reach about 1.1 million people on social media each month. That’s through Instagram and Twitter — those are our main channels. Facebook has definitely seen a drop in terms of how many people we’re reaching. We are primarily delivering our content to our readers through email in the form of newsletters, rather than relying on stuff going viral and generating a ton of web traffic. We have about sixty-five thousand newsletter readers who are reached by email. So, that’s our total mailing list. And we regularly have an open rate of above 50 percent, sometimes as high as 70 percent. That’s the kind of numbers we’re working with. Of the pool of free subscribers, we have about thirty-seven hundred paying members who sustain our publication with donations and subscriber fees.

David Moscrop

Who’s the intended audience? I’m very curious about whether and to what extent editors at the helm of Canada’s left-wing media are conscious about who they’re trying to reach and who they are reaching. Are you more focused on, for instance, speaking to the Left or reaching beyond the Left and trying to engage and persuade others?

Alex Cosh

I would describe our core constituency, our kind of loyal, diehard fan base, as the independent left in Canada. So, that’s people who are not merely nonpartisan, but who might, in fact, be kind of hostile to the party offerings that currently dominate Canada’s mainstream politics. People who are seeking radically critical perspectives, not just on the Conservative and Liberal Parties, but also on the New Democratic Party (NDP) and other institutional organizations that purport to speak to left-wing and progressive values.

We’re unapologetically and highly critical of all these organizations. And, again, to go back to the freedom that’s supported by our funding model, we are able to stake out this position because none of these institutions pay our wages.

In terms of where and who our readers are in a more granular sense, the majority are women. Our social media audience is, I think, 75 percent women. The majority are based in Ontario, more than half are in Ontario. Although interestingly, the next highest proportion is Alberta. And Alberta is a difficult place to be a leftist. So is Ontario, of course, but in Alberta, as we saw last week, it’s not just that we have a kind of far right, ultrareactionary United Conservative Party government in power. It’s that we also have a devastatingly weak NDP, which ran on a pretty explicitly center-right fiscal platform this election.

So, I think there’s a decent pool of people here who feel really, really upset by what they’re being offered at the ballot box. And, again, that’s where I think that category of independent left readers finds their voice heard and spoken to in our publication.

Related to that, we regularly survey our readers just to get a sense of where they’re at and how they think about things, and to make sure that we understand them and they understand us. And 80 percent of our readers strongly agree that electoral politics is not the only way to pursue political change. Now, that sounds like an obvious and trite statement, but how that translates in our work is that we give space to ideas beyond electoral politics.

The State of Canada’s Left Media

David Moscrop

The left-wing media ecosystem in Canada is probably healthier than it has ever been despite the challenges we face. We’ve got long-running outlets like Labor / Le Travail, Socialist Project, and Canadian Dimension. We have some great labor reporting, such as Rank and File and PressProgress’s Labour News. And we’ve got new blood, as represented by the Maple, the Breach, and Spring. And Jacobin runs quite a lot of Canadian coverage. Do you think these publications are having an appreciable effect on setting the agenda, changing discourse, changing policy, raising class consciousness, or supporting new social movements?

Alex Cosh

I think it’s really hard to measure. I’m sure we’re collectively increasing skepticism and critical thinking around the NPD and the Liberal Party and the Trudeau government. But that’s hard to attach a number to. That said, our stories are picked up in mainstream media. Just the other day, the Maple revealed that Harjit Sajjan had been briefed to lobby Qatari ministers for a light armored vehicle deal while he was visiting the World Cup last year. That was picked up by the Global and Mail, and it was subsequently brought up in a parliamentary committee by a Bloc Québécois MP who grilled Sajjan about the issue. Obviously, that’s great. We were thrilled about that. But where did it go from there?

It’s great that it’s brought up in these mainstream milieus, but how does that reverberate into social movements and lead to transformation? That’s the bigger question. And the more important question is can we, with these stories, help organizations and social movements galvanize the push for more substantive change?

David Moscrop

What is left-wing media getting right and what is it getting wrong? Are we cultivating new and different voices? Are we speaking to the working class? Are we mobilizing folks? Are we reaching beyond our own borders? How do you think left-wing independent publications are doing on those fronts?

Alex Cosh

I think left-wing media in Canada does a good job fanning good populist fires. I think collectively we do a good job of mobilizing people, maybe not so much organizing, but we do a good job speaking to everyday concerns. I think a weakness in the larger landscape, which we try to fill as much as possible, is that a more internationalist perspective is crucial.

I think there needs to be more original investigative reporting of Canadian foreign policy and the harms that it causes. That’s definitely something we try to do. And, certainly, we’re not the only ones. There are other outlets in Canada that also do really great work on that. But I do think an international perspective is indispensable to building meaningful left-wing politics. That is an area that I think needs to be strengthened because it is an area that is woefully inadequate in mainstream political conversations. Trying to drive a more thoughtful and critical conversation around that is really important and something we’ll keep trying to do, and I hope others will too.

David Moscrop

What about media critique? I know Passage in the past, and now the Maple, have pieces critiquing the mainstream media — the Nepo baby round up is a great example. But it seems to me that part of the left-wing, independent media mission is to point out flaws in the broader media landscape. How important do you think that is?

Alex Cosh

I think that’s really key, and I think that’s something incredibly valuable that Davide does. We do have media-critiquing media in the form of organizations like Canadaland, for example. But I think what Davide brings is a kind if unapologetic, thoroughly well-researched and left-wing perspective to media criticism.

And I think the work that he does ruffles the right feathers; he’s creating resources that serve as evergreen repositories of information that can be used for further investigation and further reporting. I think that’s another really key niche that we fill — I should be more specific, that Davide fills — in Canadian left media, whether that’s opinion pieces or more thoroughly investigated research. You mentioned the Nepo baby resource, that’s been very much appreciated by a lot of our readers and, on the other hand, very much hated by all the right people.

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Alex Cosh is the managing editor of the Maple. He lives in Calgary, Alberta.

David Moscrop is a writer and political commentator. He hosts the podcast Open to Debate and is the author of Too Dumb For Democracy? Why We Make Bad Political Decisions and How We Can Make Better Ones.

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