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Dec. 9, 2019, 10:39 a.m.
Business Models

Want to start your own local online news outlet? With a new staff and a $1 million grant, LION Publishers wants to do more to help

“The daily newspaper reporter might say, ‘You’re a community journalist, that’s so cute.’ But the fact is we’re professional and have our own organization.”

After leaving her job as the managing editor of a newspaper owned by Digital First Media “due to differences with this company’s management” last year, Kara Meyberg Guzman wasn’t sure what to do next. After a few conversations with a former colleague at the Santa Cruz Sentinel, they decided to launch a local news podcast and were trying to figure out…how exactly to actually do that.

Then she found the Local Independent Online Publishers (LION) YouTube channel of LION Publishers — LION short for local, independent, and online news.

“Around December of last year, I stumbled on their YouTube channel, and the first one was Lance Knobel from Berkeleyside and I was floored,” Meyberg Guzman said. “You can do a [direct public offiering] and raise a million dollars? That’s amazing! I binge watched all of the videos from last year’s conference.”

With a direct public offering, Berkeleyside wants to turn its readers into its newest owners ]

Knobel and Meyberg Guzman have since had three phone calls to talk about the process of setting up a small local news organization. Just before this year’s LION conference in Nashville, Meyberg Guzman’s Santa Cruz Local, a membership-driven podcast and newsletter, became an official member of LION and got a grant to attend as a volunteer, which allowed her to learn about revenue development, and think about community engagement strategies to help Santa Cruz Local grow beyond the 230 paying members it earned over its first seven or so months.

This process — a local journalist’s decision, the discovery of LION’s resources, and then the entry into its knowledge-sharing community — is exactly what LION Publishers want to do more of, spreading the message of local independent news sites.

The organization began in 2012 as a band of indie publishers who grew into a community, stemming from the Block by Block conference by Michele McClellan.

Now, LION’s 250-ish members are 65 percent for-profits; most employ just one or two people. You’ll find them swapping tips on insurance and site improvements on the LIONs Den Facebook group. Having won its first $1 million grant, LION Publishers now has a staff of more than one person for the first time. And it has a set of targets: “Our three goals are to help LION members become sustainable, to help LION as an organization become sustainable, and to create LION as the destination for entrepreneurs to create a local news business,” said Anika Anand, LION’s director of programming and a third of the staff.

As legacy news outlets — especially local ones — head into an even more uncertain 2020, LION Publishers sees the information voids it wants to help its members to fill. It just has to figure out its own sustainability at the same time.

The word of the year in journalism seems to be “local,” with hundreds of millions of dollars committed to accelerators, venture philanthropy, and mergers and acquisitions in search of “synergies.” With three full-time staffers, LION can now be a more vigorous voice in those discussions, alongside other organizations like the Institute for Nonprofit News, Report for America, the Local Media Association, the Local Media Consortium, various funders and universities, and more. Getting to this point, though, has taken a lot of volunteer work by board members who were simultaneously trying to keep their own outlets running.

“A lot of people worked really hard to get LION to where it’s at,” current board chair and publisher of Home Page Media Group Kelly Gilfillan said, shouting out longtime board chair Dylan Smith. “Along the way, these volunteer board members have worked their tails off. Each time [LION got one step further], somebody believed in us a little bit more.”

“How do we create the conditions under which LION is a place where news entrepreneurs can come succeed? It’s broader than helping publishers,” Chris Krewson, LION’s new executive director and former Spirited Media vice president of strategy, said. “LION from this point forward is charged with teaching people how to fish, not giving them fish.”

This year’s LION conference featured keynotes by blockbuster local news innovators Elizabeth Green of Chalkbeat and the American Journalism Project, Roxann Stafford of the Knight-Lenfest Local News Transformation Fund, and Mandy Jenkins of the McClatchy-Google Compass Experiment. They celebrated with an awards competition (disclosure: I was a judge) and dinner, but things were a little different from the board-run conferences of the past.

When Nieman Lab covered the 2015 LION conference, we highlighted tips for a successful crowdfunding campaign (one to create a mobile-friendly website), experiments with new revenue opportunities (like Richland Source’s Made in the 419 apparel line that could be used as swag for advertising clients), and obligatory legalese (like copyright law, IRS nonprofit status requirements, and rules for unpaid interns). Sounds a lot like 2019, no? (Unpaid interns are so 2015, though, we hope!) Crowdfunding and nonprofit tax status are still very much part of the journalism zeitgeist, but Richland Source has since shut down its apparel line — instead building out an AI system to produce automatic writeups of high school sports games, for one, as a new revenue stream. Richland Source swept this year’s inaugural inaugural LION awards, including the prize for LION Publisher of the Year (Large).

“Being associated with LION has helped us because we’re seeing other innovators doing this in a very localized way that works in their market,” said Richland Source’s Jay Allred, who is also a LION board member. “It has helped us to look at certain types of applications, to say ‘that’s really smart, that could work in our market,’ and report back on how it worked for us.” (He also had a booth at the conference to sell the automated-sportswriting revenue stream to his fellow publishers.) “We have to professionalize to do that, and at the same time really create this amazing open door and this inviting atmosphere, so that local news entrepreneurs don’t feel like we felt, which is alone.”

Barry Friedman of Florida’s Lkldnow started his news outlet back in 2015 and has attended the conference almost every year since then. “At one point, I said I wasn’t going to go back until we started generating more revenue. Until I started generating more revenue, it felt more like a glorified hobby than a business, and that’s why I wasn’t going to go,” he said. But he finds value in the innovative ideas and industry trends LION circulates, and “the biggest benefit has been the ability to learn from others how are going through the same thing I’m going through.”

And it doesn’t hurt that LION, while still relatively small, is big enough to draw the attention of platforms that probably wouldn’t give a one- or two-person local website a second look. While the LION conference took place the same day as Facebook’s News tab launch, the company still sent one news team member who did an impromptu Q&A with members about what the News tab could mean for them. “Having somebody who can speak as an organization will certainly have a lot more power than our individual voices with the giants, who are very distant,” Friedman said.

The awards this year added a little legitimacy to Robert Chappell’s site Madison365, which won LION Publisher of the Year in the small category. “Every state has a newspaper association or press club, but some of those don’t allow us [independent news sites] to join,” he said. “Most if not all LION members consider themselves community journalists, which is sometimes a sort of pejorative term. The daily newspaper reporter might say, ‘You’re a community journalist, that’s so cute.’ But the fact is we’re professional and have our own organization. The fact that they advocate for local independent online journalism is really valuable to me professionally and to our sector.”

Longtime indie publisher Matt Hennie, whose Project Q covers Atlanta LGBT news and issues, has drawn value from the sessions as well. “I knew how to do the journalism side of the site — where I needed help was the business side,” he said — things like “training on how to do ad sales, learning more about some of the tech stacks that people used to run the backend of the sites, CMS and accounting and more.”

Since its start, the conference has been LION’s main event of the year. But it’s a mission of the new staff — executive director Krewson, director of programming Anand, and director of revenue and operations Phayvanh Luekhamhan — to figure out how to spread the value all year long. They also want to increase its reach and value to publishers outside the traditional older-white-male set that has historically had the bandwidth and resources to start a LION site.

“This community of publishers is really willing to help each other out and talk honestly about their success and to learn from each other,” said Luekhamhan, who was associate publisher of VTDigger before joining the staff this summer. “What we do well is fostering the community that we have, fostering them connecting with each other and learning from each other.”

Hennie, along with Chappell, just finished participating in a revenue coaching and mentorship program funded by Democracy Fund. (Another disclosure: I’m joining Democracy Fund next month.) Hennie worked with coach Scott Brodbeck from ARLNow on building out his revenue streams and strategies for growth. LION is also planning on building out a tech starter pack and a stable of consultants and resources for members and newbies to draw from, cutting down on the decisions that local publishers have to make semi-blindly on their own. “There are all these LION seedlings out there and we gotta figure out how to fertilize them,” board chair Gilfillan said. “You’ve gotta prepare the ground — you can’t just throw the seeds on it.”

“One thing we have been talking about is having LION really focus on the intersection of product, revenue and operations,” said Anand, who cofounded The Evergrey in Seattle (part of Whereby.Us). “There are a ton of reporting and editing and writing resources out there for reporters, but it is much harder to find resources around revenue and operations. We want to make LION accessible and welcoming to all different types of people who are trying to start local independent online news outlets and making sure they have access to the same resources and connections.”

As newspapers and other local outlets continue to struggle, there’ll be no shortage of locally rooted journalists looking to find a new way to give their communities the information they need. LION wants to be their lighthouse.

“Many of those people — it’s easier said that done, of course — are in perfect positions to start their own independent online local news sites,” Madison365’s Chappell said. “Local news is important. Local news can work as a business when it’s not owned by venture capital. And I think having an organization dedicated to local independent online news is going to be the way news happens in the future.”

POSTED     Dec. 9, 2019, 10:39 a.m.
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