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Oct. 31, 2022, 10:13 a.m.

LION’s Local Journalism Awards show the potential of the next generation of nonprofit news outlets

The recent boom of local nonprofit news organizations is proving their model can serve smaller markets, too.

The first great wave of nonprofit local news sites was born in the Great Recession and its immediate aftermath. Massive layoffs — combined with the growing acknowledgment that the internet was less an interesting novelty than a lasting paradigm shift — led dozens of newspaper veterans to start local news sites. And a number of the outlets that got the earliest starts quickly became recognized as standouts.

These were sites like Voice of San Diego (b. 2005), which innovated in distribution (like local TV and radio partnerships) and built a local-government focus that influenced others. The New Haven Independent (b. 2005), where alt-weekly veteran Paul Bass carried over an emphasis on urban issues and education. MinnPost (b. 2007), founded by Star Tribune executive Joel Kramer and his wife Laurie, leveraged strong donor relationships and a great market into a very good, newspaper-like product.

There was The Texas Tribune (b. 2009), which combined money smarts, editorial experience, and smart hiring to build the No. 1 outlet covering Texas-wide issues. And VTDigger (b. 2009), which did the same thing in a much smaller market.

These local nonprofit outlets (and a few others of their generation) led the sector for a long time — to the extent that some of us worried they might prove to be the exceptions rather than the rule. Nearly every community in the United States had a declining newspaper, after all. Would nonprofit news sites be able to fill coverage voids left by most of them, or only a lucky few in big markets and college towns?

That lingering question is why I was particularly happy to see the diverse list of winners of the 2022 LION Local Journalism Awards, which were given out in Austin Friday night at the Independent News Sustainability Summit. That’s because the winners are evidence of what’s become increasingly clear: that the nonprofit local news model is today more easily replicable than it used to be — one that works more readily and in more places than it used to.

You can see that in the Institute for Nonprofit News’ most recent INN Index, which serves as an industry census of sorts. The total number of nonprofit news outlets increased nearly 70% between 2017 and 2021 — but the number of local nonprofits more than doubled. Five years ago, about 20% of nonprofits covered local news; now it’s 42% and rising. And the markets being served have gotten smaller.

The three biggest winners Friday — each took home three awards — were Enlace Latino NC, Montana Free Press, and Santa Cruz Local.1 Those sites serve, respectively: Spanish speakers in North Carolina (roughly 690,000 people); Montana residents (1.1 million), and residents of metro Santa Cruz, Calif. (267,000). As markets, those are a long way from Texas (30 million), Minnesota (5.7 million), or metro San Diego (3.3 million).

The two outlets that took home two awards each show the range. Block Club Chicago serves an epic metro area (population 9.5 million), while across Lake Michigan, Watershed Voice covers the Kalamazoo-Battle Creek-Portage area (population 500,000).

All five of these outlets are still young — founded in 2017, 2016, 2019, 20182, and 2020, respectively. Consider them symbols of the newer, broader generation of local news organizations — and the greater promise they hold for systemic journalistic gain. Here’s more on the awards each of them won. (Disclosure: Nieman Lab’s Hanaa’ Tameez was a judge for the Business of the Year awards, small and large tiers.)

Enlace Latino NC: 3 awards

Public Service Award, Small Revenue Tier

Enlace Latino NC launched the El Jornalero newsletter, providing news, resources, services, and relevant data in Spanish concerning the rights, well-being, and health of agricultural workers.

From the judges: “This was a thoughtfully designed, hugely impactful initiative that put community at the center and leveraged smart partnerships, distribution strategies and business principles. Absolutely stellar.”

LION Business of the Year, Small Revenue Tier (co-winner)

Enlace Latino NC is North Carolina’s first nonprofit, Spanish-language digital news organization, empowering the diverse immigrant community to become more involved in political and social changes affecting them. Its commitment made it possible to grow exponentially in the last year despite being a small team with limited resources.

From the judges: “Enlace Latino NC makes every effort to hear and see its audience and cater to their information needs. They’ve made significant progress as a business while focusing on smart, intentional innovation toward serving a community that is not often served by mainstream media.”

Collaboration of the Year, Small Revenue Tier (with Southerly Magazine)

Enlace Latino NC’s collaboration with Southerly Magazine, covers the intersection of economic mobility and environmental issues in Latinx and immigrant communities, and the stories are published in both English and Spanish.

From the judges: “This partnership is an excellent example of how deep trust between collaborators and a shared desire to serve a community can result in real impact. Beyond its immediate impact, the collaboration also led an outlet to start practicing solutions journalism, which is a huge win.”

Montana Free Press: 3 awards

LION Business of the Year, Medium/Large Revenue Tier

Montana Free Press spent the past five years building its reporting and business teams, refining editorial products, and establishing trust with its audience. They focus on sustainable financial practices and support their talented staff through benefits such as an unlimited paid time off, sabbaticals and paid parental leave.

From the judges: “This is an organization built to last. The quality of their work in building an organization that will serve Montanans is on par with the best news organizations in the U.S. of any size. The entire LION community is better for their example.”

Product of the Year, Medium/Large Revenue Tier

Montana Free Press is recognized for its Election Guide ’22.

From the judges: “The Election Guide began with a clear mission and product goals, it played to MFP’s audience strategy of attracting top-of-the-funnel users through SEO, and it was able to successfully convert those new users into email signups. What an effort! This is a beautifully designed package with clear top-rate community value.”

General Excellence, Operational Resilience, Medium/Large Revenue Tier

Montana Free Press invested time and resources in its staff by focusing on job satisfaction and work-life balance, with policies like unlimited paid time off, paid parental leave, sabbaticals, and mandatory extended holidays.

From the judges: “Montana Free Press has shown an exceptionally sophisticated approach to holistic and resilient operations. Their approaches and processes keep key communications transparent and collaborative among staff, while also remaining responsive to the needs put forth by team members.”

Santa Cruz Local: 3 awards

LION Business of the Year, Small Revenue Tier (co-winner)

What sets Santa Cruz Local apart is its focus on building systems – to achieve sustainability, and to analyze feedback from hundreds of residents to understand their priorities and inform deeply-reported projects on local elections and on homelessness.

From the judges: “Santa Cruz Local has combined deep community engagement with data-driven iteration and maintained a commitment to journalistic excellence while maintaining and growing its operations. Santa Cruz Local is clearly in tune with and serving its communities.”

General Excellence, Operational Resilience, Small Revenue Tier

Santa Cruz Local’s newsroom boosted diversity and inclusion by retooling its recruitment, hiring and onboarding, and promoting staff mental health. Their “flexible time off” policy encourages staff to take as much time away from work as needed, plus five weeks of mandated paid time off.

From the judges: “Santa Cruz Local has thought hard about how to support their staff. They have a clear and specific vision of what employee wellbeing should look like, and it’s improving their ability to continue to serve their community. A good example of how a news organization can build in more operational resilience and strength as it grows.”

Outstanding Coverage Award, Small Revenue Tier

Santa Cruz Local’s reader-funded reporting series on the homelessness crisis in Santa Cruz County responded to local residents’ advocating for homelessness issues to be prioritized.

From the judges: “This is such a great example of how ‘community listening’ can lead to impactful journalism and drive change. I like the combination of surveys, different story formats, and how they approached a complex topic.”

Block Club Chicago: 2 awards

Outstanding Coverage Award, Medium/Large Revenue Tier

Block Club Chicago reported on widespread fraud and profiteering by local COVID-19 testing companies.

From the judges: “Very strong journalism that potentially led to law enforcement investigations and shutdowns of the problematic testing facilities. I appreciated the use of Google Forms to dive deeper into the topic – it shows how people-focused journalism can have an impact.”

Revenue Campaign of the Year, Medium/Large Revenue Tier

Block Club Chicago teamed with a local artist on a campaign offering new subscribers an art-print of their choice featuring hyperlocal neighborhood places. Block Club Chicago surpassed its goal of 400 new subscribers and signed 1,800 new subscribers in just two months.

From the judges: “Block Club Chicago has spent the last several years honing its merchandising strategy into a strong pillar of their revenue approach. This campaign shows what’s possible when an organization marries entrepreneurial business acumen with strongly developed community ties.”

Watershed Voice: 2 awards

Public Service Award, Micro Revenue Tier

Watershed Voice took an in-depth look into how a school-linked community adolescent health center is working to remove barriers between students and mental health services in Three Rivers, Michigan.

From the judges: “Watershed Voice took a solutions journalism approach to reporting on this series to provide their community with actionable steps to a critical issue. They also worked collaboratively to access the data they needed to add another layer of depth to their reporting.”

Outstanding Coverage Award, Micro Revenue Tier

On Mothers’ Day 2022, a group of 30 demonstrators stationed themselves outside of Riverside Church in Three Rivers to protest the church’s leadership amid recent allegations of sexual and spiritual abuse. In addition to its coverage of the protest, Watershed Voice published the church’s response to the allegations, and sat down with survivor Linda Shank and her mother Joni to tell her story.

From the judges: “The coverage and stories were riveting. Really powerful work shedding light on an incredibly important topic from a very personal lens.”

Illustration via Midjourney.

  1. I should note that Santa Cruz Local is not, technically, a nonprofit news organization. As they put it: “We established our company in February 2019 as a [for-profit] LLC because it was the quickest, cheapest and easiest way to get off the ground. We wanted a quick way to get legal and financial protection while we built an audience and developed our podcasts. The LLC model was the best fit for our launch. However, our ideals are similar to those of a nonprofit. We started this company because we wanted to contribute to the greater good, not because we wanted to maximize profit. Also, similar to a nonprofit, we rely on grants and member support.” ↩︎
  2. Though, to be fair, Block Club Chicago is a journalistic descendent of the older DNAinfo, founded 2012. ↩︎
POSTED     Oct. 31, 2022, 10:13 a.m.
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