The independent news industry gets a roadmap to sustainability

“How a news business compares to others matters much less than how successfully it meets its own goals.”

How does an independent news business become sustainable? In a textbook case study, it might launch with some modest funding and a minimum viable product, simultaneously growing audience, products. and revenue over a few short years in a steady upward climb toward impact and prosperity.

Here, I’ll pause for anyone who’s ever run a news business to stop laugh-crying.

It’s tempting to think that the growth path for an independent news organization is consistent and linear. But after analyzing nearly 150 organizations over the last two years through LION Publishers’ Sustainability Audit process, we’ve seen this kind of “if/then” thinking doesn’t apply to the relative Wild West that is the independent news landscape. In this equal-parts-challenging-and-promising ecosystem, traditional markers of growth like age, budget, and size don’t directly correlate to sustainability, which we define as the union of financial health, operational resilience and journalistic impact.

Here, the individual (dare we say, “unique”) nature of each organization requires a more flexible maturity model — one that makes space for crucial differences in how they launched, the circumstances under which they’re growing and what they’re aiming to achieve.

That’s why we’ve developed a new maturity model to capture a news business’s potential growth path. Our hypothesis is that independent news organizations progress to sustainability through a set of stages that they navigate at their own pace, within their own context and with their own goals in mind.

This model accommodates the fact that a publication could be in the “maintaining” stage for decades — or a few months. It could be “building” with a 20-person staff, or “poised for growth” with a team of two. A news business might skip the “Scaling” stage because it has reached sustainability without significantly expanding, or it might fall back to “Maintaining” as it rightsizes after a period of growth. At the heart of our hypothesis is this: How a news business compares to others matters much less than how successfully it meets its own goals.

The Stages of Sustainability are:

  • Ideation: Developing a concept for a news business.
  • Preparation: Beginning to implement a minimum viable product.
  • Building: Iterating products based on audience and market research while building a foundation for the supporting revenue and operations.
  • Maintaining: Increasing journalistic impact and audience growth while still seeking operational and financial stability.
  • Poised for growth: Preparing for a growth catalyst while products, revenue, and operations are stable.
  • Growing: Steadily and simultaneously growing revenue, audience, and operations.
  • Scaling: Building a considerably more robust operational structure to support significant new revenue streams, audiences or products.
  • Sustaining: Achieving significant journalistic impact with mature products supported by a strong operational foundation and multiple stable revenue streams.

Though we’re still in the process of testing this hypothesis, we’ve already seen some compelling evidence that growth does not equate with sustainability. Consider the 38% of news businesses who self-identified as being in the “maintaining” stage:

  • Nearly half have launched since 2020 but the rest vary greatly in age, with founding dates in nearly every decade since the ’70s.
  • They ranged in staff size from no full-timers to 12 employees
  • Their gross annual revenue varied from $4,000 to $1.2 million
  • More than half launched with less than $10,000 in funding, while some launched with up to $300,000.

We’re kicking off 2023 by crunching the data gathered from the Sustainability Audits we’ve conducted over the past two years, and will conduct an additional 300 over the next three years. By testing and iterating on our model and more deeply incorporating it into our offerings, we predict that independent news businesses will finally have a clear roadmap for where they’ve been, where they are, and where they want to go.

Lisa Heyamoto is the programming director of membership education for LION Publishers.

How does an independent news business become sustainable? In a textbook case study, it might launch with some modest funding and a minimum viable product, simultaneously growing audience, products. and revenue over a few short years in a steady upward climb toward impact and prosperity.

Here, I’ll pause for anyone who’s ever run a news business to stop laugh-crying.

It’s tempting to think that the growth path for an independent news organization is consistent and linear. But after analyzing nearly 150 organizations over the last two years through LION Publishers’ Sustainability Audit process, we’ve seen this kind of “if/then” thinking doesn’t apply to the relative Wild West that is the independent news landscape. In this equal-parts-challenging-and-promising ecosystem, traditional markers of growth like age, budget, and size don’t directly correlate to sustainability, which we define as the union of financial health, operational resilience and journalistic impact.

Here, the individual (dare we say, “unique”) nature of each organization requires a more flexible maturity model — one that makes space for crucial differences in how they launched, the circumstances under which they’re growing and what they’re aiming to achieve.

That’s why we’ve developed a new maturity model to capture a news business’s potential growth path. Our hypothesis is that independent news organizations progress to sustainability through a set of stages that they navigate at their own pace, within their own context and with their own goals in mind.

This model accommodates the fact that a publication could be in the “maintaining” stage for decades — or a few months. It could be “building” with a 20-person staff, or “poised for growth” with a team of two. A news business might skip the “Scaling” stage because it has reached sustainability without significantly expanding, or it might fall back to “Maintaining” as it rightsizes after a period of growth. At the heart of our hypothesis is this: How a news business compares to others matters much less than how successfully it meets its own goals.

The Stages of Sustainability are:

  • Ideation: Developing a concept for a news business.
  • Preparation: Beginning to implement a minimum viable product.
  • Building: Iterating products based on audience and market research while building a foundation for the supporting revenue and operations.
  • Maintaining: Increasing journalistic impact and audience growth while still seeking operational and financial stability.
  • Poised for growth: Preparing for a growth catalyst while products, revenue, and operations are stable.
  • Growing: Steadily and simultaneously growing revenue, audience, and operations.
  • Scaling: Building a considerably more robust operational structure to support significant new revenue streams, audiences or products.
  • Sustaining: Achieving significant journalistic impact with mature products supported by a strong operational foundation and multiple stable revenue streams.

Though we’re still in the process of testing this hypothesis, we’ve already seen some compelling evidence that growth does not equate with sustainability. Consider the 38% of news businesses who self-identified as being in the “maintaining” stage:

  • Nearly half have launched since 2020 but the rest vary greatly in age, with founding dates in nearly every decade since the ’70s.
  • They ranged in staff size from no full-timers to 12 employees
  • Their gross annual revenue varied from $4,000 to $1.2 million
  • More than half launched with less than $10,000 in funding, while some launched with up to $300,000.

We’re kicking off 2023 by crunching the data gathered from the Sustainability Audits we’ve conducted over the past two years, and will conduct an additional 300 over the next three years. By testing and iterating on our model and more deeply incorporating it into our offerings, we predict that independent news businesses will finally have a clear roadmap for where they’ve been, where they are, and where they want to go.

Lisa Heyamoto is the programming director of membership education for LION Publishers.

A.J. Bauer   Covering the right wrong

Sarah Marshall   A web channel strategy won’t be enough

Upasna Gautam   Technology that performs at the speed of news

Laura E. Davis   The year we embrace the robots — and ourselves

Ryan Kellett   Airline-like loyalty programs try to tie down news readers

Ståle Grut   Your newsroom experiences a Midjourney-gate, too

Hillary Frey   Death to the labor-intensive memo for prospective hires

Sam Gregory   Synthetic media forces us to understand how media gets made

Gordon Crovitz   The year advertisers stop funding misinformation

Jessica Maddox   Journalists keep getting manipulated by internet culture

Jessica Clark   Open discourse retrenches

Anita Varma   Journalism prioritizes the basic need for survival

Rachel Glickhouse   Humanizing newsrooms will be a badge of honor

Ayala Panievsky   It’s time for PR for journalism

Peter Sterne   AI enters the newsroom

Jody Brannon   We’ll embrace policy remedies

Alexandra Svokos   Working harder to reach audiences where they are

Mauricio Cabrera   It’s no longer about audiences, it’s about communities

Peter Bale   Rising costs force more digital innovation

Dominic-Madori Davis   Everyone finally realizes the need for diverse voices in tech reporting

Masuma Ahuja   Journalism starts working for and with its communities

Joni Deutsch   Podcast collaboration — not competition — breeds excellence

Christina Shih   Shared values move from nice-to-haves to essentials

Al Lucca   Digital news design gets interesting again

Cindy Royal   Yes, journalists should learn to code, but…

Molly de Aguiar and Mandy Van Deven   Narrative change trend brings new money to journalism

J. Siguru Wahutu   American journalism reckons with its colonialist tendencies

Victor Pickard   The year journalism and capitalism finally divorce

Doris Truong   Workers demand to be paid what the job is worth

Janelle Salanga   Journalists work from a place of harm reduction

Mael Vallejo   More threats to press freedom across the Americas

Laxmi Parthasarathy   Unlocking the silent demand for international journalism

AX Mina   Journalism in a time of permacrisis

S. Mitra Kalita   “Everything sucks. Good luck to you.”

Shanté Cosme   The answer to “quiet quitting” is radical empathy

Tim Carmody   Newsletter writers need a new ethics

Megan Lucero and Shirish Kulkarni   The future of journalism is not you

Tamar Charney   Flux is the new stability

Cory Bergman   The AI content flood

Dana Lacey   Tech will screw publishers over

Cassandra Etienne   Local news fellowships will help fight newsroom inequities

Brian Stelter   Finding new ways to reach news avoiders

Gabe Schneider   Well-funded journalism leaders stop making disparate pay

Jakob Moll   Journalism startups will think beyond English

Elizabeth Bramson-Boudreau   More of the same

Jaden Amos   TikTok personality journalists continue to rise

Michael Schudson   Journalism gets more and more difficult

Sumi Aggarwal   Smart newsrooms will prioritize board development

Sarah Stonbely   Growth in public funding for news and information at the state and local levels

Alexandra Borchardt   The year of the climate journalism strategy

Simon Galperin   Philanthropy stops investing in corporate media

Don Day   The news about the news is bad. I’m optimistic.

Alex Sujong Laughlin   Credit where it’s due

Amy Schmitz Weiss   Journalism education faces a crossroads

Jacob L. Nelson   Despite it all, people will still want to be journalists

Martina Efeyini   Talk to Gen Z. They’re the experts of Gen Z.

Gina Chua   The traditional story structure gets deconstructed

Raney Aronson-Rath   Journalists will band together to fight intimidation

Eric Holthaus   As social media fragments, marginalized voices gain more power

Janet Haven   ChatGPT and the future of trust 

Kirstin McCudden   We’ll codify protection of journalism and newsgathering

Nicholas Thompson   The year AI actually changes the media business

Josh Schwartz   The AI spammers are coming

Taylor Lorenz   The “creator economy” will be astroturfed

Julia Beizer   News fatigue shows us a clear path forward

Cari Nazeer and Emily Goligoski   News organizations step up their support for caregivers

Mary Walter-Brown and Tristan Loper   Mission-driven metrics become our North Star

Nikki Usher   This is the year of the RSS reader. (Really!)

Danielle K. Brown and Kathleen Searles   DEI efforts must consider mental health and online abuse

Anthony Nadler   Confronting media gerrymandering

Sue Robinson   Engagement journalism will have to confront a tougher reality

Christoph Mergerson   The rot at the core of the news business

Ariel Zirulnick   Journalism doubles down on user needs

Eric Thurm   Journalists think of themselves as workers

Kathy Lu   We need emotionally agile newsroom leaders

Eric Nuzum   A focus on people instead of power

Valérie Bélair-Gagnon   Well-being will become a core tenet of journalism

Johannes Klingebiel   The innovation team, R.I.P.

Errin Haines   Journalists on the campaign trail mend trust with the public

Andrew Donohue   We’ll find out whether journalism can, indeed, save democracy

Susan Chira   Equipping local journalism

Anika Anand   Independent news businesses lead the way on healthy work cultures

Jennifer Choi and Jonathan Jackson   Funders finally bet on next-generation news entrepreneurs

Julia Angwin   Democracies will get serious about saving journalism

Daniel Trielli   Trust in news will continue to fall. Just look at Brazil.

Nicholas Diakopoulos   Journalists productively harness generative AI tools

Sue Cross   Thinking and acting collectively to save the news

Jesse Holcomb   Buffeted, whipped, bullied, pulled

Alan Henry   A reckoning with why trust in news is so low

Bill Adair   The year of the fact-check (no, really!)

Walter Frick   Journalists wake up to the power of prediction markets

Eric Ulken   Generative AI brings wrongness at scale

Kaitlyn Wells   We’ll prioritize media literacy for children

Richard Tofel   The press might get better at vetting presidential candidates

Emily Nonko   Incarcerated reporters get more bylines

Ryan Gantz   “I’m sorry, but I’m a large language model”

Moreno Cruz Osório   Brazilian journalism turns wounds into action

Barbara Raab   More journalism funders will take more risks

Wilson Liévano   Diaspora journalism takes the next step

Kaitlin C. Miller   Harassment in journalism won’t get better, but we’ll talk about it more openly

Felicitas Carrique and Becca Aaronson   News product goes from trend to standard

Karina Montoya   More reporters on the antitrust beat

Elite Truong   In platform collapse, an opportunity for community

Pia Frey   Publishers start polling their users at scale

Leezel Tanglao   Community partnerships drive better reporting

Jennifer Brandel   AI couldn’t care less. Journalists will care more. 

Mar Cabra   The inevitable mental health revolution

Stefanie Murray   The year U.S. media stops screwing around and becomes pro-democracy

Amethyst J. Davis   The slight of the great contraction

Jarrad Henderson   Video editing will help people understand the media they consume

Michael W. Wagner   The backlash against pro-democracy reporting is coming

Francesco Zaffarano   There is no end of “social media”

Ben Werdmuller   The internet is up for grabs again

Sarabeth Berman   Nonprofit local news shows that it can scale

Jonas Kaiser   Rejecting the “free speech” frame

Joshua P. Darr   Local to live, wire to wither

Ryan Nave   Citizen journalism, but make it equitable

Bill Grueskin   Local news will come to rely on AI

Kerri Hoffman   Podcasting goes local

John Davidow   A year of intergenerational learning

Mario García   More newsrooms go mobile-first

David Cohn   AI made this prediction

David Skok   Renewed interest in human-powered reporting

Zizi Papacharissi   Platforms are over

Alex Perry   New paths to transparency without Twitter

Lisa Heyamoto   The independent news industry gets a roadmap to sustainability

Priyanjana Bengani   Partisan local news networks will collaborate

Sue Schardt   Toward a new poetics of journalism

Mariana Moura Santos   A woman who speaks is a woman who changes the world

Jenna Weiss-Berman   The economic downturn benefits the podcasting industry. (No, really!)

Esther Kezia Thorpe   Subscription pressures force product innovation

Delano Massey   The industry shakes its imposter syndrome

Parker Molloy   We’ll reach new heights of moral panic

Larry Ryckman   We’ll work together with our competitors

Rodney Gibbs   Recalibrating how we work apart

Sarah Alvarez   Dream bigger or lose out

Basile Simon   Towards supporting criminal accountability

Nicholas Jackson   There will be launches — and we’ll keep doing the work

Sam Guzik   AI will start fact-checking. We may not like the results.

Burt Herman   The year AI truly arrives — and with it the reckoning

Joe Amditis   AI throws a lifeline to local publishers

Juleyka Lantigua   Newsrooms recognize women of color as the canaries in the coal mine

Brian Moritz   Rebuilding the news bundle

Andrew Losowsky   Journalism realizes the replacement for Twitter is not a new Twitter

Kavya Sukumar   Belling the cat: The rise of independent fact-checking at scale

Snigdha Sur   Newsrooms get nimble in a recession

Jim VandeHei   There is no “peak newsletter”

Matt Rasnic   More newsroom workers turn to organized labor

Dannagal G. Young   Stop rewarding elite performances of identity threat

Tre'vell Anderson   Continued culpability in anti-trans campaigns

Emma Carew Grovum   The year to resist forgetting about diversity

Joanne McNeil   Facebook and the media kiss and make up

Paul Cheung   More news organizations will realize they are in the business of impact, not eyeballs

Khushbu Shah   Global reporting will suffer

Surya Mattu   Data journalists learn from photojournalists

Jim Friedlich   Local journalism steps up to the challenge of civic coverage

Anna Nirmala   News organizations get new structures