Two years ago, when Matt DeRienzo was editor of the New Haven Register, he remembers being frustrated by a scrappy little site that dug up scoop after scoop at his expense.
The New Haven Independent, a nonprofit news organization just a few miles away, would regularly unearth stories that the Register missed, in part because DeRienzo and his staff were focused on the traditional staples of newspaper coverage: Suburbs, zoning board meetings, sports. Meanwhile, the Independent had a laser-like focus on the city.
"We were operating in this 200,000-square-foot building, and we had a newsroom that had almost 100 people in it," DeRienzo said. "And they had a few people in a room the size of the one that held our copier."
DeRienzo eventually left the Register voluntarily rather than preside over further cost-cutting by the newspaper's corporate parent, Digital First Media. But when he was looking for his next act, DeRienzo never forgot the Independent, and the role it played in the community.
Now, DeRienzo is executive director of Local Independent Online News Publishers, a nonprofit focused on the education and sustainability of local news organizations across the United States. The organization, which now has about 140 members nationwide, has been growing steadily over the years — at a rate of about 10 percent annually — in part because of the cutbacks to local news organizations, he said.
"I can't think of a segment of journalism that is growing faster," DeRienzo said. "But that's in response to the decline of legacy media, newsroom cuts, disconnection of community of those traditional newspapers and media organizations — broadcast too — as the industry consolidates and decision-making moves further away from communities."
LION Publishers, which is holding its annual conference from Sept. 29 to Oct. 1 in Chicago, is about to celebrate its fourth birthday. In anticipation of the conference, Poynter talked to DeRienzo about the growth in local independent media and the challenges publishers of scrappy websites face in an uncertain time for media.
Why do you think we're seeing a steady uptick in indie news sites?
Almost every week, we hear about a couple of new sites that are being launched by two main groups of people. One is veteran journalists who are out of a job — either involuntarily or voluntarily, because they don't like how things are done anymore. They see the direction things going and decide to launch sites in their own community to become entrepreneurs.
And second, you see sites being launched by non-journalists who care about their communities and recognize the entrepreneurial opportunities that comes with the decline of legacy publications and the need to fill the information gaps that have been left.
when someone starts a hyperlocal site, what's the mortality rate? Are these websites sticking around?
One thing we think the world needs to be at peace with is that when I say the growth is eclectic and messy and grassroots, that goes for lifespans as well.
So a two-person operation that's filling a key need as part of a local news ecosystem might not be around for 100 years like a newspaper used to be around. Maybe that's OK, though. Maybe it's around for five years or 10 years or three years and fulfills its purpose while it's there. And then it dies because that person moves on with their life.
But then something else springs up to replace it. And so that's one way of answering: There might be a natural lifespan to some of these things because of the nature of the world now.
The other answer is that it's a mix of things. You improve your chances of success by having some kind of business plan going in. And like any business, there's also local market factors. If you're in a place that has tons of advertising dollars and other economic factors going for you, you're going to be more successful at a local media business just like you would any local business in that community.
Can you give us a quick look at the business models for these sites? How are these sites making money at a time when there's so much pressure on digital advertising?
Even in my short time at LION, one of the changes I've noticed is people waking up to the importance of diverse revenue streams. There were a lot of people who insisted that 100 percent of their revenue was going to be from advertising. Even those people are softening on that.
One big area is native advertising and sponsored content. That's probably one of the highest growth areas for our members right now. Other people are getting into the events business, but that's a really challenging sphere. There's a lot of work that goes into that and finding what's going to be a success in your community.
At your annual conferences, what's the prevailing mood? Are these publishers optimistic? Are they all huddling together for warmth?
The nature of these sites is that you're constantly on your own. So LION tries to give members other people that are in their exact same situations. We talk all year round on Facebook. But this is a way for us to gather in the same room for an intense sharing of ideas.
It's really specific: This is what I did first, this is what I did second, avoid this. There's a good percentage of that, and there's percentage of sitting around in the room bitching to each other about their frustrations.
This growth in independent publishers is encouraging, but can it really compensate for all the hard-hitting work that local news organizations did at the height of their powers? I worry that these small sites don't have the editorial muscle to throw four reporters at a story for a deep investigation.
There are two things a local indie publisher doesn't have that legacy publishers do. Number one is revenue capabilities: expertise in revenue and sales training and manpower. And really far down after that is business-side and human resources stuff.
But in terms of not being able to throw big resources at an investigation, I would differ with that. The flip side is that these legacy publications are so wedded to everything they've always done, and they're doing it with 50 percent, or even less, of the newsroom resources than they had.
So we see a lot of legacy publications doing the formulaic press conference stuff — whereas the indie publishers have never felt an obligation to do everything, because they couldn't. What they are doing, in many cases, is more enterprising, more investigative stuff. They step off the hamster wheel and get to what's really at the heart of community. It's like Jim Brady says — we never want to be the sixth person at a press conference, and we never will be.
What determines whether a local online publisher will be successful?
The ones that persist are the ones that — before it's too late — understand that they need to focus a ton on the business side. That can involve changing their mindset, if they have a background as a journalist, or bringing on partners who have more of that expertise.
Those are the ones who persist. The ones who fail are the ones who just think they can do a great job covering local journalism and the money will just flow into them somehow. Or even that the audience will flow to them.
As we know, that's not going to happen automatically. You really need to be intentional about the revenue side. And, lastly, there's others who stop because this is a unique calling. It's involved. It's tough. It's a strain on your life.
If you want to change your life and get out of it, your site's going to shut down if it's just you.
The questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.