When Matt DeRienzo started working with Local Independent Online News Publishers two years ago, he thought the local news business had hit the bottom of cuts and layoffs.
He was wrong.
Cuts have continued at newsrooms around the country, leaving fewer journalists covering local news. Meanwhile, LION, an organization created to connect local independent online news outfits with each other, now has almost 150 members in 37 states and Canada — up from 100 in 2015.
DeRienzo and LION couldn’t have stopped the cuts, which were caused by a combination of corporate consolidation, declining print revenue and the dominance of companies such as Google and Facebook. But they have tried to fill in the gaps. At the end of last year, LION announced a $200,000 grant from the Knight Foundation to increase training, support and hire a full-time executive director. (Full disclosure: Knight is also funding my position covering innovation in local news for Poynter.)
This week, LION named DeRienzo its first full-time executive director. Since he's been with the organization, DeRienzo has seen a lot of different business models and approaches as people look to reinvent local news.
"The more challenging — but essential — mission, and reason for LION’s founding, is helping established publishers achieve sustainability," he said. "Again, a lot of this work involves helping publishers connect with each other to share best practices and talk through the biggest obstacles they face. But also speaking up for and being at the table to represent the unique needs of local independent online news publishers when it comes to technology, distribution platforms, potential funders and government."
DeRienzo spoke with Poynter via email about what's changed since he left, what trends we should all be paying attention to and what a sustainable business model for his members might look like.
When you talk with non-journalists, how do you describe what LION is?
I was just explaining what LION does to a non-journalist, in fact, telling them about my new role. And they said, “Oh, it’s like how craft beer exploded in popularity and became far more important than Budweiser or Coors — small enough to focus on quality and be unique to each region. Seems, especially with Trump, that our country is eager for that.”
So that may not be the perfect analogy, but the gist of it is that deep cuts have been made to traditional local journalism. Gannett, Gatehouse, Tronc — they’re not going to restore those reporting and editing positions. The solution is going to come from individual communities supporting entrepreneurs who step up to meet the need. And the approach will be as different as communities are different.
What's changed for local entrepreneurs since you first started working with LION?
When I first got involved, fresh off a regional editor job at Digital First Media in Connecticut in which I had to eliminate half of my newsroom in one year, I thought that we’d reached the near-bottom, at least, of legacy media cuts.
But over the past two years, layoffs, buyouts and attrition at newspapers across the country have been constant. And the consolidation of the industry — with Gannett and Gatehouse, in particular, buying up smaller chains and family-owned papers — has been rapid. This has accelerated the need for and growth of independent local news startups.
Two other big changes have been: a consensus developing around the realization that supporting a local news site on traditional advertising alone is extremely difficult, if not impossible; and an emerging willingness by readers to support local news sites — both nonprofit and for-profit — through things such as paid membership programs, crowdfunding campaigns or annual giving.
Getting back to that point about communities taking responsibility for their own information needs and stepping up to fill the gaps in local journalism, we’ve also seen a growing recognition by local community foundations of the altruistic and essential-to-community mission of most of these sites.
What trends are you seeing that the rest of us should be paying attention to?
Well, one is just that we are hearing every week from publishers of new local news sites launching across the country. We see this only accelerating as legacy media cuts continue, and, hopefully, we experience a resurgence of local civic engagement due to the turmoil we find ourselves in after November’s election.
Also, the loyalty and support experienced by local news sites who treat their readers as full partners at every step in the process of local journalism. That’s how you end up with a for-profit site such as Berkeleyside in California having a significant portion of its revenue come from voluntary paid memberships, to start, and then be in a position to attempt a pioneering crowd-investment structure for their organization.
I feel like there's still a desire to find this one-size-fits all business model, but that's not going to be the thing that makes newsrooms healthy again. What are you seeing among LION's members?
I might sound like a broken record on this, but I’m not sure people who see things through the lens of a traditional dominant-local newspaper world understand it, or, more to the point, are comfortable with it.
A remarkably eclectic and diverse local news ecosystem is emerging that might not look anything like our traditional idea of success in the media business. In a given community, that could include a shrunk-down version of a local newspaper and traditional broadcast media, local independent online news sites that might be nonprofit or for-profit, generalist or niche.
It could include nonprofit organizations or activists doing acts of journalism even if journalism is not their main or only mission. It could include a local library thinking about information needs in a broader-than-traditional sense. It could include efforts to livestream and video archive local government meetings so that they are accessible to the citizenry. It could be a robust effort to get local government to comply with the Freedom of Information Act, or put more data and documents than ever online.
And unlike the newspaper that’s around for 150 years, some of these things might have a lifespan of only a few years and go away, only to be replaced by something else.
That ecosystem is healthier in some communities than others, for sure, and that’s why LION exists. But collectively, these things can end up being stronger than one dominant newspaper ever used to be, and far more inclusive of communities and people who were never truly represented by legacy media.
That’s a long way of saying that the right formula for a local independent online news site might be tackling a niche topic or collection of topics and not trying to be everything that a traditional newspaper was. And often they (would like, but) don’t feel the need to return a 30 percent profit or work with investors. They just want to make a liveable wage doing the work that they are passionate about and serving the journalism needs of their community in the process.
Business models and approaches are as different as communities are different. The common thread among those who are successful is a deep connection to those communities.