This weekend, as the Investigative Reporters and Editors’ annual conference wraps up in Philadelphia, another will just be starting. On June 6 and 7, members of the Local Independent Online News Publishers will gather for a conference to talk about “local news startup success, legal guide & revenue ideas,” according to the site. Via email, I spoke with LION’s Interim Executive Director Matt DeRienzo about the group, its growth and its future. I’ll update Monday with some of DeRienzo’s takeaways from the weekend.
KH: Tell me about LION. How did it start and who are your members?
MD: LION launched in the fall of 2012 after a more informal network of local independent online publishers began discussing mutual concerns at Michele McLellan’s Block by Block Community News Summit in Chicago in 2011 and through a closed Facebook group, which lives on as the “LION’s Den.” We have members from about 115 different independent local news sites in 31 different U.S. states and the District of Columbia. They represent both for-profit and nonprofit business models. Some are supported primarily by advertising. Some have membership models. Some get foundation funding. Many are turning to as diverse a mix of revenue as possible to be sustainable. And they range from community news sites covering a single suburban community or a city neighborhood, to a county or region, to big-city news operations such as Billy Penn in Philadelphia and The Lens in New Orleans, to statewide investigative news or topical sites. Some are one- or two-person operations, and others have fairly significant budgets and staffing.
KH: I saw LION has recently added 13 new publishers. Do you see local independent publishing growing?
MD: It’s probably one of the fastest growing areas of journalism in the country – certainly when it comes to local news. We hear from new people planning independent local news startups on a weekly basis. The massive upheaval and consolidation of ownership in the newspaper industry is contributing to this in a number of ways. Laid-off journalists are going into business for themselves, and others are leaving their legacy media jobs out of disillusionment with lack of corporate commitment to the communities they serve and to good journalism. At the same time, the newspaper industry’s woes have left many gaps in local news and information, and there are opportunities for entrepreneurs. And newspapers’ problems extend to the advertising side as well, so local businesses in many markets are clamoring for more effective alternatives that provide better customer service.
KH: What can local independent publishers do that legacy media orgs can’t?
MD: Local, independent publishers live in and are connected to the community in a way that legacy media organizations increasingly are not. If success in a digital age is about community engagement and relationships, the advantage of independent publishers is tremendous. And this should be obvious, but to get to a point of long-term sustainability in the local news business, it has to be your goal in the first place. Too many large, legacy media organizations are very clearly putting the maintenance of short-term profits over the kind of investments in a community and in digital that would ensure they’ll be around for more than a few additional years.
KH: What challenges are these places facing that are the same as legacy organizations, and what are some challenges that are unique to LION members?
MD: Well, both are trying to figure out a revenue picture clouded by the rise of programmatic advertising and a drop in digital CPM rates, the rapid shift of audience to mobile (with revenue sure to follow), and uneasy decisions about competing and/or cooperating with platform giants such as Facebook. Unique challenges for LION members include lack of sales training resources and HR and legal assistance built into their organization, and for journalists, not having as big a newsroom to rely upon. These challenges are why LION exists – the formalization of a network in which these independents are solving these issues by talking to and helping each other.
KH: You’ve worked at a number of places, including most recently Digital First Media. From a journalist’s perspective, how is working in independent local different?
MD: I worked at different times as both an editor and a publisher at Digital First, and I think the experience of going from journalist to a business side manager is probably the most relevant to helping some independent local news publishers who are running a business for the first time. From a journalist’s perspective, independent news operations are more likely to be free of the profit margin pressures of legacy media. And especially as a start-up, there is also freedom to look at the news coverage needs of a community from a blank slate – choosing to do the things that will have the greatest impact instead of working from some kind of obligation to maintain what a newsroom has always done.
KH: Tell me more about this weekend’s conference.
MD: We’ve got some great speakers – including Jan Schaffer of J-Lab talking about legal issues facing online news sites, Jim Brady talking about his Billy Penn startup in Philadelphia, Technical.ly Philly co-founder Brian James Kirk, Jesse Holcomb of Pew Research and Keith Hammonds of Solutions Journalism Network. But the biggest benefit of a gathering like this – and the heart of why local publishers find LION to be such a resource – will be the panels and informal discussions with other members exchanging ideas and concerns on growing revenue, running a business, expanding audience.