3 takeaways from the inaugural Independent News Sustainability Summit

Why we’re still buzzing after our three days together in Austin.

November 3, 2022 by Ben DeJarnette

Collage of photos from the 2022 Independent News Sustainability Summit in Austin
Photos by Azul Sordo, Callie Richmond, Eddie Gaspar, Evan L’Roy, and Sarah Bork Hamilton

There were mic-drop moments, standing-room-only sessions, tears of joy, and a whole lot of gratitude for the community that’s grown around independent local news – and excitement for its future. 

The Independent News Sustainability Summit brought 500 independent news leaders and supporters together in Austin, Texas, for three days of conversations and connections focused on building more sustainable independent news businesses. The group of attendees represented:

  • Nearly 200 LION members from nearly a third of our membership 
  • Dozens of funders, people who work for journalism-support organizations, and vendors who sell products/services to independent news businesses
  • Attendees from 48 states and four Canadian provinces 
  • More than 100 people who received a total of $56,000 in travel scholarships to help them attend 

The event was hosted by LION Publishers, News Revenue Hub and RevLab at The Texas Tribune, with support from presenting sponsor Knight Foundation, and from The Lenfest Institute and Google News Initiative

Here are a few takeaways from an inspiring, rewarding three days in Austin:

1. LION members are making an impression at the highest ranks of the journalism industry.

As a career journalist who spent more than four decades in newsrooms, including eight years as executive editor of The New York Times, Dean Baquet has seen a lot of trends come and go in our industry. 

So when he talks about his excitement for the future of local news and name drops a LION member, New York Focus, it’s more than high praise. 

It’s a sign that our little corner of the news industry is moving toward the limelight, alongside a growing recognition that the future of local news will be built by civic-minded founders, not cost-cutting corporate brass. 

As Baquet put it: “I’m actually bullish [about the future of news]. I’m a realist, I understand the economics of the news business, and I get all the forces that are pushing against us. But I also see people getting into the news business in ways they couldn’t have before.” 

He added, “I had coffee with three editors at New York Focus… they do great stuff, and you could not have had a small group of people start a news operation with that kind of focus when I started in journalism. So I’m bullish.” 

2. The independent news movement is growing, with more representation of those who have been historically underrepresented.

If anyone needed a reminder about how much growth we’ve seen in independent local news, the LION Local Journalism Awards delivered in spades. 

As Joshua Benton wrote for Nieman Lab, the list of winners wasn’t dominated by a small group of unicorn organizations that felt like exceptions to the rule.  

Instead, they came from all corners of North America, from small towns and big cities, from for-profit and nonprofit newsrooms – and all of them with success stories that feel replicable, even if deeply challenging.  

The award honorees also reflected the growing racial diversity within independent news, and at events like this one.

In a post about winning a LION Award, Mississippi Free Press publisher Kimberly Griffin wrote, “We don’t represent every community in Mississippi, but we darn well try daily and will continue to get better at it. That’s frightening for people in power because our existence challenges the media and leadership status quo, how news is done and what communities are served.”

Magnolia Reporter publisher Mike McNeill also wrote about his observations from the conference. “I think of all the newspaper conferences I went to, and as much as I liked all those people, they all looked like me,” he said at the Summit’s closing session. “But this group looks like America.” 

3. The human side of running a small business is getting more focus.

A year ago, we shared a framework for news business sustainability that centered around financial health, journalistic impact, and what we call “operational resilience” – in other words, the health of the people doing the work and the likelihood they’ll be able to keep it up. 

That third pillar often gets overlooked in our industry, but we saw at the Summit how important and urgent it feels for many of our members. 

“We are not managing products and tasks,” Outlier Media executive director Candice Fortman said in a session on combating burnout. “We are managing human beings having human experiences.” 

In a keynote conversation, The Markup editor-in-chief Sisi Wei and Charlottesville Tomorrow editor-in-chief Angilee Shah discussed what they are unlearning or shedding from their legacy newsroom experiences, including the idea “that you can’t rest when you need it.” 

In another session, Montana Free Press executive director John Adams said hiring is one of the most important roles of a CEO, and he shared a personal measure of success – the fact that his employees are able to do things like buy a home and not rely on side gigs to financially survive.

We’ll have more to share from the Summit next week, including session slide decks and keynote videos. 

In the meantime, we’d love your feedback. Please complete this short survey if you attended the Summit, or reply to this email if you weren’t able to attend but have thoughts or ideas to share for our next in-person event. 

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