4 lessons on news business sustainability from the GNI Startups Program

Lesson #1: It's not all about dollars and cents.

November 10, 2021 by Ben DeJarnette

Startups Program graphic
Image by Megan Rexazin from Pixabay

This Q&A is sponsored by the Google News Initiative, in recognition of LION’s Local Journalism Awards and the continued dedication and excellence of LION members across North America. 

The GNI Startups Playbook. The GNI Startups Boot Camp. The GNI Startups Lab. The GNI Startups Workshop

If you followed LION’s work at all this year, you already know how much we teamed up with the Google News Initiative on efforts to help independent founders build, launch, and grow sustainable local news businesses.  

To share just a few highlights from the last 12 months:

Collectively, the goal of the GNI Startups Program is to help early-stage journalism entrepreneurs in their bid to launch and scale independent news businesses, and LION is proud to partner with GNI to advance that mission in the U.S. and Canada, where we serve nearly 400 member organizations.

So what are we learning about news business sustainability along the way? Here are a few highlights courtesy of GNI Startups Program lead Conor Crowley:

Sustainability is a big buzzword in local news these days. What have you learned through the GNI Startups Program about what it really means? 

That it is challenging, and ongoing. Sustainability is not something you achieve one time. True sustainability requires an ongoing commitment to diversifying and strengthening recurring revenue streams.

We’ve also learned that there are many facets to sustainability, and it’s not just about dollars and cents. Operational and personal considerations have to come into play, too. For example, if an emerging news business is making six figures by Year 2, that’s well and good, but if doing so is requiring a founder and their staff to work 90 hours per week… is that really going to be sustainable in the long run?

Putting aside the fate of “newspapers,” what makes you optimistic about the future of digital news, and about new and emerging digital news organizations, in particular?

It has never been more accessible or affordable to launch a news product. Compared with even a few short years ago, journalism entrepreneurs have a lot of choice when it comes to the medium for their message. 

In fact, many of the aspiring publishers we work with complain of “decision paralysis” when it comes to choosing their tech stack, with such an array of options out there. The GNI listens very carefully to publisher sentiment on this topic, and through our partnerships with Newspack, the Tiny News Collective, News Revenue Hub and others, we hope to play our part in building great tools for the digital newsrooms of tomorrow.

Now that our first Boot Camp cohort is coming up on its one-year anniversary, what do you think aspiring news founders can learn from that group of founders’ successes (and stumbles) so far? 

An early focus on revenue is really important. To give themselves the best shot at long-term success, it’s critical that news entrepreneurs match their editorial ambition with close attention to how they will consistently monetize their offering.

In Project Oasis we found that, at a certain point in a digital news organization’s development, adding additional editorial capacity can be associated with diminishing returns in terms of business outlook – while making a specialist business development hire can have a transformative effect. 

Even in organizations of 10+ people, however, it’s common for the founder to be the only member with even a part-time focus on generating revenue. We know that stepping back from editorial responsibilities can be tough for founders to do, which is why our programs put a big emphasis on cultivating the “CEO mindset.” If the founder wants to stick with editorial, then that’s okay, but they must take care to put in place the business development talent to help on the monetization side.

As challenging as it can be to get something off the ground, it’s arguably even harder to make the leap from promising startup to mature news business. What did you learn from the GNI Startups Lab about what it takes to overcome those early growing pains?

Getting ahead of potential cash flow issues is the first objective that startups should have in mind. What also sets the most successful news businesses apart is how well they engage with and listen to their audience. Great reporting will always be foundational to building loyalty with your audience, and that reporting should be heavily informed by a deep understanding of what content your audience values most.

This Q&A is sponsored by the Google News Initiative, in recognition of LION’s Local Journalism Awards and the continued dedication and excellence of LION members across North America. 

To learn more about the GNI Startups Program, you can reach out to Conor directly at [email protected].

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