4 Reasons Why This is Independent Media’s Moment

It’s been a tough year for local news organizations, from the 11,000+ layoffs to the talk of a local media “apocalypse.” But

October 21, 2020 by Ben DeJarnette

It’s been a tough year for local news organizations, from the 11,000+ layoffs to the talk of a local media “apocalypse.”

But it’s not all bad news. Not by a long shot.

As we get ready for the 2020 LION Awards (p.s. there’s still time to join us!), here are 4 reasons why we think our members will lead local media out of the darkness — plus one reason why it’s a great time to join them.

1. The decline of legacy media is creating new opportunities

It’s painful to watch what hedge funds and private equity firms are doing to vital local newspapers — but if there’s a silver lining to Wall Street’s bleed-’em-dry strategy, it’s the fact that “news deserts” are actually the perfect place to start something new.

Sure, these communities might never sustain another corporate media chain with daily print runs, 50-person ad sales teams, and a constant mandate to pad the pockets of out-of-town investors.

But they can still sustain meaningful digital news outlets, which is why we’re already seeing startups like The OaklandsideThe Daily Memphian and Santa Cruz Local rise from the ashes of defunct or depleted newspapers — and why we’ll likely see many more.

2. The pandemic is reminding people of the value that only local news can deliver, and they want to support it

Local media has saved lives and helped spur important conversations this year.

The digital media startup Documented, for example, used the messaging tool WhatsApp to help undocumented immigrants find food and funds in New York City, and The Nevada Independent excelled at putting the state’s coronavirus numbers in context with thoughtful weekly updates.

So while the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic has been a disaster for many advertising-driven news organizations, that’s been less true for digital news startups with robust reader revenue.

From Europe to Canada to the United States, digital news publishers have seen a surge in revenue from memberships and donations in 2020, giving extra momentum to the reader revenue movement that the Membership Puzzle Project, the GNI Reader Revenue Playbook, and other initiatives helped spark.

3. Technology is (finally) leveling the playing field

Emerging tech platforms are changing the economics of local news, and small, independent digital publishers are poised to be the biggest winners.

On the cost side, companies like Ghost and Substack have made it virtually free to launch a digital site or newsletter, without any expensive web development.

And on the revenue side, there’s now a whole ecosystem of startups like PicoMemberfulPressPatronLaterPay and others that help news entrepreneurs earn reader revenue or convert their audiences from free to paid subscription products.

Together, these trends make it possible for news entrepreneurs to get started without access to VC funding or a super rich uncle — and that’s opening the door to a more diverse generation of founders, including many of our members.

4. The importance of diverse representation is getting the attention it deserves

The journalism industry has been slow to prioritize supporting founders or leaders of color, but we’ve started seeing that change recently, with the launch of the Racial Equity in Journalism Fund and a new Facebook Accelerator exclusively for publications led by people of color.

There is much more work to do in this space, but it’s heartening to see that amid this year’s Black Lives Matter demonstrations, news organizations are being held accountable for banning their Black reporters from covering BLM protests“pandering” to white readers, and continuing to employ mostly white reporters.

Some of our LION members are also pushing themselves and their businesses to be more inclusive of voices that are often underrepresented in the mainstream conversation.

And in the first cohort of our Google News Initiative Startups Lab Boot Camp, the majority of our participants are entrepreneurs of color, which is consistent with the diversity of our broader pool of nearly 300 applicants.

5. The ecosystem for supporting news entrepreneurs is booming

If you’re suddenly getting the urge to launch your own digital news startup, here’s another reason to consider it: You’re no longer alone.

For a long time, launching an independent news publication was a bit of a black box. Founders had to experiment to figure out what worked and what didn’t, costing them a lot of time, money and resources.

Fortunately, there are efforts now to learn from their early mistakes and successes and apply that to the next generation of digital news startups:

Interested in joining the action? Sign up for LION’s weekly newsletter and follow LION Publishers on Twitter to get updates about our entrepreneurial journalism community, and stay tuned for a couple big announcements later this fall. 👀

P.S. You can also apply for a LION membership starting at only $150/year if you’ve already launched your business, or an aspiring entrepreneur membership for $50/year if you haven’t yet launched.

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