Adding more staff isn’t the only way to lessen your workload

Four insights we took away from analyzing 100 Sustainability Audits from independent news businesses.

September 20, 2023 by Dylan Sanchez

Photo of wooden building blocks with missing pieces
Photo by Valery Fedotov on Unsplash

It’s no surprise that one of our members’ most common challenges is an unsustainable workload. What may be surprising is this: While hiring additional staff can certainly alleviate some strain on a small team, independent news businesses that experience sustainable workloads are more likely to have more well-established operational and financial processes in place despite usually being smaller and younger.

That insight is based on data we gathered from 100 LION member publishers through our GNI Sustainability Audits and Funding program last year. Our Audits are an opportunity to give independent news publishers a high-level understanding of the state of their businesses and create a roadmap with industry experts to move toward sustainability. It’s also an opportunity for LION staff to review the data, analyze trends, and share insights that can benefit all our members.

“We often hear from news leaders that their top priority for increasing revenue is to hire more staff in order to ease their workload,” said Elaine Díaz, LION’s senior manager of coaching. “However, we’re also witnessing smaller organizations taking a different approach by proactively optimizing their editorial and operational processes right from the start. In doing so, they’re not only setting up their teams but also themselves for long-term success.”

We dug deeper into the data to highlight four actionable insights for publishers feeling spread thin and struggling to create a more manageable workload.

1. The vast majority of leaders say their workload is unsustainable.

Leaders of 79 percent of organizations reported that they either always or often have more work than they can reasonably accomplish in a given week. Conversely, 21 percent of organizations reported that they sometimes, rarely, or never have more work than they can reasonably accomplish in a week.

2. The organizations that report having a sustainable workload are more likely to already have operational and bookkeeping processes in place.

Nearly every metric of operational resiliency is met at a higher rate by these organizations. By having processes in place for legal assistance, organizational responsibilities, and liability management, these organizations have a strong foundation in place as they grow and manage their news business.

The majority of these publications also prioritize basic bookkeeping and maintain financial documents at a higher rate, as well as annual budgeting and regular financial forecasting. Based on our experience supporting LION members, we know that many founders and leaders come from a journalistic, not business, background and much of the overwhelm they feel is rooted in learning the fundamentals of running a business on the fly.

3. The organizations achieving a sustainable workload are smaller in team size and younger in the age of their organizations.

Organizations achieving a sustainable workload have a median age of two years, compared to their counterparts, who have a median age of four years. Also, the average team size of these organizations with sustainable workloads is 20 percent smaller than their counterparts.

The data showed that ultimately, despite being younger in age and having fewer people on the team, they prioritized establishing a solid organizational infrastructure from when they launched. Based on our experience working with independent news businesses, we infer that proactively having these systems and processes in place gives the leaders of these publications more capability to focus on growing their business rather than having to reactively respond to day-to-day operational crises that add to overall workload. 

4. Organizations that report having reasonable workloads also have a higher confidence in their ability to continue with a change in leadership.

These organizations have prioritized establishing a solid foundation for their news business. They have created a more manageable workload for the organization’s primary leader and a much higher degree of confidence in the organization’s ability to hire a replacement of that leader. The inverse is also true: News businesses that place a greater workload on their primary leader have an increased risk of leadership burnout and are less likely to be sustainable if the leader steps away from the organization.

Based on this data and our experience running programs, including the GNI Startups Labs and the Meta-LION Revenue Growth Fellowship, we at LION believe a solid operational foundation is vital to an independent news business’s sustainability. Here are some resources from our News Entrepreneur Academy you can use to strengthen your operational resilience to create more reasonable workloads for you and your team.

Addressing and Avoiding Burnout

Assessing Organizational Capacity

Management Best Practices

Financial Management for News Entrepreneurs

The LION Financial Planning Workbook

The LION Operational Readiness Handbook

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