Announcing the LION-GNI Sustainability Audits and Funding program

In partnership with the Google News Initiative, we'll provide a sustainability assessment and funding to 100 local news businesses

March 30, 2022 by Lisa Heyamoto

Photo by Daniel Watson for Pexels
Photo by Daniel Watson for Pexels

If we’ve learned anything about journalism entrepreneurship, it’s that there’s no one way to launch and run an independent news business.

And while we think it’s a good thing that publications are building around the unique needs of their communities, we also know that every news business ultimately shares the same goal: to ensure their business is sustainable and can serve that community for years to come.

We’ve spent the last year defining what sustainability means for a journalism organization and supporting news entrepreneurs as they work their way toward it. But we’ve been particularly interested in learning how to measure that progress. 

We developed a sustainability audit to assess where publications are on the path to long-term stability, and have spent the last six months iterating on it. Now, we’re thrilled to expand on this work by offering the audit to a much larger number of LION members, alongside the opportunity to get funding for implementing the Audits’ highest priority recommendations.

In partnership with Google News Initiative, we will select 100 local, independent news businesses to participate in the LION-GNI Sustainability Audits and Funding program. Participating publications will embark on a comprehensive process to surface their opportunities, challenges and priorities alongside a plan for next steps. Those who implement those next steps will be eligible for up to $6,000 in funding.

“LION’s audits have already shown immense impact on publishers,” said Casey Pallenik, News Industry Relations Manager at Google. “Long-term business sustainability is the holy grail of independent, local journalism, and we’re excited to partner with LION to advance the industry’s understanding of what leads to business stability, and then support publishers as they implement.” 

We audited 55 organizations in 2021 as we refined our product and process. Those early adopters rated the audit’s overall usefulness at a 4.3 out of 5, and reported that it’s been immensely helpful as a way to gain perspective and guidance on their news businesses. Since then, we’ve made even more improvements to prioritize the usefulness of the audit. Here’s what some of those organizations have said.

“This was a phenomenal process. It’s a wonderful way to gauge my progress and prepare for my future.”

— Travers Johnson, founder & CEO of Queerency

“I found it to be very helpful and gave me great ideas to strengthen our community engagement. I look forward to exploring the ideas and advice I received.”

— Shannon Shaw Duty, editor of Osage News

“This was a unique opportunity for us to get an objective look at our organizational sustainability, and benchmark us with our peers. What a gift!”

— Kelsey Ryan, founder and publisher of The Beacon

Apply for the LION-GNI Sustainability Audits and Funding program here!

Want to learn more? Here are answers to some common questions:

Who is eligible? All LION members are eligible to participate in the sustainability audit program. If you are not currently a member, you can apply here

What does the audit entail? There are three steps to the audit process:

  • The leader of a news organization fills out a questionnaire that details the business’s operational readiness, financial health and journalistic impact. 
  • They schedule an interview with one of our audit analysts to dig more deeply into questionnaire responses, goals and organizational practices. 
  • Together with the analyst, the LION team produces a final report that includes:
    • A summary of where the publication is on its path to sustainability
    • A selection of its strengths and how to capitalize on them
    • A list of sustainability indicators the publication has completed and those it has yet to complete
    • How the publication compares to other LION publishers when it comes to benchmarks like staffing, revenue and audience metrics
    • A prioritized list of recommended actions to take immediately, in the short term and in the medium term to become more sustainable, which will include recommendations to apply for upcoming LION programs as well as other existing resources from across the industry

How will this help my news business? We developed this audit to help LION members assess where they are on their journey to sustainability and what steps to prioritize in becoming sustainable. In our experience, news leaders benefit tremendously from taking a thorough and holistic look at their business, articulating their goals and challenges and having an outside perspective on their progress. We’ve also heard from some members that the Audit gives them useful fodder to share with prospective funders and donors. Here’s a look at what we’ve learned so far. 

When will the audits be conducted? We will conduct audits in four cycles throughout 2022: April-May, June-July, August-September and October-November. 

When is the deadline to apply? We will accept applications to participate in the audit process on a rolling, ongoing basis. You may specify which cycles work best for you in the application.

You can apply to participate in the audit here.

How will you select participants?

We will look for the following when selecting publishers for each cycle: 

  • The ability to benefit from audit insights
  • The level of organizational commitment to the audit process and implementing the audit recommendations
  • A mix of publications across organization size, geographic locations, missions and audiences served 

What is the time commitment to complete the Audit?

The audit process from start to finish takes about six weeks with an overall time commitment of about five hours for a news organization. News organizations have two weeks to fill out the questionnaire, which takes about three hours to complete. The 90-minute interview takes place the following week and you’ll receive your completed audit at the end of the six-week cycle. 

How much does the Audit cost? LION and GNI are pleased to be able to offer this service free of charge to selected LION members. 

Is there funding available?

Yes. Funds up to $6,000 per organization are available to news businesses that meet the following criteria: 

  • Act on at least three recommendations outlined in the Sustainability Audit
  • Submit a funding request that outlines what recommendations the news business acted on, how they will contribute to long-term sustainability, the amount requested and a breakdown of how the funds would be used.

What if I participated in a previous version of the audit? Publications that received an audit as finalists for the GNI Startups Lab or the LION-Meta Revenue Growth Fellowship in 2021 but were not selected for the programs are eligible to participate in the LION-GNI Sustainability Audits and Funding program. We encourage these news businesses to apply, as the audit and report have since evolved significantly. However, we will prioritize news businesses that have not received an audit.

Will you announce the news organizations participating in the audit program? Yes. We’ll publicly announce the participants selected for each cycle, which we hope will be beneficial for news businesses to share with their funders, audience, board members and other stakeholders.

Have more questions? Reach out to Andrew Rockway, LION’s program manager, for additional information.

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