Deep South publishers push back: ‘Scale’ doesn’t serve our communities

Don't patronize your audience by assuming they can't pay, and 19 more takeaways from LION's Jackson, MS meetup

June 21, 2023 by Kelsey Wotzka and Christian Monterrosa

Photos by Imani Khayyam
Photos by Imani Khayyam

Independent news publishers in the Deep South are challenging the notion that “bigger is always better.” 

Nearly 30 publishers and independent journalists from across the Deep South gathered in Jackson, Mississippi on May 18, 2023 to redefine what it means to “scale” as community-centered news organizations that prioritize transformational impact over unsustainable growth. 

“The current idea is that scale means ‘the bigger you are, the more you cover, and the better you are,’” Kimberly Griffin, Mississippi Free Press founding publisher and chief revenue officer, said during LION Publishers’ Deep South News Sustainability Meetup. “But maybe your newsroom only wants to cover your community well with a fully staffed newsroom of 7 people… The deep, complex reflection of your community is what I want to see when I think about scale.”

The Deep South News Sustainability Meetup was the first of two regional gatherings that LION is hosting this year to provide a more intimate, local opportunity for independent newsroom leaders, funders and supporters from a specific region to connect with and learn from one another. Deep South Meetup attendees were based in Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, Georgia, Tennessee and Arkansas. LION’s Southeast News Sustainability Meetup will be hosted in Durham, North Carolina October 3-4, along with the fifth-annual LION Local Journalism Awards Ceremony.

LION’s 2023 News Sustainability Meetups were generously sponsored by The Walton Family Foundation.

“This was one of the best journalism meetings I’ve ever attended. I left with new contacts, new ideas, and renewed excitement for the work we all do,” said Hanna Raskin, founder of The Food Section. “The collaborative problem-solving was awesome.” 

During a panel discussion with Kimberly, Donna Ladd of Mississippi Free Press and MLK 50: Justice Through Journalism chief strategy officer Andrea Hart, it was further emphasized that defining success for community-centered news organizations cannot be seen as having a one-size-fits-all approach. 

“Growth for the sake of growth introduces community mistrust. What does scaling look like as a matter of community engagement rather than pure growth?” Hart said.

“Our reporters are doing a lot of work on the front end to be in communities before a crisis is happening, which goes a long way to actually being community-centered. Sitting through the hard stuff, but also documenting moments of joy, documenting movement makers, documenting the people that normally would be erased from those early days of change-making…There is a false sense that newsrooms teach people about their communities, when it should really be a mutual exchange.”

— Andrea Hart, MLK 50: Justice Through Journalism chief strategy officer

LION members and attendees developed the Deep South Meetup’s agenda, building on themes and takeaways both tactical and strategic during group chats, a panel discussion, and table talks. What emerged reads like a litany of strategies that could be adapted by fellow independent publishers, and points to opportunities for potential collaboration across the region’s media landscape. 

The challenges that surfaced during an honest conversation about the challenges of operating as a news business in the Deep South included:

  • Financial constraints
  • Exclusion of BIPOC and women-led organizations at the decision-making tables
  • Lack of staff experience 
  • Recruitment and retention of diverse teams 
  • Work-life balance and avoiding burnout 
  • Navigating the shifting landscape of funders
  • Building credibility and integrity in the community
  • Building collaboration and networking channels
  • Data management

Based on the challenges that attendees surfaced at the beginning of the day, news entrepreneurs and individuals working for independent news organizations in the Deep South worked together to develop solutions. 

“There’s nothing like talking shop with people who know what you’re going through,” said Christiaan Mader, founder and editor of The Current. “We sourced a bunch of great ideas and had time to dig into some of the topics that surfaced during group discussion.”

The takeaways below were shared in community and allowed participants to walk away from the Meetup with fresh inspiration and new tools to navigate challenges, build sustainable funding models, and deliver impactful journalism that resonates with their audience and community. 

Key Takeaways

Financial Health:

  • Make the ask: Rather than assuming your audience doesn’t have the means to support you with donations, which feels patronizing, be honest with them: You can’t do the important work of telling their stories without their direct support. It’s most important to engage with them and empower them to decide how they would best like to support their local news outlet.
  • Use a CRM: Implementing a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system can help effectively manage donor relationships and vastly improve fundraising efforts.
  • Explore the unconventional: Beyond traditional methods, there may be untapped fundraising opportunities that can help support your publication. Be open to innovative approaches. An effective strategy for one participant has been providing transparent breakdowns of journalism costs to educate readers about the value of journalism and encourage financial support.
  • Thank your donors: Expressing gratitude to donors, while vital to the donor relationship, is also a great opportunity to ask them questions about their lives and interests, getting a temperature reading on your community while strengthening those relationships.
  • Emphasize your unique value: Focus on highlighting the distinctive qualities and impact of your publication. Focus on what you are, not what you aren’t. Clearly communicate the value you bring to your community and potential funders.
  • Understand the ‘why’: Gain insights into what motivates donors to support your publication and tailor your engagement strategies accordingly. Diversify the ways you engage with donors to appeal to different motivations.

Journalistic Impact:

  • Redefine the notion of scale: Prioritize depth of coverage, community engagement, and impact over sheer size. Challenge the notion that bigger is always better.
  • Embrace transparency: Be transparent about your funding sources and the reasons behind fundraising efforts. Be a part of a collective effort to promote accountability in journalism, even if that involves the scary step of highlighting big newsrooms that are not transparent.
  • Separate audience and community: Understand the distinction between your audience and community. Identify ways to intersect and engage both, as they have different needs and expectations.
  • Chase accuracy over objectivity: Take into account the influence of race, political climate, and interpersonal politics on journalistic impact. Encourage open conversations about these factors.
  • Build trust: Accountability is essential for building trust with your audience. Admitting mistakes and demonstrating a commitment to ethical journalism fosters credibility.
  • Track impact: Be intentional about tracking the impact of your publication, especially as you gain experience over the years. This data can strengthen funding pitches and demonstrate the value of your work.
  • Involve the community: Put your audience front and center while you’re gathering news to ensure journalism remains community-centered and responsive to local needs.
  • Sweat the details: Focus on stories that complicate narratives and delve into the nuances of issues. Pay attention to topics that are underreported and explore reproducible methodologies for ethical journalism.
  • Explore collaboration: Selecting partnerships that align with shared values and goals preserves journalistic integrity while sharing resources and benefiting all participants.

Operational Resilience:

  • Be flexible: Build flexibility into team members’ roles to adapt to changing circumstances and optimize their contributions. This enables better responsiveness to evolving challenges.
  • Get strategic: Implement a strategic onboarding process, such as a 30-60-90-day plan, to effectively integrate new team members and align them with the organization’s goals.
  • Invest in pipelines: There is great value in newsgathering staff with roots in the area. These pipelines can be built through incentives and outreach at HBCUs and other educational institutions.
  • Invest in culture: Focus on staff well-being and sharing solutions.
  • Foster team engagement: Involve the entire team in important discussions and decision-making processes. By including diverse perspectives, the team becomes a valuable barometer for potential new hires and ensures engagement in solution-oriented conversations.

Sign up for the weekly newsletter

Join the LION mailing list to get our weekly roundup of opportunities and resources for news entrepreneurs. View our most recent issues.