Four lessons for every independent news leader from the 2022 GNI Startups Labs

By taking small-but-strategic steps, Lab participants moved the needle toward sustainability

April 12, 2023 by Lisa Heyamoto

Photo by Volodymyr Hryshchenko on Unsplash
Photo by Volodymyr Hryshchenko on Unsplash

If there’s one thing that independent news publishers have in short supply, it’s capacity. Running a news business is a tall order for anyone, but that order hits giraffe-ian proportions when you’re running a lean organization where just a few people are doing work that would otherwise require many.

That’s why we designed the 2022 GNI Startups Labs as a quick-hit way for leaders to build capacity in targeted areas. By focusing on Managing Risk & Money, Building & Managing a Team and Planning for Revenue Growth, our aim was for publishers to use training, coaching and funding to shore up areas that we know have an outsized impact on increasing sustainability.

You can read all about the program in our 2022 GNI Startups Labs Report, which includes:

  • Why and how we designed the program
  • Participant information 
  • Curriculum details
  • 15 case studies outlining progress and best practices

At LION, we’re working to expand our support to even more of our 450 members. But we also understand that not everyone is able to participate in a program. So in the spirit of offering an abridged version of what participants learned, here are four high-level takeaways that every publisher can use:

Digging deeply into a tactical area leads to strategic breakthroughs

In a perfect world, news leaders would have the time, resources and expertise to create a beautiful strategic plan that lays out the goals, strategies and tactics that will make them the most effective, efficient organizations they can be. But in the actual world, most independent news leaders struggle to prioritize that kind of big-picture thinking, however critical it may be. In fact, 69% of publishers we surveyed in our 2022 Sustainability Audits say they don’t have a 1-3 year plan, but 76% said developing a strategic vision for their organization is a very high priority.

Good news, then, for the strategically-strapped: you can get closer to a plan simply by taking some thoughtful, intentional actions. Participants in the Labs found that digging deeply into one area of their business not only strengthened that area, it also unlocked insights and skills that enabled them to make broader strategic decisions. 

For example, publisher after publisher discovered that finally taking the time to properly manage their finances and forecast revenue led to breakthroughs in editorial decision-making (one leader found that the podcast juice may not be not worth the squeeze), hiring timelines (another realized it’s possible to bring on a new person sooner rather than later) and organizational structure (yet another decided that applying for nonprofit status was the right move for them).

Part of it was about building confidence — after all, strategic planning can feel daunting, and seeing progress in one area can build momentum to tackle others. All surveyed participants reported increased confidence in the areas addressed by the three Labs, and also reported increased overall confidence in their organization’s ability to reach sustainability. Gaining those initial insights was an important first step.

“[This] was just what our small online news organization needed to help us look farther than past our noses on a daily basis,” said Deborah Brown, co-editor of The Swellesley Report. “The mentorship we received about planning for the future, and protecting ourselves from potential negative outcomes was invaluable.” 

How we’re incorporating this into our programming

In addition to providing more strategy support through our Sustainability Audit, we plan to offer even more tactical resources by launching a marketplace for vetted news business consultants, and focusing our coaching efforts even more on bridging the strategic and the tactical. We’ll share more information about all this in the coming months!

Bad news is better than no news 

We’ve all experienced it: you don’t open that email or check that account or ask that hard question because you’re afraid you might not like what you find. But participants in the Labs found time and again that addressing their concerns head-on allowed them to accept the reality and adapt accordingly — even (and especially) when the news wasn’t great.

For example, one publisher had been agonizing over whether to transition from Substack, but a deep dive into the budget revealed that there wasn’t enough money to build and maintain a new website. Even though they’d been hoping for a different outcome, knowing that option was off the table quelled their anxiety and allowed them to focus on other things. Another leader realized that they needed to tighten their belt or risk financial instability, while still another gamed out an audience strategy that would have brought in more money, but they determined it wasn’t a fit for their mission.

Ultimately, it’s about risk management, and you can’t manage what you can’t see. And sometimes, you might find that peeking between your fingers doesn’t reveal something scary.

“I came into [this program] a mathphobe, accounting phobe, and wondering why I can’t just write, report and photograph,” said Amy Peterson, founder of The E’ville Good. “I learned that my newsletter has so much more revenue potential and the potential to reach and make an impact than I ever thought possible.” 

How we’re incorporating this into our programming

We will continue to provide trainings and templates that help news leaders take a good look at their current situation as they seek to plan for the future. Members can check out our courses on Navigating Risk and Uncertainty as a News Leader, Assessing Organizational Capacity and How to Create a Revenue Growth Plan as examples. In addition, we’re launching a peer-led program this summer so publishers can help each other through the emotional side of decision-making. 

Create the right amount of daylight between insight and action

Bear with us through this tortured analogy (and, ahem, pun). If decision-making took the place of porridge in The Three Little Bears story, you’d have three kinds. The kind of hasty, desperation-based decision-making that anyone writing on deadline is familiar with too often results in actions that produce short-term benefits — if they produce any benefits at all. The timeline between insight and action is just too short. Then there’s the kind of decision-making born of anxiety and overthinking, where planning-to-plan takes up all the time and acting on the plan may never happen at all. That timeline is just too long. 

Then there’s the approach that is just right. This, as Lab participants found, happens when you’ve taken the time to examine the facts, think through the possibilities and arrive at a clear next step. And then you take it. 

Participants who were ready to thoroughly tackle an issue and immediately implement their learnings saw high levels of impact and progress. That showed up for the publisher who created robust employee documentation right before making a new hire, for the leader who created a beautiful budget they then presented with success at their annual board meeting, and the founder who built out their fundraising strategy just in time to launch their first Newsmatch campaign.

While we always advocate for planning ahead (and offer a number of templates to help you do so), it turns out there’s a sweet spot between ready, set and go. 

“My coach helped me move from big ideas to significant action in the areas of strategizing, budgeting, revenue planning, recruiting, and hiring,” said Annelise Pierce, founder, editor and community reporter at Shasta Scout. “After completing the [program], I feel much more prepared, equipped and confident to lead my news organization forward in the years ahead.”

How we’re incorporating this into our programming

LION is making several changes to incorporate this learning, including:

  • Reframing our program applications to focus on whether a program offers the right support at the right time for a news organization
  • Developing a more personalized experience for participants with the help of their coaches, so publishers can choose from a bank of trainings to create a custom curriculum
  • Providing a menu of program deliverables so participants can create those that are most relevant to what they need, when they need it

All roads lead to — and from — the bottom line

You both love and hate to hear it: it all comes down to the money — whether you have it, whether you don’t, how to get more and where to spend it. Though just one of our programs focused explicitly on managing money, participants in every program found that they couldn’t move forward in any area until they had a firm grasp on their financial picture.

Working on a budget —  even for more developed organizations — served as a wake-up call for news entrepreneurs. Participants found that they were operating at a loss, or paying for too many subscriptions, or heading to a potential deficit during the program. This knowledge enabled them to make strategic decisions about where to cut expenses, where to focus their revenue efforts and how much they needed to bring in.

Sound financial management and understanding, no surprise, leads to more informed decision-making. But here’s the thing: those decisions had the biggest impact when they led back to revenue generation. There was the news leader who realized they had the budget to make a new hire, but also that that hire needed to be on the revenue generation side. Another founder’s updated pricing strategy led to setting more ambitious (but still realistic) revenue goals than they otherwise might have. And yet another took the time to deeply scope what it would take to launch a new product, how much revenue it was likely to bring in and how much they needed to raise to hire a product manager.

“I learned how to think about approaching new revenue streams,” said Kara Meyberg Guzman, founder of Santa Cruz Local. “I learned how to size the opportunity, reduce risk and form a strategic budget. I’m a much savvier CEO than I was six months ago.”

How we’re incorporating this into our programming

We plan to incorporate an element of financial planning and opportunity sizing more deeply into our programs. In addition, we’ll create more resources like our LION Financial Planning Workbook, which not only provides an easy template for financial planning, it also walks leaders through how to use it, step-by-step.

Want to participate in a LION program? We’ll be announcing our 2023 offerings in the coming months. Sign up for our newsletter to get the scoop and learn about how to become a member if you’re not already.

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