What does it take to support news publishers with personalized coaching?

What LION has learned from building one-on-one coaching into our education programs.

January 10, 2023 by Elaine Díaz Rodríguez

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Photo by Jungwoo Hong on Unsplash

When I took a Coaching Skills course last year, one of the exercises had me ask my family members to identify a challenge they were facing and, for 15 consecutive minutes, follow up with open-ended questions. The rules were clear: I could not comment, offer a solution, or induce responses in any way. 

My mother, an immigrant, talked about missing family members in our home country and not being able to travel to see them. My husband explained that he needed to hire for three positions at his job, but he didn’t have enough funding for all of them. 

Asking questions for 15 minutes required a constant fight against my desire to offer solutions to both problems. But unsurprisingly, by the end of both conversations, my mother and husband had come up with their own solutions — and none of them looked like what I had imagined. (Side note: I tried to replicate this with my toddlers, and it didn’t go so well, but that is a story for another day.)

This kind of conversation is at the core of our coaching philosophy at LION: We firmly believe that the people closest to the problem are the closest to the solution, and we have designed all our programs in the last year with that philosophy in mind. 

Most recently, we brought in experts from across the industry for our GNI Startups Lab program to support LION members on their path to sustainability in three specific areas: managing risk and money, building and managing a team and planning for revenue growth.

The feedback from participants on the coaching they received has been overwhelmingly positive:

  • “The training through the News Entrepreneur Academy paired with the expertise of my coach set me up for success for the year to come and beyond.” -Travers Johnson, Queerency
  • “The coaches, education, and LION community are supportive and top-notch.” -Michelle Olvera, BoldLatina
  • “Bringing in leaders from the field who both know what they’re talking about and can break down their process step-by-step is exactly what we wanted out of this program and it’s exactly what we got.” – Gabe Schneider, The Objective

We heard feedback like this across all our programs that offered personalized coaching, including the LION-GNI Sustainability Audits and Funding program and the LION-Meta Revenue Growth Fellowship. Here are a few takeaways about why this type of coaching is so important and how other organizations can build it into their own programming. 

1. Coaching and training meet different needs for news publishers — and should be paired together.

Last year, we soft launched the News Entrepreneur Academy to offer LION members self-guided courses on small business topics such as accounting and planning for revenue growth. We built these courses into our GNI Startups Lab curriculum so news leaders could learn new skills and build a shared foundation of knowledge. 

However, we know that no two news businesses are exactly alike, and context matters when it comes to translating a best practice into an actual practice. That’s why we paired these self-guided training courses with personalized, one-to-one coaching. 

“Coaching is the critical link that helps publishers incorporate their newfound knowledge into their big-picture and day-to-day efforts,” said Lisa Heyamoto, LION’s director of programming, member education. “Our program design makes that relationship even more explicit.” 

Pairing coaching with training meant that our coaches could spend their time with participants discussing how to effectively apply the training. From our coaches in the Managing Money and Risk program, we learned that the trainings:

  • Became an ongoing coaching tool. Coaches felt they could refer participants back to the videos to gain more clarity around key concepts and frameworks, instead of spending precious coaching time revisiting them on a call. 
  • Made coaching conversations more productive. When participants were grounded in the concepts before meeting with their coaches, it was easier to make progress on problem-solving than when participants had not seen the courses.
  • Were especially relevant to early stage organizations. For many of these organizations, the content in the NEA courses was entirely new to them, and it helped them catch up with organizations that had more small business administration experience.

“Coaching can be awesomely specific and useful so long as there’s a foundation of knowledge to build on,” said Anika Anand, LION’s deputy director, “and that came from our NEA courses in this case.”

2. Attracting highly qualified coaches with relevant experience starts with an intentional recruitment process.

We received 56 amazing applications for 12 GNI Startups Lab coaching positions this year, and the strength of our coaching pool started with the design of our recruitment process. 

Here are the steps we followed to make sure our process was fair, competitive and equitable:

  • Accept applications: We didn’t just want to invite big names in the industry to be coaches, because we know there are many professionals with relevant experience we’d miss out on. By opening up applications, we gave these professionals the same chance to prove themselves as other candidates.
  • Be transparent about pay: We believe no candidate should enter a contracting process without knowing compensation information beforehand, and this transparency also helps inform standard industry rates that other y peer organizations, funders, and news leaders can benefit from.
  • When in doubt, err on the side of advancing a candidate: This helps guarantee that people from disadvantaged backgrounds or outside journalism support organization networks get a chance to show who they are, which sometimes takes more than one interview. 
  • Think hard about your application criteria: We started by deciding what skills are must-haves and what are nice-to-haves. We also articulated the program’s target population and personas so we can ask candidates if they have relevant experience serving that group. (Sidenote: Highly qualified candidates sometimes don’t have relevant experience in newsrooms, but their experience mentoring local businesses makes them uniquely qualified to be coaches and foster out-of-the-box thinking).
  • Make yourself available during the hiring process: Taking the time to talk with potential candidates allowed us to clarify expectations for good candidates who felt they may not have relevant newsroom experience. This is even more important if you’re trying to provide coaching in areas such as financial planning and human resources because they aren’t specific to the news business. We recommend stealing Outlier’s hiring hotline idea and making sure you set aside time for 1:1s. The questions you receive from the first candidates that reach out to you can inform a Frequently Asked Questions document.
  • Make a plan for reaching beyond your own networks: If we’re only reaching out directly to people we know or posting on Slack channels full of people in our network, it is easy to reproduce the same privilege and inequality that permeates our industry. That’s why we use these questions to guide our outreach strategy:
    • To the best of my knowledge, is this pool of candidates varied in terms of race, ethnicity, gender identity, religion, geography, experience, education, etc.? 
    • Do we have people with diverse backgrounds?
    • Do we have people from different organizations?
    • To the best of my knowledge, do people from historically marginalized communities have access to this place or are members of this organization, Slack channel, etc.? If not, how am I addressing this through direct outreach and word-of-mouth?
  • Evaluate and iterate: As with every process, there will always be imperfections and room for improvement. Take the time to answer emails from candidates who were not selected. Make sure to create a space to evaluate and for your team to provide feedback on these processes. Reach out to candidates and ask them about their experience.

3. Coaches need to understand the goals of their coaching sessions.

Our programs have repeatedly taught us that a single person doesn’t have all the answers – no matter their level of expertise. That said, a single person who knows how to ask the right questions can help news leaders solve almost any challenge, which connects back to our core coaching philosophy: The people closest to the problem are the ones closest to the solution.

Building on that philosophy, the main goals of our coaching program are to:

  1. Build organizational capacity: Coaches focus on developing the participant’s skills and helping them shore up the structures, workflows and strategies that support their work.
  2. Foster independent thinking and problem solving: We want participants to not only solve specific business problems in our programs, but to develop the skills and confidence to tackle future challenges independently.
  3. Generate momentum toward measurable goals: As a process gains momentum, it begins to happen more quickly and becomes less likely to stop. Our coaches help news businesses set realistic and achievable goals that can create momentum and discourage “planning to plan.” 
  4. Model applying the same framework to new, similar problems: A framework is a structure intended to support or guide future designs and decisions. By helping leaders develop a framework instead of prescribing a one-time solution, participants can build long-lasting skills that are transferable to new, similar challenges.

Central to this approach is tailoring the coaching to the organizations’ particular goals and progress. We don’t want organizations to meet program goals for the sake of meeting program goals. Instead, our aim is for each newsroom to move the needle in whatever way is relevant and feasible.

For the Startups Labs, coaches worked with participants to adapt the program deliverables to their specific needs. That was especially true during our Building and Managing a Team program where it was more relevant for some participants to work on building a budget (to set a strong foundation for making the next hire) or produce a performance review document or leadership readme than to pursue our suggested deliverable of a staffing plan and employee handbook.

4. Coaching works best when it’s a team effort.

It takes a village to boost and support news businesses, and we work hard in our programs to make sure participants are benefitting from the collective expertise and experience of the whole coaching team. 

How do we do that?

  • We think about building a team of coaches, not just hiring individuals: We intentionally hire coaches with different and complementary skill sets, and we prioritize hiring people who are good team players.
  • Host weekly meetings to workshop challenges: We don’t want these weekly meetings to be another space to repeat the information we gather from written coaches’ reports. Instead, we designed a Rose/Bud/Thorn system to make sure we have time and space to address and workshop specific challenges and share resources.
  • Provide a Coach’s Handbook to help set expectations: We created this living document to provide an easy reference point for our growing group of coaches across programs. The handbook familiarizes coaches with the principles, values, and theory of change that guide LION Publishers so we remain consistent across programs. It also explains responsibilities and sets clear expectations so coaches are better equipped for success in their role. 

5. Setting coaches up for success requires a lot of hard work behind the scenes. 

We want our coaches to coach, not to spend their time drowning in administrative work, so we do a lot of heavy lifting in the background to make that possible, including:

  • Sending a welcome letter to help acclimate our coaches to the program and our coaching processes at LION. 
  • Writing one-page background briefs on all our program participants and sharing those with the coaching team. We heard from our coaches this year that they want even more of this kind of information to better understand where organizations have been and where they want to go.
  • Setting up a light-lift coaching report template that coaches can complete and submit in Slack. The coaching reports are designed to take less than 15 minutes to complete, and they help us collaborate as a program team by providing visibility on the common challenges that participants are facing and the questions they’re asking.

How we’ll incorporate coaching into LION’s work in 2023

We are still working on the retrospective for the 2022 GNI Startups Labs, but we know for sure that we will keep building coaching into our education programs. We are interested in talking with even more coaches from diverse experiences and backgrounds, so (per learning #2!) don’t hesitate to get in touch with me at [email protected] if you’re interested in working with us. 

Meet the coaches from our 2022 GNI Startups Lab

Managing Risk and Money

Eric Johnston, chief executive officer at Sonoma Media Investments, LLC

Graham Watson-Ringo, senior director of client success at News Revenue Hub 

Ingrid Marielos Marthy, former director of the Women’s Business Center, an SBA-sponsored program, in Fayetteville, NC, and San Francisco, CA

John Davidow, founder of Media Bridge Partners and acting chief of staff at the National Trust for Local News

Building and Managing a Team

An Xiao (Ana) Mina, executive consultant and coach with over a decade of global experience 

Mary Benedicta Cipolla, former editor-in-chief and publisher at Chalkbeat

Richard Tofel, founding general manager and first employee of ProPublica from 2007-2012, and its president from 2013 until September 2021

Jennifer Mizgata, senior media consultant specializing in digital innovation, leadership development, and organizational change

Planning for Revenue Growth

Maria Archangelo, chief revenue officer at Open Campus

Sam Gross, co-founder of Stacker

Scott Rosenfield, chief of staff to the CEO at The Atlantic

Todd Stauffer, association manager and digital specialist for the Association of Alternative Newsmedia

Elaine Díaz is LION’s senior manager of coaching.

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