Introducing LION’s Stages of Sustainability

Our data-informed maturity model maps the growth path of independent news businesses.

September 12, 2023 by Lisa Heyamoto

LION's maturity model captures the growth path of a news business as it moves through a set of stages and achieves a series of milestones.
LION's maturity model captures the growth path of a news business as it moves through a set of stages and achieves a series of milestones.

There are two questions that have been guiding our work at LION Publishers over the past few years. What does it mean for an independent news business to be sustainable, and how does a business make progress toward sustainability? 

We started by defining sustainability as the union of three pillars: operational resilience, financial health and journalistic impact. The next step was to create a way to measure and track the key performance indicators that characterize those pillars, so we developed our Sustainability Audit to help news businesses identify where they are on the path to sustainability and what steps they might take to keep moving forward. 

We’ve conducted audits on nearly 200 publications since 2021 (and will do roughly another 200 by the end of 2024) and have learned a lot about where independent news businesses are and where they aim to go. That’s helped us, with the support of our audit analysts, give tailored recommendations to individual publishers going through an audit, and given us an invaluable, data-driven understanding of the field as a whole. It also helped us see the logical next step: to develop a maturity model for independent news businesses that maps the path from idea to growth to sustainability. 

Here’s why a maturity model is an important step for the independent journalism industry:

  • It allows us to pinpoint exactly what we can do to support our members as they become sustainable news organizations. 
  • It would be useful for other journalism support organizations to know where we’re focusing our efforts as they prioritize what they offer to which organizations to ensure that we’re all efficiently implementing our resources and not duplicating efforts.
  • Having a clearly defined maturity model gives publishers, funders and other stakeholders a shared language to identify areas of growth and, ultimately, where growth has been achieved.
  • Having an articulated path for independent news organizations to reach sustainability could encourage more people to start publications that serve their communities because they have a clearer sense of what to expect and what to work toward.

Based on the data we’ve collected so far, we’ve proposed a maturity model that captures the growth path of a news business as it moves through a set of stages and achieves a series of milestones to reach the next stage. The stages and milestones are:

  • Preparation Stage: Creating a lean business model and minimum viable product (MVP). This is the ideation and planning stage when a news entrepreneur is identifying a need, a target audience, a revenue model and a value proposition.
    • Milestone: MVP is launched. The MVP is an experiment to learn whether the audience finds value in a light version of a product. 
  • Building Stage: Iterating based on audience and market research while building a foundation for revenue and operations. This is the testing and tweaking stage when a news entrepreneur is revising their product and revenue model to match what the audience wants and what the market can bear.
    • Milestone: Product/market fit is confirmed. Product/market fit occurs when the journalistic content and the way it’s delivered demonstrably meets audience demand.
  • Maintaining Stage: Increasing journalistic impact and audience growth while still seeking operational and financial stability. This is the alignment stage when a news business is rightsizing what it produces with how it produces it and how it makes money.
    • Milestone: Products, operations and revenue are all stable enough to provide a foundation for essential growth. The news business is not yet sustainable, but it is poised to grow in a sustainable way.
  • Growing Stage: Steadily and simultaneously growing revenue, audience and operations, which could include scaling. This is the expansion stage when a news business is increasing its depth through more robust products, revenue and operations and/or increasing its breadth by reaching new markets or audiences.
    • Milestone: Impactful products, resilient operations and healthy revenue are in ongoing alignment. At this point, a news business has reached sustainability by achieving significant journalistic impact with mature products supported by a strong operational foundation and multiple stable revenue streams.

While we’ve learned that news businesses tend to progress through these stages in order as they age, that progress is not always linear and does not always occur at a predictable pace. After all, news businesses develop in ways that are unique to how they launched, the circumstances under which they’re growing and the challenges they face.

This model accommodates the fact that a publication could be in the “Maintaining” stage for decades — or less than a year. It could be “Building” with a 10-person staff, or “Growing” with a team of two. A news business might reach sustainability without scaling, or it might fall back to “Maintaining” as it rightsizes after a period of growth. 

It’s important to note that this is a map, not a blueprint. The definition of sustainability may apply to every news business, but exactly what that looks like will be different for every publication. Having a healthy 50-person staff and $10 million in recurring annual revenue is certainly one snapshot of sustainability, but it’s not the only one. Each news business progresses at its own pace, within its own context and with its own goals in mind, and this model is flexible enough to reflect that.

We’ll continue to test and iterate on this model as we learn even more about the growth path of independent news businesses, and will incorporate these findings even more deeply into our member offerings. Our goal is to use this maturity model to help publications through the often-difficult Building and Maintaining stages to get to the Growing stage. It’s our hope (and our mission) that this work will result in more sustainable independent news businesses that are serving their communities for the long haul.

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.