Introducing Project Oasis: A guide to help founders launch sustainable local news businesses

The need for good, accurate information for local communities has never been more clear. LION Publishers is filled with more than

March 18, 2020 by LION Publishers

Image via <a href="">Willian Justen de Vasconcellos </a> / <a href="">Unsplash</a>

The need for good, accurate information for local communities has never been more clear. LION Publishers is filled with more than 200 members because they saw the need in their communities for news and information. They’re not alone; based on what we know, more than 800 digital local news sites exist in the U.S. and Canada. So you’d think there’s plenty of information about how to get started, right?

There isn’t. And for aspiring founders, it’s been a problem.

“I would turn to resources like my local startup community and Harvard Business Review… the issue with those is they aren’t about journalism ever and our industry is so specific and weird that you can take some learning from those general startup things, but it’s not enough,” said Becky Pallack, who co-founded #ThisIsTucson at the Arizona Daily Star.

We’re changing that with Project Oasis, an initiative from LION Publishers, the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media’s Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media (UNC CISLM), Google News Initiative (GNI), and Douglas K. Smith, the driving force behind Table Stakes, the Media Transformation Challenge, and a small library of performance and management books.

The ultimate goal of this project is to produce a guide to help entrepreneurs start local news businesses, and existing local news startup founders learn from the successes of their peers. This guide won’t be prescriptive; we won’t favor one tax status over another; we won’t mandate that success equals using any particular CMS; we won’t declare that financial sustainability can only come via the use of programmatic advertising or paid referral services. The reality is we need to try to learn from as many approaches as possible, because every community and business problem is different and our tools and platforms are rapidly changing.

To begin to establish a set of best practices, we will exhaustively research how the most successful efforts in the independent digital-native local news business got there. By exploring and explaining the decisions local publishers made, we’ll point to pathways that can be taken on the way from launch to growth to sustainability.

Our First Step: Surveying the Field

We are reaching out to more than 800 local digitally-native news publications in the U.S. and Canada to collect and share data about their editorial strategies, audience reach, revenue mix, and how they define their sustainability so we can analyze trends and best practices across the industry. (Given that LION has several Canadian members and there’s a growing interest from Canadians in the independent local news model, we’re expanding our research scope.)

We’re fortunate to build upon Michele’s List, a database that Michele McLellan created 11 years ago as a fellow at Reynolds Journalism Institute and that LION has helped contribute to since. We’re grateful that Michele will be bringing her valuable historical knowledge of surveying local digital news startups as an advisor to us on this project.

If you are a local, independent, digitally native publication in the U.S. or Canada, fill out this survey by end of April and you’ll be entered to win either a free registration to the 2020 LION Summit for independent news publishers in Seattle or one-on-one time with local news consultants through LION’s newly created LION Expert Network.

Alongside the survey data we collect for our public database, we’ll be conducting in-depth interviews with these founders about the crucial choices they’ve faced in starting, running, and in some cases, shutting down their businesses. Who did they hire first? Do they distinguish between fixed versus variable costs in making strategic decisions? If they aren’t currently sustainable, when do they expect to reach sustainability, and based on what factors? If they had to pull the plug, how did they decide when to do it?

By teasing out the “why” behind these answers, we’re hoping to produce benchmarks that help inform new startups’ decision making.

“This is a spectacular idea and project, and hugely useful for almost every journalist I can think of,” said Ted Alvarez, a Seattle journalist who runs a podcast business on the side. “It’s been fascinating to me that there’s been a gap between journalists wanting that stamp of approval from established organizations and yet all the tools exist for you to make your own journalism.”

There’s plenty of information online about starting a business, but not anywhere near enough about starting a local online news business. Project Oasis will change that.

What We’ll Make

Programming director Anika Anand will be leading the work for LION with help from our new communications and membership manager, and will bring in additional help as needed. We’ve already started work on Project Oasis, which will result in the following resources for existing and aspiring entrepreneurs in local news. This is not an exhaustive list — we also want our research and interviews to help inform other useful resources for digital local news entrepreneurs.

  • database of local news sites in the United States and Canada, a new neighbor to UNC’s justifiably famous News Deserts project
  • Case studies of local publishers digging into the why’s behind the crucial choices they made when launching and running their businesses.
  • A “Starter Pack” for aspiring entrepreneurs that will include step-by-step guidance and checklists on the initial building blocks of starting a news business

The Starter Pack alone is a resource our members and aspiring entrepreneurs have told us has value, and something they wish had existed in the early stages of their businesses.

“Everyone does that homework for themselves over and over again,” said Ashley Woods Branch, founder of Detour Detroit. “We should be compiling some of those best in class products that are easy for small publishers to use and save the time it takes for everyone to investigate on their own.”

Big mergers and the resulting consolidations mean that jobs inside legacy newsrooms are more endangered than ever before. We at LION regularly talk with folks who want to take the plunge and start a local news business, but they aren’t sure where to begin, and they aren’t sure they can make it financially work. I remember that feeling as I watched my newsroom shrink around me, and looked for a way to continue to help my community.

That’s where Project Oasis comes in. Not only will we share lessons that long-time publishers have already learned, we’ll use those lessons to prove that the local independent news business can serve a community and be financially sustainable.

Because if local news is a good small business, more people will want to start local news businesses. And, hopefully, we can bring some relief to news deserts across the country.

What You Can Do to Help

While we’ve already emailed a list of more than 800 publications we’d like to survey, we know there may be others reading this post who we’d like to hear from. If you run or work for a local, independent, digitally native publication in the U.S. or Canada, you can fill out this survey by the end of April. If you aren’t sure whether your publication meets our criteria, email [email protected] to learn more.

With your help, we hope to create and sustain more independent local news businesses. Journalism is good for democracy, and we’re eager to support local news entrepreneurs in communities that most need them.

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