LION’s most ambitious goals for 2022, and the big question we’re asking ourselves
2022 will be about us strengthening our team and maximizing impact for our members based on everything we’ve learned.
2021 was a year of experiments and rapid growth for LION: We more than doubled the size of our revenue and our staff, gave out nearly $600K in direct funding to LION members through our programs, and now serve more than 400 members, an all-time high for LION.
This growth, which our annual report chronicles in more detail, is a testament to aspiring entrepreneurs’ growing interest in launching news businesses; existing publishers’ early success in sustaining or growing their news businesses; and funders’ interest in financially supporting independently-owned publications as a key part of the future of local news.
2022 will be about us strengthening our team and maximizing impact for our members based on everything we’ve learned. Because we value transparency, we’re sharing our five most ambitious goals, and some questions we’re curious to explore over the next year.
1. We want to be able to tell you who’s built a successful local news business and how we can tell.
A successful local news business is a sustainable one, and our hypothesis is that a sustainable business is operationally resilient, financially healthy and journalistically impactful. “Foundational weaknesses in any one of these areas can cause the entire operation to (at best) underperform or (at worst) fall apart,” as my colleagues wrote in this post about how we think about sustainability.
Last year, we performed 50 Sustainability Audits, which used an intensive survey and interview process to dig into a business’s operations, finances and journalism and help us better understand the path to sustainability for these organizations and the metrics we can use to measure their progress.
This year, after learning from the data we collected, we’ve simplified the data and process to focus on the most key components of sustainability. Our goal this year? To do 100 Sustainability Audits so we can identify who is building a sustainable local news business. By doing that, we hope to answer other questions, like, “How might we set a new industry standard for what it means to be a sustainable independent news business and help our members get there?” and “How might we make starting a news business an attractive and realistic opportunity for aspiring entrepreneurs?”
2. We want professional development for independent news publishers to be easily accessible and actionable.
Every day, LION members are in the trenches running their businesses. And while some can make time to join a weeks-long cohort training program or an hour-long live webinar, many can’t. Even for those who do, cohort burnout is real. That’s why we want to experiment with other ways of getting valuable training and professional development to our members on their time. One way we plan to make trainings more accessible is through our soon-to-launch News Entrepreneur Academy, a members-only site that will offer asynchronous videos and resources on evergreen topics that members can access any time.
We’ll also experiment with making our professional development more actionable by providing resources beyond written content and training videos. Those who participated in our programs last year repeatedly told us the biggest value was one-on-one time with business coaches and subject-area experts alongside funding. We want to build our network of coaches and consultants this year (reach out if you’re interested!), and we’re fundraising to be able to offer modest but catalyzing funds for orgs that complete our training programs so they can effectively act on what they’ve learned. This all points back to our hypothesis, as we wrote here, that “sustainability is achieved through a series of small but impactful steps rather than big leaps.”
3. We want every LION member to have the guidance they need to run an operationally resilient business.
What do we mean by operational resilience? As my colleagues wrote: “Without a company culture and systems, processes and policies designed to support staff and manage growth, news businesses will experience burnout among the very people whose talent and buy-in are critical to their success.”
While we’ll continue to run programs that focus on revenue generation, our biggest learning from last year is that news organizations need a strong operational foundation before they can generate or spend revenue and become sustainable.
That’s why we’re launching a new Operational Readiness Series, which contains three programs: setting and tracking goals; managing risk and money; and growing and supporting a team.
We’ll provide this resource asynchronously through our forthcoming News Entrepreneur Academy, which any of our 400+ members can access whenever they need it. And for organizations that want to more deeply engage with the content, we’ll have a time-bound option for each program over the course of the year in which a limited number of participants will participate in synchronous kickoff and wrap-up sessions and receive one-on-one coaching and direct funding.
4. We want LION member organizations led by or primarily serving BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) communities to feel welcomed and supported in their specific needs by LION.
As we wrote in our recently revised values, “While legacy newsrooms often haven’t been welcoming or supportive to people from marginalized or underrepresented backgrounds, we believe it’s our job to ensure the independent news industry is creating space for these leaders and voices to thrive.”
Our membership team is kicking off the year by scheduling time with LION members who identify as BIPOC or primarily serve BIPOC audiences so that we can better understand their specific challenges, areas of success, and critical needs as a news business or entrepreneur; what membership benefits they’d find most valuable; and most importantly, how they’d feel most welcome within the LION community. Reach out to our membership director Stephanie Snyder if you’re interested in being a part of those listening sessions.
5. We want a majority of LION staff, board members and members to believe LION is living up to its values as an organization.
Our goal this year is to find concrete, practical ways to incorporate our values into our high-level strategies and day-to-day operations. We wrote about how we plan to do this with our “expected behaviors,” and we’ll be asking our staff, board members and LION members soon to tell us where we’re excelling and where we can improve.
LION has evolved dramatically since we incorporated as a nonprofit, grew our team and expanded our membership. While we strive to center our members in our decision making, we know not everyone will like the direction we’re taking LION. That’s one reason these values are so important for us to articulate – we hope they give our stakeholders, especially our members, a clear sense of the standard we’re using to build LION into the most useful organization it can be. It’s our goal this year that staff, board members and LION members clearly understand what we stand for, and feel comfortable reaching out to us when we aren’t meeting our values.
The throughline of all these goals is one big question we’re asking ourselves this year: How can we translate existing best practices for small businesses to a local, independent news context? That could include how small business associations function, financial tools and resources at their disposal, and best practices on how to run a small business. I’m eager to learn from others inside and outside the journalism industry on this question, so reach out any time to chat; I’d love to hear from you.
What our independent news experts learned from auditing 75 news businesses
Takeaways from the LION-GNI Sustainability Audits and Funding program
How to measure and market your impact featuring Angie Cirone and Anjanette Delgado
A LION conversation about telling your newsroom’s story, hosted by Outlier Media executive director Candice Fortman.
3 fundraising myths that could be holding your news business back
How measuring and marketing your impact can help you make the most of fundraising season, even as a for–profit publisher.