LION members increased, diversified revenue in 2022
Most independent publishers grew their bottom line by an average of $50,000 year-over-year, data reveals
Here at LION, we believe the most durable progress for independent news organizations is incremental. Real movement happens through intentional actions, strategically taken over time. A key hire here, a more consistent revenue stream there — it all adds up to the kind of smart growth that leads to sustainability.
But journalists like to show, not tell. So we’ll let the numbers do the talking.
We’ve analyzed the latest aggregate data from our members to get a sense of how the independent news ecosystem is doing overall, and we see promising indicators that this method of steady progress is producing results.
The median revenue for LION members is ticking up. Member publications that have been operating for more than a year saw a median annual revenue of $130,000 — up from $125,000 at this time last year. It’s a modest increase, but it’s an increase nonetheless. And considering that last year’s figure was up 38% from the year before, we can confidently say that the trend is heading in the right direction.
The revenue picture looks even more promising when we dig into the numbers for returning members. Of those who renewed their membership in 2023, 82% experienced an increase in revenue year-over-year. These renewing members increased their annual revenue by about $50,000, or a median increase of 28%.
Take The Haitian Times as an example. The publication, which covers Haiti and the Haitian diaspora in the United States, saw a revenue increase of 27.3% in 2023, adding about $70,000 to its bottom line. Founder and publisher Garry Pierre-Pierre said he achieved this progress by investing in audience development to amplify advertising efforts while building out the operational capacity on his team.
That freed him up to leverage his considerable network and relationship-building skills to focus more on revenue generation and undertake long-dreamed-of ideas for the business-side of his organization. But even then, he forces himself to slow down and take it step-by-strategic-step.
“It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” Pierre-Pierre said. “If I try to go too fast, I’m gonna crash.”
Not only is median revenue for LION members increasing, it’s doing so through a more sustainable mix of revenue streams. The number of members who rely on direct sold advertising as a primary revenue stream is 42% — down 20% from 2021. But that’s because publications are adding more primary revenue streams to the roster. Around 34% of members now claim some form of reader revenue — either membership or subscriptions — as a top revenue source. And events have emerged as a popular earner, with 40% of publications saying they host some sort of public gatherings.
What does that look like on the ground? The Hingham Anchor, a hyper-local news site in coastal Massachusetts, has primarily focused on direct sold advertising since its launch in 2018. Co-founders Hilary Jenison and Laura Winters made a strategic decision to revamp their website rather than the costlier, longer process of migrating to a new CMS. From there, the wins began to domino. That decision allowed them to increase their go-to-market strategy for reaching new advertisers, which in turn resulted in enough revenue to fund their website for the entire year, which then allowed them to focus their efforts on piloting a reader revenue program.
The Springfield Daily Citizen is another example of a publication building a more diverse revenue foundation. Chief Development Officer Judi Kamien knew she wanted to launch an events vertical, but also knew she didn’t want to transfer the costs to the attendees. By developing a strategy to fund them through corporate sponsorships, she achieved the twin goals of gaining readers, donors and community goodwill while attracting even more corporate sponsors through the events themselves.
“[This was] exactly what I needed — a jump-start in creative thinking toward our second year of generating revenue,” she said.
Kamien’s success building out the Daily Citizen’s events strategy enabled them to hire a partnership manager to focus on creating even more events. Which leads us to our next member insight. We always take a look at the number of full-time employees across our membership to see if revenue growth is leading to team growth. And while we don’t see a noticeable increase in FTEs from last year, we do see a bump in paid part-time and freelance contributors. Organizations that submitted data in 2022 and 2023 saw a median increase of two contributors, which we think could lead to more full-time growth in the future. More money, it seems, is leading to more paid team members.
LION Membership Overview
- LION membership is up 11% since this time last year.
- Nearly 26% of member organizations are led by at least one person who identifies as Black, indigenous, a person of color, LGBTQ+ or as an immigrant — a 3% increase from 2021.
- Roughly a third of our members are non-profits (or under the umbrella of a non-profit); the other two-thirds are for-profits.
- Roughly half of member organizations are less than five years old; roughly one-third are more than 10 years old.
- Originally reported articles (91% of organizations) and newsletters (81% of organizations) continue to be the two most common products by a wide margin.
- Over one-third of organizations also create videos, events and podcasts.
- Nearly 33% of members produce podcasts, an increase from 29% in 2021.
- The median annual revenue of organizations founded before 2022 is $130,000, a 4.8% increase over last year.
- The most common revenue streams for all members are:
- Direct sold advertising: 42.2%
- Small individual gifts (Less than $1,000): 35.2%
- Philanthropies/Foundations: 31.6%
- The most common revenue streams for for-profit members are:
- Direct sold advertising: 55.8%
- Small individual gifts (Less than $1,000): 20.2%
- Subscriptions: 19.2%
- The most common revenue streams for non-profit members are:
- Philanthropies/Foundations: 66.9%
- Small individual gifts (Less than $1,000): 64.2%
- Major individual gifts (More than $1,000): 43%
- A city or town continues to be the most common coverage area, with 39% of members focusing on that geographic scope.
Interested in becoming a LION Member? Learn more here, or subscribe to our newsletter to get the latest information and resources for independent news businesses.
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