Meet the experts helping us redefine success for independent news publishers

In the past year, our scrappy startup association for news entrepreneurs has built a lot of momentum. We launched a boot camp for aspiring

February 3, 2021 by Anika Anand

From top left: Candice Fortman; Fiona Morgan; Phillip Smith; Kim Fox
From top left: Candice Fortman; Fiona Morgan; Phillip Smith; Kim Fox

In the past year, our scrappy startup association for news entrepreneurs has built a lot of momentum. We launched a boot camp for aspiring news founders, three month-long courses focused on specific skills news entrepreneurs need to develop, a joint effort to seed and support news startups in underserved communities, and, most recently, a program to help existing independent news entrepreneurs with coaching and capital.

Throughout this work, one thing is abundantly clear to us: We need to better define what success looks like for independent news entrepreneurs. The industry’s latest and greatest buzzword for talking about success is “sustainability,” which, broadly speaking, is whether a news business can survive. To my knowledge, that’s about the extent to which it’s been defined.

Evaluating whether a news business is successful, or sustainable, is an imperfect science. Some news businesses define success as scaling so that more staff reporters can cover more stories. Others define it as being able to pay themselves and a small team decent incomes while serving their readers. Fortunately, I think there is room for both definitions.

I’m not interested in setting hard numbers that point to a definitive “yes” or “no” in evaluating a news business’s sustainability. And I don’t think that profitability is the only indicator.

am interested in creating a framework that independent news publishers can use to identify their strengths and areas of improvement in their journey to sustainability.

At LION, our hypothesis is that this framework is comprised of three primary measures: financial health, operational resilience and journalistic impact. (My colleague Lisa Heyamoto wrote more about that here).

We’re taking some guesses at the metrics in each of those categories that matter the most, and that, looked at holistically, can paint a picture of whether a news business has a shot at not only existing but thriving for another five, 10 or 50 years.

To help us with this work, we’ve hired a group of industry experts who will be completing what we’re calling “Sustainability Audits” for independent news businesses that apply to LION programs this year. These Audits will be our first draft of what we think this framework should be.

For example, for our GNI Startups Lab program, we’re selecting 20 news businesses from the applicant pool to receive an Audit. We’ll use this tool to help determine which participants are best suited and will benefit most from our program, and also we hope that it’s a valuable learning exercise for those folks who aren’t ultimately selected.

This process will allow us to talk directly with businesses about how they think about the sustainability of their news businesses, so that whatever framework we end up landing on will be informed by news business leaders who are actually doing the work.

We’re grateful to the following LION Resident Experts who will be helping lead this effort over the next few months:

Candice Fortman is the executive director for Outlier Media, a Detroit-based service journalism organization, where she is working to build and sustain the business model. Before joining Outlier Media, Fortman was the marketing and engagement manager for WDET 101.9-Detroit’s NPR station. Fortman sits on the board of Cityside, which manages Berkleyside and The Oaklandside, and she is also an advisory board member for OpenNews. She is currently a JSK Community Impact Fellow at Stanford.

Candice says:

“I’m looking forward to working with LION members on audience engagement strategies and how to grow small local newsrooms.”

Kim Fox is Vice President of Product Strategy at CalMatters. Previously she worked at The Philadelphia Inquirer as Managing Editor, Audience and Innovation, and as Product Director. She has held editorial and product roles at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, CBS and Bloomberg and has been part of several startups, including ScribbleLive. Kim earned an MBA from the Fox School of Business at Temple University, focused on strategic management and digital transformation, and a master’s in innovation management and entrepreneurship. She’s also a graduate of the Online News Association’s Women’s Digital Leadership Accelerator and a member of the steering committee for the News Product Alliance.

Kim says:

“I’m looking forward to working with LION members on optimizing their internal metrics and product development practices, two critical areas I believe play an outsized role in achieving long-term sustainability for independent local newsrooms.”

Fiona Morgan is an independent consultant who blends skills and approaches of journalism, research, organizing, and facilitation to support community listening and engagement. She leads community listening for the American Journalism Project and authored a toolkit on assessing local news ecosystems for Democracy Fund. Previously, she co-led the News Voices project at Free Press and was a researcher at the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy at Duke University.

Fiona says:

“I’m excited to be part of building a future for independent local journalism by thinking holistically about what sustainability looks like.”

Phillip Smith is a veteran consultant and coach. His passion is helping newsrooms to make more money, news startups grow their audience, and journalists succeed as entrepreneurs.

Phillip says:

“I’m fired up to be able to support LION members again in 2021. This year I’ll be focusing on sustainability — diving deep with several publishers to help them shore up their foundations before continuing on their journey toward financial success.”

And a special thanks to Ashley Woods Branch who was a Resident Expert with us for a few weeks and was instrumental in helping us draft the first version of our Sustainability Audit. Ashley has since taken a role with the Google News Initiative’s Startups Program and we’re delighted to be able to continue to work with her in that capacity.

If you’re interested in learning more about our Sustainability Audit or efforts to measure sustainability, email Anika Anand at [email protected] or Lisa Heyamoto at [email protected].

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