Ask an independent news business leader what they need most and the answer will invariably be one of two things: more money or more people. We set out to address both last year when we launched the LION-Meta Revenue Growth Fellowship, which provides 12 news businesses with funding to make a new hire focused on growing revenue.
But while it’s easy to get caught up in a chicken-or-egg debate about which should come first, we’ve seen over and over again that money and people alone aren’t enough to make a news business sustainable.
What most news businesses really need is more capacity, which we define as an organization’s ability to fulfill its mission with its available resources. And because so many news businesses are stretched beyond their current capacity, they need the systems, processes and long-term planning in place to enable them to grow intentionally and sustainably.
Consider this: the Revenue Growth Fellowship enabled cohort members to grow their financial and human resources, but they needed additional support to truly increase their capacity. It wasn’t enough to simply make a hire — they needed to make the right hire, while putting in place the structures to properly plan for and maintain their organization’s growth. And it wasn’t enough to merely make more money — they had to do a deep dive on forecasting and budgeting to ensure they were spending it strategically. The result? All 12 cohort members reported that they feel more confident in their ability to reach sustainability.
“To be honest, when we applied for this program, we were mostly interested in the funding, which would allow us to hire a corporate sponsorship director,” said Trish Rodriguez Terrell, Chief Development Officer at Fort Worth Report. “But the training and support we received proved even more valuable to our startup newsroom [as we] build the systems, policies and strategies we need for long-term sustainability and growth.”
Here are a few other things we’ve learned from the first phase of the program:
Building a strong operational foundation really, really matters
We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: Creating a solid operational foundation is the most important first step to financial and journalistic success. Without the systems, processes, policies and work culture that sustain an organization and its team for the long haul, any editorial or revenue progress will fall short of its potential.
We learned this in real time when designing the RGF program. The goal was to provide the funding (and coaching and training) to help meet the revenue challenges our cohort members faced, but our perspective broadened once we got into the weeds of exactly what folks needed to maximize the opportunity and prepare for their imminent growth.
What we saw reinforced our previous insights: Operational readiness is critical to any step toward sustainability, whether that’s launching a new website, growing a revenue stream or expanding editorial coverage. So we devoted the first phase of the program to helping news leaders prepare their organization for their new hire.
Here’s what our operational foundation training covered:
- Setting and tracking goals
- Managing business, legal and financial risk
- Financial planning
- Building and retaining a team
- Setting a new hire up for success
- Launching a new revenue stream in the following areas:
- Advertising and sponsorships
- Major donors
- Reader revenue
- Organizing operational systems and processes
We created an Operational Readiness Handbook to convey this information, which we developed with insights from the LION team and our amazing program coaches: Rebecca Ross (operations consultant and former COO of Chalkbeat), Penda Howell (revenue coach and former vice president of New York Amsterdam News) and Lizzy Hazeltine (growth consultant and fund coordinator for NC Local News Lab Fund).
We’re in the process of making that Handbook available to all our members through our forthcoming online training portal and 2022 programs (stay tuned!).
Operations work is easy to ignore, time-consuming to do — and totally worth it in the end
It’s not every person who thrills at the thought of implementing beautiful systems and processes to organize and prioritize information (and you know who you are). But even the most slapdash among us can see the wisdom behind them.
Cohort members already wanted to up their operational game when they entered the program, with lengthy backlogs that included:
- Streamlining membership and donation tracking
- Training team members in financial systems
- Sharing information more efficiently outside of and between face-to-face meetings
- Setting up a better system for managing email, calendars and shared documents
- Establishing a clearer workflow for tracking and following up on story ideas
- Creating a proactive business and editorial planning process
- Building better financial workflows
- Onboarding new team members
Generally speaking, the problem wasn’t understanding what needed to be done: it was finding the time to actually do it. That’s a particularly challenging prospect when you don’t already know how to do the task at hand, which means hours of research and second-guessing to undertake a thing you don’t feel like you have time to do.
We focused the program on first building knowledge, then building motivation and, finally, providing support as publications began the long journey toward shoring up their operational foundation. In the initial three months of the program, news leaders logged the following wins:
- Building out budgets to include financial forecasting
- Understanding and gathering essential business documents to mitigate legal and financial risk
- Feeling confident in best practices for making a first hire
- Developing replicable onboarding processes
- Creating an online operations portal to organize important documents and information
- Writing an employee handbook
“[This] was exactly what our young team needed: a roadmap toward what operational resilience and sustainability might look like with near-constant encouragement from our mentors and commiseration with peers about how hard and time consuming this work is, and what a long but important journey it is,” said Luke Baumgarten, founder of RANGE.
Being intentional about the hiring process pays dividends down the road
The opportunity to hire a new team member is nothing short of exhilarating for a lean news business — especially if it’s a first hire. But finding and retaining the right person isn’t simply a matter of writing up a job description and crossing your fingers. Instead, it’s a process that takes a lot of thought, structure and, yes, time, to do well.
Cohort members began their hiring process by creating a job scorecard to scope out the outcomes, competencies and skills their new hire would need to bring to the role. They wrote and workshopped inclusive job descriptions before implementing creative job promotion plans (here is a great resource for both). But the planning didn’t stop there.
Next came setting up all the systems and processes that help guide and support a new hire once they’re in the door, like a structured onboarding process, clearly articulated responsibilities across the organization and a regular (and mutual!) feedback process.
“There are so many tools and processes that we didn’t even know we needed to have in place before our first hire,” said Fernando Soto, CEO and publisher of Nuestro Estado. “I don’t think we could have successfully recruited a great candidate without this program.”
The result was that all cohort members felt much more confident in their understanding of best practices around structures, policies and procedures for hiring a new team member. Some have since used what they learned to inform additional hires, which means the work they put into the processes is already paying off.
We’re thrilled to have helped these news businesses set themselves up with such forethought and durability, and we’re particularly pleased that all have hired their Revenue Growth Fellow. The next phase of the program began this month, during which the news leaders and new hires will pursue a revenue generation strategy in either advertising/sponsorships, major donors or reader revenue. They’ve laid some important pieces of a strong foundation; now it’s time to build.
Direct funding alone does not make a news business more sustainable
How strategy, structure and consistency are essential for revenue growth, and other lessons learned from our Revenue Growth Fellowship
Evolving a Project Into Full-Fledged Media Business
How NRI Nation created the infrastructure to allow for future growth.
LION Publishers to host 2024 Independent News Sustainability Summit in Chicago
The national event aims to gather 500 independent news publishers and their supporters for three days of learning and connection.