More than 200 champions of independent news gathered in Durham for LION’s Southeast News Sustainability Meetup on October 3-4, and this was the most common sentiment we heard: “These are my people.”
The sold-out event brought local news publishers, supporters, and funders together to create connections, help solve collective challenges, and gain fresh insights on how to build more sustainable news businesses. Attendees also cheered on their peers during the fifth annual LION Local Journalism Awards Ceremony on October 3, which was held in conjunction with the Meetup.
And while the Meetup attracted many folks from the Southeast, we were thrilled to welcome individuals from around the country and Canada. The group included:
- 130 LION members from nearly 30 states, including North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, and others extending into the Mid-Atlantic
- 31 LION Award winners who were honored at the Awards Ceremony and accepted a total of $55,800 in cash prizes
- 44 people who received nearly $30,000 in travel scholarships to help them attend
LION’s 2023 News Sustainability Meetups and the 2023 LION Awards were generously sponsored by The Walton Family Foundation, The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Carol Oppenheim & Jerome Lamet Charitable Fund, the Google News Initiative, Microsoft, and News Revenue Hub.
Here are five takeaways from our time together:
1. News business leaders are focusing less on the day-to-day tactical work and more on the strategic thinking necessary to run a sustainable news business, and they’re starting to see (and celebrate) what this looks like in practice.
Leaders of LION member organizations aren’t stepping away from the journalism entirely, but there’s increased interest in understanding and mastering the behind-the-scenes processes to run a financially healthy and operationally resilient news business.
So it’s no surprise that funding was a central conversation topic. During one panel discussion, The Food Section’s Hanna Raskin asked her peers how they’d pitch their organization to potential funders because sometimes, “The journalism can’t just speak for itself.” Scalawag and Press On’s Alyzza May advised listeners to “Show people where their money and values can be in alignment,” which sparked deeper discussion on how and when to make a compelling case for support.
In another session, Cardinal News’ Luanne Rife spoke about demystifying the revenue funnel, which wasn’t on her radar when she launched the organization two years ago. “I was thinking about stories,” she said. “Now I think about what type of product we can develop to bring people good journalism and not only pay for it but make a little more money to support other things you can’t monetize.”
Conversely, MLK 50’s Wendi Thomas candidly noted in a keynote conversation that operational and financial work isn’t for everyone –– and that’s okay, as long as you prioritize hiring the right people to run your business.
But regardless, every news leader needs to recognize that having a business mindset will pay off. Shasta Scout’s Annelise Pierce won the Financial Health Award in the small revenue tier during the Awards Ceremony, and in her acceptance speech, said, “LION got me thinking about P&Ls [profit and loss statements] and other dumb sh*t. And I’m grateful for it.” Her comment was met with roaring applause and instantly became the evening’s winning catchphrase. There’s even talk of t-shirts (Richland Source’s Jay Allred designed the below example and posted it in our Slack channel).
2. The independent news industry bucks tradition by being deeply collaborative and community-oriented.
The importance of community representation in news organizations surfaced throughout the conference. In a panel discussion, Conecta Arizona’s Maritza L. Félix emphasized the importance of listening and adapting to audience needs. “The future of journalism is collaborative and independent,” she said. “And for us, in Spanish.”
CivicLex’s Richard Young echoed that attitude: “It’s all about the people,” he said. “Ultimately, CivicLex exists to establish trust in civic processes and help people get more involved in their local government, so we meet them where they are.”
We commend all the LION members who are doing such intentional and thoughtful work to create a more inclusive, representative, and collaborative news industry.
3. Community building shouldn’t exist in a bubble –– it should extend within the industry.
We were blown away by the community building blossoming in real-time among attendees. “This is very special,” Mississippi Free Press’ Donna Ladd said during our closing session. “There’s real camaraderie here, and it hasn’t always been this way in the industry. Let’s take this back with us and help model it.”
That camaraderie was keenly felt during the Awards Ceremony, especially when Outlier Media’s Candice Fortman, who also co-hosted the Ceremony, received a standing ovation for winning the LION Business of the Year Award in the large revenue tier.
In addition to the informal networking throughout the event, we launched our inaugural affinity groups, facilitating connection opportunities for news leaders identifying as Black, Latinx/Latine, a Person of Color, and/or LGBTQIA+.
“The affinity group was special,” said Spinning Forward’s Flavian DeLima, who led the People of Color affinity group. “There were deep connections all around –– people made eye contact and felt heard. It’s the kind of networking you hope for at a conference.”
4. Independent news needs more funding capital, and Press Forward has a pivotal role to play.
One of our keynotes featured LION’s Chris Krewson and the Knight Foundation’s Duc Luu discussing an initiative called Press Forward, a $500 million fund for local journalism over the next five years. Announced in September, this initiative has the industry buzzing with questions about the future of funding for independent news.
Funding applications for Press Forward aren’t available yet, and right now, the group of funders spearheading the project is focused on raising awareness and recruiting additional funders. Luu urged LION members to concentrate on boosting their internal operations, so they’re in a good position to receive the funding when it becomes available.
“National funders, like Knight, want to invest in and scale what’s working,” he said. “We’re interested in community outcomes.”
One pillar of Press Forward is direct support for newsrooms, alongside establishing infrastructure to sustain them well past the five-year project timeline. Further information on Press Forward’s next steps will be announced in November. In the meantime, organizations should continue to invest time and resources into identifying a solid revenue funnel, which can include individual donations, institutional funding, advertising and sponsorship, and membership programs.
5. At LION, we’ve learned that there’s a deep interest in convening independent news publishers in person.
Events take a lot of time to do well, which is why we decided to skip a large annual conference this year and focus on regional events (the Southeast Meetup and Deep South Meetup are the two we held this year). However, the feedback we hear from members who attend our events is that it’s an important, complementary offering to the other trainings and support we provide year-round, especially from a community and industry-building vantage point.
That’s why we’ve decided to host another large independent news conference next year. We’ll gather in Chicago from September 5-7 to host discussions with experts, networking opportunities, and our sixth annual LION Awards Ceremony. We’ll share more details soon on how to attend the event.
Introducing LION’s 2023-2024 board and executive leadership
Gunita Singh, from Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, will be this year’s board chair.
Focusing on People Operations for Innovation and Training
How La Converse and École Converse prioritized hiring and onboarding processes to support their growth.
Stel Duncan joins LION Publishers as our Associate Director of Technology
Stel designs and manages LION’s technology systems that support our products and programs.