This strategic growth plan was written by Anika Anand with support from Alison Go and contributions from Chris Krewson, Lisa Hunter, Lisa Heyamoto, Stephanie Snyder and Chloe Kizer.
Oct. 2, 2023
LION Publishers launched in 2012 when a group of pioneering digital news entrepreneurs banded together to help each other. The founders of LION — short for “Local Independent Online News” — were early adopters, among the first refugees of a legacy newspaper industry that was beginning its chain reaction of buyouts, layoffs, consolidation, and closures.
In 2019, LION received its first $1 million grant. Four years of rapid growth followed, in staff, resources, and influence, as hundreds more news businesses launched. LION grew that $1 million to more than $20 million in service of its members, offering programs, resources, events, and even funding.
Against the backdrop of that legacy news industry’s noisy, rapid decline, these news entrepreneurs represent a glimpse into the future. We believe a well-functioning news and information ecosystem will look like a decentralized network of independent news businesses, which are more responsive to audience needs and collaborate to meet those needs — a new news industry with the potential to grow beyond the sum of its parts.
These news businesses are and will be structured in different ways: nonprofits and for-profits; publishers of daily news stories alongside civic efforts that recruit, equip, and train residents to file stories; podcasts that offer thoughtful analysis; and newsletters that make the news easier to understand — and to-be-determined methods of sharing news and information on new platforms that will inevitably disrupt all of that again.
LION enforces membership criteria for what we believe constitutes a trustworthy, credible independent local news publication.
“While other associations have worthwhile benefits, LION provides exactly the right tools for our outlet, and I am kicking myself for not joining sooner.”
– Elizabeth Miller, Auburn Examiner
And there will be more news businesses covering communities that have historically been overlooked or misrepresented by legacy media. By addressing systemic barriers for Black, Indigenous, Hispanic, Latine or People of Color, and/or those who identify as LGBTQIA+ to lead independent news businesses, we believe we can build a more equitable and impactful local news ecosystem.
By helping these independent news organizations strengthen their business operations with what we’ve learned in our years of supporting this field, we’ll help rebuild the information ecosystems of communities by supplying them with relevant, trusted news and information.
As a result, residents will make better civic decisions, be better protected against organized misinformation and disinformation campaigns, and have a renewed sense of trust in their local news organizations.
The Hingham Anchor
In 2022, the co-founders of The Hingham Anchor were struggling to get beyond their daily to-do list to tackle big projects like overhauling their website and launching a membership program. LION worked with Hilary Jenison and Laura Winters to better understand their financial situation, which gave them the information and confidence to hire a contractor to take over and grow their advertising work. That decision allowed them to increase their go-to-market strategy for reaching new advertisers, resulting in enough revenue to fund a website revamp, which then allowed them to focus their efforts on diversifying their revenue by piloting a reader revenue program.
The Buckeye Flame
In 2022, The Buckeye Flame was struggling to translate big ideas into revenue-generating realities. LION worked with founder Ken Schneck to create workflows and systems that streamlined operations, set goals, and created accountability for the small team.
Schneck then used these tools to launch his first NewsMatch campaign, which far exceeded goals by raising $25,000. This allowed him to hire a part-time grant writer and compensate himself for the first time as founding editor.
Who We Are
Most leaders of independent news sites come from newsrooms and have never run a business before. Their superpower is knowing the basic structures, processes, and language to design editorial strategies and execute high-impact journalism. But they aren’t as familiar with the basic structures, processes, and language to run a financially healthy and operationally resilient news business. That’s where LION comes in.
Our vision is a world where thriving, independent news organizations provide equitable access to inclusive and impactful news and information.
Our mission is to provide teaching, resources and community to independent news entrepreneurs as they build and develop sustainable businesses.
Members in the U.S. and Canada
Members who have two or fewer full-time employees
Median total headcount for a LION member
Median annual revenue of our members
LION Publishers is a nonprofit professional association that operates within the journalism-support ecosystem. Of the dozen or so professional associations, LION members most often overlap with the Institute for Nonprofit News and Investigative Reporters and Editors, and sometimes with the Online News Association, Local Media Association, and Society of Professional Journalists. What sets LION apart from these other associations is our laser focus on business operations and a commitment to prioritizing specific members based on highest need.
While LION has offered direct dollars to its members over the past few years, being a funder is not our long-term strategy.
While LION has historically given direct dollars to our members through our programming, being a funder is not our long-term strategy. However, we have and will continue to work closely with organizations that give our members direct dollars — including journalism funders, like the Knight Foundation and Google News Initiative, and vendors, like News Revenue Hub, Indiegraf, Blue Lena, and Newspack.
The underlying philosophy of all our programs is our definition of sustainability and the maturity model we’ve developed over the last three years. Our work focuses on moving independent news businesses toward our holistic definition of sustainability.
What We Do for Our Members
We set the standard for what sustainability looks like for independent news businesses.
While the journalism industry is obsessed with talking about sustainability, we’ve actually defined it and identified metrics to measure it.
We identify our members’ stage of sustainability.
In 2021, we developed our Sustainability Audit to help members answer their most-asked question: “How is my business doing?” Since then, we have completed more than 200 Audits by refining our processes and hiring more than 35 Audit analysts, who are experts from across the industry. These Audit analysts conduct surveys and interviews to assess the financial health, operational resilience, and journalistic impact of our members’ businesses.
“These audits help organizations discover opportunities to address their most pressing challenges, and they provide resources and ideas from people with deep experience in media business, product, audience development and leadership.”
– Shannan Bowen, audit analyst and executive director of the NC Local News Workshop
“I found this process incredibly helpful as I often don’t have the time or mental space to step back and view my organization strategically and long-term.”
– Ryan Sorrell, managing editor of The Kansas City Defender
We help our members move closer to sustainability.
Our team has spent the last four years designing, testing, and iterating on programs, events, and initiatives to help our members.
Our Membership Education program has:
- Provided 850+ hours of coaching, training, and consulting along with $1.8 million in direct funding in 2022.
- Recruited and trained 58 coaches, analysts, and other experts to support our members since 2020.
- Supported 48 LION member organizations through our Startups Lab program in 2022; 97 percent of those businesses reported that completing the program made them more confident in their organization’s ability to reach sustainability.
- Designed and launched the News Entrepreneur Academy, with 18 courses and 250 lesson completions to date.
“I’m not a numbers person, I'm a words and story person, so getting a handle on and control over the financial part of my business was really intimidating to me. That’s what this Startups Lab helped me uncover and overcome.”
– Shauna Rae, Radar Media
Our Membership Experience program has:
- Grown our membership by 168 percent, from 177 members in 2019 to over 475 members in 2023.
- Launched the News Entrepreneur Slack Community with more than 1,400 active users, including more than 500 people who work for LION member organizations.
- Run the first-ever, sold-out, LION-led event — our Independent News Sustainability Summit, produced in partnership with News Revenue Hub and RevLab at The Texas Tribune. We welcomed 500 publishers, funders, academics, and other industry leaders to the event and provided $55,000 in travel scholarships to more than 100 attendees in 2022.
- Created the LION Local Journalism Awards and awarded a record $68,000 to nearly two dozen members in 2022.
“I am a novice in the field, and it was lonely until I met others at the conference. Everyone was amazing, warm, welcoming, and encouraging.”
– Melina Olmo, Cultura Diplomática
How We Support Our Programs
We can’t fulfill our mission without our revenue efforts and operations infrastructure.
In 2019, LION received a $1 million grant from the Knight Foundation that we used to hire an executive director who could add two full-time staff members. Over the last four years, we’ve raised more than $20 million total and translated that initial $1 million investment into a projected annual revenue of $8.6 million for 2023. (More than $6 million of those 2023 dollars will go directly to our members’ businesses).
Learn more about each of our existing revenue streams.
We’ve grown our team from three to 14 full-time employees in just under four years, with a parallel goal to build a culture that rejects legacy newsrooms’ longstanding reputation for toxic, workaholic behaviors. Based on our latest staff survey data, a majority of our staff would recommend LION as a great place to work and believes LION is living up to its values. We hope this will serve as a model of a people-centered culture for the newsrooms we serve.
Where We’re Going
Our Core Metrics
We want to ensure a LION membership is the most valuable professional resource our members have. To do this over the next five years, we must operate an organization that fulfills its mission and vision in a values-aligned way. Here’s how we’ll do that, using our own sustainability framework:
By 2029, we’re going to:
- Measure our impact by providing interventions that will move at least 100 LION Focus Members, members who historically face the greatest institutional barriers to building a sustainable news business, to the Growing stage of our sustainability model. To meet this goal, we’ll ensure that at least 25 percent of our LION membership are Focus Members.
- Secure our financial health by raising at least $23 million to help us run LION and serve our members.
- Grow our operational resilience by doubling the size of our current staff.
Being data-informed is one of our values. Learn more about the core metrics we're holding ourselves accountable to.
Our Impact Goals
Our Financial Health Goal
Our Operational Resilience Goal
How We’re Getting There
Who we're helping
While we acknowledge that all LION members could benefit from our support, we have decided to prioritize specific members who historically face the greatest institutional barriers to building a sustainable news business and are in the best position to receive and act on our support to get to the Growing stage of sustainability.
Our Focus Members are LION member organizations who are:
- In the following sustainability stages: Building or Maintaining and
- Currently led by someone who identifies as: Black, Indigenous, Hispanic, Latine, or Person of Color, and/or Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, Asexual, or as a member of broader gender and sexually diverse communities
We believe that by providing the most support to our Focus Members, we’ll create offerings that will benefit all LION members. Learn more about our LION Focus Members.
How we're helping them
Our Data and Evaluation Program enables us to set the standard for what sustainability looks like for independent news businesses.
Our Sustainability Audit Program enables us to help members identify their stage of sustainability and gives them a roadmap for moving closer to sustainability.
Our Membership Programs offer members professional development, connect them with peers who share lessons and advice, and offer cost-saving products and services that strengthen their businesses’ financial health.
Program Goals to achieve by 2029
Deliver membership offerings that will move members toward sustainability.
Once we’ve identified a LION member’s sustainability stage and recommendations in their Audit, we offer that member three types of support to move closer to sustainability:
- Our Education Program provides structured sharing of knowledge and expertise.
- Our Community Program connects them with peers to facilitate learning best practices and creating a sense of belonging and camaraderie.
- Our Direct Services Program offers cost-saving products and services that strengthen their businesses’ financial health.
Each of these programs will be taking on one major initiative for the next five years:
- Our Education Program will pilot a case management approach to move our 100 Focus Members to the Growing stage. Read more in Appendix 5.
- Our Community Program will pilot a member engagement strategy informed by our Community Ambassador Program and events strategy. Read more in Appendix 6.
- Our Direct Services Program will pilot a LION offering that will help lower members’ operating costs by providing fractional support for operational services. Read more in Appendix 7.
Learn more about each of the Membership programs' audience and key responsibilities.
Ensure any LION member who wants an Audit or Progress Report can get one.
Currently, our Sustainability Audit is thorough but also time-consuming. We have made improvements over time, but our strategic goal is to dramatically reduce the friction of the Audit process, from more self-service options to creating lighter-weight “Progress Report” assessments that can be done on an ongoing basis to measure progress over time. Our goal is to make these efficiencies scale without sacrificing the quality and utility of the Audits and Progress Reports.
Learn more about the Sustainability Audit Program's program audience and key responsibilities.
Make LION’s Sustainability Audit and maturity model an industry standard.
The objective of the Sustainability Audit is for news leaders to better understand their existing business and roadmap toward sustainability. But there are also powerful knock-on effects of the Audit. We’ve seen it used as a tool to get funders, boards, and advisers up to speed on the organization’s bright spots and challenges, and we think this is just the beginning of what it’s capable of.
Over the next few years, we will more intentionally help members use it as a fundraising tool for their news businesses; work with funders to create a common application and evaluation report for all journalism funding; and work with data scientists to analyze our collected data to set publicly available benchmarks for sustainability that all independent news organizations can use to inform their growth.
Learn more about the Data and Evaluation Program's audience and key responsibilities.
Diversify our revenue streams with a focus on institutional giving.
While LION has had great success in its fundraising efforts since becoming a nonprofit organization, our greatest risk is that we only have three institutional funders that comprise more than 90 percent of our total annual revenue. We’ll hire a Development Director who, with support from the Executive Team, will implement two strategies to address this risk: Doubling down on our fundraising efforts to diversify our funders and increasing revenue across our other revenue streams.
Our primary strategy is to diversify our funders. By 2029, we want to add at least three more funders with the goal of multi-year agreements. While we’ll continue seeking opportunities from existing journalism funders, we must also look elsewhere to banks, family foundations, and civic-engagement-focused foundations. We’ll do that by capitalizing on a newfound understanding that we’ve helped articulate and that funders are realizing is core to supporting this field: Rebuilding local news isn’t a journalism problem — it’s a small business problem.
Our secondary strategy is to increase our other revenue streams. Currently, Institutional Giving comprises more than 90 percent of our revenue. We want to shift this to 80–85 percent by 2029. We’ll do that by exploring opportunities to increase revenue across our other revenue streams, including creating a fee-for-service offering of existing LION products, building an annual donor program and/or fundraising drive, and developing our annual Summit into a revenue-generating event.
Make LION a destination for employees to “experience and go.”
Over time, we know that LION will remain a relatively lean team, which means there will be limited opportunities for staff to move into the next stages of their careers within LION. Instead of being an organization where folks can “stay and grow,” we believe it’s advantageous to lean into our role as an “experience and go” organization.
Our Executive Team, with support from all staff, will continue to build a culture that ensures our employees get just as much out of their experience at LION as LION gets out of their work. We’ll honor their time at LION as one stop on their career journey and normalize conversations about their readiness for a new role in or outside of LION when that time comes.
We’ll do this through three primary strategies:
- Cultivating a culture — through organizational policies, structures, and management training — that supports expected turnover as an asset, not a liability to succession planning.
- Offering robust professional development that ensures that when there is room for advancement and organizational need, we can retain our talent.
- Evaluating and iterating on our staffing philosophy and practices to ensure new employees continue to reflect the diversity of the membership we want to serve.
Build LION’s resilience with a scenario planning strategy.
The only thing we know for sure is that change is constant, and the news industry as a whole continues to be extremely sensitive to those changes. That’s why we must ensure LION’s core value of being iterative is formalized in a scenario planning strategy that will include:
- Identifying an executive-level role that formally owns this strategy as part of their job scorecard.
- Developing a hiring process and philosophy that identifies the best LION talent as those who are interested and adapt well to change, rather than those who are afraid of it.
- Creating processes and systems to evaluate new opportunities, decide whether to pursue them and if so, ensure that work fits within our existing strategic pillars.