Introducing LION’s five-year strategic growth plan

Why we’re doubling down on measuring sustainability as our core offering.

October 2, 2023 by LION Publishers


The local news industry is at an inflection point. 

More people want to run local independent news businesses. The number of local independent news organizations has grown by six times over the last decade and we’ve seen a 168 percent increase in the number of LION members since 2019. 

And more people want to support local journalism. Over the past five years, we’ve seen more philanthropic efforts supporting journalism, and there’s an acknowledgment that more significant capital is needed to build on that momentum.

In LION’s strategic growth plan that we published today, we share our vision for a well-functioning news and information ecosystem: a decentralized network of independent news businesses that 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.

To make that vision a reality over the next five years, these are the three things that will be core to our work for our nearly 500 members, who represent independent news publishers covering local news and communities across the U.S. and Canada:

  • Set the standard for what sustainability looks like for independent news businesses
  • Identify our members’ stage of sustainability
  • Help our members move closer to sustainability

We’ve shared three key highlights from the plan below, and invite you to read the full strategic plan.

1. Our sustainability maturity model is central to our work, and we want to make it an industry standard.

While the journalism industry is obsessed with talking about sustainability, we’ve spent the last three years actually defining it and identifying metrics to measure it. Those metrics, combined with analyzing data from more than 200 of our members’ businesses, have informed our maturity model for independent news businesses to understand how to reach sustainability based on their current stage. 

That’s why the underlying philosophy of all our programs is our definition of sustainability and our maturity model. We believe with these two frameworks, we’ll ultimately be able to help members know that they’re building sustainable businesses. 

2. Every LION member should know how to make their news business sustainable.

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.

After a member receives an Audit, they can receive a Progress Report (currently known as our “Booster”) –– a lighter-weight assessment that measures progress over time. 

Our Audit is one of our most requested services. This year, we committed to delivering more than 150 Audits and Progress Reports. We’ll hit that goal, and we still have more than 100 members who have applied for these and not received one yet. 

Five years from now, we want every LION member who wants an Audit or Progress Report to receive one so they can measure their progress toward sustainability and have a roadmap on how to get there.

3. We want to design more tailored help for publishers from marginalized backgrounds to build sustainable news businesses. 

A key component of our vision for a more equitable and impactful local news ecosystem is seeing a dramatic increase in news businesses covering communities historically overlooked or misrepresented by legacy media. To help enable this growth, we must remove as many systemic barriers as we can for founders and leaders who identify as Black, Indigenous, Hispanic, Latine or People of Color, and/or those who identify as LGBTQIA+.

That’s why we’ve added a new key metric of LION’s success: We’re holding ourselves accountable to supporting 100 of our Focus Members, those who historically face the greatest institutional barriers to building a sustainable news business, to the “Growing” stage of our sustainability model. 

One of LION’s core values is to ensure the independent news industry is creating space for leaders from marginalized or underrepresented backgrounds to thrive. Based on that value, we’ve identified Focus Members as member organizations who are: 

  • In the following sustainability stages: Building and Maintaining and
  • Currently led by someone who identifies as: Black, Indigenous, Hispanic, Latine or a Person of Color, and/or Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, Asexual, or as a member of broader gender and sexually diverse communities

(Here’s more on our Focus Members.)

We’ve been serving these members over the past few years in the same way we’ve been serving all our members: time-bound training programs, direct funding, asynchronous online courses, in-person events, office hours for expert coaching, and more.

These members have told us that parts of those programs have been helpful. And they’ve also shared that if LION is really going to help their news businesses reach sustainability, we have to offer more tailored, in-depth help while respecting their limited time and bandwidth. We’ll start working on piloting this approach with some of our Focus Members next year.

Our next steps

We’ve set ambitious goals. Our next step is to operationalize these big ideas, and we can’t imagine a better team to do it with. Our team of 14, plus the incredible network of 70 coaches, Audit analysts, and industry experts we work with, is deeply dedicated to our mission of strengthening the local news ecosystem by helping our members build more sustainable news businesses. If you’re another journalism support organization that shares our mission and values, we’d love to collaborate with you. If you’re a funder, we’d love to talk with you about supporting the plan we’ve outlined. And we couldn’t be more excited for this next phase of service. 

Read our five-year strategic growth plan, and drop us a line if:

Also, if you’d like to:

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