Three things LIONs love about their Sustainability Audits

And why you should apply for a holistic assessment of your news business.

May 10, 2023 by Andrew Rockway

Photo by <a href="">Alexander Sinn</a> on <a href="">Unsplash</a>

Last year, 100 LION members participated in the LION-GNI Sustainability Audits and Funding program to assess their news businesses, prioritize steps toward stability and growth and leverage $6,000 in funding to act on strategic recommendations. We’re thrilled to be able to extend that opportunity to another 75 LIONs this year. Applications are due for Cycle 1 by May 30 and for Cycle 2 by August 28. Applications will re-open in 2024.

Still on the fence about participating? Here’s what members say they’ve gotten out of the program, and why you should apply.

1. The ability to step back and see the big picture.

Time and again we’ve heard Audit participants express some variation of the following: “I knew (or thought I knew) what I needed to do, but I wasn’t sure where to begin.”

That’s not surprising. LION members are driven, entrepreneurial and are experts on their communities and their news businesses. But the possibilities for revenue streams, product development, audience growth strategies, staffing and all the other aspects of running an independent news business are countless, and deciding which to pursue can feel overwhelming. 

The Sustainability Audit report offers a digestible, actionable set of recommendations tailored to the unique circumstances you’re facing, written by experts who’ve been there. Those recommendations help establish a clear roadmap for each publisher, which eases the decision-making burden and makes it easier to start acting on operational and financial goals.

Here’s what a few participants had to say:

“It’s so easy to get marooned on the pressing issue of the day and participating in the LION audit is like a map that redirects you to building a foundationally strong local news organization.”

Joel Gross, Austin Monitor

“After eight years spent trapped on a hamster wheel of work for limited rewards, I knew things had to change, but how? This LION audit helped answer that. The probing questionnaire forced me to evaluate my failures, frustrations, successes, and goals. My auditor caused me to reexamine my priorities and methods. She made me realize that urgent and important are not always the same. She listened to and advised me and provided me with links to resources I will use to develop my business. Breaking free from my preconceived notions and entrenched business practices will take time, but this audit started that process. Instead of being on a hamster wheel, I’m now on a path to physical and fiscal sustainability, and it feels great!”

Joy Purcell, Now Habersham

“This sustainability audit experience exceeded my expectations. Our analyst had reviewed my responses to the audit questionnaire thoroughly before we met, which made our subsequent conversation engaging and productive. The insights she shared in her recommendations were excellent. She offered many fresh ideas for actions we could take that would be a good fit for our organization. She also reinforced a few strategies we had contemplated but not yet pursued, and now I feel more confident acting on them.”

Lila LaHood, San Francisco Public Press

2. A clear set of next steps.

Okay, so you’ve set priorities for your news business. But acting on them is a whole other challenge. Which CRM or email provider should I use? What do I need to include in an employee handbook? How should I structure my media kit? How can I get the most out of my analytics set up? How do I get started with financial reporting and budgeting?

We’ve got you! 

The Audit report doesn’t just identify areas on which to act, it also offers structured steps and specific resources to help you evaluate your options, decide what’s right for your business and implement your plans.

Here’s an example recommendation, edited to remove identifying information:

To Do
Track and regularly review audience metrics.

Audience numbers and demographics tell a story, but not one with enough detail to meaningfully inform your strategy and efforts. The newsletter size is rather small compared to the site’s traffic. So let’s capture a detailed picture of who your audience is and what they’re doing, followed up with structured audience research to learn more about what people need/want. That’s how you will be able to understand your audience and plan with confidence, leveraging all that information into a stronger membership program and more data-informed pitches for ads and sponsorships.

By regularly measuring your audience’s interactions with you, you’ll be able to:
  • measure progress toward your business plan objectives
  • create journalism and journalism programs that truly serve the community you’re trying to reach
  • focus your resources where the audience is finding value
  • bring a human-centric approach to story idea decisions
  • show funders there’s a proven opportunity to reach the audience they want to serve
Identify the metrics you want to track. Consider:

Audience Composition:
-News vs returning users (a metric to pay attention to as it indicates habit, something you want to build for sustainability)
-Age, gender, deviceAudience behavior (time spent, top pages, scroll depth)
-Audience source (organic, direct, social, referral, email)
-Top Google search terms
-ROI on social activities (conversion to newsletter subscribers and donations/members)

-Total subscribers versus loyal subscribers
-Website visitors from newsletters (see how product is driving conversion)
-Subscriber growth
-Campaign performance (opens, click-to-open, emails sent, unsubscribes
-Delivery rate (helps indicate if you’re running into any issues)

Get started with Better News’ newsroom analytics primer as a guide. Set up the GA4 audience dashboard (if you use Google Analytics). Review Brian Boyer’s Measuring success slides. Be sure to review your analytics regularly (at least monthly) 

Additional resources:
Institute for Nonprofit News, Goals and Conversions
Open News, Upgrade your analytics
Google Analytics 4 Academy
Google Analytics, News Consumer Insights
Dan Oshinksy, Two Google Analytics Dashboards to Help You Track the Success of Your Newsletters

Recommendations will ultimately be tailored to your capacity, aspirations and current state. 

Again, here’s what LIONs had to say:

“The audit goes beyond identifying your strengths and challenges. It provides guidance and resources to help you in a systematic way gather the tools and people needed to build a sustainable organization. Our auditor probed deeply to understand our mission, the framework that we have built and of the pieces still needed to grow and sustain our organization. She gathered valuable resources together in the audit report that I know we will rely on in the year to come.”

Bruce Putterman, CT Mirror

“I went through the sustainability audit yesterday and found it tremendously insightful. In fact, I have already begun acting on some of the recommendations and in quite literally one day attracted more monthly supporters than I have any other day in the existence of our publication. 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. I highly recommend this process to any media outlet, especially those which are early-stage and still in the startup phase.”

Ryan Sorrell, Kansas City Defender

3. Help getting started.

It can be difficult to take action on something new in hectic day-to-day of running a news business. The $6,000 in funding associated with the Audit can have an outsized impact by providing leaders with the opportunity to try something new. Many Audit participants cited the funding as the catalyst they needed to implement something they’d been wanting to try or putting off.

Here’s what LIONs had to say about their experience allocating the funding: 

“Thanks to the the LION-GNI Sustainability Audit and Funding program, we have been able to: adapt a CRM, make progress on securing liability insurance, identify what everyone is working on, create a “don’t do” list and restructure the flow of content in our small team. Having a CRM for sales leads and contacts has been a great success. Being able to identify incoming requests for information and being able to FOLLOW up has resulted in record-breaking sales month after month over the last 6 months.”

Ryan Belmore, What’s Up Newp

“The combination of a professional audit and a modest grant helped to focus our minds on the actions needed. The audit recommendations will help immeasurably as we work on strategic planning and drive toward sustainability over time.”

Leslie David, BenitoLink

Apply now!

Applications are due for Cycle 1 by May 30 and for Cycle 2 by August 28. Applications will open again in early 2024. We’ll host a Q&A on Thursday, May 11 to answer any questions you might have about participating. You can also email questions at any time to [email protected]

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