Three ways our members have driven LION’s work since 2019

We need to make it easier for our members to operate, not harder.

March 12, 2024 by Chris Krewson

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Photo by wildpixel from Getty Images

Elaine Díaz Rodríguez, LION’s associate director of coaching, knows the value of a journalism-support organization like LION Publishers. She didn’t have any such support when she was an independent publisher in Cuba.

“It took me years to learn how to put together financial processes. I really struggled with my first financial audit,” she recalled. “A LION member will resolve this in 45 minutes with (director of finance and operations) Lisa Hunter’s template and by listening to that course in our News Entrepreneur Academy.”

Make no mistake: We at LION absolutely believe there is a role for journalism-support “intermediaries” in this ecosystem. (We also believe this ecosystem is not as effective as it could be.)

It’s very hard and lonely to build and grow a news business from scratch. That’s why I joined LION five years ago: Leveraging shared expertise, experiences, and resources is valuable when done well. And there’s value in engaging with some of the questions raised by consultant and former nonprofit executive Dick Tofel, publishers like those in the new ANNO coalition, and East Lansing Info founder Alice Dreger.

And now we want to hear directly from LION members, because we believe in creating our offerings in constant dialogue with them. This feedback-driven process has shaped our strategy over the last few years, and we’ve learned three things about how best to provide what members need, when they need it most.

1. We can provide more value as strategists than funders.

We heard from members that they needed funding that could give them the runway to hire and train a revenue person, so we launched the Revenue Growth Fellowship in 2021. We gave 12 LION members two years of direct funding to hire someone in a revenue-generating role. We’ve written about one of our greatest learnings from that experiment: A strong operational infrastructure is required to maximize the impact of those dollars. As an organization, we also concluded that we can provide more value by focusing on strategic training rather than leaning into being an intermediary funder.

2. Some support can be broad while some must happen one-on-one.

As we ran the RGF program from 2021 through the end of last year, we developed resources, like our Operational Readiness Handbook, which includes deep dives on budget forecasting and HR policies, to address infrastructure challenges we saw many of our members struggling with. We created eight-week Lab programs to focus on key challenges we identified in unlocking revenue: financial and risk management, building and managing a team, and revenue strategy planning. And based on member feedback, we designed the program curriculum to ensure each organization would walk away with clear deliverables they could immediately implement, rather than being left with a bunch of great advice, resources, and little time to execute when the program ended.

The feedback on this program was overwhelmingly positive, but we also heard from BIPOC leaders and founders that the time-bound, cohort-based approach didn’t work for their limited bandwidth. We heard similar sentiments of cohort burnout, and we pivoted again. Our latest approach is laid out in our strategic plan: offering more asynchronous resources and access to experts for our broader membership while prioritizing more hands-on, intensive help for our Focus Members through a case management approach.

3. Any data collection from members should directly benefit members.

We have done over 350 Sustainability Audits and Progress Reports since 2021, iterating along the way. We started by using the Audit as an application tool to identify who would benefit from our programs most. But we heard from members that they were exhausted by filling out long, data-heavy applications to participate in a program, and if they weren’t accepted, they had nothing to show for their time pulling together all that information. So we evolved the Audit from a program-based application into an assessment and learning tool. And, when we were given the opportunity to attach dollars to our programs, we attached them to the Audits, so that members who participated would be compensated for their time and have some dollars to act on Audit recommendations. The feedback on our Audits has been incredible — many publishers say they hadn’t previously had the opportunity to have this kind of high-level conversation about their business, and it’s helped orient them toward their next steps.

Sandra Hannebohm, Twice As Good Media‘s founder, sums up the Audit experience: “The Audit process inspired me to expand my thinking about what’s possible for my business, while also helping me celebrate my strengths and achievements. I was paired with an analyst who quickly understood the value of what I’m doing. Hearing their feedback was a gift!”

Our hope in sharing these lessons is two-fold: to illustrate just how important member feedback has been in shaping our strategies over the last nearly five years, and that when we say we want to hear from you, we mean it — by acting as immediately as possible to improve the experience for those we serve.

We will continue seeking funding that should ultimately help our members build sustainable businesses. We have heard clearly that some people in our membership are concerned that these dollars won’t benefit them, and so we’re offering members the chance to speak with LION’s leadership over the next few weeks to help inform these asks. Let us be clear: LION needs to make it easier for our members to operate, not harder.

Below, we’ve detailed how to share your feedback with us. As always, we will continue to listen to all thoughtful critiques shared by our members and others in the industry about how journalism-support organizations like ours can best approach this work.

LION members: 

Set up a time to talk with LION leadership during our open office hours:

And/or fill out this short survey.

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