We more than doubled the number of news organizations in our Project Oasis database. Here’s what we learned.

Community ambassadors’ local expertise helps give us a clearer picture of the United States’ independent news ecosystem.

January 31, 2024 by Samantha Matsumoto

Image of North American map with pinpoints indicating local news outlets
As of January 2024, our Project Oasis database contains 1,601 independent news publications across the U.S. and Canada.

We’ve identified an additional 368 independent local news businesses across the United States to add to our Project Oasis database, the most comprehensive database of all independent local news businesses in the U.S. That brings our total count of independent local news publications across the U.S. and Canada to 1,601 — more than doubling the number of organizations since we first launched the database in 2020.

While we continue to add publications to the database based on new members who apply for a LION membership and remove publications that have shuttered, we also recognize that many independent local news businesses are not being counted because they don’t know about us, and we don’t know about them. So last year, we recruited community ambassadors, 24 independent news leaders from 21 regions across the United States, who helped us identify publications in their geographic area that met our criteria and weren’t in our Oasis database.

These community ambassadors used their networks to surface organizations and combed through databases like the CUNY Center for Community Media’s Black and Latino media directories. They then contacted these newsrooms and asked them to share more in-depth information about their newsrooms.

Of the 368 news businesses that ambassadors identified, 132 shared more details with us about their publication history, content, staff size, and the tech platforms and mediums they use. This in-depth information was included in their Project Oasis profile and helps us better understand the state of independent newsrooms today. We also created profiles for the remaining 237 organizations, including their location, tax status, and publication language.

Here’s what we learned from this project:

Building relationships with news leaders who have existing connections is key.

When we set out to update the Project Oasis database, we knew we wanted to work closely with independent journalists who had strong connections in their communities. They know more about what’s happening in their local news landscapes than we do because they live and work there and have existing relationships with others in the area. 

That proved crucial to the project’s success. Ambassadors surfaced many newly launched publications and, more notably, identified many older publications that were initially overlooked by Project Oasis researchers in 2020, including 15 Spanish-language news organizations. 

In particular, we were able to add a large number of publications based in the Mid-Atlantic region of New Jersey, New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania, as well as in Colorado and Missouri. Submissions from those six states made up a whopping 35 percent of all the organizations added to Project Oasis. That speaks, in part, to the hard work of the ambassadors in those regions and the deep networks they have. 

The direct outreach conducted by our community ambassadors is critical for building our field’s understanding of the needs of the independent news ecosystem. It also ensures we’re being inclusive in offering our services and support to those interested in taking advantage of and benefiting from LION and other journalism-support organizations’ offerings.

As the independent news field grows, we have to carefully consider our criteria for what independent local news is.

Throughout the project, one question arose often: Does this count as an independent local news organization? 

Our ambassadors had robust conversations about the criteria for a Project Oasis organization, and that spurred conversation among LION staff about our membership criteria and how to define local independent online news.

The criteria for inclusion in Project Oasis is: 

  • The site is devoted primarily to original, local news and information (a majority of coverage is through local, originally produced news)
  • The site is located in the United States or Canada
  • The publisher is digital-native and/or dominant
  • The site is editorially independent (privately owned and not primarily or majority-owned by a publicly traded company, newspaper chain, hedge fund or private equity firm, and/or political or religious institution. This can include public media if the public media is merged with an independent publication and the two are independently run and funded.)
  • The owners are attempting to develop revenue streams from their content

In some cases, the criteria was straightforward. If an organization is owned by a large chain that publishes in multiple states, for example, it clearly doesn’t meet the definition of independently owned. But what about small chains of publications that are owned by a local individual or family? And how do we define digital — does it have to be an online-only publication, or can it be a print publication with an online component? 

We decided to accept small chains that are locally owned by someone in the state where they publish and do not own publications in multiple states because we believe they still embody the principles of independent local journalism. When it came to defining digital publications, we decided that if the website is regularly updated and is not an e-edition of the newspaper or links telling people to subscribe to the print product, it counts as digital. 

But conversations about journalism ethics and transparency could get even more tricky. Project Oasis doesn’t have an explicit guideline on how journalistic standards factor into a publication’s inclusion in the database. Some of our ambassadors found publications that published partisan or overtly biased reports. Other organizations didn’t follow best practices for transparency, like having bylines on their stories or a corrections policy. 

We decided that publications that don’t follow best practices for journalism ethics should be left out of the database and asked community ambassadors to use their judgment as journalists when considering these organizations. 

How to define local independent online news is an ongoing conversation at LION. As the independent news landscape continues to grow and diversify, we’ll continue to evaluate our criteria. 

Simply having a list of all the existing independent news businesses in the U.S. is important data to collect and keep up to date.

When Project Oasis launched in 2020, its mission was to map the growing number of locally focused digital news publications in the U.S. and Canada and to share information about the choices they have made along their pathways to sustainability. 

Researchers collected data on staff size, platforms, finances, and publication history for more than 700 local independent news organizations. Using that information, they published a report with key insights on this industry’s growth and a guide for aspiring news entrepreneurs to launch their own publications.

In our latest update, we were not able to gather as much in-depth data. While we pushed hard for all 368 publishers to share a complete data profile of their business, we only received forms from about 36 percent of them. 

This helped us clarify where our data collection efforts can be most impactful — not just for us, but for news businesses as well. That’s why we’re prioritizing our data collection efforts through our Sustainability Audit program, which asks publishers to share this data in exchange for receiving a thorough report on the state of their news business. This type of data collection — mutually beneficial and not extractive — is best aligned with our values and, going forward, is how we plan to collect and share data insights about this field.

We still believe it’s vital to the growth of this ecosystem to maintain a database of all existing independent local news publications so we can better understand the successes and challenges of local news businesses. We’ll continue to keep the database as up-to-date as possible.

If you’d like to be added to the Project Oasis database, please fill out this form to request to be included, or you can use this form to request a change to an existing entry.

If you’d like to learn about our Sustainability Audits, sign up to receive our newsletter for the next application deadline.

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