What I learned from (continuously) asking these three questions at LION Publishers

As I wrap up my time at LION, I offer what I’ve learned to our members

May 1, 2024 by Anika Anand

Colorful note cards with question marks on them
Photo by marekuliasz on iStock

After my first few years in newsrooms, I realized reporting and writing were not my superpowers. But something I was good at? Asking questions.

I’ve worked on honing that superpower during my tenure at LION Publishers, in large part, because the needs of our members were greater than the resources we could offer, so we had to clearly articulate the problem and prioritize potential solutions as best we could — a scenario familiar to many independent news businesses.

It turns out that asking good questions is a useful skill, especially when starting or growing something new. Reflecting on my last few years at LION, I identified three questions that have served as the foundation for my work.

These would echo as our team grew over time, and have always been paired with a commitment to measurement and iteration based on what we learned. I offer these questions to you, our members, not because they are the only questions to ask, but because I’ve found it helpful to draw inspiration from questions that others are asking to inform my own.

1. What does success look like to us?

When I joined LION, success was hosting more than a couple hundred people at an annual conference without losing money. Then a pandemic hit and we were quickly forced to re-examine what LION was all about. Part of that reimagination was informed by our members expressing a sense of urgency to understand how to operate sustainable businesses. But the industry definition of sustainability was vague and myopic at best. And if we couldn’t define what a sustainable member business looked like, we had nothing to work backwards from to help define our own success as a membership association.

So we put forth our own hypothesis. And after spending some time testing it through programs like our Startups Labs, Revenue Growth Fellowship and Sustainability Audits, we built on what we learned and proposed a maturity model for independent news businesses. By asking ourselves, “What is success for our members?” we ultimately arrived at our own North Star success metric for LION in our first staff-led strategic plan: Helping 100 of our Focus Members reach the “growing” stage of sustainability.

What’s most important here is that we didn’t stop asking what success looks like for LION. By continuing to ask, we got closer and closer to a more meaningful metric.

I’m deeply proud of the work our team has done on making the concept of sustainability more useful and actionable for our members. And it’s just the beginning of more sophisticated conversations our industry needs to be having on whether sustainability is a true “end state” or something more fluid.

I admire news businesses who are defining their success metrics based on what success looks like for their audiences. I wonder how that might change the current strategies and approaches championed as industry success stories.

2. How do we work together to get there?

It’s impossible to do substantial and impactful work in isolation. And yet collaboration and managing teams can be hard. Really hard. So alongside fulfilling our mission for our members, it’s been imperative that we make the time to create the systems, processes and culture to work well with each other.

We call it a people-centered culture and try to ensure it consistently aligns with our values. We get some things right, and we get some things wrong. This will always be the case, no matter how well-intentioned a business is. But it’s important to try. And I’ve been heartened to see more independent news businesses setting the standard of what healthy work cultures look like.

Today LION has five times the number of staff it did when I joined. That means more people are managers with more direct reports. Both first-time and seasoned managers know just how hard the job is. That said, being a people manager can be deeply fulfilling if given the right level of support and resources. Good managers can be a force multiplier within our industry — encouraging their direct reports to think in new ways, develop new skills and pass on their knowledge and experience to their future reports in other organizations.

There have been many moments where I could have done the work myself, to check the box in the name of efficiency. But then others miss out on learning and growth moments (Spoiler: By delegating, I also learn and grow). The best managers know that if we aren’t creating space for us to teach and others to learn so they can then teach, there’s no point in working on a team at all.

Helping teams work well together falls under our sustainability pillar of operational resilience, and has even earned its own LION Award, which recognizes leaders for “establishing processes, policies, and a people-centered company culture designed to support staff, manage growth, and promote sustainability.” It’s my favorite award to watch acceptance speeches for because the winners get a moment to be recognized for how the work gets done — not just the work itself. A few years ago, it would have been unheard of for this award to be handed out in a room full of journalists.

3. How might we share what we’ve learned with others?

One of our key values is transparency because it’s the way we build trust with our members, our LION colleagues and industry partners. But it can take a lot of extra work to proactively, not reactively, write about what we’ve learned. It requires carving out space for thinking and reflection.

But this sort of “learning out loud” is critical — and it isn’t a luxury that should only be reserved for executive leadership. Literally everything I’ve linked to in this post has been a result of our team making the time to reflect and analyze the work they’re doing — and I know, based on feedback from industry peers, these reflections have made an impact on how others approach their work.

The most common refrain we hear from new members who didn’t know LION existed is how grateful they are to find others who are doing this work. This camaraderie has sometimes been the only thing helping independent news publishers — who often feel quite isolated — continue pushing forward.

Making time to share what we learn with others is a gift, and it is key to making true progress as an industry.

Answering questions like these has been the best starting point for my work. The other critical piece? Having smart, thoughtful and dedicated colleagues who engage with these questions to design answers that I never could have dreamed up alone. I feel grateful to have had that at LION and know that this team will remain deeply committed to asking these questions in service of our members and the independent news industry at large.

And if you’re ever unsure of the exact question to ask, here’s my favorite: Why?

Anika’s last day at LION Publishers will be this Friday, May 3.

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