What our independent news experts learned from auditing 75 news businesses

Takeaways from the LION-GNI Sustainability Audits and Funding program

November 29, 2022 by Elaine Díaz Rodríguez and Lisa Heyamoto

Image by Arek Socha from Pixabay
Image by Arek Socha from Pixabay

Independent news founders are seeing how audience research strategies can pay off, embracing the business side of their newsrooms, and continuing to demonstrate just how well they can serve audiences even with small scrappy teams. 

Those are some of the bright spots our 27 Sustainability Audit analysts identified after helping us compile customized reports for 75 LION members so far this year. (We just announced our final 25 audit recipients for the LION-GNI Sustainability Audits & Funding program and look forward to sharing insights we gleaned across all 100 audits early next year). 

“One of the most exciting things about being a sustainability analyst is when you see how much thinking in the local news space has evolved,” said analyst Maria Archangelo, chief revenue officer of Open Campus, and a long-time leader of high-performing revenue, fundraising, sales, and membership teams for news organizations.

That evolution, Archangelo said, has led to news businesses creating better products, finding sustainable and scalable ways to understand what audiences want and developing creative strategies to generate revenue.

She cited Sioux Falls Simplified as an example. Founder Megan Raposa market tested her ideas through one-on-one interviews before launch and found that readers wanted a wider variety of coverage than her original plan to focus on education. More LION members are using this approach to help fill a community need by better matching their products to the markets.

Also more news leaders are embracing their role as publishers and journalists, said Todd Stauffer, association manager and digital specialist for the Association of Alternative Newsmedia. He’s seeing news leaders focus more deeply on finding creative ways to generate the revenue that enables the journalism, even if the business side isn’t their first love.

“It was very encouraging to see people in the journalism ecosystem taking on these difficult changes and finding ways to rise up to them,” Stauffer said.

Bene Cipolla, consultant and former publisher of Chalkbeat, said she was impressed to see how organizations built “significant, engaged audiences with very little staff, which shows the hunger for quality local news in their areas.”

These insights are encouraging, and as every publisher knows, there is still more work to do. 

Here are seven challenges our analysts surfaced, alongside some solutions they’ve recommended, that are helping inform our next steps for the Sustainability Audit.

The challenge: Too many organizations make decisions based on instinct rather than data. “I heard a lot of ‘I think’ or ‘I believe,’ and some of the founders had invested an incredible amount of money and time without checking any of their assumptions or evaluating them at critical junctures in their business,” said analyst Ariel Zirulnick, senior editor of community engagement for Southern California Public Radio. 

The solution: Conduct audience research to understand who your audiences are, what they want and how they behave. 

“[Focus on] what the audiences need and want, not what the news organization wants to provide,” said Erica Perel, director of the Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media.

The challenge: Not enough attention paid to or investment in revenue, people and operations. As Stauffer pointed out, there is progress being made here, but it’s not consistent across all publishers.

The solution: More publishers need to focus on planning, documenting, recruiting, hiring and retention. That includes “creating humane job descriptions and setting employees up for success, having policies to prevent harassment and other workplace violations, [budgeting for] realistic and healthy benefits packages, etc.,” Perel said.

The challenge: Solopreneurs not being realistic when it comes to compensation and burnout.“A theme across the organizations is that [many] founders and owners don’t pay themselves a living wage, for well past the startup phase,” Perel said. “As long as this is the prevailing expectation, news entrepreneurship will be closed to people who can’t afford it.” 

The solution: Founders need to prioritize paying themselves a sustainable wage, and consider creating a community advisory board or looking for a business partner to reduce the ‘echo-chamber of one’ effect and increase the confidence and productivity of the news leaders.

The challenge: Focusing on increasing the reporting at all costs. Analyst Angilee Shah, editor-in-chief of Charlottesville Tomorrow, highlighted one of the most common problems our participants face: adding more editorial content without the operational infrastructure to support it, which leads to feeling even more under-resourced. 

The solution: “They need systems, processes, and long-term planning to enable them to grow intentionally and sustainably,” Shah said.

The challenge: Not enough examples of exemplary operational processes and systems. “There needs to be a transition from thinking of local news as scrappy and small and simply a passion project to [it being] a viable business and career option with decent salaries,” said Jan Boyd, chief content officer at WSBE Rhode Island PBS. 

The solution: Collecting and sharing more examples of successful processes and systems that make the work more sustainable. “So much of success comes down to establishing routines,” said Zirulnick. 

The challenge: A lack of industry benchmarks that inform and motivate a news business’ growth. Analyst Dan Oshinsky, who runs Inbox Collective, said benchmarks allow teams to answer common questions about their business health and stage of growth, which helps orient news businesses on the path to sustainability. 

The solution: An industry-wide focus on benchmarks. “Seeing their growth measured against other local newsrooms will help many of these organizations understand where they need to invest and improve moving forward,” he said, adding that the industry also needs “more real talk and detailed data analysis about what success at each growth stage actually looks like.” (This will be a big focus for LION next year, and we’ll share more soon.)

The challenge: Too many news leaders feel like they’re going it alone. You generally succeed [in a leadership position] because you don’t quit,” Stauffer said. “But not quitting is easier when you can share your experiences with people who understand, sympathize, and have potential solutions.” 

The solution: More opportunities to share experiences and build community. “As I wrote up the audits, I had the sense that they’d benefit from ongoing conversations,” Cipolla said. Those conversations can take many shapes: follow-up calls, mentorship, peer-to-peer learning, and coaching support. 

What’s next for LION’s Sustainability Audits

The audits are a reminder that “despite significant challenges, local news is staffed by people of goodwill who truly want to serve their communities and can blossom with the right help,” Perel said. 

LION is continuing its work to implement many of the solutions suggested by our analysts, and we will conduct 300 additional audits over the next three years thanks to support from the Knight Foundation. The lessons we learn will inform our future support and programming.

Meet our audit analysts

Thank you to all the experts who have contributed to our Sustainability Audits this year as analysts: 

  1. Adriana Peña, media business strategy consultant and founder at Adventiva
  2. Alec Saelens, revenue project manager at the Solutions Journalism Network
  3. Alexandra Smith, audience director at the nonprofit newsroom The 19th
  4. Angilee Shah, editor-in-chief at Charlottesville Tomorrow
  5. Ariel Zirulnick, senior editor for community engagement at Southern California Public Radio
  6. Becca Aaronson, co-founder and news product strategist and executive consultant at News Product Alliance 
  7. Dan Oshinsky, founder and consultant at Inbox Collective 
  8. David Arkin, consultant on content, product and digital audience at David Arkin Consulting
  9. David Yoder, senior ad & marketing manager at Richland Source
  10. Elaine Díaz Rodríguez, senior manager of coaching at LION Publishers
  11. Emily Roseman, research director & editor at the Institute for Nonprofit News
  12. Erica Beshears Perel, director of the Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media at UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media
  13. Frances Dinkelspiel, co-founder and former executive editor of Cityside Journalism Initiative
  14. Graham Ringo, senior director of client success at the News Revenue Hub
  15. Jan Boyd, chief content officer at WSBE Rhode Island PBS
  16. Jennifer Preston, former VP for Journalism at the Knight Foundation and senior fellow at the Shorenstein Center for Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School
  17. Joanne Griffith, chief content officer for APM Studios
  18. Joe Lanane, publisher success senior manager at Indiegraf
  19. Kim Fox, director of product, reader experience at Hearst Newspapers
  20. Lisa Heyamoto, director of teaching & learning at LION Publishers
  21. Maple Walker Lloyd, director of development and community engagement at Block Club Chicago 
  22. Maria Archangelo, chief revenue officer at Open Campus
  23. Mary Benedicta Cipolla, former editor-in-chief and publisher at Chalkbeat
  24. Maria Catalina Colmenares-Wiss, consultant, strategic advisor and former program director for Latin America at Media Development Investment Fund.
  25. Priyanka Sharma-Sindhar, director of development and donor engagement at The Conversation US.
  26. Shannan Bowen, executive director of the NC Local News Workshop
  27. Todd Stauffer, association manager and digital specialist at the Association of Alternative Newsmedia

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