What we learned about sustainability through our inaugural GNI Startups Lab

A strong foundation, small steps and targeted support are key to long-term stability for news businesses

November 7, 2021 by Lisa Heyamoto

Photo by Shubham Dhage on Unsplash
Photo by Shubham Dhage on Unsplash

We launched our first-ever GNI Startups Lab in March with a hypothesis: that the path to sustainability for independent news businesses lies at the nexus of operational resilience, financial health and journalistic impact. We wanted to see whether helping news businesses build capacity through experimentation in these areas was a step toward uniting those three crucial elements. 

To test our hypothesis, we got pretty meta. In partnership with the Google News Initiative, we selected 10 independent news businesses to participate in our experiment and helped them conduct experiments that would move them closer to sustainability by providing training, coaching and funding.

We approached it this way because we believe that trial and iteration are crucial when it comes to navigating tremendous growth and constant change in the independent news landscape. There’s so much to learn about this burgeoning space, and an experimental mindset is what allows publications to discover best practices and promising paths.

So, in the spirit of discovery and sharing, here’s what we learned from the GNI Startups Lab:

The path to sustainability starts with operational resilience

For news leaders, orienting the work toward journalistic impact is often a given, and working toward financial health is a necessity. But participants in the GNI Startups Lab reported that they left the program with a much deeper appreciation for how much it matters to have your internal operations in order, which in turn makes the rest of your efforts possible. 

In fact, we’ve seen that many news businesses reach a point where their operational capacity can no longer support their journalistic and financial ambitions, and the result is often burnout, turnover and a business that just can’t seem to move forward. 

It can be difficult to take a step back to build that foundation, and participants in the Startups Lab embarked on focused efforts to increase their operational resilience. These included building more efficient processes and systems to manage their work, and assembling the data and documentation that allowed them to make informed, strategic decisions. 

The result? Six organizations reconceived their definition of sustainability to include references to operational resilience.

“I’ve learned that operational resilience — an ability for our team to work together to achieve shared goals, without burnout — is equally important (as the journalism and finances),” said Kara Meyberg Guzman, CEO and co-founder of Santa Cruz Local. “Our team is so much stronger than we were a year ago.” 

Small steps lead to big progress

It’s tempting to think that sustainability can be achieved by a single event, like a huge infusion of cash, a new hire or an innovative revenue stream. But we’ve seen that the foundation for that path is much more mundane: a series of clear-eyed, informed and strategic choices made over a long period of time, mixed with a few well-timed catalysts along the way.

To make those smart choices, we advocated setting practical goals and testing ideas to meet them, being iterative and creative and, most of all, being open to changing direction when an experiment doesn’t produce intended results. The goals that the news organizations in the Lab cohort set were seemingly small — a percentage change here, a new audience development tactic there — but they added up.

For example, LkldNow wanted more people to subscribe to its newsletter, and hypothesized that streamlining the sign-up process would lead to higher numbers. Changing the website plug-in and sign-up form led to a 20 percent increase over four months, including 500 community members who subscribed that first month.

Their takeaway? Experimentation isn’t as intimidating as it sounds.

Lab participants reported that this experimental mindset helped them think about progress as iterative rather than additive, gave them the courage to try new things and to learn from success and failure alike in pursuit of their long-term goals.

“Before, our ideas were just that — ideas,” said Paola Jaramillo, executive director of Enlace Latino NC. “The program gave us the resources and funding to actually play around with them and make mistakes that we learned from along the way. We will carry this experiment mindset with us on our path toward a more sustainable future for our newsroom.”

There is no one-size-fits-all roadmap for sustainability

We know that news businesses on the path to sustainability should start by building operational resilience and that they progress through iteration and experimentation. So what’s next?

At LION, we’re continuing our work to understand exactly how best to provide targeted support within that framework. After all, every news business is different, and the details matter. That’s why we’ve created the LION Sustainability Audit to assess where publications are on their sustainability journey, where they want to go and what steps they should consider taking to get there. We’re thinking of it as a diagnostic tool that pinpoints where an organization needs the most help before providing them with the right resources.

All participants in the GNI Startups Lab received our audit, which allowed our coaches to get straight to work supporting them toward their specific sustainability goals. And we’re so encouraged by the results. Here’s a snapshot of what participants reported over the course of the program:

  • 7 increased compensation and/or benefits for staff 
  • 6 launched new products 
  • 8 grew their staff 
  • 7 implemented new processes and workflows that increase efficiency

We think this proves our original hypothesis: that, with time, targeted support, of which we’ve found 1:1 coaching and funding to be crucial, and a clear set of goals, we can help more news businesses move along the path to sustainability.

“Officially this is called the GNI Startups Lab, but we call it the ‘Sustainability Lab,’” said Trinity Laurino, LkldNow’s Community Engagement Director. “It’s been instrumental in helping us transition from start-up phrase to the next level of creating a hyperlocal news organization with the means to serve the Lakeland community for decades to come.”

LION Publishers and GNI would like to thank our program coaches, Brian Boyer, Lizzy Hazeltine and Lillian Ruiz, whose guidance and insights were invaluable to both the program participants and the LION/GNI team. We’d also like to thank the panel of news entrepreneurship experts who helped us design this program. They are: Corey Ford, Yvonne Leow, Erin Millar, Wesley Panek and Anita Zielina.

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