‘Indie’ Publishers Are Ready to Start Roaring

A question periodically buzzes in my head: “Have independent news hyperlocals figured out how to survive against their scaled and generally well-heeled corporate competitors?”

The old year saw AOL’s Patch forecasting profitability by 2014, daily and weekly newspapers digging in with their metro-wide hyperlocal networks and TV stations doing the same, and some new “legacy” outlets sprouting – in top-20 market Phoenix and in 14 of Belo’s metro markets.

The “indies” didn’t spend the year sitting on their hands, either. They got serious about social media, experimented with collaboration (even with their corporate competitors!), and got serious about the trade association they set up in the fall of 2011, which lacked a name and a clear sense of direction.

No more. The association’s name — Local Independent Online News Publishers — is a catchy acronym: LION. There’s a 11-member board of directors, a sense of mission that’s powered by what looks like a strong start in networking, and not least funding from the Patterson Foundation that will encourage LION’s growth by subsidizing membership dues ($50 of the $150 annual cost and half of the $450 cost for three-year memberships).

But LION is still in the cub stage. It has only 75 members — the number was just updated — from among the at least several thousand independent hyperlocal sites that are publishing. Those 75 members’ $10,650 in dues won’t permit the organization to live up to all its goals, at least not in the short run.

I had email chats with one of the newest members, Denise Civiletti, who, with her husband, Peter Blasi, founded the news- and ad-packed RiverheadLocal on New York’s Long Island in 2010, and with one of the newest LION board members, Brandy Tuzon Boyd, founding editor and publisher of the equally news- and ad-packed Natomas Buzz in metro Sacramento, Calif.

My first question to Civiletti was whether there was one burning issue she wanted LION to tackle in 2013.

“Not really,” she said. “There are a lot of different issues the group should and will be tackling over the long term, I’m sure. But first things first. Right now I’m sure the board is concentrating on organizational issues as a top priority. I believe LION’s leadership is working on organizing a publishers conference for 2013. That in itself is a monumental task.”

“Other things they are working on include things like group insurance opportunities,” Civiletti added. “But the most important thing to me personally is that LION build a solid foundation. The organization is in its formative stages. It’s got to take things one step at a time, I think, and not bite off too much at once.”

Civiletti said she looks forward to sharing with other indie editors and publishers — many of them veterans  of the corporate world of legacy news media — how they’ve survived the plunge into entrepreneurship.

“We are there for each other, albeit virtually, to discuss things, get support and advice from each other,” she said. “It’s been wonderful for my husband and me to have such a network. I want to see it build a foundation so that the organization is here for indie online publishers for the long haul.”

I reached Tuzon Boyd when she was wearing her other hat (“juggling kids and other family duties”) but showing that resourcefulness of multitasking indie editors and publishers, she quickly reverted to her role as editor and LION board member.

“LION publishers are dedicated to the principles of local control and independence,” Tuzon Boyd said. “Our members are always working together to share best practices and lend a helping hand when needed. LION publishers own healthy, local small businesses that are successful in their communities.”

Does LION envisage becoming self-sustaining? I asked her. “LION is an educational nonprofit and both member and institutional support is welcome,” she said. “Every educational nonprofit, whether in the journalism field or not, relies on some institutional support. While dues are an important component of our budget, LION — much like ONA, SPJ, and other journalism groups — will need support from foundations and corporations that recognize the contribution our membership and group make to the future of local reporting.”

What about when it comes to her own paper, what did Tuzon Boyd expect to get from LION?

“I’m proud to have played a small part in building the group and am thrilled to be serving on its very first Board of Directors,” Tuzon Boyd said. “I look forward to learning more from my peers. Whether it’s tips on closing an advertising deal, advice on setting up a membership program, sharing online reporting techniques, help with troublesome coding problems, or recommendations for website designers  —  the expertise that LION colleagues freely share every day is a huge help to me and so many of our members.”

It’s encouraging that LION’s members and directors include entrepreneurs like Civiletti and Tuzon Boyd. They don’t have corporate resources behind them, but they (and the rest of the pride of LION) are smart and passionate about news and community, and they know how to fight and succeed in fiercely competitive markets.

Happy New Year to each of them.

Tom Grubisich authors The New News column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of LocalAmerica, which is partnering with InstantAtlas to develop sites that will present how communities rate in livability. Local America is featured on the Reynolds Journalism Institute’s Pivot Point site.

  1. January 3, 2013

    Hi Tom,

    Thanks much for your coverage of LION Publishers.

    A few quick notes: As of today, we’re up to 75 members, and have more local journalists ready to join: http://www.lionpublishers.com/news/report/010313_membership/

    I’m sure Tucson’s TV stations would love it if this were a Top 20 market, but I believe you’re referring to Phoenix.

    Dues for a three-year membership in LION are $450; The Patterson Foundation is underwriting new members by paying half of that figure.

    You contrast LION’s membership with a reference to “several thousand” local sites. While we hear from new local indie publishers just about daily, the number of truly independent sites that are run as serious businesses is still small. That’s something we aim to help change.

    One of our goals is to encourage the growth of the LION segment of the industry. I’d like to see a Local Independent Online News site in every small town and city across the United States.

    The future of local news is a return to its roots. Local news was a healthy business and a vital community connection when it was reported by local news organizations, not by mega-chains concerned with keeping the stock price up. We believe that those sites that uphold the principles expressed in our name will be those that are sustainable over the long term; we’ve seen what happens with Patch-work efforts to “scale.”

    You said our dues structure won’t permit us to live up to our goals. We’re already meeting most of immediate goals, and are working on organizing a conference for later this year. Certainly, we’re looking for sponsors to underwrite that important effort.

    Already, LION members share solid tips and new techniques on a daily basis. We’ve negotiated preferred rates on media liability and other business insurance for our members. We’re scheduling a series of webinars on tech, editorial and business topics, and speaking with vendors about discounts for LION members.

    Building a community isn’t a top-down effort that necessarily takes a seven-figure budget. The success of LION Publishers will be based on what our members are willing to do for each other. Given our track record already, I’m confident that their efforts will make the founding of LION a worthwhile venture.

    A healthy local news ecosystem will mean many happy new years for everyone involved.


    Dylan Smith

    Chair, LION Publishers

    Editor & Publisher, TucsonSentinel.com

    1. TomGrubisich
      January 3, 2013

      I am thoroughly embarrassed. I actually wrote the linked column that was about “legacy” community sites coming to Phoenix in 2012, not Tucson, and I goofed on my math about the cost of three-year LION memberships. That’ll teach me to do the column right up against deadline.

      1. January 3, 2013

        One of the many reasons the Internet is so powerful – the ability to have a conversation and correct errors (minor in this case, to be sure) right on the primary source.


  2. Dr. Michelle Ferrier
    January 4, 2013

    I am interested in the composition of LION membership. Are they truly representative of the nation’s diversity in founders and in geographic reach? Or are we remaking the new news ecosystem to look like mainstream media? What do we need to do to ensure minority founders can be successful and underrepresented communities get the news and information they need.

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