LION President: ‘Indie’ Readership, Revenues ‘Reaching New Heights’

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New Picture (4)Hyperlocal editor and publisher Dylan Smith will be marking his first year as president of the Local Independent Online News association (LION) next month. Smith founded the independent and nonprofit Tucson Sentinel after Tucson’s 138-year-old daily, the Citizen — where he was online editor — was closed by Gannett in 2009.

To find out how LION and its members are doing in a year of hyperlocal turmoil and shakeups – most of it among the corporate networks against which many “indies” compete – I put these questions to Smith.

LION jump-started into existence about a half-year ago with 75 members that were quickly signed up through a half-price deal supported by the Patterson Foundation. Where are you today in membership, and how long is the half-price deal available?
LION has just under 100 members at the moment. We’d definitely encourage other local indie publishers to sign up before the end of May while they can still get 50 percent off their dues, thanks to the generous support of the Patterson Foundation. In addition, publishers who’ve paid their dues by May 31 will qualify for half-off early bird registration for our conference in Chicago in October.

Are your members small or big sites, mostly for-profit or non-profit, and what kind of communities do they represent, geographically and demographically?
LION publishers are in charge of the entire gamut of local news sites, all across the country. We have a mix of for- and nonprofit sites, covering neighborhoods, small rural towns, metro areas and regions. Just as every community is unique, it takes a different type of news organization to report on each one.

Do you have an idea of how many independent local news sites are out there?
Quantifying the number of indie sites is difficult, because it depends on definition. There are easily a couple hundred professionally run sites that produce a steady stream of news. LION aims to serve those publishers, and assist those who want to launch a site or transition a part-time project into a sustainable business. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of those projects around the country; we’d love to see a LION publisher rebuilding local news in every city and town.

What services are you providing right now to members? What’s your feedback from members on those services?
We’ve negotiated preferred rates on media liability and D&O insurance, and are working on member discounts with a number of different technology vendors. Our primary focus is on providing a platform for member communication — LIONs privately discuss a variety of business, tech and editorial questions daily, and freely offer up solutions to challenges. We’ve been very pleased by the number of publishers who participate every day, helping out their colleagues with quality advice.

Any permanent staff?
LION is an all-volunteer organization; our informal motto is “publishers helping publishers.” We draw on the individual expertise of our members, who serve on the LION Board of Directors and various committees as well as consistently lending a helping hand to fellow members. We haven’t yet seen that having paid staff would make us more effective in our goal of helping indie publishers work efficiently and effectively through leveraging the diverse talents of our members.

You’re planning an October conference. What will it do?
The LION summit will see our members actively share their expertise on specific topics, as well as provide an opportunity to meet with experts from business and academia, along with vendors who are filling the needs of local publishers.

Is there a proven model for producing hyperlocal news that generates an engaged usership that would be attractive to advertisers?
Local doesn’t scale. We’ve seen it again and again; giant chains trying to templatize the production of news. That’s not a tactic that worked in print for Gannett and others, and it certainly won’t work online. The troubles of large-scale attempts at covering local news are only relevant to LION publishers in that they show the contrast between the operations of local businesses and chains.

There’s no “proven model” other than the precept that local news works when it is just that. Every community is different; attempting to cover every town and city by ticking a few boxes in a top-down plan is foolhardy at best, and insulting to local readers at worst – as well as being a great way to lose millions of dollars.

We regularly see LION members announcing that their readership and revenues are reaching new heights, that they’re hiring new staffers and deepening their coverage. We don’t yet see many getting over-the-top wealthy publishing local news, but they’re not burning through tens or  hundreds of millions, either.

Local news is successful when it truly *is* local. Local news organizations must be *of* their communities, not just *in* them to ship profits out of town. Local news must respect readers: know what they want to know, know what they need to know, and provide it quickly, accurately and comprehensively. Cookie-cutter editorial priorities mandated on a national level are the complete opposite of that.

There’s continuing criticism and confusion about the metrics to measure audience. Unique-visitor and page-view numbers don’t really measure actual audience, critics say. Is LION doing anything to help bring better analytics to measuring audience at the hyperlocal level?
At the local level, small businesses are concerned about one thing: Does their cash register ring? Supporting a local news site helps them connect with the local readers who are passionate about their communities and motivated to support their local economies. It’s easy to drive page views with titillating fluff and nonsense placed on pages calculated to garner endless clicks on “next,” but time-on-page metrics and thoughtful, relevant comments show what readers truly engage with.

What do you and your board of directors see at the No. 1 issue for indies as this near midyear mark?
There are many LION sites that have developed into businesses that are sustainable over the long term. Fostering growth in the local segment of the industry by spreading that knowledge around is our primary goal. LION gives local news entrepreneurs the ability to call upon the widespread experience of those who’ve already faced down similar challenges.

While there’s certainly no single recipe for success, our members are willing to share with one another, and learn what’s behind our achievements. Just as with any new small business, launching a local news site is certainly not for the faint of heart. It’s a venture that demands skill and perseverance, but it’s always encouraging to know that the other members of LION Publishers are at your back.

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.