LION’s New Leader Spells Out His Action Plan for ‘Indies’

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lionlogo_300dpi(1)Matt DeRienzo brings strong editorial and publishing experience to his new job as interim executive director of the Local Independent Online News (LION) publishers’ association. He held top editorial and publishing positions with Digital First Media, the sprawling chain of mostly midsize daily newspapers that is on the block after a mighty struggle to transition to the new, user-centric world of digital news. In this interview, DeRienzo charts three-and-a-half-year-old LION’s direction under his leadership:

LION has over a hundred members representing digital platforms – web and mobile – that cover news in communities of all sizes and from all parts of the country. Is there such a thing as an ideal news model that engages reader, attracts advertisers and minds costs?
One of the founding principles of LION Publishers is that there is no ideal model, no single path to success. Every community is unique – different information needs, different competitive situations, different business environments, different audiences. That’s a big reason some corporate media chains are struggling in trying to put a cookie-cutter formula in place across the country, and why Patch failed.

Our members include nonprofit and for-profit models, primarily member-supported, primarily advertising-supported, paywall and no paywall. And we have members who cover neighborhoods in Brooklyn or San Francisco, a rural county in upstate New York, an entire state in Wyoming, a single town in Georgia. The one aspect of an ideal news model we can vouch for is having owners/decision makers who live in and care about the communities they are covering. Beyond that, trying to develop a one-size-fits-all method of coverage is the polar opposite of what LION’s members do; they share information about what works, what doesn’t, and put it into context so others can apply those business and journalism lessons appropriately.

How many independent digital community news operations are there nationwide? Does LION see all or most of them as potential members?
There are hundreds of independent online local news operations around the country. Some of them have been around for a decade or more. Many, many more have emerged in the past year or two and continue to launch as legacy media organizations decline and leave major holes in local journalism.

Regardless of whether legacy media has completely or only partially abandoned a community, we’d like to see a local indie publisher in every city and small town across the U.S. That would be good for local merchants, civic engagement and holding people in power accountable. As for membership in LION, we have some fairly strict membership criteria, as we want to raise the profile of quality, ethical, sustainable news operations. But there are many more publishers we’d love to see join the fold, and our members are always willing to help mentor startup local news entrepreneurs.

What is the one thing that LION members want most of all, and how does the organization go about providing it?
They want a sustainable business, whether that’s a nonprofit or for-profit model, and they want to do great local journalism that makes an impact on their community. The work of LION mostly occurs behind the scenes, as our members build strong connections with each other. Our publishers have a near-constant, 24-7 conversation, and there’s always someone willing to lend a hand or offer advice on a wide variety of topics, from business contracts to technical troubles to managing employees. We have several projects in the works to help them communicate even more effectively, such as a series of webinars on specific topics, and more in-person events, including a repeat of our national conference.

“Local news doesn’t scale” has been LION’s mantra from the beginning, though some independent single-community sites have expanded to three, four and more operations. Is this “modified, limited hangout” scaling?
 “Scale” in the view of LION’s membership happens when there’s a complete disconnect between the business and editorial sides of a news operation. Large chain outfits have again and again made decisions that are at odds with what local readers and local businesses want and deserve. Some LION Publishers cover large metros or regions of more than a million people. Others cover small towns or neighborhoods of under 100,000. Some own a sister site or two in adjoining communities. What’s important is maintaining that authentic connection to the local community, not a mathematical barrier.

There’s a lot of talk about bringing programmatic and targeted advertising to digital community  platforms. Is this relevant to LION members?
By their very nature, local independent publishers are more targeted than national sites. And readers strongly recognize the value that local news operations bring to their neighborhoods. While finding appropriate ways to integrate technology into our work is always a good thing, there’s a very tangible value to the relationship between local news outlets and readers — one that those who underwrite the work of indie news publishers find important. And local advertisers understand that a potential customer’s strong engagement with community journalism their message supports can’t simply be replaced by a programmatic ad served adjacent to mass-produced clickbait.

Digital First Media did a lot of innovating to bring its legacies into the digital world. Do you see yourself capitalizing on your experience with Digital First Media at LION in any specific ways?
For sure. Digital First did some great things around community engagement — including the newsroom cafe project I was involved with in Connecticut — that just come natural to LION members because they have literally sprung up from and out of concern for the communities they’re covering.

The same goes for breaking news coverage, “digital first” enterprise reporting and diversity. A big part of Digital First’s innovation was also recognizing that all media — including large legacy organizations — are part of an ecosystem of local news where linking, partnering and being open to collaboration with other journalists and your audience is necessary to succeed. Although many talented and innovative journalists and editors remain, a significant part of Digital First’s innovation was driven by editorial leaders who’ve moved on but continue to contribute to digital journalism. This includes Jim Brady, whose Billy Penn site in Philadelphia is a LION member; Steve Buttry, who continues to be generous with the entire industry in helping journalists learn and network; Robyn Tomlin, who is leading a digital effort at Pew Research Center that provides essential research around so much of what we do; and Mandy Jenkins, who is leading Storyful’s “open newsroom.” Of course, there are also lessons for LION in the limitations that a hedge fund-owned, national chain such as DFM has in serving local communities.

Your most recent  experience at Digital First was on on the editorial side. What else did you do at DFM that would help LION develop programs for members who want new revenue strategies?
Before returning to the newsroom, I actually worked as a publisher for three year at Digital First, where my primary focus was revenue. And before that I was a corporate director of news involved extensively in budget reviews, P&Ls and business models. One of my biggest interests right now is the potential for innovation in advertising and new revenue sources.

There have been a lot of advancements in technology that are being used in news platforms. How important do you rate technology for your members?
No algorithm or programmatic buy or scale of platform can replace human journalism at the local level. That being said, of course technology is extremely important to LION members. From cost consideration to a blank-slate open-mindedness about how to find news and present it, independent local news sites were using open, web-based tools long before legacy media organizations realized their importance.

Tom GrubisichTom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) writes “The New News” column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of the in-development hyperlocal news network Local America that rates communities on their performance across a broad spectrum of livability — Local America Charleston launched last year.