With $200k Boost, LION Aims to Take ‘Indie’ News to Next Level

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It was bracing news when local news advocate Michele McLellan’s Block by Block Community News Summit shut down for good after its third annual convention in 2012. But before participants departed from their Chicago venue that fall, they paused long enough to sit down and create a successor – the Local Independent Online News (LION) Publishers association.

Four and a half years later, local news is at a conflicted juncture that can breed both pessimism and hope. The darker side is compellingly captured in this new Guardian report by a longtime veteran of local news. The brighter side is the growth of independent sites, including the nearly 140 in LION, which are attracting, collectively, millions of readers and, in many cases, turning profits that range up to and beyond $1 million annually (while most corporate chains of daily newspapers continue to lose money).

LION just received a $200,000 Knight Foundation grant to help the organization bring more professional services to its members and strengthen local news as a media industry. To find out how LION will deploy the funds, Street Fight put these questions to interim Executive Director Matt DeRienzo:

What will LION be able to do with the Knight money?
It will enable the organization to hire a full-time executive director and step up regional training and networking opportunities for local publishers.

Since its founding in the fall of 2012, LION has primarily been an all-volunteer organization. It has seen significant growth and provided invaluable advice to local news startups despite that. But the needs of an exploding grassroots movement across the country — independent publishers stepping up to fill gaps in local journalism — have far outpaced the capacity of volunteers (who are busy running their own sites).

What services do members want that you can’t fully provide with your present resources?
LION was founded on the idea that there is great wisdom and a wealth of practical, actionable ideas, advice and tips to be gleaned from the successes (and failures) of local independent online news publishers who’ve already taken the plunge. With additional resources, we’ll be able to make this information more accessible to both existing publishers who are seeking sustainability and idea-stage local news entrepreneurs preparing to launch.

Access to one-on-one attention, mentorship and follow-up can be the difference between success and failure for a local news startup. This and other funding opportunities will enable us to start being that kind of resource.

It’s also important that independent local publishers are represented in broader discussions about journalism, technology, press freedom and with the big social media and search platforms, and this will give us more capacity to do that.

How important is LION to independent local news?
First, I’d say that there is no category of news more important to our country and democracy than local, and second, there is no sector of local news organization more important right now than independent publishers.

Corporate newspaper chain ownership has maintained profits by making deep cuts to local journalism over the past decade, and pursuing cookie-cutter strategies for diverse communities that differ wildly.

Does anyone think that the Gannetts and Gatehouses of the world are going to go back into those local markets and restore reporter and editor positions that have been cut? No. It’s up to local communities now to fill their own gaps in journalism and information.

LION is important because through us, laid-off journalists or community members who recognize this can learn about a range of models to meet the need, and then have support and mentorship at every step of the process. LION’s members include both nonprofit and for-profit local news publishers, with a range of business models and covering communities that range from a single suburban town, to a big city neighborhood, to several rural counties, to an entire city or state. They constantly learn from each other, and without that networking LION provides, many would not be sustainable.

There’s a lot going on in local news today. Sites are developing strategies to better connect with their communities and diversify their revenue. Technology is getting more attention.  When you look at everything, is the outlook positive or problematic?
Bleak – if you gauge success by old parameters. But if you acknowledge that local does not scale, and that a local news organization probably isn’t something that’s going to interest a hedge fund looking for a big and quick return on investment, the outlook is positive.

There are significant glimmers of hope when it comes to support for journalism that is closest and most important to local communities. Look at the success the Knight Foundation recently had in matching donations to nonprofit newsrooms. The effort generated $2.4 million in support of journalism.

There is increasing support for paid membership programs at local news organizations, including some for-profit sites. If your version of success for a local news ecosystem that includes an eclectic mix of news and information outlets – for-profit, nonprofit, with paid staff, volunteer, niche topic and general – instead of one large (and typically insulated and out of touch) newspaper, optimism should abound.

Freedom-of-the-press issues are moving to the forefront in Washington, D.C. How about locally?
Cuts to local journalism by legacy media outlets have left a significant number of local and state government institutions with few people, or in some cases, no one, holding them accountable or forcing transparency. Local independent online news publishers are stepping up in a significant way to fill these gaps, and keeping people in power “trained” in good government by asking questions and using the Freedom of Information Act.

Organizations such as LION need to be there to offer support and advice as FOIA and the legitimacy of real journalism itself come under increasing attack.

Tom GrubisichTom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) writes “The New News” column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of hyperlocal news network Local America, and is also working on a book about the history, present, and future of Charleston, S.C.