There was nothing on the agenda of the recent Summit of Local Independent Online News Publishers about LION’s big news in the making. Executive Director Matt DeRienzo, who had built the association into a major force in the local news industry, was moving to a top editorial post with Hearst Newspapers. But when the three-day meeting opened on Oct. 11 at the downtown Chicago campus of Columbia College, DeRienzo was on the floor, still wearing his association name tag as he greeted some of the more than 200 attendees, speakers, and other guests.
Neither DeRienzo nor LION Board Chair Dylan Smith, who MC’d many of the event’s functions, said anything publicly about the move. They couldn’t because, even as the Summit was unfolding, privately owned Hearst was still busy nailing down the particulars of DeRienzo’s arrival as vice president of editorial and digital content at the newspaper division’s Connecticut Media Group.
On Monday, Oct. 15, Hearst made it official that DeRienzo would editorially oversee its recently acquired New Haven Register and seven other Connecticut dailies, 13 weeklies, and 21 news websites—a role similar to the one he held in 2012-2014 when he was Northeast regional editor for Digital First Media, the newspaper chain owned by the Alden Global Capital hedge fund. DeRienzo reportedly left DFM because of its unrelenting deep cutbacks in editorial staffing in the wake of the bankruptcy by DFM’s previous owner — cutbacks of the kind that DeRienzo acknowledged he had to make at the Register and elsewhere in his regional operation at DFM before he apparently had enough and chose to resign.
The final flurry of corporate finessing at Hearst to wrap up DeRienzo’s new role overlapped with LION’s Summit, but didn’t disrupt the annual affair.
The conference opened at 8:30 a.m. on Thursday the 11th with a day-long boot camp for “idea-stage local news entrepreneurs and fledgling local independent online news publishers.” LION hopes the 23 boot-camp participants will help to fill at least some of the gaps in hundreds of communities which have lost news providers through closures and mergers or seen some of them nearly editorially neutered as corporate and especially hedge-fund publishers have cut newsroom staffs by as much as 90% over the last decade and a half—a trend DeRienzo repeatedly red-flagged in promoting LION’s independent publishers as the solution for saving local news.
For the remaining two and half days, there was an array of speakers, workshops, and panels for summiteers, covering—in DeRienzo’s words from a July preview—“real-world strategies for revenue, hands-on technology demonstrations, effective reporting tips, and experts speaking on business and legal issues.”
To find out what the Summit accomplished, I went to longtime journalist Steve Beatty, who was editor and CEO of the award-winning investigative website The Lens in New Orleans for eight years before joining LION as a consultant last January and who, with DeRienzo’s departure, has been named interim director.
You were working the registration desk of the Summit. What did you see and hear about the event from that vantage point?
The sense of community is hard to convey until you see it. A first-time visitor from a journalistic foundation said we were lucky to have so many people in LION who were open and willing to help each other and do anything for them from the moment they stepped through the door.
The overwhelming reaction was that no one was worrying about the future of local news—it was, what are we going to do right now that works and make it work for you?
Does this attitude of sharing to make progress “right now” exist at LION on the 362 days between Summits?
It does. One example is RAMP, which stands for “Revenue from Advertising Mentorship Program.”
One of the mentees is Shereen Siewert, founder, editor, and publisher of the Wausau Pilot and Review in Wisconsin, a nonprofit which she launched in February 2017 after journalistic stints with Gannett in Wisconsin and the established Wausau daily.
Shereen’s site doesn’t scream “nonprofit.” It’s got display ads and all the other things you would see at a for-profit site. She has been able to expand her staff beyond herself and a few freelancers and hire an advertising and marketing director, who is her husband, Darren Siewert.
Shereen is receiving mentoring from Kim Clark, vice president of business development and partner at the Noozhawk website in Santa Barbara. Kim and four other mentors with LION receive a modest stipend through a grant from the Democracy Fund, one of our funding partners.
One of your Summit events was “30 Ideas in 30 Minutes,” where publishers and editors had 60 seconds to talk about a successful innovation, or flop, at their sites. How did that go?
Very well. One novel innovation was from the East Lansing Info nonprofit in Michigan, which gives a T-shirt with the site’s logo to anyone who calls in a correction. Alice Dreger, publisher and president of the Info, told the session that the gift tells the community, “You’re part of our reporting team. We want you to read everything with a close eye. Is this right? If it’s not, tell us.”
Another idea that worked came from Greg Hanscom, executive editor of Crosscut, a nonprofit which covers the Seattle region. Greg talked about how he put together a coalition of 30 media organizations on the homelessness issue. He freely acknowledged he copied the idea from the San Francisco Chronicle. Not only did the coalition raise the profile of Crosscut, but it did what it was intended to do—get the Seattle region community focused on homelessness.
“Consumer revenue” is getting a lot of attention as local news providers seek alternatives to advertising that Google and Facebook are mostly capturing with their precise targeting. Did the Summit tackle that subject?
We had a presentation from the News Revenue Hub on how to build loyalty with readers and then use that loyalty to bring those readers in as subscribers by convincing them someone has to pay for the work that’s done.
It doesn’t take that many “touches” with people who care about their community to realize they’re getting something of value. It’s actually easier now to ask people $10 or $15 a month, and for that we can thank streaming entertainment providers like Netflix, Hulu, and Spotify. It’s become part of the online culture. You pay a small amount each month for what you enjoy, and happily local news has become one of those things.
Your Summit had a panel on the African-American press where moderator Tracie Powell, senior fellow at the Democracy Fund, one of LION’s funders, and a member of the association’s board of directors, talked about the “myths” about black news organizations. How important is it for independent local news to be racially and ethnically diverse?
Being independent means covering community issues that have not always been attractive to traditional media that had to, essentially, satisfy advertisers. So a lot of disregarded communities tends to be communities of color, and LIONs are helping to fill that gap. So it’s important we are diverse in race and ethnicity, and gender, geography, and the economic levels of our communities. One of our LION communities is Santa Barbara, which is considereded toney. But another LION community is Luther, Okla., a rural town (population 1,200) outside of Oklahoma City.
The motto for independent local news sites is “Local doesn’t scale.” It goes back to May 2011 when 45 local independent news publishing entrepreneurs adopted it for their new branding campaign “Authentically Local,” which turned out to be a precursor to LION. Any new thoughts there?
The look and feel and the interest of your local site don’t scale, but there are things our members have in common—back-office operations, like where you host your site. Everybody has concerns about technology—“Streamlining Your Technology So You Can Focus on News Gathering” was one of our Summit panels. Benefits for employees is another important back-office issue.
Collaboration among providers is now the “coin of the realm” among independent local news sites. At The Lens in 2014, we partnered with ProPublica on a big story on the shrinking coastline of Louisiana called “Losing Ground.” It certainly is not something that The Lens could have done alone.
DeRienzo was halfway to Hearst when the Summit began. How did that affect the conference?
Matt was the driving force at the Summit. He did the scheduling, rescheduling, and more rescheduling for things like getting a speaker who said “I’m sorry I can only come Saturday morning, not Thursday afternoon.” He was involved from the beginning to the end. There wasn’t one hiccup.
Besides naming you interim director, what else did the LION board do regarding that position?
It committed to launching a national search for a permanent executive director in the next month. That process will begin after the details are worked out at a previously scheduled board retreat in two weeks.
Will you be a candidate?
Yes, I intend to apply. I’d be honored if the board chose me to lead the organization as it continues to expand and help more communities benefit from sustainable independent journalism.
Finally, in your new position, how do you see the future of LION?
LION’s future is on the upswing. We’ve got a seat at more tables now. When people talk about local news—and that’s happening more and more—LION is included in that conversation. There’s a recognition that our 225-plus members are making a difference in the ecosystem of local news.
DeRienzo had estimated that between closures and mergers of newspapers and more than a decade of deep cutbacks in the size of newsrooms, “it might take 5,000 local independent online news efforts” to reverse what some journalistic researchers are calling a “news desert.” With 225 members after about seven years of operation, can LION approach such a goal in a reasonable period of time?
Matt has also said to the board that if he did nothing but focus on finding and recruiting existing publishers, as well as encouraging potential publishers, he could nearly double LION’s membership in a year. We hope the LION staff can soon grow to include such a scout and recruiter position.
Still, I think 5,000 is aspirational and a long way off. But I believe we could reach a critical mass or tipping point, where growth would just explode.
The U.S. has about 3,100 counties. I hope it’s not unreasonable to think that each one could benefit from — and deserves — at least one local independent newsroom.
Matt DeRienzo talked about why he made his move from LION to Hearst in this interview with Kristen Hare, Poynter Institute’s specialist in local news.