Journalism is the visible part of the news industry. A news organization’s business operations are the less visible parts. However, to serve its readers and advertisers and to support its staff, every news outlet requires a sustainable business model, especially for new entrepreneurs launching a digital news site.
Since its founding in 2012, LION Publishers has proactively provided a comprehensive offering of training programs, hands-on advice and other resources for its members, which now total more than 480. Most are small and local, and approximately 90% operate a digital news platform.
“A large percentage of the founders and operators of these digital news organizations hail from newsrooms. They have left either voluntarily or involuntarily, and many have used their buyout money to launch their news organizations. I hear from many of our members that they just want to write stories, but the real trick is the business side, and that creates the most worry,” LION Publishers Executive Director Chris Krewson said.
Krewson added that the median annual revenue for a LION member is $130,000, which is generally sufficient for a staff of two or three. Sixty-five percent of members are for-profit newsrooms, and the other 35% are nonprofits.
Business sustainability is the mission.
Lisa Heyamoto is the programming director of membership education at LION. She is involved in designing LION’s Sustainability Audit and educational programming. Andrew Rockway is the program manager for the Audit. It is often the entry point for many LION members. They complete an extensive questionnaire about their operational, financial and journalism metrics. Expert analysts interview members to learn more about their business ideas. Members receive an audit report with recommendations to create a more sustainable business.
“Increasing revenue is our members’ number-one challenge. Because many have been journalists, they must now learn how to set revenue goals, create a robust budget and examine their operational systems and processes that allow them to do quality journalism,” Heyamoto said.
LION Publishers members are eligible for as much as $20,000 in funding when they fulfill specific criteria based on the results of their Sustainability Audit. The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation funds the audits and associated costs. The Google News Initiative (GNI) provided $20,000 stipends for members in 2023 and 2024, increasing from $6,000 for 2022 audit participants.
Heyamoto said 225 LION members applied for a Sustainability Audit in 2023. Current and new members can apply for the next round of audits in early 2024.
Many LION members start with a Sustainability Audit, but there are many other learning programs to further their business education. Partnering with the Google News Initiative, LION created the LION Sustainability Lab: Unblocking Revenue Barriers. During an eight-week course, participants focus exclusively on how to remove obstacles to generating more revenue.
The News Founder Challenge helps entrepreneurs determine if the news platform they want to launch is viable. They receive specific advice for six weeks and challenges to accomplish from the GNI Startups Playbook. One-on-one consulting is then available to guide members to other LION programs.
The GNI Startups Playbook, also developed with the Google News Initiative, is often the next step for members’ startups. The Playbook is a tutorial of six chapters and four starter guides on various topics. The News Entrepreneur Academy is a program for owners who have launched their news platforms. It offers comprehensive courses, brief lessons on specific topics and a resource library of many tools and materials to grow their businesses.
“One of the most exciting trends in the independent local news industry is the diversity of publications. All of our programming is built with the flexibility for the unique nature of those publications. They choose their adventure and utilize programs and expert advice that will work for their news organizations,” Heyamoto said.
Where the LION roars
John Adams’ path to becoming the founder, executive director and editor-in-chief of the Montana Free Press in 2016 was similar to many LION members. He was laid off from the Gannett-owned Great Falls Tribune in 2015, where he was a State House reporter covering politics and government in Helena, Montana's capital. Adams was inspired by Ed Kemmick, a former Billings newspaper editor, who founded Last Best News, a digital news operation, in Billings in 2014 and was an early member of LION Publishers.
“I had this vision of a product, but I didn’t have a vision of a business model to support it. It was difficult to make my vision a reality for a couple of years. I initially joined the Institute for Nonprofit News, which collaborates very closely with LION. I also joined LION. With the support and programs of both organizations, Montana Free Press has grown to 15 full-time employees and an annual budget of more than $1.5 million since our launch as a nonprofit,” Adams said.
Adams and the Free Press received LION’s 2022 Local Journalism Award as the Business of the Year in the large revenue tier.
Kara Meyberg Guzman is the CEO and co-founder of the Santa Cruz Local (CA), with Stephen Baxter, editor and co-founder. Both were reporters at the Santa Cruz Sentinel, the local newspaper of record, and Meyberg Guzman eventually became the managing editor. Although she considered it a dream job, she realized it wasn't her last job. She left that position because she felt strongly the county needed a solid, reliable news organization.
“Stephen contacted me and suggested we should start a competitor. I started researching and investigating business models for startup newsrooms. I found the videos from the LION Publishers Summit in Chicago in 2019 and watched all the lectures. I watched all of its videos on YouTube, took copious notes and dreamed about what might work in our county,” Meyberg Guzman said.
Meyberg Guzman said the Santa Cruz Local is a very active LION member. It participated in the GNI Startups Lab twice and two rounds of the Sustainability Audit. Learning and implementing best business practices was critical, but also understanding how to achieve work-life balance helped her avoid burnout. Meyberg Guzman now focuses on fundraising and the finances of the Santa Cruz Local, allowing her to expand the staff to six journalists.
Meyberg Guzman, Baxter and their team won LION's Operational Resilience General Excellence Award in 2021 and three awards in 2022, including Business of the Year in the micro/small revenue tier.
“If you’re at a traditional, legacy newspaper feeling disillusioned, then what LION members are doing is an open, exciting, optimistic and diverse corner of our industry. If you’re thinking about starting a local newsroom, then know it is possible; it can be done,” Meyberg Guzman said.
Adams has similar advice: “I would urge anyone thinking about starting a digital news platform to go for it because there are many resources, like LION Publishers, to help you be successful. We need more passionate, committed digital news entrepreneurs.”
Bob Sillick has held many senior positions and served a myriad of clients during his 47 years in marketing and advertising. He has been a freelance/contract content researcher, writer, editor and manager since 2010. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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