Jay Small at LION Publishers Summit

Jay Small, chief innovation officer of Local Media Association, attended portions of the LION (Local Independent Online News) Publishers Summit, Oct. 24-26, 2019, in Nashville. Here are his observations:

Hey, incumbent local news media people! Established newspapers, TV stations, news/talk radio — yeah, I’m talking to you. This weekend I learned some things you should know at a conference you almost certainly didn’t attend, from an association you maybe didn’t know existed. Those takeaways boil down to this.

LIONs are just like you. Except they’re not.

The conference was the 2019 LION Publishers Summit. And here’s how that conclusion formed.

LIONs are just like you …

Some LIONs used to be you

I bumped into probably a dozen people I know who were once news or digital leaders at incumbent local media companies, and many more LIONs than that got their start working for local newspapers or broadcasters.

They rely a lot on the same story/coverage forms

At the Summit, you could see plenty of examples of experimentation and innovation with what topics LIONs choose to cover or investigate as signature projects (for examples, just check the list of finalists for LION Awards, especially for investigations, solutions journalism and coverage of underserved communities). But I expected to see more variations and experiments in story forms than I did. The day-to-day of many LION sites still looks a lot like the incumbents: inverted-pyramid coverage of spot news, with photos or video when attainable, and index pages full of headlines and teasers. It seems likely this is a consequence of experience (see my point above), as well as limited time and resources, more than any lack of desire to experiment.

They, like you, are trying to figure out how to measure success

LIONs struggle with analytics and performance indicators for news and for their businesses, just like incumbents. But with fewer resources on average, LIONs have to be more selective and focused in setting, measuring and managing to performance indicators.

Ned Berke, editorial director of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, walked Summit attendees through a set of Google Analytics/Data Studio dashboards he developed (in cooperation with LION and the Center for Cooperative Media) to make it easier to monitor and manage to audience engagement and loyalty indicators. Berke built these dashboards mainly for small organizations but I know many larger incumbents that would find them useful.

He describes elements of the dashboards, and thoughts behind their creation, in this video:

They are looking everywhere for funding and assistance

LION sponsors
LION sponsors: not the usual suspects.

At industry events aimed at incumbents, you typically don’t see sponsorships from as many philanthropic and academic institutions, nor providers of fellowships or public service resources, as I saw at LION. Incumbents and LIONs alike are turning to these resource providers as advertising and subscription revenues fall short of what’s needed to persist with strong community journalism.

During the Summit, Chris Krewson, LION executive director, sat down for a keynote discussion with Roxann Stafford, now managing director of the Knight-Lenfest Local News Transformation Fund and formerly director of program for media startup accelerator Matter. In this video, Stafford explained how Matter’s design-thinking approach applied to news entrepreneurs trying to engage with communities and develop sustaining revenue streams, as well as how the Knight-Lenfest fund aims to help local news.


They’re wary of aggregation and disintermediation

Vincent Wu
Vincent Wu, COO, NewsBreak

A session titled AI-Powered Local News Distribution turned occasionally contentious. Session leader Vincent Wu, chief operating officer of NewsBreak, fielded concerns from several LIONs in the room about how the NewsBreak “news discovery and distribution” site/app aggregates content from their sites, as well as the flow of referral traffic and potential revenue.

Wu said the key difference between NewsBreak and major platforms such as Facebook, Apple News and Google News, is that NewsBreak is 100% focused on local news. But some attendees felt NewsBreak aggregated too much of their content, or siphoned too much attention from their own sites and user experiences, including potential subscribers or ad impressions.

“I’m not interested in [referral] traffic, I’m interested in revenue,” said Howard Owens, publisher, The Batavian.

You’re working hard, and so are they

Overheard: “This is the first journalism conference I have been to in a long time. Since I started this it has been heads-down so much, it’s nice to be here and take in some new ideas.”

… except they’re not like you

The main observable differences between incumbent local news media and LIONs come down to:

LIONs want to get to sustainability, incumbents want to keep it

Most LIONs were bootstrapped into existence relatively recently, and their founders typically remain principals of the business and/or the news coverage, often both. LIONs mostly want to get to sustainability.

Incumbents have a long history in what are or were highly profitable media sectors. They want to preserve sustainability, at least, and often bear responsibility to shareholders to generate profits well beyond enough to survive. Rare is the publisher or general manager who founded the business he or she now runs. Incumbent publishers and GMs usually focus on the business, leaving day-to-day news leadership to editors or news directors.

One Summit session addressed this topic directly: Key Lessons on Bootstrapping a Business to Sustainability. There, a scrappy, “whatever-it-takes” approach to news entrepreneurship became apparent, but so did the toll it sometimes takes on the entrepreneurs.

Alice Dreger

“My work overcomes my life, then I feel guilty,” said Alice Dreger, publisher and president, East Lansing Info. “So one of the projects I put in my self-journal is paying attention to my [family].”

When LIONs wear both the business hat and the journalism hat, they work hard on balancing those interests.

“For a lot of you, you’re probably the only news organization for real in your own little niche,” Dreger said. “Taking it a little slower will probably make it better. It’s a constant chicken-and-egg problem: If I stop to work on revenue I am not producing the content people expect, but if I spend time on content I am not producing enough revenue to survive.”

Their focus is tighter

LIONs tend to zero in on both geographies and subject matter, and work hard to build communities of interest around both. Incumbents default to mass-media behaviors more often, covering a broader range of topics across larger geographic areas.

LIONs aren’t in it for the money. They’re also not in it to “be on TV,” or to see their bylines in print. I observed plenty of examples of LIONs who built their sites and businesses from the ground up because they saw needs not addressed or communities not served well by incumbents.

They approach technology differently

LIONs, perhaps out of necessity, approach enabling technologies with a curiosity and entrepreneurial bent that I have not seen in incumbent media since the earliest days of the web.

The Richland Source won four LION Awards including Publisher of the Year and, to my point, Technology Innovation of the Year for developing LedeAI, software that draws from news, entertainment and sports data sources available to a news organization, and automatically produces news briefs. Here’s a case study on how it works and how the Source applies it. Now LedeAI is being marketed to other news organizations and served as a Summit sponsor.

LIONs, perhaps out of necessity, embrace open-source platforms more readily than incumbents. They actively participate in the refinement of projects such as Newspack, the joint project of Automattic, Google News Initiative, The Lenfest Institute for Journalism, ConsenSys and the Knight Foundation that is wrapping a news organization toolset around the well-known WordPress content management platform.

The Newspack panel, from left: Mary Walter Brown, from News Revenue Hub; David Fritze, from Oklahoma Watch; David Eads, from The Chicago Reporter; Ned Berke, from the Brooklyn Eagle; and Steve Beatty, from Newspack.

In the panel discussion Unpacking Newspack: Pilot Newsrooms Review and Discuss the New Platform, early-adopter LIONs described the pros and cons of engaging with Newspack as both an early-stage development project and as a crucial news platform.

“Our goal was to give every story more of a multimedia feel,” said David Fritze, executive editor, Oklahoma Watch. “We want the experience to be special. We were attracted to Newspack because we could be a lot more creative with it. We don’t have a separate website design person, but anyone can go in and produce a very nice looking page.”

That’s not to say the wish list for Newspack features sits empty. “I can’t say I got everything I wanted in the first rollout but that would be insane,” said Ned Berke, of the Brooklyn Eagle (a popular guy at LION, and one of the founding board members, who also designed the dashboards I described earlier). “We do want more integration of user identity management, and how I can see batches of users based on their behavior.

“They’re taking those ideas and putting them into the pipeline. They’re in GitHub [a popular code repository and development toolset] and you can see what features they’re going to be working on in the roadmap.”

Steve Beatty, communications lead for Newspack, said the project is open-source and could be self-installed and managed by anyone with the skills to do so. A full support service, including hosting, security, routine updates and access to Newspack developers, will run either $1,000 or $2,000 a month starting in March, depending on a publisher’s average revenues.

“This is not innovative in what it brings together, it is innovative in the fact that it brings it together,” Beatty said. “You could do this yourself, but most people haven’t.”

Civil panel
Civil discussion panelists, from left: Shamus Toomey, editor-in-chief, Block Club Chicago; Max Siegelbaum, co-founding editor of Documented; Dana Coffield, founding editor, The Colorado Sun; and Aron Pilhofer, the James B. Steele Chair in Journalism Innovation at Temple University.

Some LIONs also served as early adopters in Civil, a decentralized platform and network you’ll see roughly described as “blockchain-for-journalism.” (LION members can now join Civil for free.)

You’ll find plenty written about Civil, its 2018 initial currency/token offering, and its rebirth earlier this year. At the Summit discussion about Civil, panelists consciously avoided references to the “b-word” to describe where Civil is today, but did talk about the benefits of being network members now that the troublesome ICO has passed.

Dana Coffield, founding editor of The Colorado Sun, said Civil grants and the network helped the team that founded The Sun with developing a WordPress site theme and moneymaking strategy. Civil members also gain access to content management system tools and specialized plugins.