Penny Riordan, director of business strategy and partnerships at LMA, and Liz Dwyer, managing director of Word In Black, attended the International Symposium of Online Journalism on April 1 and 2 in Austin, TX. Here are their observations and takeaways from the conference.

For many people in attendance, the International Symposium of Online Journalism was the first return to in-person conferences since the start of COVID-19 in March 2020. The conference agenda reflected rapid industry changes in the last two years, with diversity and recruitment efforts, new nonprofit journalism models, and emerging technologies in audio all taking center stage.

For the panel, “Recreating the local news ecosystem with new models, networking and collaboration,” Jim Brady, vice president, journalism, Knight Foundation (left) interviewed Ken Doctor, CEO and founder, Lookout Santa Cruz; Jamie Stockwell, executive editor, Axios Local; Liz Dwyer, managing director, Word In Black; and Jeff Elgie, CEO, Village Media. Credit: Courtesy Patricia Lim/Knight Center

Here are five themes from the conference:

Funders are investing in digital news organizations in large metro areas with eye-popping numbers.

In a panel moderated by Texas Tribune Founder and CEO Evan Smith, three leaders of metro digital organizations shared some large numbers of philanthropic commitments for their organizations. Imtiaz Patel, CEO of the Baltimore Banner, said funders have committed $50 million for that news outlet, which will launch soon.

Houston Endowment President and CEO Ann Stern said the endowment, along with other funders such as the American Journalism Project, has committed $20 million to start a new newsroom in Houston.

In Chicago, the recent acquisition of the Chicago Sun-Times by National Public Radio affiliate WBEZ has created the largest newsroom in the city, with 165 journalists. More than $60 million was raised by funders for the acquisition, including the Knight Foundation, said Nykia Wright, president and CEO of the Sun-Times.

It’s not enough to recruit people of color to newsrooms. You must make sure they have a voice once they are in your newsroom.

Katrice Hardy, executive editor of the The Dallas Morning News, talked about how that news organization has had to develop a flexible model to retain staff with the return to the office. But she also needs some people to be physically in North Texas to do their work. In order to keep people, leaders must create a supportive environment. People leave because they don’t feel supported, she said.

Keith Woods, chief diversity officer for NPR, said that instead of merely talking about diversity, equity and inclusion when there’s a crisis or as a box-checking exercise, the news organization hosts twice-monthly conversations about race. He also talked about the importance of organizations admitting when they got something wrong, or “brutal transparency.”

Woods said NPR found that 52 percent of its sources came from five states and Washington, D.C., and were majority white and male. They had to get honest about why they were only using people of color as sources when they were reporting a story about race or diversity. If organizations want to reflect how America looks and sounds, Woods said, we have to change this approach.

Woods also said it’s critical to treat the people who leave your organization like alumni. Sometimes you can’t keep them, but perhaps they will come back in a few years for a new opportunity. Or perhaps they will point someone to your organization.

Hardy also reiterated that we have to protect and support journalists on our teams so they can tell excellent stories. It’s common to receive threatening emails from people toward journalists on staff, and this includes staff who report about race and LGBTQ issues. People leave jobs, however, because they don’t feel supported.

News organizations owned and led by people of color are elevating voices that are ignored by mainstream media.

Mukhtar Ibrahim, publisher and CEO of the Sahan Journal, launched the news site 30 months ago to primarily serve people of color and immigrant communities in Minnesota. In one year, it grew revenue by 50 percent and now has more than 1,000 recurring donors. Ibrahim also shared some examples of headlines that encouraged fear and stereotypes of communities of color. Ibrahim said people of color are “highly underserved by local media” and we need to have high-quality journalism that captures the stories of communities of color.

Liz Dwyer, managing director of Word In Black, shared that the 10 publishers in the collaborative have deep sources within the Black community — and ask for their expertise on everything, not just stories about race or diversity. For an education story on mental health, reporters talked to the president-elect of the National Association of School Psychologists — who happens to be Black — about the importance of having Black school psychologists working with Black children, and the need for more Black male school psychologists. The Black school psychologist community was thrilled on social media because it’s an issue that rarely gets attention from the mainstream press. And, because they are the community, Word In Black publishers also didn’t have to go far down their source lists to get key perspectives on the nomination of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, Dwyer said.

Revenue diversification has been crucial for news organizations in the two years since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

When COVID-19 hit, the Texas Tribune had to face a loss of revenue from in-person events, such as their popular Tribfest. But its leaders found that a quick pivot to virtual events in the pandemic still brought in significant revenue from sponsorships. It’s important for news organizations to have revenue diversification in order to be sustainable, said April Brumley Hinkle, chief revenue officer of Texas Tribune. The revenue breakdown for Texas Tribune is: 28 percent individual donors, 27 percent foundations, 20 percent website sponsorship, 13 percent events, and 8 percent membership.

Patel said the Baltimore Banner team hopes to have 50 percent of revenue from subscriptions, 25 percent from advertising, 10-15 percent from philanthropy, and 10-15 percent from audience monetization.

When it comes to digital storytelling, consider the needs of your audience — and recognize that audio requires considerable staff time investment.

We may love listening to the radio in our cars, but Tamar Charney, an editorial strategist formerly with NPR, shared data showing that 39 percent of Americans don’t have standalone radios in their homes, up from 4 percent in 2008. Moreover, according to data from Edison Research, only 16 percent of 13- to 24-year-olds listen to AM/FM radio, while 35 percent listen to podcasts.

Sarah Feldberg, editor for emerging products and audio at the San Francisco Chronicle, talked about how people who don’t read — or don’t consider themselves readers — are reachable through podcasts, social audio, and audio storytelling. She emphasized that we still need audio because “you cannot escape the human in a podcast.” The audience needs to feel emotion and intimacy.

However, both Feldberg and Maggie Penman, executive producer of Post Reports at The Washington Post, said their publications are producing fewer podcasts because of sustainability concerns. They’re also thinking critically about which podcasts serve and reach the audience.

When considering tools such as Twitter spaces, Penman cautioned that newsrooms shouldn’t see it as just a platform to share your journalism. Assume it’s also a place where you can do journalism.