Last week, 500 news leaders gathered in Austin for the Independent News Sustainability Summit. The event was co-hosted by LION Publishers, The RevLab at Texas Tribune, and News Revenue Hub.

I attended, and moderated breakout groups with revenue leaders on Friday. The energy at the conference was new and exciting. Many in attendance were running news sites that are less than a few years old.

As I reflect back on the topics discussed, I was struck by how organizers could have taken that agenda and hosted it for a legacy newspaper group or television broadcast group. The sessions would have been just as relevant.

Why? Because the challenges and goals for independent news publishers and legacy media are more connected than one might think.

Here are some of the themes from the conference that stuck out to me as universal.


In the opening keynote featuring Texas Tribune Founder and CEO Evan Smith and former New York Times Editor Dean Baquet, the two discussed areas in which Baquet felt he didn’t make enough progress while at the Times. One such area, he said, was trust.

During the summit but apart from the festivities, I also facilitated a discussion with our LMA Digital Club members and experts from Trusting News. A majority of club members said they were very concerned about maintaining their audiences’ trust.

Audience listening

In an INSS session on Friday afternoon, Shannan Bowen, the executive director of NC Local News Workshop, shared about how that organization helped newsrooms do community listening across the state. The biggest reason people came, Bowen said, was direct outreach from a reporter or editor.

Since she became editor-in-chief of Charlottesville Tomorrow in December, Angilee Shah said she has met with more than 100 people from the community. That’s a lot of time spent listening to the community!

Creating the right culture

Both Shah and The Markup Editor-in-Chief Sisi Wei talked about creating the right culture for their newsrooms and teams. Wei shared a phrase about learning on the job that I think many company leaders could learn from regarding sharing information with their teams: “We are not here to hoard, we are here to share.”

Shah also talked about having newsrooms look more like their community, which included creating a workplace (which includes equitable pay) that supports people who may not be independently wealthy or have family financial wealth. She said she wants to create a space that allows people with student loans or people who are caregivers for family members to be able to work in their newsroom.

Revenue as a path to sustainability

Conference attendees participate in a breakout session on Friday afternoon on how to receive funds from foundations and grants.

Another packed session was on branded and sponsored content, and how sponsorships are a great way for smaller publishers to sell advertising.

The session I moderated featured “revenue all stars” in four areas: corporate sponsorships, memberships, grants/foundations, and major gifts. I heard from several attendees that that session was the most insightful for them.

Our challenges are the same

I know many people in the legacy industry have a digital news startup in the same market. It might even be led by a former employee of your company. I’m reminded of the time more than 10 years ago when I left my job at a daily newspaper to go work for Patch, because that was the place to do local digital news.

You may still consider that local news startup competition, but after reading what was discussed at this conference, my hope is that you may consider startups peers in the fight for democracy and preserving the future of local news.

Their challenges trying to find new revenue, reach new audiences, build trust and create the right culture are also your challenges. We can learn from each other.

At LMA, collaboration is one of our four strategic pillars. Most of our programs (Lab for Journalism Funding, the Meta Branded Content Project, Meta Accelerators) are open to digital-only sites, broadcast groups, newspaper groups, for-profit organizations, nonprofit organizations, etc.

We believe that more collaboration is needed in the industry, not less. I was both inspired by and grateful for the digital news startups who are out there serving their communities. We will continue to watch them and support their work.