Could ‘LIONs’ offer indie online news publishers hope for future success?

(Photo: “Just one lion” by Wikimedia Commons users Robek and Wulfstan under a Creative Commons license)

By Tiffany Arnold

It’s no secret that news publishers are struggling to gain footing in the digital space, particularly when it comes to local news. But there’s at least one person who’s optimistic about the future of local independent online news — the head of LION Publishers.

“… if we start with huge profits and ‘scale’ not being the goal in the first place, the conversation about local news starts to take an optimistic turn,” says Matt DeRieno, interim executive director of LION Publishers, in a recent post on LinkedIn (See: A diverse local news ecosystem is emerging, and it doesn’t need “scale” or venture capital).

In his post, DeRieno lists several local indie online news sites and attempts to make the broader point that it’s possible for these kinds of startups to see some success if they tailor products to the communities they serve and if they consider unconventional ways to make money — like crowdsourcing.

This piece was undoubtedly meant to stir up some interest in DeRieno’s organization ahead of LION Publishing’s upcoming conference in Chicago. But in self-promoting, he has managed to amplify a conversation that’s been going on for a while. The thing we reporters and editors have always been hearing is that print newspapers are bleeding revenue and that, for media companies who specialize in local news, this promised savior of digital media has yet to deliver any miracles.

It’s hard to say whether this sentiment — that newspapers are dying and that the digital media panacea is a myth — is actually true. Figuring out what really is true when it comes to the fate of local news, print vs. pixels, is proving to be the hard part, though.

Who knows if any of this is based in reality

Anecdotally, I could say that DeRieno could be on to something. Years ago, I was part of AOL’s failed “hyperlocal” news experiment, Patch began as a small start-up launched by an ex-Google exec and his pals under the mission of digitizing local communities. But Patch eventually caught the attention of a major company, AOL, which bought it and then flavored it with the corporate culture of another company it acquired, The Huffington Post. Patch’s run under AOL eventually came to a fiery end. While there are probably a lot of things that could be attributed to Patch’s demise, some argue that it’s inability to scale had a lot to do with its one-size-fits-all approach.

But then my latest experience in print wasn’t all that chipper, either.

My prior job at Post Community Media, a suburban newspaper publisher under the same ownership as The Washington Post, ended because the company failed to make enough money — it really was bleeding revenue — and was forced to go out of business despite its deep ties to the local community.

What does the data really show?

Even the most trusted data, like Pew Research Center’s State of the News Media 2015, paints a mixed picture. Print newspaper revenues and staffing have declined, but people are still reading actual newspapers, which the Pew report suggests is good. Pew hasn’t come up with an organized method of tracking “the growing digital-only segment” of news media, but the report did suggest that while digital sales are accounting for a larger and larger share of ad revenue, online publishers aren’t immune to the same challenges traditional media face, particularly in the social media realm. This is important because Facebook is the No. 1 source of clicks for most news sites. [See Pew’s full report here]

Living on a dream?

DeRieno suggests that the latest breed of indie online news startups aren’t “operating in the same universe” as news agencies like the New York Times, which has partnered with the likes of Facebook to crank out its content to the masses

“That’s why sites such as Billy Penn in Philadelphia are instead focusing on great user experience, and the kind of local events revenue and native advertising that work for its community but not necessarily someone else’s,” DeRieno writes. “Others are thriving off advertising alone. What makes a successful business model can be as different as communities are different.”

Then there’s the Pew report’s take on Billy Penn: 

On the for-profit side, Billy Penn, the Philadelphia-focused, mobile-first news site launched by former editor-in-chief of Digital First Media Jim Brady in late 2014, reported more than 100,000 page views in February 2015. Up to this point, though, while the site is for-profit in name, it is still largely funded by Brady himself.

Source: A diverse local news ecosystem is emerging, and it doesn’t need ‘scale’ or venture capital


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I am a multimedia journalist in Washington, D.C. I maintain personal blogs here at WordPress, so if you like what you read tell me so—it just might encourage me to post more often! I also am a contributor to an academic blog tied to a graduate course on publishing at The George Washington University.

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