What does ‘sustainability’ mean in local news?

By Catherine Komp,

Newsletter Editor

At last year’s LION Sustainability Meetup in Durham, award winner and founder of Shasta Scout Annelise Pierce was candid in her acceptance remarks:

“LION got me thinking about P&Ls and other dumb sh*t. And I’m grateful for it.”

Pierce, a “solopreneur” from Northern California, was honored with the Financial Health Award in the small news outlet tier. Her impromptu reflections drew a roar of laughter from other publishers in the room. They’ve been there: juggling editorial, operations and all the tedious but necessary financial tasks like P&Ls (profit and loss statements) while trying to build a sustainable news outlet.

But what does sustainability mean? Is there a clear way to define it? 

“It definitely does not mean the same thing to everyone,” said Andrew Rockway, LION’s associate director of sustainability audits. “What sustainability looks like for an organization that’s trying to cover all of North Carolina versus an organization that is covering Charlotte versus an organization that’s covering a smaller town— their definitions are going to be different.” 

While there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach for sustainability, LION has been at the forefront of figuring out its components and creating a roadmap to help publishers take proactive steps toward it. The organization focuses on the business side of news entrepreneurship and back in 2021, they tapped into data from some of its 475 members. Researchers found that revenue growth wasn’t the only or even best indicator of sustainability. And instead of creating a firm definition of sustainability, LION developed a theory: 

“Sustainability for independent news businesses exists at the intersection of operational resilience, financial health, and journalistic impact, and foundational weaknesses in any one of these areas can cause the entire operation to (at best) underperform or (at worst) fall apart.” 

You can read more about these terms and LION’s theory here in a detailed “learning out loud” article about their process and findings. That work helped LION develop the stages of sustainability and the milestones to get there, along with sustainability audits for their members, which (at least for the next year) are free and come with up to $20,000 to support implementation of recommendations. 

Nearly a dozen North Carolina news publishers have gone through the sustainability audits (or are in the process), so I thought it would be instructive to learn a bit more about them and what outlets find valuable. 

But first, a quick parenthetical: some of LION’s initiatives, including the sustainability audits, have been funded through the Google News Initiative. LION Executive Director Chris Krewson briefly addressed last week’s news of Google blocking access to California news websites for “a small percentage of users” in this LinkedIn post. Here’s a bit more context on California’s Journalism Preservation Act, which some opponents say will mostly benefit large and hedge-fund owned news companies.


What do LION sustainability audits look like? 

LION’s completed 350 sustainability audits since 2021. You need to be a LION member and there’s a simple application to apply for the program. Once admitted, publishers fill out a detailed questionnaire covering the three pillars of sustainability: operational resilience, financial health, and journalistic impact. Here’s a handful of the questions to give you an idea:

  • Does your news business have a formally written one- or three-year plan?
  • What diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) practices does your news business use? 
  • What key metrics does your news business use to gauge financial health?
  • What audience research has your news business done to better understand your community?
  • What steps has your news business taken to ensure your coverage and sources reflect the diversity of the community you’re serving?

In LION’s existing audit model, they pair news organizations with industry experts they’ve recruited and trained from the larger news and information ecosystem. (Disclosure, the Workshop’s Shannan Bowen has served as an auditor for publishers outside of NC.) Auditors review the questionnaires and dive deeper by interviewing founders and CEOs. After reviewing the qualitative and quantitative data, publishers receive a detailed audit report (see a sample here) that includes an assessment of where a publication is on its path to sustainability; suggestions on how to capitalize on strengths; and a list of short, medium and long-term recommendations to become more sustainable.

One of the common issues they’ve found through the audits are small publishers attempting to fill too many gaps left by legacy newsrooms that had much bigger staffs. 

“And that’s unsustainable,” said Rockway. “Oftentimes, our initial recommendations to folks are really setting priorities around what they do best, what folks in their community value about the work that they’re doing and the voice that they’re bringing to journalism in their community and really double down on their unique value proposition.” 

And back to those P&Ls, Rockway says they do see a connection between publishers who have solid financial reporting and documentation and sustainability. 

“Making time to track your finances, or at least think about your financial position on a monthly basis is hugely important,” said Rockway.


Longtime and startup publishers in NC put audits to use

When I chatted with La Noticia’s CEO Hilda Gurdian last week it was a special day: their 27th anniversary.

Hilda Gurdian, La Noticia

“Everything has changed,” said Gurdian. “But what hasn’t changed is our mission. Our mission since the beginning has been to serve the Latino community, to provide them with the news and information that they need.” 

La Noticia is family-owned and run, just like Gurdian’s parents’ newspapers in Venezuela. She knew the traditional business model well and steadily increased revenue by educating Charlotte business owners about why they should advertise in a Spanish-language newspaper. As newspaper ad sales began to slump across the industry, they started to adapt.

“In order to be sustainable, we have to have products to sell to our advertisers,” said Gurdian. “In order to have those products, we need to create them and once we create them, we need to understand them and once we understand them, we need the data— we need to know are people reading this product?”

Gurdian says LION’s audits put them on a path to understanding what it takes to create a successful digital project. They had a newsletter, said Gurdian, but it needed help. They hadn’t given the design much thought, and weren’t tracking the data. The format was updated into a “friendlier” style and they started studying open rates and click throughs. 

“By doing the recommendations that they gave us, the newsletter improved very nicely. We now have 13,000 subscribers and we had very few when we started,” said Gurdian.

They also hired an accountant to help improve their financial documentation, and began to strengthen operations by creating an organizational chart and processes for hiring and training. 

Gurdian says they’re not digitally sustainable yet and more than half of their revenue still comes from print advertising, but they’re continuing to build a more diversified revenue stream from digital products, events and sponsorships. 

Kristen Wile also had the opportunity to go through two sustainability audits with LION. She launched her publication, Unpretentious Palate, in 2018 with a mission to provide Charlotte residents with “ethical food journalism that isn’t based on free meals.”

The longtime food writer and former editor of Charlotte magazine said she was inspired by the Athletic’s subscription business model and hard paywall. She thought, “What if I tried something like this?” She quit her job and took a chance.

“I spent two months just sitting down writing reviews and doing a social media tease of what was coming and then offered a month of free access,” said Wile. “It was a leap of faith and passion, but it seems to have worked out.“

Wile was attracted to LION and the audits to connect with experts in this emerging model of independent publishing. During her first audit, she used some of the $6,000 in grants to pay for contractors to produce a week’s worth of stories and newsletters so she could focus on business goals and plans— the kinds of things that can easily fall to the wayside when you’re a solopreneur. 

“That first round was helpful for me to understand why those things were necessary,” said Wile. “It was good for me to actually spend time looking at what was profitable? How profitable? How much time was I spending to make that profit? Where was it worth investing my time?”

For the second audit, LION paired her with Inbox Collective’s Dan Oshinsky as her auditor. In addition to being an advocate and helping her see how far she’s come, Wile said he also provided key recommendations to help grow her subscriber base, like email sequences and monthly marketing emails.

“To a journalist they’re boring, right?” said Wile. “But it works. The last time we got a dozen subscribers from one email and it was a push for annual subscriptions, which are $99. So that’s a good day for us.”

Wile used a good chunk of the $20,000 grant that came with the second audit on targeted Facebook ads, which also paid off, helping increase her subscriber base from 4500 to 7000 in four months.

“It’s an investment I couldn’t have made without the grant,” said Wile.


Changes ahead for LION’s sustainability audits

LION recently announced they are transitioning to a new model of sustainability audits.

“Our analysts have found that they’re often repeating the same recommendations for news businesses who are at specific stages of development. Additionally, we’ve heard that the simple act of answering Audit questions helps publishers think more strategically about their business,” wrote Director of Research and Evaluation Chloe Kizer.   

The new audit model, set to launch in the first half of 2025, will be a “self-service, technology-based product” for any LION member to use on demand to receive a “useful and actionable audit report.” 

Rockway says they also don’t plan to offer direct funding to participants with the self-service model, pointing to their 5-year strategic plan that notes “while LION has historically given direct dollars to our members through our programming, being a funder is not our long-term strategy.” 

But for those who could put to use the $20,000 in funding, Rockway says there’s still time for current and new LION members to apply for the bespoke iteration of sustainability audits. He says they plan to conduct another 130 of those audits through the end of this year. 

Have questions about LION’s sustainability audits? Get in touch with Andrew at andrewrockway@lionpublishers.com

Related reading:

Knight Foundation’s Investments in Local News Sustainability: in this recent report, KF evaluates progress in newsrooms moving toward sustainability, which they define as “a newsroom where revenue outstrips expenses in a repeatable fashion, when sources of revenue are diversified, and audience size is consistent or growing year over year.” You can also read KF’s assessment of the news and information ecosystem in Charlotte, which finds that while local news is vibrant and collaboration is strong (through efforts by the Charlotte Journalism Collaborative), there are other areas for improvement including diversity in staffing, building community trust and increasing philanthropic support.

NC Local News Workshop