A path forward for sustainable news startups

Camille Padilla Dalmau and Mackenzie Clark are doing similar work, 2,244 miles apart.

In San Juan, Puerto Rico, Camille creates stories for the 9 million Puerto Ricans who live around the world through 9 Millones. Mackenzie recently launched the Lawrence Times in Kansas, funded by an online campaign that brought in more than $8,000 over six days.

Camille and Mackenzie are part of a new wave of local news sites launching across the U.S. and Canada. Some 266 local news organizations have started over the last five years, at a rate of 50 per year. That’s explosive growth in the field and it’s happening with no coordinated support, even though — as we know — this is hard work.

Today LION Publishers and the Google News Initiative are announcing the findings of Project Oasis, first-of-its-kind research which provides information about the paths these entrepreneurs take — and points to the way forward to a sustainable future for local news. This project was undertaken in partnership with the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media, Douglas K Smith (architect of Table Stakes), and with support from Michelle McLellan (creator of Michelle’s List). The results are a database and research report that illustrate the state of the local news industry, as well as a step-by-step guide for aspiring news entrepreneurs on how to get started.

The Project News Oasis database features rich information on 711 publishers across the U.S. and Canada, including breakdowns of their distributional, editorial and financial operations. We’ll use it to help existing publishers, who can add or update their information at any time, as well as to inform the next generation of news entrepreneurs.

Next, the Project Oasis research report puts our research findings in context — it highlights the revenue streams publishers use to fund their newsgathering, the communities they aim to serve and the size of the teams they hire to do the work. It also provides benchmarks designed to help new startup publishers develop their own practical goals for what their operation can look like three years out.

So how might we encourage responsible growth in the local news industry? That brings us to the third resource we’re releasing today: The GNI Startups Playbook. The playbook will demystify the process of launching a digital news startup and, by tackling key activities such as building a product, growing an audience and developing a revenue stream, it will help news entrepreneurs build a business that’s financially viable and has a positive journalistic impact on local communities.

This comprehensive resource, which will soon be available in Spanish, Portuguese, Japanese, Korean and Indonesian, includes contributions from GNI, LION and a small army of experts. The playbook itself will provide the basis for much of GNI’s and LION’s joint programming moving forward, including the GNI Startups Lab and Boot Camp, as well as our collaboration with Tiny News Collective, a low-cost platform and set of shared services aimed at helping news entrepreneurs build a news organization from scratch.

The database, the research report and the playbook are intended to be living resources that will be updated regularly. We’re committed to working with the Google News Initiative to fully capture the experiments and learnings of this rapidly evolving field, and over the coming months we’ll collaborate once again to help the GNI conduct a global series of live workshops for aspiring entrepreneurs on the Digital Growth Program site. After you’ve looked at these resources, we'd love your input: What’s valuable? What would you like more information about? We’ll incorporate your feedback into the next editions.

Our goal is to ensure the next Camille and the next Mackenzie will have a smoother, better-lit road ahead of them. We’re confident that as this work continues, and the path is made clearer, we’ll build a sustainable future for local digital news by focusing on what founders and organizations need along the way.

Posted by: Chris Krewson, Executive Director, LION Publishers