LIONs and Tigers and news, oh my!
COLUMBIA, Mo 6/15/15 (Beat Byte) -- This Tiger Town news site has just become a LION.
After a months-long approval process, LION -- the Local Independent Online News association -- accepted the Columbia Heart Beat into the roughly 125-member organization. The group hosted a national conference in Philadelphia this month.
Local, independent (not connected to an existing media outlet) online news sites serve 31 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. "It’s probably one of the fastest growing areas of journalism in the country," LION's interim director, Matt DeRienzo, told the Poynter Institute for a story this month about the phenomenon. "We hear from new people planning independent local news startups on a weekly basis."
Like the Heart Beat, LIONs fill a growing void in local coverage illustrated by the recent sale -- after 56 years -- of the local newspaper in Lodi, Calif.
Nationwide, traditional -- or so-called "legacy" -- newspapers have been shuttered at an alarming rate. The cost of printing remains high; subscriptions have declined, dramatically in many communities; and digital giants like Facebook, Google, and Craigslist have sucked the profits out of print advertising.
"The newspaper industry’s woes have left many gaps in local news and information, and there are opportunities for entrepreneurs," DeRienzo told Poynter.
Though fraught with challenges -- some unique to journalism, others common in any business -- online-only news is growing almost as rapidly as legacy news is diminishing. Founded in 2012, LION accepted 13 new members in May alone, including the Heart Beat, from an diverse cross-section of the country.
New members include the Fiddlehead Focus in northern Maine; Gloucester City News in New Jersey; North End Waterfront in Boston; 70 West Sentinel, also in Missouri; Stillwater Current and North Wright County Today in Minnesota; eNews Park Forest in Illinois; Racine County Eye in Wisconsin; Xenia’s Word on the Street in Ohio; Monroe Local News in Georgia; Golden.com in Colorado; and Saucon Source in Pennsylvania.
Though newspaper woes are part of the picture, LION publishers have some competitive advantages, DeRienzo noted.
National, syndicated news has displaced local coverage in many communities, from those titillating celebrity tidbits to photos and videos of the latest political, legal, or social scandal. Downsizing, layoffs, and outright closures have also taken a heady toll.
As such, "local, independent publishers live in and are connected to the community in a way that legacy media organizations increasingly are not," DeRienzo told Poynter reporter Kristen Hare. "If success in a digital age is about community engagement and relationships, the advantage of independent publishers is tremendous."
At the same time, LIONs face an essential dilemma: unlike legacy newspapers, which had both content AND distribution (think "paper carrier"), we provide content only, relying on other distributors -- from Facebook to Yahoo! listservs (a big part of the Heart Beat's early years) to get our words across.
Advertisers and readers have proven reluctant to pay -- or pay much -- for content alone, leaving a content-distribution dilemma that includes a "cloudy" revenue picture; shift of audiences to mobile; and "uneasy decisions about competing and/or cooperating with platform giants such as Facebook," DeRienzo says.
Despite the challenges, a big reward can await publishing entrepreneurs who want to roar with the LIONs: freedom.
"From a journalist’s perspective, independent news operations are more likely to be free of the profit margin pressures of legacy media," he told Poynter's Hare. "Especially as a start-up, there is also freedom to look at the news coverage needs of a community from a blank slate – choosing to do the things that will have the greatest impact instead of working from some kind of obligation to maintain what a newsroom has always done."