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Small online news sites offer big lessons 

Local in focus and spirit, LION members look to grow

It doesn’t get much attention in national media, but local news has a small and scrappy entrepreneur community, including about 260 people who gathered last week at a conference of LION Publishers (Local Independent Online News.)

LION's 2019 Summit took the organization out of Chicago for the first time, to Nashville, Tenn. The bachelorette party buses and Broadway music clubs were just blocks away, but publishers with hyperlocal names and missions filled sessions offering training, tools and tactcs, took advantage of 1:1 coaching, traded notes, met with vendors and talked about journalism and how to sustain it.

North Carolina’s Glenn Burkins, founder and publisher of in Charlotte, and NC Health News founder and editor Rose Hoban are both on the LION board of directors and were in Nashville. So was Anika Anand, a UNC journalism graduate who has helped found and run media startups and now is LION's programming director.

LION's membership of mostly for-profit online outlets has been taking on the same existential questions as bigger news-industry counterparts: How do we keep to our news mission but pay the bills? How can we add readers, viewers and impact? How do we expand sources of revenue — events, donations, membership, what else?
Anika Anand introduces
LION program director and UNC alum Anika Anand introduces Qcitymetro's
Glenn Burkins and Chalkbeat's Maria Archangelo at a panel on collaboration. 

Many LION sites rely heavily on digital advertising, especially locally sold ads; others are building member programs, some are nonprofit and a few are part of larger groups. Many proprietors are editor, publisher and ad salesperson all in one body, and while one panelist confessed she was burned out and thinking of quitting, most voiced determination to solve problems and keep moving. 

For instance, Jay Allred, president of Ohio's Richland Source, described a breakthrough to simplify his site's membership process from 13 clicks to 2 — and the resulting growth, part of a panel on lessons from the Facebook Journalism Project membership accelerator for local news organizations.

"Some of this is about really looking in the mirror and saying, you’re not the hero of the story, your reader is," Allred said.

What else can we learn from LION members and their conference?

First, that these publishers matter, and are getting support from the news innovation community. LION, with a new infusion of foundation funding and a new executive director in Chris Krewson, provides invaluable peer connections and access to resources, and is working to add services and support for its members.

Second, LION's member stories remind us that small shops can be more nimble with change than some big operations: For instance, founding editor Krystal Knapp from Planet Princeton did a lightning talk highlighting her success using push notifications to build audience; another panel focused on using text messaging for audience engagement — tools that are getting easier and less expensive to use.

LION attendees posted ideas for member services they'd like to see.

Conference speakers also included some big names in news innovation: Elizabeth Green, cofounder of the big American Journalism Project "venture philanthropy" push and founder and CEO of the education-focused national nonprofit newsroom Chalkbeat; Roxann Stafford from the Knight Lenfest Local News Transformation Fund; leaders from the Knight Foundation, the Facebook and Google news initiatives and others.

Some news to use out of the conference:


Duke students tell courthouse stories, Politico on NC health care innovation, N&O's Banov profiles 9th Wonder

  • Duke students are covering the Durham Courthouse this semester for the 9th Street Journal website, and they're turning in some great reads. A series called "A Courthouse Moment" tells small stories that reveal larger truths: In Cameron Beach's "Tuck the sweatshirt!" a defendant struggles to meet the posted dress code. "Nobody takes this court seriously. Nobody," by Niharika Vattikonda, follows a man struggling to pay court costs who encounters a frustrated judge. The students are part of Bill Adair's advanced reporting class and the Duke Reporter's Lab, led by Catherine Clabby, and some of their work (including Durham election stories) also is being published by IndyWeek. Read more about the 9th Street Journal and Courthouse Project here.
  • "Why North Carolina Might be the Most Innovative Health Care State in America," from Politico executive health care editor Joanne Kenen, tells a story beyond the state's current partisan standoff over whether to expand Medicaid. The story explores efforts by Mandy Cohen, state secretary of health and human services, and Blue Cross Blue Shield, to address health in a way that considers underlying social and economic issues while also working to improve health care delivery. 
  • The News & Observer's Jessica Banov profiled Davidson County native 9th Wonder, a Grammy-winning producer who teaches at Duke and NC Central universities and who was  inducted recently into the NC Music Hall of Fame. Banov showed the power of a well-researched profile, going to class with her subject and exploring his music and story deeply for the "Tar Heel of the Month" feature.

ICYMI: Help find NC Local's next editor

Please help spread the word: NC Local is looking for an editor to produce the weekly newsletter in conjunction with the NC Local News Lab Fund. It's a great opportunity to report on and connect people across the state who're working to inform North Carolinians, tell local stories and serve communities. The role is paid and part-time. Click here to learn more and email me at if you have questions or want to apply.

Bulletin board

Grants for Charlotte newsrooms; RTDNA/AP awards; UNC events on 1970 murder and Ida B. Wells Society

  • Two Charlotte news outlets, the La Noticia Spanish-language newspaper and public radio's WFAE, won digital project grants announced last week from the Google News Initiative. La Noticia plans to build a paid portal for user-generated family announcement (births, weddings and more). WFAE, according to the announcement, will build a collaborative platform that allows community members to request coverage and newsrooms to accept the requests and also seek funding, if needed, to cover stories individually or with other newsrooms. Find Google's announcement here and details on the 34 new GNI grant projects here: (WFAE is listed under University Radio Foundation).
  • Another Charlotte newsroom,, will launch a community journalism initiative in the city's Historic West End with $125,000 in funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Knight announced $700,000 in funding last week for nine projects aimed at "expanding economic opportunity, supporting resident engagement, and increasing vibrancy" in the West End. Qcitymetro's plans including holding meetings with residents and adding reporter coverage.
  • Chapel Hill journalist Mike Ogle has done extensive research into the 1970 death of Northside neighborhood resident James L. Cates Jr., then 22, after he was found stabbed on the UNC campus; Ogle and minister Robert Campbell will talk about the case and the town's and UNC's roles on Nov. 14 at UNC's Hyde Hall in an event sponsored by the Center for the American South. Find event details here and a collated version of Ogle's long Twitter thread on Cates from a year ago here.
  • The Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting will celebrate its new affiliation with the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media during an inaugural public event Nov. 16 in Chapel Hill. The organization, named for the pioneering journalist, activist and researcher whose reporting on lynchings in the 1890s continues to inform and inspire those who followed, works to increase the presence and support for people of color in investigative journalism. Founders Nikole Hannah-Jones of The New York Times Magazine, Topher Sanders of ProPublica and Ron Nixon of the Associated Press will highlight the event, headlined: "Making a. Mark: The 1619 Project, Investigative Journalism and Raising the Caliber of Reporting Through Diverse Voices." The event is free; find details and register here.
  • The 2019 Radio Television Digital News Association of the Carolinas/Associated Press awards were presented at a luncheon Oct. 16: Here's the full list of winners in TV, radio, individual and student categories, including a number for coverage of 2018's Hurricane Florence by North Carolina broadcast newsrooms.
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