We’ve just returned from the Independent News Sustainability Summit held in Austin. It’s the successor conference to the former Local independent Online News (LION) Publishers Annual Summit, last held in 2019 in Nashville. After the long COVID-19 gap, it was wonderful to reconnect with some old LION friends and to make many new ones. The COVID-19 pandemic was bad for the nation but good for LION. Many unemployed or under-employed journalists began looking for new job options. So did many other people looking for ways to keep their communities or interest groups informed. LION soon found itself almost overwhelmed by people who wanted help creating their own independent, online only news and information sites. About half are similar to magnoliareporter.com – owner-operated news sites that serve a particular region or niche industry. About half have been bankrolled by local or national foundations as non-profit corporations. These foundations recognize that the collapse of the newspaper industry has created “news deserts” where there is no local reporting of news, government, education, arts, business, politics or anything else. But whether for-profit or non-profit, lots people have stepped in to fill gaps left by legacy media. LION’s own membership has doubled since the pandemic. Thus was born the INSS. Whether the ownership is public or private, all must make money to survive. We spent the better part of three days hearing and exchanging money-making experiences. None of us can sustain websites without revenue, and none of us can grow without producing more revenue. magnoliareporter.com is possible only because we receive support from advertisers. We’re going to be looking at more ways to raise revenue, so that we can provide more services to readers.
We will share more observations about the INSS-LION conference in the coming days but there are a couple of things that stand out. First, we’ve been stewing for a few weeks about commentaries to the effect that “local news is dying.” It is true that traditional print newspapers are dying but we've not been in that business for almost 13 years. Local news media is alive and well. We’ve just spent three days with 400 people in meeting rooms at the Austin Downtown Marriott who testify to that. They’re coming up with new and exciting ways to present information. If one’s background cements a belief that print on paper is the only way to receive information, one truly is stuck in the past. Second, the energy in those rooms was amazing and there’s no secret as to why that energy was present. Over the course of our newspaper career, we attended countless state press association and state newspaper editor association meetings. It was always the same group of people, made up mostly of people like ourselves – steadying aging white guys who ran newspapers, or newspaper newsrooms. We ran them for the second or third generation of family ownership, or for the temporary “publishers” installed by media companies that were constantly flipping newspapers like real estate. LION membership? Well, the organization launched a decade ago basically with middle-aged white guys and gals who bailed from newspapers to start online publications. Today, LION has a diverse membership that looks like America. It’s a look that you don’t often see in any one place in America, with the possible exception of Disney World. We’ve never been in a room with such a diversity of men and women. Blacks and whites but also with a strong representation of Native Americans, Hispanics, Latinos and Arabian extraction. (Among the most interesting and inventive organizations at the conference was the Minneapolis-based Sahan Journal, which covers issues important to the diverse immigrant population in Minnesota). There were straight people. There were LGBTQ people. There were people who run online Catholic publications. There were people who own websites dedicated to local coverage of health, mental health and the deaf community. Specialty news websites for education, business, transportation, hobbies. And even websites with three or fewer people plugging away at reporting news in local communities. There is power in diversity. Local news media is alive and thriving.
Mike McNeill is publisher and editor of magnoliareporter.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or call him at 870-904-3865. Opinions expressed in this column are his own. South Arkansas restaurants hold their own with anything in Austin.