When Michele McLellan and I were working on the first-ever gathering of independent local news publishers three years ago, we had no idea what to expect.
The event, called the Block by Block Community News Summit, really was Michele’s baby. It grew out of her research as a fellow at the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri into the types of independent news organizations that were growing up in the midst of journalism’s great disruption.
Michele’s research, in turn, was driven by her conviction that the narrative of loss that had come to dominate that disruption was not a complete picture of what was happening in journalism. Even though newspapers were the midst of historic cost-cutting and declines in reporting strength, Michele felt certain there were new shoots growing in communities across the country. They might be small shoots, and all of them might not flourish, but there was something going on there that was worth noticing.
Connecting the hyperlocal online publishers through Block by Block
We learned with that first Block by Block that Michele was right – there was a whole universe of dedicated individuals starting up their own news sites focused on providing news and information to the communities they served. They eagerly embraced the opportunity Block by Block provided them to connect, to learn from each other and to take encouragement from the fact that they weren’t alone.
The Patterson Foundation was a primary enabler of the first Block by Block, and we were so impressed by what we saw that we agreed to provide funding for two more summits -- in 2011 and 2012. The Block by Block events led to the our work in business sustainability training as well, first with our pilot Super Camp program for 12 independent publishers and then for the series of Community Journalism Executive Training programs that have followed.
That said, we were clear that our commitment to enabling Block by Block was limited; after 2012, the publishers would need to shape the destiny of such gatherings on their own.
The publishers took up that challenge by forming the Local Independent Online News Publishers organization (LION). LION came into existence at the second Block by Block, in the fall of 2011, and TPF immediately offered its support in helping the organization go from an idea to reality.
Accelerating organizational capacity
We have provided help along the way, from bringing LION’s first board together for organizational meetings in May of 2012 to providing the services of organizational consultant Sandra Hughes to help the publishers navigate the task of creating a non-profit educational organization focused on the local publishers community. We’ve paid some legal fees here and there. We worked with the board to create a membership incentive program to help them build their initial treasury. And we’ve assisted in arranging for fiscal sponsorship of LION while the organization applies for 501(c)3 status.
The paperwork and legal documentation is no small piece of all this, but the real challenge for LION was to create a virtual organization, one that could operate with no support staff and very minimal face-to-face contact while still providing a sense of connection and service to the independent publisher community.
Working through challenges of a virtual organization
That road has not been without its bumps. The publishers all are time-crunched beyond reason by the daunting task of running both the news and revenue sides of their sites. The very fact that they are all entrepreneurs means that they are individualists, each with their own definition of what a local independent news site is and their own sense of the highest priorities for serving those sites.
But they have continued to work through the challenges, continuing to refine their approach and learn from what hasn’t worked. Oct. 3, they will convene in Chicago for the LION Summit, the successor to Block by Block. It is an event that is driven by the publishers in every respect, from planning the agenda to arranging the logistics.
As someone who has planned a lot of journalism conferences in my time, I can attest to the fact that this is a major accomplishment. There are a few lessons I see from LION's journey as a virtual organization that can apply to other organizations looking to work this way:
- Every startup organization needs a small core of dedicated individuals to do the heavy lifting of creating structure and governance. That’s even more true in a virtual organization, when those individuals will have to work together without being physically together. This isn’t work that can be done by the whole organization; it has to be done by committee.
- While a small core group is important, that group should focus on transparency and sharing what it is working on, even before it has every single detail figured out. Sharing information through social media or e-newsletters to the community you are working to serve builds trust and invites a sense of belonging.
- It’s easy for things to stall out without the accountability of face-to-face meetings. Creating a timeline early in the organizational process, with deadlines and check-in points clearly defined, can help a virtual group stay on track.
- Smart use of virtual tools can make work flow more smoothly and enhance communication. With so many co-working and sharing tools available, from Google Docs to Basecamp to Evernote to closed Facebook groups, its not nearly as important to be in the same room to figure things out. But there has to be a clear workflow and protocol in place to make these tools work best – a room is only as tidy as the people who live in it make it.
I won’t be able to attend the LION Summit this year because of family commitments, but I’m very proud of how this group has stuck together and figured out so much in such a sort time – all while managing their very demanding day (and night) jobs. I’ll be applauding from the sidelines.
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