What I learned at the nation’s largest gathering of local online news publishers

A panel provided tips to help publishers stay out of trouble at the 2017 LION Publishers Summit in Chicago. From left, Doug Hardy, LION treasurer and business manager for ctnewsjunkie.com; Dylan Smith, LION board chairman editor and publisher at Tuscon Sentinel; Jan Schaffer, executive director of J-Lab; Glenn Burkins, founder of QCityMetro.com; and Jay Allred, publisher at Richland Source.

Over the weekend, I had the pleasure of attending the annual Local Independent Online News (LION) Publishers Summit in Chicago. The event, which was held at the downtown campus of Columbia College in Chicago, marks the largest gathering of local online news publishers in the country.

Event attendees included news publishers, editors, reporters, along with software developers, marketing professionals, and product managers.

The three-day conference featured dozens of informative sessions and workshops that provided practical solutions for publishers to succeed in the local news business.

Here are some of my biggest takeaways from the conference:

1) You win or you learn

You have most likely heard the phrase, “failure is not an option.”

Despite having little to no experience in journalism or local news, Eleanor Cippel, an entrepeneur who started her own real estate marketing company in Louisville, Tenn., provided insightful tips for local online news startups by stressing that failure is inevitable and part of growing a business:

“Failure is not an option, but failure is part of the process. There are tools that can help you situate your business so you can fail fast, learn fast, and work for growth in areas that pay off.”

Cippel stressed the importance of self-evaluation and long-term vision for news startups. “Without plans, I’m in a pinball machine,” she said.

2) We are in this together

You can have the best business model in the world for a local news site, but you are still going to need support from the community.

That’s why both for-profit and non-profit local news organizations are launching reader membership programs to help keep the hyperlocal news model sustainable.

With that being said, the Cortland Voice plans to launch a membership program on Dec. 1. In exchange for your membership, we will offer ticket giveaways, prizes, merchandise, gift cards, exclusive content, and more to all of our members. Stay tuned!

3) Despite the odds, local news has a bright future

Small online publishers are often going up against powerhouse publishing companies like Gannett and the Tribune Company, which have bought up small local papers and laid off employees, creating “news deserts” in parts of the country.

For better or worse, the future of local news is online. While the future of local print newspapers may seem pretty bleak, there are plenty of hard-working, motivated journalists—both young and old—who have the tenacity and willpower to make local news organizations sustainable in towns and cities across the country. I hope to do the same for the Cortland community.

Peter Blanchard is the editor and founder of the Cortland Voice.

LION Publishers’ Executive Director Matt DeRienzo, left, and Cortland Voice Editor and Publisher Peter Blanchard