The first great wave of nonprofit local news sites was born in the Great Recession and its immediate aftermath. Massive layoffs — combined with the growing acknowledgment that the internet was less an interesting novelty than a lasting paradigm shift — led dozens of newspaper veterans to start local news sites. And a number of the outlets that got the earliest starts quickly became recognized as standouts.
These were sites like Voice of San Diego (b. 2005), which innovated in distribution (like local TV and radio partnerships) and built a local-government focus that influenced others. The New Haven Independent (b. 2005), where alt-weekly veteran Paul Bass carried over an emphasis on urban issues and education. MinnPost (b. 2007), founded by Star Tribune executive Joel Kramer and his wife Laurie, leveraged strong donor relationships and a great market into a very good, newspaper-like product.
There was The Texas Tribune (b. 2009), which combined money smarts, editorial experience, and smart hiring to build the No. 1 outlet covering Texas-wide issues. And VTDigger (b. 2009), which did the same thing in a much smaller market.
These local nonprofit outlets (and a few others of their generation) led the sector for a long time — to the extent that some of us worried they might prove to be the exceptions rather than the rule. Nearly every community in the United States had a declining newspaper, after all. Would nonprofit news sites be able to fill coverage voids left by most of them, or only a lucky few in big markets and college towns?
That lingering question is why I was particularly happy to see the diverse list of winners of the 2022 LION Local Journalism Awards, which were given out in Austin Friday night at the Independent News Sustainability Summit. That’s because the winners are evidence of what’s become increasingly clear: that the nonprofit local news model is today more easily replicable than it used to be — one that works more readily and in more places than it used to.
You can see that in the Institute for Nonprofit News’ most recent INN Index, which serves as an industry census of sorts. The total number of nonprofit news outlets increased nearly 70% between 2017 and 2021 — but the number of local nonprofits more than doubled. Five years ago, about 20% of nonprofits covered local news; now it’s 42% and rising. And the markets being served have gotten smaller.
The three biggest winners Friday — each took home three awards — were Enlace Latino NC, Montana Free Press, and Santa Cruz Local.1 Those sites serve, respectively: Spanish speakers in North Carolina (roughly 690,000 people); Montana residents (1.1 million), and residents of metro Santa Cruz, Calif. (267,000). As markets, those are a long way from Texas (30 million), Minnesota (5.7 million), or metro San Diego (3.3 million).
The two outlets that took home two awards each show the range. Block Club Chicago serves an epic metro area (population 9.5 million), while across Lake Michigan, Watershed Voice covers the Kalamazoo-Battle Creek-Portage area (population 500,000).
All five of these outlets are still young — founded in 2017, 2016, 2019, 20182, and 2020, respectively. Consider them symbols of the newer, broader generation of local news organizations — and the greater promise they hold for systemic journalistic gain. Here’s more on the awards each of them won.
Enlace Latino NC: 3 awards
Public Service Award, Small Revenue Tier
From the judges: “This was a thoughtfully designed, hugely impactful initiative that put community at the center and leveraged smart partnerships, distribution strategies and business principles. Absolutely stellar.”
LION Business of the Year, Small Revenue Tier (co-winner)
From the judges: “Enlace Latino NC makes every effort to hear and see its audience and cater to their information needs. They’ve made significant progress as a business while focusing on smart, intentional innovation toward serving a community that is not often served by mainstream media.”
Collaboration of the Year, Small Revenue Tier (with Southerly Magazine)
From the judges: “This partnership is an excellent example of how deep trust between collaborators and a shared desire to serve a community can result in real impact. Beyond its immediate impact, the collaboration also led an outlet to start practicing solutions journalism, which is a huge win.”
Montana Free Press: 3 awards
LION Business of the Year, Medium/Large Revenue Tier
From the judges: “This is an organization built to last. The quality of their work in building an organization that will serve Montanans is on par with the best news organizations in the U.S. of any size. The entire LION community is better for their example.”
Product of the Year, Medium/Large Revenue Tier
From the judges: “The Election Guide began with a clear mission and product goals, it played to MFP’s audience strategy of attracting top-of-the-funnel users through SEO, and it was able to successfully convert those new users into email signups. What an effort! This is a beautifully designed package with clear top-rate community value.”
General Excellence, Operational Resilience, Medium/Large Revenue Tier
From the judges: “Montana Free Press has shown an exceptionally sophisticated approach to holistic and resilient operations. Their approaches and processes keep key communications transparent and collaborative among staff, while also remaining responsive to the needs put forth by team members.”
Santa Cruz Local: 3 awards
LION Business of the Year, Small Revenue Tier (co-winner)
From the judges: “Santa Cruz Local has combined deep community engagement with data-driven iteration and maintained a commitment to journalistic excellence while maintaining and growing its operations. Santa Cruz Local is clearly in tune with and serving its communities.”
General Excellence, Operational Resilience, Small Revenue Tier
From the judges: “Santa Cruz Local has thought hard about how to support their staff. They have a clear and specific vision of what employee wellbeing should look like, and it’s improving their ability to continue to serve their community. A good example of how a news organization can build in more operational resilience and strength as it grows.”
Outstanding Coverage Award, Small Revenue Tier
From the judges: “This is such a great example of how ‘community listening’ can lead to impactful journalism and drive change. I like the combination of surveys, different story formats, and how they approached a complex topic.”
Block Club Chicago: 2 awards
Outstanding Coverage Award, Medium/Large Revenue Tier
From the judges: “Very strong journalism that potentially led to law enforcement investigations and shutdowns of the problematic testing facilities. I appreciated the use of Google Forms to dive deeper into the topic – it shows how people-focused journalism can have an impact.”
Revenue Campaign of the Year, Medium/Large Revenue Tier
From the judges: “Block Club Chicago has spent the last several years honing its merchandising strategy into a strong pillar of their revenue approach. This campaign shows what’s possible when an organization marries entrepreneurial business acumen with strongly developed community ties.”
Watershed Voice: 2 awards
Public Service Award, Micro Revenue Tier
From the judges: “Watershed Voice took a solutions journalism approach to reporting on this series to provide their community with actionable steps to a critical issue. They also worked collaboratively to access the data they needed to add another layer of depth to their reporting.”
Outstanding Coverage Award, Micro Revenue Tier
From the judges: “The coverage and stories were riveting. Really powerful work shedding light on an incredibly important topic from a very personal lens.”
I should note that Santa Cruz Local is not, technically, a nonprofit news organization. As they put it: “We established our company in February 2019 as a [for-profit] LLC because it was the quickest, cheapest and easiest way to get off the ground. We wanted a quick way to get legal and financial protection while we built an audience and developed our podcasts. The LLC model was the best fit for our launch. However, our ideals are similar to those of a nonprofit. We started this company because we wanted to contribute to the greater good, not because we wanted to maximize profit. Also, similar to a nonprofit, we rely on grants and member support.”Though, to be fair, Block Club Chicago is a journalistic descendent of the older DNAinfo, founded 2012.