More journalism startups are building their businesses around a community-first approach. Here’s what we’re seeing when publications engage their audience from Day One.

Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko from Pexels

Journalism organizations across the country are placing a renewed emphasis on community-centered journalism, and we’ve seen how that approach can increase public participation, help build trust and even lead to more community dialogue.

But what does it look like when community engagement and relationship-building aren’t incorporated into an already-existing model, but are built into a journalism organization from the very start?

As Director of Teaching & Learning at LION Publishers, I’ve had a front row seat to this remarkable shift, and have seen a significant increase in digital news startups that are launching explicitly with a community-first approach. I see it in the makeup of our membership — 376 independent journalism organizations and growing! — and through programs and partnerships like our GNI Startups Boot Camp and the Tiny News Collective, which help news businesses launch sustainability so they can serve their communities for many years to come.

These founders are serious about centering their communities, and are approaching engaged and relational journalism as foundational to what they do. Here’s what we’re seeing across the journalism startups landscape:

New journalism organizations are practicing deep listening before they produce a single story

The “if you build it, they will come” mentality is increasingly irrelevant in an environment of information saturation, so journalism startups are learning how best to meet their community’s needs — before they even launch.

Naturally, most founders have a notion of what their readers want when they decide to launch a news business. But at LION, we advocate treating that inkling as a hypothesis to be tested rather than a foregone conclusion. We’re seeing founders embarking on listening tours and audience interviews from the jump, taking full advantage of the openness and agility that come with a startup mindset. They’re seeking a rigorous understanding of their community’s information needs, and adjusting their offerings in real time to meet them.

One example is Megan Raposa, founder of Sioux Falls Simplified in South Dakota. Raposa started with the hypothesis that readers would want digestible local news that was easy to understand. She tested that hypothesis by conducting exhaustive one-on-one interviews with readers, which uncovered several key insights. The first was that they were much more interested in K-12 reporting than early childhood news. The second was their hunger for journalism focused on city government and community trends. The third, however, was a bit of a wild card for Raposa. It turns out they really wanted to know more about the local nonprofits in her coverage area.

“I didn’t expect to hear that, but I was like, ‘OK, cool, people like knowing what these groups are doing in the community,” Raposa said. “I can do more of that.”

Many are launching specifically with the goal of serving underserved or marginalized communities

Too many communities have been underserved, sometimes even actively harmed, when journalism outlets cover them without context or nuance — if they cover them at all. A growing number of news entrepreneurs are responding by launching news organizations with a singular mission: to serve communities that don’t often see themselves and their lives reflected in the news.

That’s the case for fully 91% of the organizations in our second GNI Startups Boot Camp, an eight-week program that provides news entrepreneurs with training and coaching to successfully launch their publications.

Here are just a few examples:

  • COLLAB: a movement journalism initiative working to survey communities across Texas about their information needs, train communities on how to combat disinformation, reach out to newsrooms and help community members tell their own stories.
  • Diaspora: A digital news outlet that will give marginalized people in Charlotte information on how they can become more actively engaged in the community to help make changes in the policies that affect their everyday lives.
  • An as-yet unnamed publication in Rhode Island: A journalistic publication produced for and by the BIPOC community of Rhode Island focused on providing coverage and community-specific information currently ignored by major news sources.
  • Wahkiakum Information & News Gathering Society (W.I.N.G.S.): A publication that helps residents in Wahkiakum County, Washington State, who want to stay connected and involved in the community by streamlining the delivery of local content and by involving residents in the process.

Stay tuned for more information on these publications in the coming months.

They’re delivering news and information in a way that meets their communities where they are

Not every news consumer wants their information to arrive via app or their inbox. For some, digital delivery isn’t a good fit at all. Many independent news startups are taking cues from where their audience already is, and meeting them there. Outlier Media has pioneered using SMS to provide information via text for its audience in Detroit, and New York-based Documented delivers a Spanish language newsletter exclusively via WhatsApp.

The founders behind the soon-to-launch Ang Diaryo in Los Angeles are another case in point. Arjuna Soriano and Minerva Vier knew they wouldn’t reach the working-class Filipino immigrants they aim to serve through the usual digital channels.

“Ang Diaryo was born out of community organizing experience,” Soriano said. “The working-class Filipino community in the US is a difficult segment to reach due, in large part, to individuals’ immigration and informal job status.”

To reach its audience, Ang Diaryo plans to provide information through SMS and a print publication, which community organizers will hand-distribute directly to audience members at worksites.

Ang Diaryo’s plan is to build trust and start conversations through the print product, then follow up with the SMS service to directly answer questions from the community. Look for that organization’s launch within the month.

They’re thinking creatively about revenue streams

As independent, grassroots publications spring up across the country, a number of blueprints and best practices have emerged to fund these journalistic green shoots. But there is less clarity for organizations serving low-income communities that may not have the means to directly pay for the news.

Outlets like El Tímpano in Oakland are addressing that Catch-22 by pursuing innovative funding strategies that look beyond reader revenue. El Tímpano serves Latino and Mayan immigrants — an audience that many community groups and government agencies in the area have struggled to reach. Founder Madeleine Bair has formed partnerships with local health organizations to share COVID-19 vaccine information, and with U.S. Census officials to educate and inform community members about the count. The result, she says, is a benefit for all involved.

“We seek partners that have a public-service mission, and one that is relevant to our audience,” Bair said. “What this means is that through our partnerships, we are not only providing a service for our partners, but we are providing a service for our audience and larger community, and advancing our mission.”

As a finalist for the OJA/Gather Award, Bair hosted a Gather Lightning Chat to discuss this work.

So what’s next?

As these organizations demonstrate, the path to a successful news business isn’t simply about doing great journalism — it’s about meeting communities where they are, understanding their information and civic needs and providing clear utility and value. And the independent journalism landscape is larger than many might realize.

Our research has shown that there are more than 700 such publications across the U.S., Canada and Puerto Rico, and that an average of 50 have launched each year for the past five years. Will they replace what’s been lost as legacy publications continue to shrink and shutter? No, says our Executive Director Chris Krewson. But that’s not the point.

“This nascent industry has the potential to grow beyond the limitations of newspapers, to truly reflect and serve communities large and small, rural, urban, Black, Brown, Indigenous, queer… and on and on,” Krewson writes. “We just have to stop thinking about saving the unsaveable and build businesses that serve the needs of communities first.”

Lisa Heyamoto is the Director of Teaching and Learning at LION Publishers. Last month, she was also Gather’s Guest Curator, making connections between community-centered journalism and local newsroom sustainability.

A journalist and educator whose work centers on increasing news access and building public trust in journalism.