Local news sites form new trade association

“We are the future” says LION chairman Dylan Smith

Next month, at the annual Block by Block conference for local news sites, around 100 independent publishers will celebrate the launch of a new nonprofit trade group that will offer support for the growing hyperlocal news industry.

Local Independent Online News Publishers (LION) will be chaired by Dylan Smith of the TucsonSentinel.com and has been partly funded by a grant from the Patterson Foundation. Though many of these publishers run their local news sites alone or in small teams, sometimes from their own homes, they hope that by joining forces within LION they can help one another grow stronger.

“We don’t have the vast resources that the big newspaper chains do, but we also don’t have the bureaucratic leadership that they do,” Smith said of the sites involved, which include The Batavian, run by Howard Owens in Batavia, NY, and The Eastsider LA, a site run by Jesus Sanchez from the northeast corner of Los Angeles, CA. “We can choose a direction and pursue it. That’s why we think we’re the future,” Smith said.

Unlike bigger professional networks—which include AOL’s Patch, and the Online News Network—LION will focus solely on small, independent sites that are serious about the business of local news. LION will provide these independent publishers with a year-round forum to share ideas about the most efficient way to organize hyperlocal news. They will pool resources to offer practical support and forums for new ideas, much like a virtual newsroom.

“The practical implications are in the day-to-day,” said Smith. “If someone has a coding problem, they raise a paw, and someone will help them fix it, which is much better than them paying a fortune for a professional.”

The majority of these local news sites are run by professional journalists who became casualties of newsroom layoffs. Smith was the online editor of the Tucson Citizen before it ceased printing in May 2009. He said that running the TucsonSentinel.com is a more satisfying, if not yet lucrative, path. “Despite my editing duties, and business duties, I’m out reporting way more than I ever was when I was in a newsroom,” he said.

Howard Owens, who started running The Batavian independently in 2009 after its publisher, GateHouse Media, announced plans for it to be shut down, said that the trade group was the natural way for the growing number of local news sites to evolve. “We have nothing in common with newspaper corporations, nothing in common with mega-conglomerates like Patch,” he said. “But we do have a lot in common with each other.”

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Hazel Sheffield is a journalist and filmmaker based in London. She is a former CJR fellow and business editor of the Independent.