Dylan Smith was skeptical when, in 2010, he received an invitation to the first Block by Block conference. Leaving his one-person newsroom for a weekend to fly across the country for a conference aimed at local, independent, online news operators seemed like a waste of time.
Smith ran a nonprofit site in a major metro, Tucson, Arizona. Yet Block by Block suggested he could offer valuable insights to someone running a for-profit site in the rural Northeast, and vice versa. He doubted it.
If the invitation hadn’t come with a Reynolds Journalism Institute–supported travel stipend, he probably wouldn’t have risked going.
Eight years later, Smith still runs the nonprofit TucsonSentinel.com, and he is the founder and president of LION Publishers, a national association of independent, local, online news publishers.
“LION exists because we were brought together by Michele [McClellan] at those Block by Block conferences,” Smith says.
Smith was one of about 150 local news publishers who gathered in Chicago in 2010 to learn what they could from each other and hear from RJI Fellow McLellan about how to make their publications financially stronger.
“Nobody knew what it was going to be, what the outcome was going to be,” Smith says. “It was kind of a bring-people-together-and-see-what develops kind of situation.”
What developed that first year was a lot of enthusiasm and a commitment to have another conference the next year. After the second conference, Smith and a small group of other attendees started talking about creating an association to formalize the relationships they were building with one another. After the third and final Block by Block conference, in 2012, LION Publishers was created.
LION membership now comprises about 200 publishers from across the country, from small towns to major metros. They hold their own conference in Chicago each year.
“We really discovered that we had a lot in common despite those surface-level differences,” Smith says. “The challenges of being a small online news startup are similar no matter what you’re trying to do with it.”
The group focuses on the brass tacks of keeping a small operation afloat, an area often neglected by other organizations. LION offers a steady diet of how to build a sustainable business model in different business conditions and communities, how to work with salespeople and draw up ad contracts, how to find sponsors, and how to promote sites to find sponsors and readers.
“It’s made me a more confident salesman,” Smith says of LION. He was always confident in the quality of his journalism, but now he is able “to express its importance to our community in a way that they don’t just nod their heads but reach for their checkbooks. Being able to close those deals is the reason we are still running eight years in.”
The idea for such an association was too good to not happen eventually, Smith says. But how long would it have taken? How many publishers, for lack of a supportive community, would have given up their dream in the meantime?
“Michele is like our organization’s fairy godmother,” Smith says, and Block by Block was her “inspired kick in the pants” to bring them together. Otherwise, “it might have taken a much longer, more circuitous path toward us having something that really responds to [our] specialized needs.
“We’re terribly, overwhelmingly grateful.”