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When a reporter does a deep-dive investigation, a typical result is a three-part weekend series. When Michele McLellan dug deep into how local, online journalists were making a living, the result was a three-year series of annual conferences that spawned a national nonprofit organization.

The project started when McLellan, as good journalists do, questioned the standard narrative. In this case, the narrative was that newspapers were in decline and that quality journalism would necessarily decline with it.

She thought there was more to the story. She landed a fellowship with the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri and started to check it out.

“I knew of some startups — this was in 2009 — that were doing good work,” McLellan says. “I decided to find as many online startups as I could and look at the quality of their work.”

Along with a research assistant, she reviewed 1,400 local news sites. Filtering only for operators who were actively seeking revenue to support themselves, she created a list — Michele’s List — of 150 sites that met her criteria. Then she wrote up and released a report that described who they were, what they were doing and how they were making money.

“It was a more accurate description of what was happening in journalism,” McLellan says.

And that was the end of it. At first.

But then she got to thinking — what if she brought them all together? What might they learn from each other?

“These [sites] are one or two people laid off from the newsroom or who took the buyout and still want to do local news,” McLellan says. But, while they knew how to do local news, they didn’t know how to make money from it. “We identified that as the key issue and decided to bring them together.”

“These [sites] are one or two people laid off from the newsroom or who took the buyout and still want to do local news,” McLellan says. But, while they knew how to do local news, they didn’t know how to make money from it. “We identified that as the key issue and decided to bring them together.”

In 2010, with funding from RJI and other granting organizations, McLellan put together the first Block by Block conference in Chicago and invited her 150 online news operators. Because they all operated on shoestring budgets, she also provided travel funds. The only risk they had to take was with their time.

They came.

“I think we had about 100 of them,” McLellan remembers. “This was 2010. They’d all been toiling in isolation. They [hadn’t known] they all existed. They certainly had never been recognized or received help from anyone. It was electric. They just were so hungry to talk to each other and exchange information about what they were learning.”

The first year focused on convincing the publishers that they needed to actively raise money — which meant overcoming the idea that good journalism would find its own funding by itself — and that they could do it.

By popular demand, McLellan organized a second Block by Block the next year, which focused on how generating revenue was done, both in the for-profit and not-for-profit business models.

At that second conference, attendees started talking about formalizing the connections they were building into a professional organization that could help members throughout the year. After the third and final Block by Block conference the next year, a new industry association was born called Local Independent Online News (LION). The group is still going strong and hosts its own annual conferences.

Meanwhile, McLellan kept adding to Michele’s List and surveying the list members, mostly asking about their finances, which were still the limiting factor for most local online news sites.

Eventually she received funding from other organizations to expand this work, which complements her other consulting work in developing training programs in digital strategy, leadership and organizational development.

“This added whole areas of research that I’ve continued,” she says.

Erik Potter  
   
Guest blogger



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