The conference we’ve long needed

When I first began building new products for news organizations, I changed my LinkedIn profile to my new title, added a picture of Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and his perpetually exploding lab assistant Beeker, and put in a snarky comment: “Because the Future of News isn’t going to be invented at a conference.”

Turns out I was wrong.

The inaugural News Sustainability Summit wrapped up in Austin last weekend – 500 leaders of news organizations large and small swapping ideas about revenue, fundraising, burnout. All the topics, in other words, that must be solved if news organizations (especially startups) are to survive and thrive.

This was the conference we could have used 10 years ago. (One wag: “We didn’t know enough then.” Another’s response: “Yeah, but it’d have been one hell of a support group.”)

Most gratifying to me was to hear accomplished journalists talking pragmatically about how best to approach foundations and major donors; real-world techniques to build and execute audience-development plans; and why the best way to achieve your goals is often to hire another business-side employee.

I’ve spent most of the last 15 years fretting about how we’re going to replace the advertising revenue that has disappeared with the end of print and broadcast oligopolies.

Too many conferences that could have addressed those questions instead devolved into complaining about Those Terrible Evildoers at (depending on the year:, AutoTrader, Google, Facebook, Fill In the Blank) taking OUR money, thus denying us the God-granted revenue we need to pay for journalism!

Just as bad: The conferences that brushed up against the hard issues of revenue, decided they were too hard, and scurried back to the comfort of talking about new storytelling formats.

There was none of that in Austin.*

Instead, there were brilliant discussions about understanding audiences needs; actionable steps to turn occasional samplers into loyalists willing to pay for content; and how to operate in the messy, crowded local ecosystems that are replacing legacy monopolies.

These were people who recognize that replacing legacy business models is hard work – and are just getting on with it.

Kudos to the organizers: my old friend Chris Krewson and his team at the Local Independent Online News Publishers; the News Revenue Hub; and the RevLab at Texas Tribune.

And heartfelt thanks to the people who paid for it, especially Jim Brady at the Knight Foundation; The Lenfest Institute; and Google News Initiative.

*OK: One person in a Q&A asked why as an industry we don’t press for an antitrust suit against the tech platforms. That hoary time-wasting argument that ignores multiple facts: The platforms have lawyers, too, who could drag out such a lawsuit for years; the legacy media businesses had every chance to out-compete the platforms and failed utterly; and the advertisers who traditionally paid for journalism actually benefitted from the platforms’ new products in the form of lower ad rates and increased consumer targeting — meaning that it’s hard to show that paying customers suffered actual damage, a key tenet of antitrust law.

If the questioner thought they were launching a torches-and-pitchforks moment, they were mistaken: All it generated was a moment of uncomfortable silence, and an eye-roll or two before Jim Brady politely pointed out that building new news organizations was a quicker solution to the decline of local journalism.


#1 Tim Windsor on 11.01.22 at 5:49 pm

I miss ALL the great conferences.

Sounds like you were totally in your element! Thanks for the report.

#2 tgd on 11.01.22 at 9:06 pm

You’d have liked this one. They were speaking the language of sustainability and – dare I say it? – growth.

Leave a Comment