Product and innovation: 5 questions with LMA’s Penny Riordan on local media audience opportunities


By Emilie LutostanskiDirector, Local News Resource Center

Penny Riordan joined Local Media Association in March 2021 as the Director of Business Strategy and Partnerships. She runs the digital content clubs, supports the work of the Oklahoma Media Center, and LMA’s new initiative on local news startups with the Tributary in Jacksonville, Fla.

Prior to joining LMA, Riordan worked for six years at Gannett and GateHouse, including helping run digital strategy and leading monthly calls on best practices with digital editors across the country. She also led product initiatives on analytics, audience engagement, comments, and social media platforms.

In this Q&A, we asked Riordan to share key opportunities for local media gleaned from working in audience and product, and insights for the future of several LMA projects.

Penny, welcome to the LMA team. Tell us a bit about your experience and how you’ve been applying it so far with our organization.

Riordan

It feels like I’ve been overlapping with the LMA staff for years at conferences, projects, at my old job, so it kind of feels like coming home to join the team.

When I reflect back on nearly 20 years working in the journalism industry and what I bring to LMA, there are few broad themes: Collaboration, innovation, discovering new business models, and engagement.

I’ve worked for small, locally owned newspapers, a hyperlocal news startup, and on the corporate staffs of large digital companies and large newspaper chains. All of those experiences allow me to connect and offer insights across LMA’s broad membership.

Most recently I was working at GateHouse and Gannett in various corporate roles, and during that time I did a lot of digital innovation with our newsrooms both large and small. I’ve also worked closely on the product side, specifically on engagement products such as analytics, comments, Facebook groups, and reader listening tools.

You’ve recently worked in audience and product for local news. What do you see as the biggest opportunity for publishers in this area?

The biggest opportunity for news organizations is to treat more of their work as a product. When people started talking about newsletters as a product, it immediately was improved upon. New ideas were generated, new readers were reached, and new revenue was found. Having a product mindset means you put the user at the center of what you do, and that is, of course, what journalism is supposed to be about as well.

Part of your work involves managing the LMA Digital Club. You were a club member before joining the organization. Have you gleaned insights from those conversations that reflect broader industry concerns?

I have to confess that managing the LMA Digital Club is probably my favorite part of the job so far. You’re correct that I used to be a member back when I worked at GateHouse, and it’s great to see how the club has evolved since then.

Two things are clear based on the conversations in the clubs: Innovation and experimentation are needed in all aspects of a company to evolve the business model, and we can all learn from each other.

So far we’ve talked about topics such as local advertising revenue trends, “what the heck are NFTs,” and digital traffic trends since COVID. These are conversations that every newsroom is having, so it’s even better to hop on a Zoom with 20 or so of your peers at other companies and have an “off-the-record” conversation about these things. That illustrates the need for collaboration and asking questions of our peers.

The second insight is that every company has questions about innovation in every aspect of the business, and all leaders are hungry for more information about it. When I talk to LMA members, all of them have questions about hiring and retaining smart talent, how to find new revenue streams, and how to grow their audiences. As an industry, we can’t come up with solutions fast enough.

You are also charged with supporting business transformation through LMA’s newly launched cooperative news projects, including The Tributary in Jacksonville, and Oklahoma Media Center. What key opportunities will you be focusing on with the local media in these cohorts?

It really does feel like a dream job to work on these projects.

The work I’m doing with Oklahoma Media Center feels like a lot of the work I did at GateHouse, which was getting newsrooms to bring their specific strengths to a collaborative project, instead of each news site writing the same story 50 times. What usually results in newsrooms collaborating with each other is newsrooms using more tactics to engage with their audiences. We’ve announced the Promised Land reporting collaboration, which will involve not only deep reporting, but deep listening to readers. We are also doing more projects with Indigenous communities and news organizations that cover Tribal nations. These types of initiatives are exciting and will result in business transformation, because whenever you listen to your audience more, your business will automatically be transformed.

The Tributary is also such a fun project for me personally because when I left Gannett last summer, I worked pretty intensely for a few months on starting on my own local news site. I ultimately decided it wasn’t the right career path for me for a few reasons, but so many other journalists like Andrew Pantazi are going for it, which is inspiring. The work with the Tributary is really about the nuts and bolts of a nonprofit news site: How do you file for nonprofit status, how do you structure your board, how do you form partnerships, how do you sustain local investigative work. I know there are hundreds of other journalists across the country working on similar ideas or thinking about them, so we are looking forward to releasing our learnings in a playbook for other entrepreneurs after The Tributary launches.

As far as the local journalism industry is concerned, what keeps you up at night? What gets you motivated in the morning?

I had a lot of sleepless nights after I was laid off in the midst of the pandemic, and at that time I was reading both News For All The People and The View from Somewhere, which caused me to deconstruct a lot of my learned views on objectivity. I think far too many news organizations are only seeing DEI as hiring people of color (which is very important), but aren’t doing the work of examining their own racist history (especially for legacy newspapers), or examining how they uphold racist policies in their personal lives. I’ve made an effort to look at my spending, my local government policies, and what I read and watch more closely since the killing of George Floyd. We haven’t been having enough of those personal conversations in the industry, although that is quickly changing through the work of folks like the Maynard Institute, OpenNews, ONA, the DEI Coalition Slack channel, and even LMA.

What gets me motivated is the amazing LMA team and the work I get to do here, and all that brings me back to my point about innovation. I think we’re innovating more as an industry, and that is truly inspiring. And here’s my final point about innovation: We often over-think of it as a giant program that takes hiring new staff and launching and having lots of meetings on innovating.

But innovation can happen in much smaller ways, and all of those small wins will add up to big ones. If an editor finds one way to improve their workflow in the CMS, that’s innovation. If we come up with one or two new ideas to sell to potential advertisers, that’s innovation. If we restructure our morning news meetings in just one way, that’s innovation.

Innovation is a mindset as much as it is an action, so if we come into more aspects of our jobs with an innovation mindset, we will bring about change.