Why Matt DeRienzo is so excited to lead LMA’s Chief Content Club

Someone who has worked in numerous newsrooms, and helped independent publishers accelerate their business, now is helping content and audience executives who participate in Local Media Association’s Chief Content Club.

Matt DeRienzo, who most recently led newsrooms for Hearst Connecticut, will serve as a guest facilitator for LMA’s Chief Content Club over the next several months.

The Chief Content Club offers a unique opportunity for media executives to network with group of peers and hear from industry experts on the most exciting opportunities that can help grow and sustain engaged audiences for local news. The group meets once a month.

We caught up with DeRienzo to learn more about his background and what he is planning for the Chief Content Club.

First, can you tell us about your background?

Well, I had a blast over the past year as vice president of news and digital at Hearst Connecticut. We took a group of eight small to mid-sized daily newspapers and 16 weeklies, and realized that if we operated together instead of in silos, we were an outsize power in local journalism. We proved rampant absentee ballot fraud in a contentious mayoral election in Bridgeport, for example, by sending a small army of reporters out knocking on doors, visiting nursing homes, and poring over election documents, prison and death records. And we put thousands of hours into something that our small local dailies wouldn’t have thought possible in the past — a national investigation that uncovered widespread sexual abuse connected to Boys & Girls Clubs across the country, and prompted sweeping and immediate changes in policy from the national organization.

It was also rewarding as someone who’s been immersed for a while in discussions about what kind of business models can save local journalism. We were able to grow traffic and audience that had plateaued, more than double newsletter signups, and launch a paywall at six daily newspapers while continuing to see year-over-year traffic growth at the same time.

I started in the newspaper business the day after my 18th birthday, at my hometown weekly newspaper in Maine. I sold advertising to supplement my work as a reporter covering the contentious fight over clam digging licenses in Scarborough, Maine, and closing neighborhood elementary schools in South Portland. My first job as editor of a daily newspaper came a month before 9/11. I was still a baby when I got the opportunity to serve as corporate director of news for the old Journal Register Co. After my first child was born, I traded traveling to newsrooms across the country for the opportunity to live a mile from the office and run both sides of the business as a daily newspaper publisher in Connecticut. We were able to pioneer some reader and community engagement work there, opening North America’s first “newsroom cafe,” where the public was invited into a space that functioned as a cross between a newsroom, a library, a coffee shop and a community center.

That work landed me back in the newsroom as editor of what became Digital First Media’s New Haven Register and sister publications in Connecticut, with freedom to experiment with the transition to digital, and the weight of overseeing coverage of the mass murder at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. When the hedge fund that had owned DFM ran out of patience with the lowercase “digital first” strategy and I had to cut half of my statewide newsroom in a year, I put my own name down as the last person on the list, and started focusing on what might fill the gaps that were being left by newspaper industry cuts.

As the first full-time executive director of LION (Local Independent Online News) Publishers, I helped the national nonprofit organization evolve into something that could support and equip the exploding number of local independent online news organizations that were springing up all over the country.

What’s next? I’m actively exploring that, but excited to be doing some work with Local Media Association in the meantime.

What will you be doing with LMA’s Chief Content Club?

The top content or digital leader in a news organization is under unique pressure these days to uphold editorial standards and ethics, engage with the audience, drive staff culture change, keep up with rapidly changing industry dynamics, and be in sync with business models that can shift under their feet pretty rapidly.

It’s an oddly isolating position to be in. There are things you’re dealing with that you can’t really vent to your boss about, or your staff. I love the idea of Chief Content Club simply as a peer support network in addition to a platform for sharing ideas and best practices. As facilitator, I hope to encourage both, providing a safe space to hash out challenges, opportunities and frustrations with people who uniquely get it.

Are there themes that you will be focusing on with CCC?

Even broadcast outlets are pursuing membership programs now, and of course the newspaper industry is focused on digital subscriptions, so reader and consumer revenue is certainly top of mind for many in this group. It’s so deeply connected to content and newsroom decisions, in ways that really don’t resemble the old model of print circulation discussions.

More broadly, it’s about effective reader and community engagement, knowing your existing and potential audiences, and figuring out what your key performance indicators are and what muddies the waters or distracts from your core mission.

Everyone involved with Chief Content Club is dealing with the lowercase human resources decisions and strategies around driving culture change in their organization. Supporting each other in managing change is a big part of it.

And we’ll be looking for frequent opportunities to share specific ideas that others can take back to their organization for an immediate impact. That’s worth the price of admission and a lot more.

What are a few of the biggest challenges facing newsrooms today and what do you believe are potential solutions?

Oh man.

Unfortunately for an increasing number of newsrooms, and a worsening situation for others, it’s ownership. It’s difficult to innovate or build something for the future if you’re hamstrung by crushing debt, or shareholder expectations, or non-diverse top leadership stuck in the past. That’s a conversation for another day, perhaps.

I think the number one challenge for newsrooms is how integral they are to leadership of the sustainable business models that are emerging. The “wall” between the business side and editorial looks completely different — isn’t even the right word anymore — in a world where you have to understand what kind of stories drive digital subscriptions, of membership programs, newsroom-focused paid events, and sponsored content. Sometimes newsroom leaders need to be pushed into this world. Sometimes newsroom leaders need to fight to have ownership of it, because not everyone understands how much content and engagement drives business results in this new world.

Another challenge is the off-the-rails political polarization of the past three or four years. I used to argue that journalists should be transparent about their political beliefs, and that people from all sides of the spectrum would grow to appreciate their ability to be fair. But I’m not sure it’s possible anymore. Sowing distrust in the media has been weaponized and scaled, and there are many out there acting in bad faith to undermine newsrooms. There’s a ton of thought and intentionality and work to be done to repair the damage that’s being done.

The good news is that you can’t go wrong right now by embracing reader engagement, transparency and trust. It’s a key component of the reader revenue models that are emerging, and will put you in a much stronger position to understand how future business models must evolve.

From your time at LION, are there entrepreneur lessons you think legacy media could apply?

Yes! First and foremost, local independent online news publishers are finding success because they’re close to their audience. Business decisions are being made by people who live and work and are part of the community they serve, not in some far-away board room. People who launch their own local news organization also must think about how the journalism, engagement, technology and business model fit together, and if it doesn’t work, they can’t keep the lights on, and have to adjust.