Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Review: How to Make Money Publishing Community News Online

Versión en español aquí.

Hundreds of websites are popping up to replace the community news coverage lost as daily newspapers cut staff and publish less frequently.

Many of them are started by the very reporters who have just been laid off or community organizers who want to hold public institutions accountable.

What these new media entrepreneurs have is a passion for news and community service. But most will not survive long-term because they have no clue about how to run a business or to find the financial resources to make the operation sustainable.

They might have a better chance, however, if they spent some time with Robert Niles's book How to Make Money Publishing Community News Online.

For starters, Niles says, you need to think of yourself not as a publisher but as a community organizer. Here is his formula for building community:

  • Get to know your target market, be it geographic or thematic (education, arts). Find out what its needs are. 
  • Build a team to help build community. The team can include family, friends, readers, contributors.
  • Make an action plan built around solving problems for your community, around filling a need. 
  • Talk about your plan. Share it. Don't worry about someone stealing it. Ideas are cheap. Execution is everything.
  • Put your plan into action by researching, writing, aggregating and publishing. 
  • See how you did by analyzing the metrics that matter. 
  • Then go back and do it again, until you get it right. Once you do, keep doing it, and add another project to the mix.

Niles has the credentials to give advice. He is a successful media entrepreneur himself. He and his wife, Laurie Niles, have run two profitable websites for years, Theme Park Insider and Violinist, and the book draws heavily on their  experiences, including all their mistakes.

He also has years of experience working with digital media entrepreneurs through courses he has given at boot camps run by the Knight Digital Media Center at USC's Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism.

Fill a need

"Starting a business — whether it's a news website, an auto repair shop or an organic grocery store — is all about finding an unmet need in a community and providing a good or service that fulfills it," Niles says. "Want to start a business? Then start by looking for the need in a community."

The key is changing your mindset. "The sooner you change your focus as a publisher to customer service, the sooner you'll be earning the income that can transform your publication into a sustainable business."

Technical advice, how-tos

Niles has useful recommendations on the technical side of running a community news site based on his years of experience with the coding and design that make websites attractive and easy to use. He goes into detail about the pluses and minuses of everything from apps for polling, to setting up databases, to choosing a server, to selecting a content management system.

He describes the process of how to decide when to sell your ads yourself (sometimes you will generate more revenue this way) and when to let Google Adsense do it for you. He shows how to decide on a pricing structure and when it might be more profitable to publish an ebook than to run material on your website.

He shows how to analyze your web traffic, which numbers are most important and how to get them to move in the right direction. He has great advice on how to run a comment section with two levels, one of them anonymous, in order to build community and create conversation. Hint: you have to moderate it.

Selling ethically

Many journalists are uncomfortable selling anything. In traditional newsrooms, they were physically and philosophically removed from the marketing and sales of the product. They avoided contact with advertisers. You cannot work this way in a community news website, Niles says.

The secret to selling advertising is... Don't worry about selling ads. Worry instead about doing all the things I've asked you to do in this book: find a need, reach out to a community, build an audience. Go ahead and make space in your website's design for ads, placed in positions where readers will see them. 
Create a rate card, price the ads fairly and publish a webpage that tells potential advertisers what you offer, how much it costs and how to place an order. If you've done all this, truly, and built a well-targeted, large-enough audience of engaged readers that advertisers need to reach, you won't have to worry about selling ads. You'll just have to set aside some time to take orders — because the advertisers will come looking for you.... 
Don't worry about selling your editorial integrity. That's not on your rate card and it's not up for sale. (At least, it shouldn't be.) You're not selling your content when you sell an ad — you're selling access to your readers.
Actually, you do have to go out and make sales calls. Niles himself talks about how he does it. His experience matches mine as a publisher of a business newspaper: that is, it's better to talk about what you are doing for the community and how your product is used and appreciated than to talk about ad sizes and prices. The customers sell themselves. You will know they are sold when they ask about ad rates.

(How to sell ethically is a topic I also have written about: Five dirty words journalists have to learn to use without blushing.)

You need to know who your customers are, Niles says. People who are visiting your website are your audience. "Unless they're collectively paying you enough to cover a significant portion of the cost of doing business, those readers are not your customers."

Your customers are anyone who writes you a check. It's as simple as that. The advertisers who want to pressure you to change your editorial product to suit their needs should become your former customers. The best ones understand that your value as a news organization is that the community trusts you and counts on your integrity.  Good journalism is good business.


Making money on the web Part I: Mark Briggs


  1. I think it is a good book to read and learn basics. Thank you James for this review on Riobert Nile's book.

    I'm looking forward to buying it.