Indie Online Local Publishing: A Primer

Success for Local Independent Online News Publishers comes in as many forms as there are publications, but ensuring your own success as a journalism entrepreneur comes from careful and deliberate planning and sustainable organization and systems as much as it comes from passion. Beth Lawton, executive director for LION Publishers, says the most common advice she hears from members is, “Make sure to set up your business before you break news.”

For out-of-work journalists, including many let go recently from AOL’s Patch, it can be tempting to set up a site and start publishing news within days of a layoff. In fact, registering a domain, setting up a basic site and publishing your first piece of news can literally take just a few hours.

Stop. Don't do it.

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That’s odd advice considering I'm the executive director of a group of independent online publishers (LION Publishers), but one of the most common tips my most successful members give newcomers is this: Make sure to set up your business before you break news.

Setting up a business structure is something many publishers say they’ll get around to once they’re up and running, but at that point it can grow to be a hassle at best. Deciding on whether your publication will be a for-profit or a nonprofit, an LLC or a partnership or some combination of those can affect everything from the types of ads you can sell to how much you pay in quarterly taxes. A knee-jerk decision now can trip you up later.

There are three things you may need as you head into a new venture: reporting chops, business acumen and technology skills.

The person who is amazing at all three is rare, but there are things any journalism entrepreneur can and should do to develop their news venture into a sustainable, long-lasting, mortgage-paying business.

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Essential Questions 

As you set out, the first question to answer is: “What do you have to invest?”

Don’t mistake that solely for a financial question. Having money set aside to invest in the site and live on while building audience and revenue is necessary — how much depends on the publication’s business plan and goals. But beyond that financial investment, answer these questions:

Are you planning to do this full time? Or, are you starting this on the side while working somewhere else (and if so, what will be your criteria for deciding when or whether to quit your other job)?

How much experience do you have handling aspects outside of reporting, such as technology, accounting, marketing, ad sales and management? For those things you don’t have expertise in, where will you find support?

How big is your team going to be — or are you going to go solo, at least at first? If you are going solo, do you have a solid support network of friends and family?

What’s the competitive landscape like for both news and information and advertising? Where does your publication — and your business — fit in the local media ecosystem?

Technically Infuriating

If there’s one thing a lot of journalists miss when they start their own publication, it’s an IT department. To minimize technical frustrations and ensure a smooth flow of content and revenue, plan for your future content and ad needs together.

One of the steps to success as a business is choosing a CRM (customer relationship manager) and an ad server that are flexible, scalable and reliable.

Just as man cannot live on bread alone, a publication cannot survive on banner ads — especially networked ones. Calendars, business directories, sponsorships and other revenue formats should be part of any publication’s business plan. For nonprofits, don't pin your hopes on an enormous grant paying your salary for years. You'll have to hustle for local donors and underwriting just as hard as a for-profit works to sell ads.

While nonprofits have tax advantages and the ability to legally accept volunteer help, there are limitations on the type of revenue you can accept — no political ads, for instance.

Don't look to a paywall to make you rich. Even storied publications have difficulty persuading readers to pay to read news.

Although you’ll need to make some initial sales decisions — page views or share of voice, ad sizes and ad rates among them — don’t lock yourself into a system that can’t grow and change with your publication or the needs of your advertisers. The local media space has endless possibilities for revenue models, and you’ll want to be able to pivot quickly to take advantage of business opportunities.

When looking at technical options for serving both ads and content, “whatever is free” may not be the best option. In most cases, you get what you pay for and you want responsive and professional customer service backing your publication. Not having that could be a costly mistake.

Before launching your site, put thought into how its structure and navigation fit your work. Don't plan to have sections you can't fill, just because a metro newspaper site would have them. Make sure your site will work on mobile and tablet devices, as well as a desktop — responsive Web design — and explore your options for a content management system before launching. Consider ease of use, security and flexibility — and make sure you're using a design that was developed for a news website.


Comments (4) -

Ned Berke posted over 3 years ago
Excellent, well-articulated points, Beth (and I don't just say that because I was one of the pubs interviewed for it!). As LION's chairman, Dylan Smith, noted, this is the anti-Ned Berke approach. The anti-Ned Berke approach to anything is usually ideal. That being said, I'd like to speak a little bit to the benefits of taking the blind plunge. When I launched Sheepshead Bites, I did it on $10 and gave myself a time limit of two hours. Why? Because, depending on the personality of the entrepreneur, planning can kill a business quicker than it can build it. I had a history of fiddling with plans for weeks, months, years and then never getting around to executing. I'd get burned out on planning (or indecisiveness). So when Sheepshead Bites popped into my head, I said, "I'm going to register a domain and have my first post up within two hours." I did. I even made a ridiculously ugly custom design. There are other advantages. Flying by the seat of your pants means the ultimate flexibility. When you sit down and put a plan to paper, some feel committed to the plan and are reluctant to tweak and tinker with things even if they're not working. That won't fly when you're pioneering new business models. So the flexibility offered by having no plan means you can get your feet wet, try different approaches, gauge REAL response, and then make a plan based on those experiences. And then there's the drawbacks. I waited too long to make a plan, and things were growing far too fast and I was unable to adapt my business for growth. I've surmounted most of those obstacles, but there are still some lingering issues caused by the fact that I launched without business at front-of-mind. But one thing is for sure - had I sat down and began writing out plans before anything else, Sheepshead Bites wouldn't exist. So the reason I share this is to encourage other would-be publishers who see a little of themselves in my work habits to not be deterred. Beth's points are spot on - all of these things need to be thought about very early in the process. But if you feel you need to get cracking on reporting before getting bogged down in IRS classifications, then go ahead and do it. Just make sure you get to that plan shortly afterwards.
Ned Berke posted over 3 years ago
That comment looked a lot better when it was broken into paragraphs.
Dylan Smith posted over 3 years ago
Whether you take the immediate plunge, or spend a couple of weeks planning things out (don't take months writing an 85-page business plan, regardless), the important thing is to be flexible. Some of your plans won't pan out, and new opportunities will pop up — that's part of running a small business. Thus: "It's important to learn that you're now the boss. You make the decisions, and you learn from your mistakes. Fail fast: don't follow the lead of chain media in sticking to projects that don't work. Iterate: if something works, figure out why and apply that to the rest of your business." And remember, there are scores of local publishers who are very willing to share what's worked for them. That's why we banded together to establish the only nationwide group representing the publishers and editors of local independent online news websites:
Mark Chapman posted over 2 years ago
Good advice here. Just one thing: You say non-profits cannot accept political ad. This is not correct. As long as the ads are available to all candidates at the same price, it is OK. See No. 9 in this link: There is a tightrope to be walked, but it can be done.


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