OJR 2006: Making your passion pay

So you want to make a living from your news content website? For starters, find a niche.

That’s what the Center for Citizen Media‘s Dan Gillmor told participants at the OJR 2006 session about the business side of independent online publishing.

“If you create a sufficient level of informed conversation about a very narrow subject, that’s a business,” Gillmor said. “You better really love it, though, because you’ll get bored.”

“And your readers will know it, fast,” added Staci Kramer, executive editor of paidContent.org, and moderator of the session.

Beyond that beginning assumption about planning financially sustainable sites, the discussion covered strategies for creating and increasing site revenue — from Google AdSense to Zazzle.com. Here’s some of the nitty-gritty.

Transparency, ethics and sponsorship

Participants agreed that one of the key selling points of a narrowly-focused website is the proprietor’s ability to offer advertisers and sponsors access to a target group of readers. But you have to be careful, Kramer warned. She said paidContent readers “will know if we’re pimping them.”

“Transparency is how you get to credibility,” Kramer said, arguing that ads should be obviously distinct from editorial content.

Kramer’s site has gotten sponsors to fund coverage of certain trade shows, like the cable industry’s National Show last spring. She showed how paidContent sold sponsors exclusive banner space above event mini-blogs. Each post ended with a tagline that clearly explained the relationship between the sponsor and the site to readers.

One audience member pointed out that mainstream news publications don’t disclose at the end of each story whether the companies covered are advertisers.

“It’s not personal for them,” Kramer replied. She said the small scale of most independent online sites may require a greater level of transparency than readers expect of the MSM.

Kramer said paidContent had recently hired her brother Billy Kramer as the site’s first ad sales director. He will work with sponsors and advertisers, creating a stronger barrier between the business and editorial sides of paidContent.

But most sites will have to negotiate sponsor relationships without the aid of ad salesmen. Laurie Niles of Violinist.com said she was looking for a sponsor for her site but was uncomfortable hammering out a deal. Niles wondered whether the new relationship affect her content.

Finding and talking directly to sponsors can feel like an ethical minefield for self-publishing journalists, Kramer said. [See related blog post by OJR editor Robert Niles.]

But Kevin Roderick of LAObserved said he went for the most obvious route to find sponsors: He placed a notice on his site a little over a year ago. He now works directly with sponsors, but makes clear that they will get no special treatment. He currently uses a combination of sponsorships, donations, BlogAds and Google’s AdSense.

Dueling ad networks

Yahoo! and Google both sent reps of their respective pay-per-click ad programs to OJR 2006. Cody Simms of Yahoo! Publisher Network, currently in invitation-only beta, said he had recently left NYTimes.com; Charlie Vestner of Google’s AdSense said he had been an independent publisher and AdSense customer two years ago.

“Which one could I make more money on?” Roderick wanted to know after brief descriptions of the two services. Neither rep revealed any secrets, but Vestner encouraged OJR participants to give AdSense a try. He stressed that it’s not a huge commitment — publishers can add or drop the service at any time. OJR’s Niles suggested curious publishers check out an IE tool that previews which Google ads would be served to a certain page. Vestner also recommended taking a look at Google’s “heat map,” which guides publishers in finding the best-performing ad placement.

One of the ad issues that concerned OJR conferees was appropriateness. Roderick reported that a recent early morning religion-related post resulted in his blog being served Google ads for religious paraphernalia for the rest of the day — despite the media and politics focus of his frequently-updated site. Vestner said Google wouldn’t recalibrate ads for every new post and might have only crawled the page once that day.

On the other hand, Simms touted YPN members’ ability to choose target ads. A golf blogger who knows his affluent audience might purposefully choose to serve luxury travel ads, Simms said.

Regardless of what ad service a publisher chooses, Kramer had a word to the wise for bloggers: Set up single-post pages to maximize ad space. PaidContent isn’t structured that way, she said, and now the site’s ability to sell additional ads is limited. “We’re out of inventory,” Kramer said.

Suggested ad-related reading included Search Engine Roundtable and JenSense.

Working with affiliates

For publishers thinking about going with an affiliate program, like Amazon.com’s Associates program, members of the OJR audience had a few key suggestions:

  • Make sure the site matches what you do.
  • Make sure the site will appeal to your readers.
  • A no-brainer: Make sure the site is reputable.

Robert Niles related his experience finding a hotel-booking affiliate for his Theme Park Insider site. He recommended trying out multiple vendors to see how well each one integrates with your own site and to find out how much revenue you receive from each. Niles also stressed that publishers should use all potential affiliate sites as a customer, to see what their readers will experience. “If at any time [your readers] start to feel scammed by that site, it reflects badly on you,” Niles said.

Other site revenue strategies mentioned included readers making PayPal donations, offering classifieds and merchandising.

But, at the end of the session, Kramer said, “I feel like we just scratched the surface.”

* * *

Related stories from OJR’s archives:

About Melissa Pamer

I'm a digital journalist -- a writer, editor and producer for NBCLA.com -- at NBC Los Angeles.

I used to be a general assignment reporter at the Los Angeles Daily News, where I specialized in environmental coverage. Before that, I worked at the Daily News' sister paper, the Daily Breeze in Torrance, Calif., from 2008 to 2011. At the Daily Breeze, I covered local government, education and environmental issues.

I received my master's degree in print journalism from USC's Annenberg School of Journalism in 2007. At Annenberg, I was a Dean's Scholar and received a full merit-based scholarship. I was an editor at Online Journalism Review in my first year.

My undergraduate degree from Brown University is in Modern Culture and Media. I focused mostly on filmmaking, film theory and cultural studies.

I've also worked as a staffer or intern for the Los Angeles Times, The Associated Press, The (Spokane, Wash.) Spokesman-Review, the Pasadena Star-News and the San Gabriel Valley Tribune.