Top mistakes made by new online publishers

Perhaps you’ve heard the horror stories: You can’t make any money publishing online. No one does any original reporting on the Web. The blogosphere is nothing but egos and spam.

There are two main reasons why people repeat such pessimism:

a) They don’t know what they’re talking about and frustrated with the Web.
b) They DO know what they are talking about and don’t want any new competition.

In the spirit of holiday giving, we present the top mistakes made by people in group (a). If you are worried about your future in the print or broadcast news industry, don’t be afraid to envision a future publishing online. Just beware of the traps that have snared many who have gone before you.

1) Doing it for the money

On the Internet, passion trumps professionalism. Yes, smart, disciplined online publishers are making money. It’s to be expected, with the billions of dollars advertisers are now spending online every year. But that can’t be the dominant reason you publish. Readers can smell a publisher who is trying to milk the market and will seek instead someone who publishes for the love of his or her subject. The Internet offers passionate, knowledgeable sources on every topic imaginable. You need to be one of them – not just a journalist with a newspaper buyout package and a business plan.

Over the past year, I’ve spoken with at least a dozen newspaper-dot-com executives who’ve expressed frustration that their organizations are now playing “catch-up” to amateur niche media due to their company’s obsession with maximizing profits, in part by not funding new projects without immediate revenue attached. That policy’s left too many newspapers with seemingly “safe” but overly broad, voiceless websites that fail to engage the reading public, just like their print parents.

2) Casting too broad a net

Pick a topic, whether it be a business, hobby, field or neighborhood, that you know well and can write about with authority. One of the conceits of the news industry is that reporters do not need to have specialized training or knowledge of the topics they cover – they just ask questions and let their sources provide the information.

Of course, this thinking provides a convenient excuse for newspapers too cheap to pay for reporters with real world training in their beats. Don’t let it infect your website. Otherwise, your site will read like too many newspaper stories – poorly informed, unfocused and contrived.

Click through Tom Grubisich’s recent analysis of “citizen journalism” websites for examples of local online news done right… and wrong.

People are ditching newspapers for the Web for a reason, and it ain’t the ease of reading on a computer screen, or even to save 50 cents a day. Readers crave authoritative voices that can guide them through the information overload of modern life. You can be that voice. But you have to know your topic, and stick with it.

3) Not being humble

By this time, Internet readers have learned that communities know more about a given topic than any single individual does. You might be new to publishing online, but your audience is not new to reading the Web. They’ve grown accustomed to interactivity. Sure, you must present yourself as an expert – you must *be* an expert to retain any long-term credibility online. But you must embrace your readers’ collective expertise because part of your new job will be to draw out that superior knowledge that many of your readers have.

In reporting a story for the Web, the interview process does not end with publication. When writing a piece, always include an invitation for knowledgeable readers to add more to the story. Writers who fail to do this invite suspicion that they are more interested in promoting (and protecting) their own point of view, instead of allowing their work to compete in the marketplace of ideas.

4) Taking spam personally

Too many beginning publishers give up on interactivity once the first wave of spam hits their comment section, e-mail in box or discussion board. Don’t take it personally. Look at spam and trolls the way you look at a flu virus: a simple, unthinking annoyance that’s looking for a receptive host.

Like a traveler going abroad for the first time, too many beginning Web publishers lack the necessary immunity to the Internet’s ills. Immunize yourself by either installing filtering software or requiring e-mail verified registration to submit content to your site. If something does slip through, delete it and forget it. Don’t kill the patient to take out the disease.

5) Telling the world what you are doing… before you actually do it

Okay, this could be filed under mistake #3, above. But “old media” veterans seem especially vulnerable to this online faux pas. The old media model for starting a publication required you to raise money to hire a staff, solicit advertisers and print the book. Online, you don’t need any of that. So why issue the press release before you have something to show?

I’ll defer to Markos Moulitsas Zúniga’s analysis of Jim VandeHei’s new website:

There’s one big lesson I learned in my Silicon Valley days — the more grandiose the talk when launching a venture, the more ill-will it generates and the more knives come out. Google came out of nowhere to take over the internet, despite grandiose claims from the likes of Microsoft. We all saw what happened to the pathetic Pajamas Media, while Daily Kos has quietly risen into a position of prominence. That’s why I’m being low-key in my projects for next year. They’ll be quietly launched. Some will fail, some might succeed. It’s better to let success do the talking than being a boastful oaf before your project is even off the ground.

Flying a while under the radar also allows you the freedom to try new things, without the fear of public humiliation.

6) Throwing money at your site

The economics of online publishing support and reward individuals. Obviously, large businesses can flourish online. But almost without exception (think Google, Yahoo and even MySpace), they started small, established themselves before seeking millions in venture capital and built through strong reader support.

When I talk with people who have had success making money from online content, I see a common attribute: an independent writer who leads a strong community that generates hundreds, if not thousands, of pages of informative, compelling content.

What I don’t see is someone who first hired a staff, including editors, reporters and ad reps. Nor do I see someone with a large marketing budget, buying advertising in offline media to draw attention to their site. In fact, when I speak with people who followed that path, I inevitably hear complaints about how “no one’s making money online,” and a series of excuses for why their venture failed.

Make sure you have enough in the bank to support yourself for a few months while you get the site up and a community going. Increase your chances for long-term success by denying yourself the extravagances of additional reporters, editors or a support staff until you understand what you truly need, and have banked the money to pay for them.

7) Using misleading traffic numbers

Every Web publisher wants to measure his progress. Traffic numbers provide a real-time measure of your site’s popularity, which can later translate into revenue. But too many rookie publishers (and online advertisers) get a distorted view of a site’s popularity because they don’t understand the vocabulary of online traffic measurement.

a) “Hits:” This statistic is worthless. A “hit” is nothing more than a request to a Web server for a file. The problem with this statistic is that a single webpage can include dozens of files: the page itself, plus every stylesheet, external script, logo, graphic file and photo displayed on the page. A webmaster can double the “hits” for his site simply by doubling the number of graphics used on his pages.

b) “Page views:” This statistic is better than “hits,” but still easily manipulated. The trouble with page views is that a huge percentage of traffic online comes not from human beings, but automated agents. Search engine spiders, spammers’ robots and clipping service agents can account for more than half the traffic on many websites. If a publisher looks only at his server logs and does not filter all automated agents from his report, he is grossly overestimating his site’s popularity among actual people.

c) “Unique visits:” This is a better test of a site’s traffic. A spider might view 1,000 pages when it comes to a website, but it will count as only one visit. The best publishers still filter automated agents from their unique visitor reports, but even if they do not, this statistic provides the best “apples-to-apples” metric for comparing website popularity.

Don’t rely on server logs to measure the popularity of your site. Install some tracking service on your site, at the very least Google Analytics (which is free), to get a real picture of where you are. And educate potential advertisers about these differences, so that your competition can’t land a sale with their bogus “hit” statistics.

8) Unrealistic goals

Use these lessons to remain sober as you embark on your Web publishing adventure. Embrace the Web’s interactivity and make it a resource to enliven your reporting and writing. Don’t expect to get rich, famous or win awards. Focus instead on building a relationship with your readers that develops a useful publication, filled with engaging information that they will not want to do without. Don’t expect any of this to happen overnight, either. Use realistic traffic numbers to project your ability to earn revenue (or attract financial backers). Then keep your expenses below that level… or be willing to admit that your website is a cash-draining hobby.

Let’s hear from other online publishers! Add your advice using the comments button below.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at


  1. The suggestions of how to avoid the mistakes offers a valuable rundown of helpful methods and attitudes for successful online publication. Turning readers into contributors is surely the most productive focus for an online publisher.

  2. Great post, Robert. I think I agree with every single thing you wrote! (Maybe I missed something tiny.) This is a very useful set of recommendations, and I hope a lot of people read it.

  3. This is a great list. I managed to avoid some of the errors, but not others.

    Announcing something before you’ve done it is almost always a mistake. Every time I’ve done this I’ve regretted it, mainly because *everything* takes longer than you think it will, and often because you don’t know what it will look like until it’s complete. Every time I waited until a project was ready for release, I was rewarded with greater impact on my audience.

  4. Patrick Murphy says:

    Good set of negatives.

    What are the positives?

    Stephen Harlow suggested reader-generated content.

    I’d add freshness as sine qua non. Stale sites are like yesterday’s newspaper, eh?

    Can other readers add to this list of “Smart tips for new online publishers”?

  5. Hey, don’t telegraph all my column ideas yet. 😉

    Check back after the new year for something on that topic….

  6. I loved reading this and I found it quite useful and somehow not practicing most of them.

    I really hate sites with ads appearing in the middle of the articles.

    And, may be for the individuals publishers/bloggers, not updating frequently is a best possible way to lose the readers. So being quiet for a long time is a big mistake.

  7. Great points made!

    my 2 cents for online publishers.

    Engage with your readers, make them feel like a community, and don’t leave their comments/questions/emails unanswered, gives them reason to come back.

    Not engaging might have the opposite effect.