Buying in, not selling out

Are you selling out by putting ads on your personal blog or website?

I’ve heard that question many times over the years from aspiring journalists/bloggers — most recently, two weeks ago at the California First Amendment Coalition’s Free Speech and Open Government Assembly, here at USC Annenberg.

Folks who have spent their entire professional careers on the editorial side of the advertising wall ought to be forgiven for asking the question: They’ve been inculcated to believe that any attempt to solicit an advertiser or potential advertiser compromises both their credibility and that of their publication.

Now, once you’ve started your blog, you’re supposed to go out and start hustling ads?

Here was my answer to the “selling out” question: You’re not selling out. In fact, ads on your site are not a “sell out” but a way to buy into the ability to do even more thorough and better-informed journalism for your readers.

Advertising revenue buys you the freedom to go out into the field, to talk with sources, to observe, to buy databases — to do the hard, and often expensive, work that informs great news reporting. Just as it always has. The only difference from working at a traditional newspapers is (and, yes, it is a biggie) that you do not have a separate sales force to earn that advertising money to cover your salary and reporting expenses.

That doesn’t mean you can’t find an outside source to do your sales work. Some solo publishers are earning handsome incomes by doing no more ad work than slapping Google AdSense, Yahoo Publisher Network or BlogAds code on their sites, allowing those ad networks to process the sale of ads on the publishers’ sites.

It helps to be publishing in a topical niche in which there is strong and long-established e-commerce business, such as travel or consumer electronics. General interest sites covering geographic communities don’t tend to fare well with these sorts of ad networks, as evidenced by Kevin Roderick’s experience on Roderick spoke on the same “citizen media” panel I did at the CFAC conference, and bemoaned the poor ad targeting (and resulting dismal paid click counts) he’s too often seen from Google AdSense on his site.

“It seems like every time I ran a story about the priest sex scandal, I’d get ads for vestments,” he told the gathering. Roderick did report some success with BlogAds and direct ad sales, noting that the site attracted ads from a few mayoral candidates in the latest Los Angeles municipal election.

I sense the hyperventilating now…. Selling ads directly to advertisers? While covering them on your site?

When you sell an ad on your website, you aren’t selling an advertiser favorable coverage or a selection of stories tailored to make them look better than they are. (Unless you’re a shill who’s into doing those things.) You’re simply selling the advertiser a designated number of pixels on your webpage, upon which they can post something that they want your readers to see.

You don’t need to promise an advertiser positive coverage to close a sale. But you do need to know your readership: your traffic, their demographics and their buying patterns, so those potential advertisers can see how exposure to your readers will help them make more sales. (If you’re not comfortable building your own reader surveys, using tools such as SurveyMonkey, try a ready-made survey from the Blog Reader Project.)

Social media features on your site can help, too. Even if you feel too conflicted, personally, to write about advertisers, your internal conflict won’t keep your readers from writing about them. Your strong community leadership can help cultivate a forum where no one buys favor and everyone feels the opportunity to comment.

Earning money from ads buys you the freedom to reject advertisers, too. If you don’t like certain messages or ad formats, it’s nice to have the financial security to reject advertisers who offer them. As a publisher, you have the freedom to set your standards and to disclose them to your readers and potential advertisers.

But don’t fear being engaged with your community, including advertisers. Nor should you fear potentially complex situations where you have to exercise judgment, instead of plugging in simplistic formulas. (People who write the news never sell the ads!)

If you decide, ultimately, not to have ads on your blog or website, that’s certainly your right. Plenty of great websites provide top-quality coverage without ads, earning their money from subscriptions or donations. But, please, let your decision whether to accept advertising be informed by a thoughtful consideration of your audience, their needs and your capabilities. Don’t make your decision based on an ill-informed fear of “selling out.”

An earlier version of this article included a mistranscribed quote from contributor Xeni Jardin about advertising on BoingBoing.

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. “Some solo publishers are earning handsome incomes by doing no more ad work than slapping Google AdSense, Yahoo Publisher Network or BlogAds code on their sites…”

    I’d love to see *some* metrics on that– even a graph correlating traffic with income. I don’t doubt that full-time niche bloggers can make near what full-time freelance reporters can make, but you need the beast and that takes time.

    There’s a couple of other downsides to consider:
    One, the NYT writes today about the sheer randomness of online ads, where it sometimes happens that your site hosts an ad for a candidate or issue that you personally wouldn’t endorse.

    Second, recall that many bloggers regularly push the envelope of fair use by hosting video clips or copying published content wholesale. Part of the fair use defense relies on a non-commercial use. It would appear to me that accepting ads pulls you closer into the commercial space and may complicate any future fair use defenses.

  2. Thank you for raising this subject, which confronts us at Florida Health News ( We’ve been in start-up mode for eight months and — thanks to generous support from several foundations in the state — are about to be able to hire a full-time editor, who will also be executive director of the non-profit. We’ll contract with someone to handle marketing and advertising, but that person will inevitably report to the editor, who is in charge of the news content. Since our coverage is geographically defined, we will be writing about health plans, hospital networks and other Florida companies that may also want to place ads. (The Google-ad route probably wouldn’t work in this context, right?) There doesn’t seem to be any way to create a firewall between the news side and business side, as is customary in newsrooms. Any feedback?
    Carol Gentry
    Founder, Florida Health News
    [email protected]

  3. Jon, the next sentence, after the one you quoted, was the *key* element in explaining the sentence you quoted. Hang out on Webmaster World for a while, and you will encounter many of those folks who are making mid-five-figure-and-up incomes off Google and Yahoo. (And, yes, for full disclosure: Count me among them.)

    Carol, I think the real protective firewall is the one that exists within your editor and reporters — the ethical commitment to do the right thing for your readers and to not sell your coverage. Absent that, no org chart firewall is going to be able to help you that much. In this case, it sounds like what you have here is a combo editor/publisher rather than having two people perform those roles. That’s not at all unusual in the non-Internet news publishing world. Look for someone with experience in both roles, and I suspect that you’ll be fine.

  4. Robert– understand. The teaser and lede both stressed “your personal blog or website” so I wasn’t thinking about community/niche websites. Certainly in those areas advertising is a good idea.

    Let me just clarify my statement on fair use as well. is clearly a nonprofit published by an educational institution; it carries ads just like CJR carries ads.

    The relevant clause from Section 107 of U.S. Copyright law sets the “purpose of character of the use” and suggeting the following dichotomy:
    “whether such use is of commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes.”

    That said, I havne’t *heard* of any solo operators get nailed for being deemed commercial. But I have read people worry about that.

  5. Every time I really delve into fair use details… I really, really regret not taking those LSATs and going to law school. Forget the Web publishing and university gigs, *that’s* how I coulda gotten rich! 😉