An online journalist's 10 resolutions for 2010

We’ve talked often on this site over the past 12 months about what online journalists (and journalism entrepreneurs!) should be doing to both prepare themselves for the changes coming to our field, as well as to take advantage of the changes already here. Now, at year’s end, let’s remind ourselves of 10 things that we can do in 2010 to help keep journalism vital in our readers’ lives… and keep our careers in journalism alive at the same time.

1. Make your website more mobile-friendly

Everyone I’ve spoken with in the industry this year about this has reported the same thing: The percentage of readers accessing their websites on mobile devices is increasing. Significantly. I’m seeing high single-digit percentages on the sites I publish, up from the fraction-of-a-point share I saw last year.

You don’t have to build a smart phone app, or even a separate mobile version of your website, to serve the mobile audience. But if you don’t, you must, at the very least, offer clean code that performs gracefully on a mobile Web browser’s small screen. A basic three-column Web layout can perform well, especially when the content displays in a center column of between 250 and 500 pixels. I offered more tips on this topic last summer.

2. Don’t redirect mobile viewers requesting an article on your website to your mobile homepage

I couldn’t resist repeating this tip. Redirecting deep links requests to a mobile home page is my biggest annoyance with Web design in 2009. Give these readers either the mobile version of the page they requested, or the regular version of that page. But don’t break deep links to your website, for anyone.

Like the blink tag, framed navigations and scrolling tickers in the past, let’s ditch this lousy design idea in the new year.

3. Write better hypertext

The ability to write hyperlinks into copy distinguishes the best online journalists from print refugees. Hyperlinks enable writers to add depth and context to a narrative, without weighing it down with detail that some readers don’t need. It also offers huge search engine optimization advantages, not only to the writer’s website, but to the publisher of the valuable information to which you’re linking.

Hey, good writers and publishers have to look out for each other out there.

4. Don’t use Flash when an HTML page will do

Keeping with the hyperlink topic, information embedded with Flash presentations can’t be linked, as basic HTML pages can. My wife’s railed against publicists who commission fancy Flash sites, then encase all their press materials within them, making it impossible for her to link to individual profiles, album notes, photos, videos, etc. She’s right. Putting stuff inside a Flash presentation limits its usefulness within the Web community.

Flash can be a great tool. It’s the current best method for embedding video and animation, for example. But use Flash as an embeddable component within a page, rather than a method for constructing an entire page (or website). Whenever you do use Flash, always provide readers with a link that gives them code to embed that Flash element on their own blog or website. Give readers the tools they need to make your content viral.

5. Rethink vacation

In the 20th century, news organizations had large editorial staffs so individual reporters could take a week or two off while others on staff covered for them.

In the 21st century, news media is much more centered around individual reporters. Maybe a staff’s down to a single writer covering a particular beat. Or even if others remain to file for the paper, a writer individually maintains a blog and Twitter feed.

What happens to those when the writer goes on vacation? Too often, they go dark until the writer returns. No news organization can get away with that anymore, not in this hyper-competitive online news market.

Curt Cavin of the Indianapolis Star wrote a great piece for us last year about his blog, which draws tens of thousands of IndyCar fans to the Star’s website each week (including me). Curt also maintains a great Twitter feed, providing real-time updates during races, something that’s rarely available on bigger sports websites, such as

Unfortunately for Cavin’s online fans, when he goes on vacation (as he is now), his blog and Twitter feed go dark. (It’s not Cavin’s fault – he tried in the past to update them on his own time, but Star management told him to stop, due to work rules.) It’s IndyCar’s off-season now, but the same thing happened in the middle of the season, when the Star was furloughing staffers.

Other IndyCar bloggers and forums aren’t going dark for two weeks around the holidays. Sure, traffic’s down this time of year, but why not invite one of the better independent IndyCar bloggers to “guest host” for Cavin during his vacation? It’d build huge goodwill within the larger Web community of IndyCar fans, and maybe bring some new eyeballs to the Star’s coverage, rather than driving it away for two weeks and breaking fans’ habit of checking the Star website.

I never go on vacation, even when I’m vacation. This summer, my family and I spent 33 days on a cross-country roadtrip, and I filed from the road for my websites (and for OJR) all along the way. Granted, I work for myself now, and am protecting my financial asset when I file for my website. But wage-earning employees compete with publishers like me now. If you go dark on vacation, you’re just losing market share to competitors.

Can you really afford that?

6. Take a reader (not a source) to lunch

Or to a concert, or to a theme park (actually, those are what we’ve done on my sites). Get in the habit of giving back to readers, and getting in contact with them offline.

Pick someone who’s submitted a particularly engaging comment, forum response or e-mail, then offer to buy ’em lunch, or even coffee, in exchange or an offline, off-the-record chat. Sure some might turn out to be duds, but you’ll often get some great feedback, not to mention gratitude, loyalty, and valuable word-of-mouth promotion.

7. Cross the wall, before you’re out of the building

Don’t just reach outside of your organization. Reach out to people within the company as well. Chat up folks from the ad sales department. (Or, if you are outside already, try to make a connection, using networks such as LinkedIn. Just search for ad reps who used to work at the newspapers or stations you did.) Learn about the ad and business side of publishing. You’ll need that knowledge in the future, as journalism becomes more the domain of the entrepreneur.

If you’re thinking about a non-profit future, engage with folks on the development side of non-profits you cover, volunteer for or patronize. Reporting 101: Many people are happy to chat when you buy ’em a meal.

8. Study up on new ways to make money from your work

Which brings me to this… keep your eyes open, always, to learn more about how to make money from producing news and information. When you are reading or watching a report, ask yourself: “How are they getting paid to do this?” Your curiosity – indeed, your reporting – on this question will prepare you to synthesize an answer for how you will get paid in the future, as well.

To get you started, here are three links from earlier this year where I lay out how a journalist can get going selling ads on his or her website: part one, part two and part three.

9. Know the difference between your audience and your customers

Knowing this will help you more effectively address the resolution above. Too many would-be publishers build large audiences, then fail to make any money from them because they never cultivated any customers who wanted to reach that audience.

Remember, an audience is who views your work. The customer is who writes you the check to produce it – an advertiser, a foundation, a interest group, a patron, etc. Try to identify the audience and the customer whenever you read or watch news reports this year. Then start connecting which customers seem to go with what audiences. You’ll find valuable insights from those observations.

10. Don’t be above running a photo of cute kids or animals every once in a while

Your predecessors in the news business did this all the time. Readers often need something to lighten their spirits, a reward for sticking with you and reading your work. Maybe it is literally a cute photo of a puppy in the local park. Or other fun photo, cartoon, wordplay or humor. Whatever you select, don’t ever forget that your readers, audience and customers alike, are people who need variety in their lives and sharp friend to provide it. Be that friend, and they’ll show you a friend’s loyalty in return.

Happy new year and best wishes for 2010.

About Robert Niles

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