Don't forget the importance of planning in a world without deadlines

If you want to run a journalism business, you can’t keep thinking and acting like an employee.

When you’re a newsroom employee, your “customer” is you boss. That’s the person who approves your check, after all. So you do things to please that boss. And your boss is doing things to please his or her boss. Eventually, there are people in the advertising and circulation departments who are trying to please readers and advertisers, but with the exception of some commissioned sales reps, no one in the company is getting paid by them. That’s why so many newspaper companies can’t react to changing markets. Everyone within the company is just too isolated from the readers and advertisers whose needs the company is supposed to be meeting.

Go to work for yourself, and the lines on the org chart separating you from the community go away. So stop thinking about pleasing a now-imaginary boss, and instead start focusing more on the needs of the people in the community you’re covering.

We’ve written about a community-focused approach to news entrepreneurship before, but today I want to offer one qualification – a point of advice that I hope can keep some beginning journalism entrepreneurs from losing their way.

Don’t forget that it’s still your site. You can’t lead a community if you’re simply reacting to it. You’re a servant, not a slave.

When you don’t have a boss to manage your time and create a structure for your workday, it’s way too easy to let yourself get distracted by every phone call, tweet, email and text message that comes your way. My wife talks about the freelance musicians she knows who will drop everything to take a gig when a contractor calls. The gig always gets top priority, even over teaching commitments, personal obligations and family relationships. So many of those acquaintances end up divorced, estranged from children and without students – but they see that as the price of getting gigs.

Those musicians are thinking like employees, always working to please the “boss”. You could do the same with your website, always jumping to respond to every pitch, tip or query that comes your way. That might keep your blog filled with fresh posts and even might help keep some income flowing, too.

But are you really going someplace with your website, or are you just running in place?

Growing a business requires saying “no” now and then. Or at the very least, “not now.” It requires taking the time to look at what you’re doing, think about where you want to go, and to plan how to get from here to there.

For those of us working in niche media, I think this process gets a bit easier, because we had to make some decisions about focus when we started our sites. But news entrepreneurs covering geographic communities still need to think about focus, as well. What do you cover best? What are the real needs that your customers feel? How can you best be of service to your community?

This is where I find helpful to remember a few practices from life in the newsroom. With no printing press deadlines, it’s tempting to think that you can run a website without any schedule or story budget. Just post news as you get it.

You can do this, just like those freelance musicians keep taking those gigs whenever they call. But you can do so much more to grow your site – and its business – if you plan more aggressively instead. Long-range planning allows you to take on more complicated reporting projects, instead of limiting yourself to chasing daily commodity news blog fodder. Planning recurring features on your site encourages readers to come back on a regular schedule, making visiting your site a habit – which helps your traffic grow. Thinking about focus allows you to avoid wasting time on things that don’t serve your audience or your customers.

So set aside time for regular story budget meetings, even if it’s just time alone with yourself and a notepad. Create deadlines for yourself and impose structure on your workday. And don’t neglect to reserve time for your private life, as well. While you’ll need to react if truly important news breaks during your personal time, set that bar high enough so that you’re not giving up all the time you need to live a life. (And be sure to empower your community to cover breaking news, too, for those time when you can’t get online right away.)

If you’d like to hear more about news entrepreneurship, I’ll be one of the guests on ASNE’s weekly online chat Tuesday, Feb. 21, at 2pm ET. We’ll be talking about lessons from hyperlocal and start-up news sites and the line-up includes several other journalists who’ve made the jump from print and broadcast newsrooms to running their own online news businesses. I’d like to invite you to follow the chat on the ASNE website. The Twitter hashtag will be #ASNEchat.

About Robert Niles

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