Five myths I hope you don't hear at ONA 2011

Here are a few of the industry myths that I hope you will not hear during the Online News Association conference in Boston next week. The ONA’s done a good job over the years of inviting more speakers and panelists who are grounded in “real Web” experience, minimizing the number of speaking slots for print-side executives who’d rather pine for the days of their lost monopolies. Still, people who look at the Internet through an opaque sheet of newsprint still show up at ONA, and other industry conferences. These are a few of their favorite lines, ones that I invite you to ignore, or, if you’re looking for some fun, to challenge.

Myth 1: You can’t support a publication on online advertising revenue.

When you hear this line, here’s what the speaker really is saying: “I can’t support my publication on my online advertising revenue.” Just because one manager hasn’t figured it out doesn’t mean that the solution doesn’t exist. If you want to seek foundation support, great. Go for it. But don’t fool yourself for a moment into believing that “non profit” means “no money worries.” Non-profit is a tax status, not a business model. You’ll still need to find sources of income, and in the non-profit world those sources come with many more strings attached than advertising contracts have.

Myth 1 is often followed in the same comment by Myth 1.a: You can’t make money on AdSense. Again, what the speaker is really saying is: “I can’t make money on AdSense.” People who say this typically make the lazy mistake of thinking that AdSense provides incremental revenue each time it displays on a website, so they stick it into every ad slot on the site they can’t sell themselves.

Well, if your local or small-scale advertisers didn’t want to pay to deliver their message on a page, what makes you think that the big industry pros who are placing multi-million-dollar AdWords campaigns want any part of those pages, either? Slapping ads on pages that don’t convert causes Google to cut your payment on pages that do. Adding extra AdSense slots to your site can actually decrease your revenue. The key to AdSense is to limit its deployment to pages that will attract interested readers who will click through to big-dollar advertisers. Never use AdSense as remnant inventory. Use it as a tool to attract ads to pages of interest to national and global advertisers you can’t reach with your local sales staff.

Myth 2: Readers have short attention spans, so you must break up your content.

Readers only appear to have short attention spans because the media revolutions of the 20th and 21st centuries have left them bombarded with content options. They must make decisions within split seconds about which content to read or watch and which to ignore.

But once they make the decision to try your content they will stick with it as long as they continue to feel that it’s worth their time. People with short attention spans don’t spend hours without interruption playing Minecraft or Madden. They don’t read 800-page Harry Potter books cover to cover or sit through three-hour Lord of the Rings movies. But all of those were huge hits.

Breaking up content into multiple pages and components simply reminds people at each interruption that they have a choice and could be doing something else. Invest your energy instead into ensuring that your work is relevant and rewarding to your audience. Then craft an awesome lead or visual to grab their attention.

Myth 3: Online journalism = big Flash graphics

Back in the days of shovelware newspaper websites, staffers in the online department had to justify their existence while trying to define to their print-focused bosses just what this Internet thing was good for anyway.

Enter the big Flash graphic. Hey, I had a lot of fun with Flash presentations that turned investigative reports into facile video games, too. But there’s so much more for us to do today. And with poor or nonexistent mobile support limiting the usability of Flash content, I’d question continuing to invest significant resources in Flash development. Perhaps the bigger problem is the attitude illustrated by Myth 3.a: Interactivity = multimedia. No, they are not the same. Interactivity is the inclusion of the audience in the creation of a work. Multimedia is the use of multiple media, including photos, video, audio, text and animation, in a work. That readers must decide what to click on in a big Flash graphic doesn’t make it any more interactive than a Web browser, which also gives readers click choices.

Myth 4: You need a big editorial staff to do great journalism online.

This myth is a favorite of old-media managers who are trying to define away their competition. The market is evolving. Let’s deal with it, instead of trying to pretend that change isn’t happening. Devotion to large staffs explains why so many publications find themselves believing Myth 1, too. Their problem is using old-media models to compete in a new-media space. (Across-the-board cutting isn’t the solution, by the way. Reinvention is.) One-person websites can do great work. They’ve even won Online Journalism Awards in the past.

Myth 5: Paywalls are the best (or only) way to paid content online.

Paywalls work when you offer (a) highly-specialized, unique content of tangible value to people (see Wall Street Journal or Cooks’ Illustrated), or (b) offer enough free passageways through the paywall that the pay scheme becomes a voluntary contribution system (see The New York Times).

Despite how great you think your content to be, if you’re reporting daily news, your site probably doesn’t fall under (a). And if you are not a beloved national brand, you probably won’t make much money from (b), either. If you really want to sell content directly to the reader, do as I’ve been urging for the past two months and look into eBooks, an established market where consumers have shown that they’re willing to pay for content at higher price points than many paywall schemes have offered.

Have fun at the conference. Go ahead and poke the trolls. And, as with any conference, don’t forget to give yourself a daily goal of meeting at least five new people, then talking with each one for at least a couple of minutes. You’ll learn more from those interactions than from listening to any of these old myths.

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. Perhaps nonprofit can be a business model, as some successful ones have lasted quite a while: CIR, Center for Public Integrity. But you’re certainly right that nonprofit doesn’t mean “no cost.”

    Nonprofits have to be managed as carefully, perhaps more so, as for-profits.

  2. says:

    Part of the misunderstanding about advertising and large staffs is also about the myth that we will replace a declining traditional revenue source with a growing online source.

    Nope. But that doesn’t mean that the “digital dimes,” as John Paton would call them, are worthless.

    But they can’t support old ways of doing business, which might include the guys in the corner offices.

    And since they are calling the shots, there might just be a huge conflict of interest on whether they decide to do what is best for the company online when that seems to be at odds with their traditional business.

  3. says:

    YES!!!! On all counts. – Tracy @ West Seattle Blog

  4. says:


    > “I’d question continuing to invest significant resources in Flash development.”

    Agreed. As a reader I dislike it – You can’t skim the content (or see it all at a glance) if it’s delivered via Flash, & can’t take notes via copy&paste either.
    (unless the technology has evolved in ways I’m not aware of?)