When I decided to accept a buyout from the Orlando Sentinel after 20 years as the senior restaurant critic, I had a particular path in mind moving forward. There were a couple of companies I thought would fall over themselves to hire me; there was the occasional magazine article I would write for $1/word paychecks; and I figured I would start a blog just to keep my eye on the beat and to have a constant creative outlet. And, I’d heard that if you place Google Ads on your blog, every time someone clicks on an ad on your site, Google sends you a few pennies. I thought if I could just make enough money from the blog to pay for the restaurant meals I would write about on it, I’d be happy.
None of the companies I applied to showed the least bit of interest in hiring me. And I found that while several local magazines wanted me to write for them, their pay-per-word rates made Google Ads look generous.
So I started focusing on the blog, or flog as I call it (food plus blog equals flog). The irony is that if I had started concentrating on the flog as soon as I left my position at the paper in July — or, better still, before that — it just might be making money by now. Enough to keep me in the lifestyle to which I’ve become accustomed? Probably not. But I think it eventually can be a supplementary source of income. But it isn’t going to be easy, and it isn’t likely to be fast – much too late for that.
But learn from my mistakes. If blogging is something you’re thinking about doing when your number is called for downsizing at your publication – and if you don’t think that’s going to happen, would you please turn the lights off when you leave? – I have some suggestions to help you get started even before you claim your first unemployment check.
Anyone can blog. You can be up and blogging in a matter of minutes. Blogging platforms, such as Typepad and WordPress, offer a variety of templates to choose among, and various pricing structures as well, some even free. If you pay a premium (which is still fairly reasonable), most platforms allow you to customize your blog if you have coding skills or are willing to hire someone who does. But either way, once you’ve signed up for a service you simply type in a headline, write your post and click on “publish.” Your thoughts are instantly on the Internet for millions of people around the world to read. (Whether they will, and how to entice them to do so, is a topic for another time.)
This may be a no-brainer, but think about the topic you want to blog. Preferably it’s your current beat, one that you’ve been covering for a long time, a topic in which you have become known as a respected authority. What can you offer to the readers that they can’t get elsewhere? Don’t let competition dissuade you, but try to find the niche that isn’t being filled.
Consider how you can continue to cover your beat without the backing of your publisher. If travel was necessary, can you continue to do that on your own? What other expenses might you incur? In my case, I was reimbursed for all the dinners I wrote about (as well as for more than a few that I ate and decided were not ready or worthy of a review). Now I have to eat the expense as well as the meal. It’s a necessary investment that I hope will pay off eventually. And, besides, I’ve gotta eat. But God I miss that expense account!
Now think about the resources you use to cover your beat. Who are your contacts? Where do you get your press releases? Start making a list of these people. Are those names only in your workplace e-mail server? Find out how to make an electronic copy of that list and save it to a flash drive or e-mail it to a personal account. If your employer shows up at your desk tomorrow with a buyout package and an escort to the front door, I guarantee your laptop isn’t going with you. You’ll want to contact your sources to let them know where you are and where to keep sending press releases.
And what about the people who follow you, whether you’re a columnist or a reporter? Do you get e-mails from readers? Start saving them because you’re going to need them later. I was given the luxury of writing a farewell column to my readers. I knew my editors would never allow me to write, “You can continue to read my reviews at www.scottjosephorlando.com.” But I didn’t think they’d have a problem with my saying, “I’ll miss our weekly chats, and if you’d like to keep in touch, drop me a line at my personal e-mail address, email@example.com.”
Everyone who wrote got dropped into a contact file, and from those addresses I compiled a bulk mailing list to announce the launch of my flog. I had 200 instant readers. I would have had more if I had thought about doing that six months before I left.
Two-hundred readers isn’t a lot, certainly not enough to attract advertisers. And if I want them to keep coming back, as well as draw in new readers, I have to constantly update and post. At the paper I had two weekly columns; now I try to post something at least once every weekday. In some ways a blog is more work, but it’s also somehow less stressful and more satisfying. Actually, it can be a lot of fun, especially when you scoop your former employer!
Blogging is not for everyone. You have to be self-motivated, and you have to be writer, editor, copy editor and, to a small degree, layout artist (those photos don’t get on the website by themselves). Take a look around at other blogs, make note of the things you like and the things you’d do differently. You can start by visiting my site, which uses a Typepad platform that has been tweaked by a website designer I hired.
Take a look, and while you’re there, would it kill you to click around for a while? Then drop a line and tell me what you think.