My post today is intended for students, mid-career journalists or anyone else thinking about starting an online news site, but without the faintest idea of how to start.
Here is your guide and checklist.
Now, I’m assuming that you already know how to report and how to write. I’m not covering that. Nor will I be getting into more advanced issues surrounding how to manage a business that includes contractors, freelancers and employees. Those are topics for other days. Today’s post simply provides a check-list of technical tools that you’ll need to get a basic, one-person news site on the Web, to lay a foundation for future expansion and success.
Before you do anything else, establish your brand. The Internet domain you select and register will be the brand of your website, so it should be something that:
- Accurately describes or echoes the site’s content
- Is easy to remember, and to spell
If this is going to be a one-person website, or a website driven by you and your personality, make it yourname.com. Or, if you want a little extra flexibility, something like, oh, yourlastnamepost.com.
The most popular domain name registrar is GoDaddy.com. I’ve used them, without problems. Register the domain, but don’t opt for any extras, such as hosting or an e-mail account. You can find sources for those later.
A blogging tool
Start with a blog. Not an online newspaper, or a discussion forum, or a wiki or any other potential form of online content. Go with the blog. It’s the easiest way to start, and requires the least amount of tech knowledge, as well as minimal change to your writing style.
(At least initially. Over time, you’ll find that you use a very different voice for blogging than for traditional newsroom writing. But I will address that topic in a couple weeks. Let’s leave it aside, for now.)
The comments that readers submit to your blog will provide your first steps toward building an all-important community of readers. But, at first, you must be their leader, eliciting their input through the posts of your blog.
Here is your first choice: I’m giving two free, and fine, blogging tools to choose from: Blogger and WordPress.com. For what it’s worth, WordPress also offers a more powerful publishing platform, a piece of software that would need to be installed on the server that hosts your website. You’re not at that level yet, but if you’re looking toward the future, that WordPress tool provides one option for developing a more robust website than a simple blog.
Blogger, on the other hand, is part of Google, and hooked into the many services and widgets that the search engine giant now provides.
Again, I’ve used both. I like the simplicity of Blogger, but appreciate many of WordPress’ features as well.
One important point. The account name that you select for your blog on either of these services must be the same as your domain name (without the .com part). If you can’t get that account name on one service, you need to go with the other. If you can’t get it on either, you should select a different domain name. (As soon as you can, you will need to arrange to have your blog publish to your domain name, but that’s not necessary to start. You just need to have control of the domain name.)
A promotional channel
Now that you have a brand and a blog, you’ll need a way to promote them, and to start connecting with your emerging community of readers. Create a Twitter account for your website (ideally, using that same brand name), then a Facebook “fan page” for the site. You’ll use the Twitter account and posts to the Facebook page’s wall to let followers and fans know about new posts to your blog.
But don’t limit yourself to only posting when you have something new on the blog. Use these services to engage in thoughtful banter and conversation with your readers, and for short observations that don’t merit a complete blog post. Twitter’s also a great service to use when breaking news or covering a live news event.
A way to track promotional clicks
When posting URLs to Twitter and Facebook, first convert them to shorter URLs using the bit.ly service. First, it will save you valuable characters in trying to stay under Twitter’s 140-character limit. Even more importantly, bit.ly provides data on how many people clicked your link, and what other Twitter users “retweeted” it. You’ll find that information wonderfully valuable in evaluating how well individual posts resonated (or didn’t) with your readers.
You will need to know how many people are reading your blog, as well as where they are coming from and how they are using your site. Readership metrics are essential. Blogger can hook you up with Google Analytics and WordPress.com includes its own traffic-tracking tool. But I would sign up for Google Analytics using either service, and for Quantcast‘s tool as well. You’ll post a tracking code into your site’s template which will allow these services to count your readers, and gather a bunch of other useful information that will help you gauge the power of the content on your site.
Quantcast provides somewhat simplistic demographic data to publishers using its tracking code that, when combined with Google Analytics data, can give you a helpful first look at the makeup of your audience.
An advertising network
Now that you have a place to publish, a way to reach people, and a method of tracking them, it’s time to think about money.
Join an ad network so that someone else can sell ads into designated spaces on your website, so that you won’t have to worry about this important step initially. In the future, ad networks will fill space that you (or an ad rep) do not sell directly to advertisers.
Your options here are Google AdSense and Microsoft’s pubCenter. AdSense should come as an easy plug-in option if you are running a Blogger blog. Otherwise, you’ll need to sign up and add the code yourself. Microsoft’s stirring up the market with its new Bing search engine and might yet develop some lucrative market share.
You’ll need to watch your analytics with a sharp eye to optimize your content for these services, if you want to make any significant amount of money from them. But it can be done. (Full disclosure: I make about mid-five figures annually from AdSense income. I stopped using pubCenter before Microsoft introduced Bing, but am keeping my eye on trying it again in the future. Still, I did make several hundred dollars a month from Microsoft when I used its network.)
Now, we go offline. You’ll need a handful of business cards – with your name, brand, e-mail address, phone number and URL – to hand out to sources, readers and potential advertisers. (You won’t necessarily know which of those categories the folks you meet will fit in, by the way.) You can go with a freebie or low-cost online service such as VistaPrint (beware of its attempts to sign you up for extras and subscription services you don’t want or need), but if you’re starting a local news website, you’ll do far better for building your community relationships if you go with a local printer.
Ideally, with one who might want to advertise with you at some point in the future.
Bookmarked production widgets
Your site, and your business, is up and publishing now. So let’s start adding some functionality to the site. Here are some handy services and widgets to bookmark, which will help you produce more engaging content for your website.
- Photo editing: Picnik or Photoshop.com
- Photo hosting: Picasa
- Video hosting: YouTube
- Quick reader vote polls: Twiigs
An ad server
An ad network will get you started, but if you want long-term viability (and you are not going the non-profit route), you’ll need to sell ads directly to advertisers. And when you sell an ad, you’ll need a way to display it on your site, tracks its impressions and its click-throughs.
Google AdManager is a free ad server that runs on Google’s servers, so there’s little tech work involved in set-up. You can even use it to have AdSense sell your remnant inventory, so you can replace the AdSense code in your site’s templates with AdManager’s.
A rate card
Of course, to sell ads, you need to know how much to charge. A simple rate card is a PDF or .doc file that lists the ad sizes your site’s design supports and how much you charge for each 1,000 impressions (called a “CPM”) in those slots. Make it easy on your advertisers my offering simple packages in round dollar amounts (e.g. 10,000 impressions for $50, 20,000 impressions for $100, etc.)
What to charge? Take a look at the CPM you are earning from AdSense or pubCenter (the “eCPM”). Go with the higher figure. Then assume that Google or Microsoft is taking about a third of what they charged the advertisers for those ads. So multiply your eCPM by 1.5, then round up to the next dollar. That’s a solid starting point for how much you should charge. Many publishers charge more on the rate card, then discount down to whatever level then need to to make the sale.
Your first rate card sheet also should include a few nuggets of positive information about your website, such as its monthly readership, whatever demographics you have and a testimonial or two. That information can help sell potential advertisers on the value of running ads on your site.
For the future: A more advanced development platform
If all goes well, the quality of your reporting, your writing and your engagement with your readers will result in traffic swelling and readers clamoring for new ways to interact with you, and with each other, on the website.
At that point, you’ll need a more sophisticated publishing system than a simple blog. You’ll need to move your site off Blogger’s or WordPress.com’s servers, onto another Web host, where you can run a more advanced content management system (“CMS”) such as Drupal or the more newsroom-specific Django.
Nothing to worry about now, but something to keep in mind.
For the future: An advisory board
Ultimately, your success as an online publish will be measured by your success as a community organizer and leader. Great community leaders do not try to go it alone. When you’ve made some loyal friends on the site, it’s time to start thinking about formalizing those relationships by asking a select few to become an advisory board.
Lean on those board members for feedback on your vision for the site, as well as for leadership within the site’s community, by posting to the site, setting an example for other readers and referring you to potential story sources and advertisers.
You might start this effort on your own, but if it is to succeed, you will need the help of many others. Plan for that day, so that you will be ready when it comes.