Build a better journalism career by shifting your focus from writing stories to creating assets

We’re now taking applications for the 2010 News Entrepreneur Boot Camp at the University of Southern California. I hope that OJR readers will apply for the camp, which will bring 20 journalists to Los Angeles for a week in May for intensive instruction and discussion about starting and growing an online news business. To encourage you to apply, I’ll be sharing on OJR for the next few weeks some of the topics I’ll be discussing in greater depth at the camp.

Many of these concepts will reduce to changes in the mindset that journalists bring to the practice of our craft. As journalists, we (should) understand the power of language. Simply changing some of our vocabulary can result in a profound shift in our practice of journalism, a shift that ultimately helps us create a more financially secure career for ourselves, while better serving our readers’ needs as well.

As journalists, we typically frame our job as producing stories, usually for a daily edition. But as the combination of a poor economy and an increasingly competitive publishing market drives more of us into entrepreneurship, that focus must change. As an employee, your job is to perform a task that, in conjunction with the work of other employees, creates value for the company. But you don’t need to concern yourself with what those other employees are doing (except, of course, for how their work affects your ability to do your job) or the big picture of how all your work creates value. Just make your deadlines, and file your stories.

But with “work for someone else’s newsroom” jobs become scare in the news business, smart journalists need to start thinking more like entrepreneurs. Even if your goal remains a newsroom job, an entrepreneurial mindset can help you develop the assets that will make you a more valuable job prospect, as well as develop your ability to see which newsrooms are most likely to endure in this increasingly competitive environment.

Notice the word I just used: “assets.” To me, that’s the word that should replace “stories” in your vocabulary as a journalist. Too many of the journalists I’ve seen try to make the transition to running their own blogs and websites remain mired in the “story” mindset, endlessly creating newspaper-style “stories” or even brief-length snippets for their blogs. But they fail to create assets of enduring value that ultimately provide the income that they need to remain viable businesses online.

What do I mean by “assets”? A URL is an obvious asset, but you don’t need a particularly good one to prosper online. (I was lucky in that I was online early enough to snag at least one really good URL asset for the price of a domain registration. But plenty of late-comers have built great websites using otherwise silly or nonsense URLs.) Long term, the site you build at your URL should become your greatest business asset, but you’ll need to build many smaller assets within that site first.

An active reader community is an asset, one that has the power to elicit compelling reader-generated reporting and writing, as well as advertising support. But that takes time to develop, as well. (Though you certainly should work on it!)

Look first toward creating evergreen assets that readers will continue searching for years in the future. These pieces should be written with search engine optimization in mind, and be stored at unique, easy-to-link URLs that are prominently featured in your site’s navigation.

In 1995, I wrote a short series of one-page tutorials on statistics that continue to be read by a couple thousand people each day. Those assets helped subsidize the next websites that I started, by paying their hosting fees and for some start-up equipment (laptops, cameras, etc.) I’d recommend that any journalist looking to establish himself or herself online start by identifying evergreen assets that he or she could create: how-to articles; sharp, concise explainers of complicated issues, smart guides to popular destinations, etc. Take what you know from your favorite beat and dive in.

Don’t fall into the trap of looking for popular search engine bait. How many people in two years will be looking for the Conan O’Brien/Jay Leno posts that so many folks wrote last week? The most valuable assets have enduring value.

Once you’ve written a few asset pieces, allow that mindset to affect your future reporting and writing. How will your work today help sustain an existing asset or create a new one? Your goal should be larger than posting another item to a blog, or adding another story to an index page.

If your content management system supports it, keyword tagging your blog post provides one way to build a long-term asset. Smart use of tagging can help you create an SEO-optimized landing page that summarizes and links to your best work on a valuable keyword or phrase.

I’ve long advocated that journalists and newsrooms create “wiki”-style explainer articles for stories of enduring interest in their communities. Edit them in-house, but link to them whenever you write a post or piece about that story, as a way for infrequent visitors to get “up to speed.” They’re great search engine bait for the curious, as well.

Changing your mindset from story-writing to asset creation shifts your focus from a single element of news production toward the larger process of serving an audience. Ultimately, your audience determines if something is an asset. After all, if no audience sees value in it, it has no value.

It’s depressing to look at Google AdSense or other online ad tracking reports and see how little money some individual stories or blog posts earn. You need a critical mass to build income – a growing collection of stories earning money over a long period of time. So you’ll need to extend the life of what you write, so that it continues earning income year after year. (Like the stats tutorials. This provides one more reason to stay away from fad news, as well.)

Let me reassure you that you’ll still be writing many incremental stories and blog posts even if you make the switch to thinking this way. But keeping asset creation in your mind will help you find ways to incorporate even that incremental work into larger narratives that can grow into valuable assets. And refocusing on the audience will help your growth as a community organizer, someone who can build the large and engaged readership community that ultimately becomes a site’s greatest asset.

About Robert Niles

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