Five more lessons for getting it right, this time around

We’ve talked at length about finding new sources of revenue as the news industry moves from a monopoly-driven market to a more competitive one. (And that’s the real change that’s happening in our industry – not a switch from print to online.) But all the newly self-appointed publishers online will find themselves in the same vulnerable position as their print predecessors if they don’t adopt different attitudes about management even as they work to find new customers for their publications.

It’s human nature to pattern your behavior after role models, and for many of us in journalism, our role models were the managers we followed coming up through the ranks of the business. But while there remain important lessons to be learned from our predecessors (treat people well, be honest, order pizza for the staff on election night), print news managers did some things that online managers must work hard to avoid, too.

Here are five lessons I’d like to offer online news managers, so that their publications don’t one day end up unable to compete with whatever new competition awaits them.

Don’t make the syndication mistake

Print newspapers helped do themselves in by trading locally produced, staff-written content for less expensive content from national syndicates. While that might have save money in the short term (no benefits to pay, less salary and wage expense), syndicated content helped make many newspapers look the same as their counterparts in every other community across the country.

That’s no big deal when newspapers were publishing in individual, independent markets. But once the Internet fused the publishing marketplace, syndication-driven newspapers had too little unique, original content to distinguish themselves. Really, who’s going to read some op-ed columnist or the AP report on last night’s game on your website versus the hundreds of other sites offering the same, exact articles? We found that answer – no one.

Creating original content remains relatively expensive, at least up front. And the Internet has made syndication easier and cheaper than ever. (Hello, YouTube embeds!) But publications need unique, original content to attract the audience that attracts advertisers. You’ve got to offer something that no one else does. (And simply offering a different mix of the same content available elsewhere isn’t good enough.)

Ultimately, what I’m saying is: I wouldn’t bet my future on a business model built on aggregating content equally available to other publishers. It didn’t help the newspaper industry and it won’t help sustain the online news industry, either.

This does not mean that you shouldn’t look for and publish content from outside sources. I remain a huge fan of well-modeled user generated content. But that content needs to be original and unique to your site.

I fear that the deals many news organizations are cutting with non-profit reporting efforts are exposing them to the same syndication problems the industry’s had in the past. I think it’s great that we’re finding new publishing models, but news sites using reporting from outside organizations must take care to ensure the content they publish is unique. Don’t just accept a non-profit’s report that it’s offering around. Work with them to tailor a unique report that will appear only on your website, instead.

Find your niche and work it

If your niche is your local community, then be that local community in your publication. Focus on local coverage and find local advertisers. If you’re working a topical niche, remain focused on that topic.

Don’t succumb to the temptation to broaden your focus when you become successful and start wondering how to make even more money by “scaling up” your business. Look, if you want to start an additional site with a different focus, go for it. Just staff it and run it the way you did your original site. But leave the first site (and its team) to keep doing what made that site a success.

Find your voice and keep it

Voice is the complement to focus. Don’t water it down when you enjoy initial success and become tempted to “broaden” your market. I’m not suggesting that a site’s voice shouldn’t mature or change over time. But I believe that the newspaper industry injured itself with bland writing and the “view from nowhere” voice that Jay Rosen’s so thoroughly attacked in his criticism.

An original voice is part of the package that you can present to distinguish your website as a unique destination online. Voice isn’t a bad thing, despite what I hear from so many news veterans. It’s authentic and transparent in letting your readers know who you are, where you come from and what you stand for. In a competitive publishing market, readers want, need and deserve that information from you. Give it to them.

Many journalists have delightful voices – we’re storytelling pros, after all. Most new publishers will struggle to establish their publication’s voice. But don’t be afraid to try. Find your voice and speak with it.

Spend more time with sources and readers than with other journalists

It’s so tempting when you’re starting out to seek support from other journalists, especially if you’re starting a one-person publication and missing newsroom camaraderie. But don’t get stuck spending so much time at conferences and yes, even reading journalism websites (sigh… pause for a moment to note the irony…) that you forget your real purpose in publishing – to serve the needs of the community you cover.

That requires spending almost all your work time with them, not with colleagues in the publishing industry. For example, I almost never go to journalism industry conferences anymore. That’s because I spend my time and travel budget instead to attend conferences for the industries I cover. That’s a better use of my time and money than chatting up old friends in journalism. (Don’t take this to an extreme and cut yourself off from your profession – ongoing education is important. And please keep reading OJR! But don’t spend so much time “in school,” if you will, that you forget to go to work.)

Spend more time with your staff than with outsiders and consultants

Same principal, but in a different direction. Newspaper managers I worked for drove me nuts when they turned to outside consultants to make decisions about things I was working on without ever asking my thoughts on the topic. I know several people in this industry who felt the same way, and decided to address their frustrations – and cash in – simply by quitting, and becoming consultants. But as you need to know your community as a publisher, you need to know your staff, too. Turn to outsiders only when you are certain that your staff not only can’t address a problem, but recognizes this and wants the help even more than you do.

Don’t fall into bad habits of spending your time and communication with people like you – other journalists and managers. You can’t represent and give voice to a community you don’t know. And you can’t lead and inspire a team you ignore. Engage. Be original. Be authentic. Give yourself a better chance to succeed by working to avoid the mistake of managers past.

About Robert Niles

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