Independent online journalists should stand up to be counted by the industry

If you’ve started a news website, or left a newsroom to work for an online start-up, don’t let the journalism industry forget about you.

Keeping a high profile among your colleagues not only helps you personally, it can help drive attention and traffic to your site. But most importantly for our field, keeping track of how many journalists are working outside of traditional print and broadcast newsrooms helps journalism leaders to have a more accurate view of the state of our industry.

Last week, I got an invitation via email to participate in the American Society of News Editors’s annual newsroom employment census. That wasn’t something I’d expected, since I haven’t worked in a “traditional” newsroom since leaving the Los Angeles Times in 2004.

But I’d never stopped working in journalism. Sure, I spent some time on the staff at USC’s Annenberg School, but – along with my wife – we’ve been building an online publishing business over the past decade, too. So even though neither of us work for newspapers anymore (she spent several years on staff at the newspaper in Omaha, Neb.), we still consider ourselves full-time working journalists. (And that’s not just a vanity description, either – together, we’re making more income from our business than we ever made together working for newspapers.)

I completed the survey, noting that our company employed two journalists full-time, plus a summer intern. Then I emailed ASNE Executive Director Richard Karpel to ask why a small outfit like mine was getting a census invite.

“We invited some online-only news websites to participate in the census in 2010 and 2011, so this will be the third year we’ve done it,” Karpel replied. “The only difference is this year we’ve invited a much broader range of news websites.”

This year, Karpel wrote, ASNE added websites listed in Columbia Journalism Review’s News Frontier Database (which included my website), which is why I got onto the invite list. But you don’t have to be in that database to be counted in the ASNE census. If you work for a general-interest news website that hasn’t been invited to join the ASNE census, just email Karpel with a description of your site for an invitation. (The address is rkarpel at

“The Newsroom Employment Census is one of the most important and valuable services ASNE provides,” Karpel wrote. “We want to keep it that way. It will maintain its relevance and value only as long it follows the news wherever it goes. It’s obvious that including news websites will provide a much fuller picture of newsroom diversity and employment patterns.”

ASNE will break out data from online-only newsrooms, as well as traditional print one, to help researchers make apples-to-apples comparisons with previous years’ data, as well as to see emerging trends in independent and online newsroom hiring.

I can’t emphasize enough how important it is for journalists who move into independent online news publishing not to drop off the journalism industry’s radar. Accurate data that includes the full range of modern news publications can help counter narratives that journalism is in decline. They also can help advertisers, funders, academics and others who support the industry to see more accurately where they should be providing their support.

Journalists who start new news publications instead of dropping out of the industry when they leave a newsroom are helping strengthen journalism for the 21 century. They deserve recognition and support for those efforts. But, as with many things in life, you get recognition and support not just by deserving it, but by asking for it. Sometimes, you’ve got to ask to be counted, and this is one of those cases.

I’ve warned in the past against spending too much time hanging out with other journalists after moving into independent news publishing. You’ve got to devote the bulk of your time to your business, your beat, your readers and your customers – not your colleagues. But don’t take that to mean you should cut yourself off from your field. Keeping yourself in surveys like ASNE’s, databases such as CJR’s, and in the address books of media buyers and other journalists helps you maintain the public profile that a successful publishing business needs to draw the support that keeps it alive.

About Robert Niles

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