Need help finding income for your start-up news website? We have a boot camp for you

If you are thinking about starting your own online news website or blog – or if you’ve already made that move, but wondering where the money will come from – please consider applying for the second edition of our News Entrepreneur Boot Camp.

That’s right, we’re doing the camp again. The Knight Digital Media Center, in cooperation with OJR and the Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies at USC’s Marshall School of Business as well as the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, will select a dozen or so journalists to travel to Los Angeles in mid-May for the camp. There, you will work together and in one-on-one consultation with camp faculty to hone plans for your project – and its financial success.

Lots of other journalism organizations have jumped on the entrepreneurship bandwagon recently. But long-time OJR readers know that I’ve been writing about entrepreneurial journalism for years, and that OJR put on what may have been the first industry conference solely devoted to the topic, back in 2006.

The KDMC Boot Camp is different from other industry gatherings, as well, in the one-on-one work it provides with accomplished entrepreneurs. This isn’t about bringing together a bunch of newspaper-industry executives to speculate about online entrepreneurship during one-way lectures. Like the medium you’ll be publishing, in this is an interactive experience.

During the last camp, USC Marshall’s Tom O’Malia, a successful entrepreneur and author about entrepreneurship, and I met with campers individually each afternoon, helping them refine their concepts and their pitches – to potential funders, advertisers and readers.

We helped them to see the difference between an audience and customers and to wrap their heads around what they’d need to do to begin a successful journey toward entrepreneurship.

We’re adding an extra day to the camp this year, and will be using that time to work with campers to develop additional “take aways” – marketing, advertising and/or grant application templates that they can use to help earn funding for their businesses, the moment that they step off the plane.

I’d like to invite all OJR readers to apply for the camp. The application will be available on the KDMC website. If you’re unsure about applying, I’d suggest you start thinking about two questions:

1. Why are you a person capable of starting a business?

2. Why are you a person capable or organizing and cultivating a community online?

If you have positive answers to these questions, you could be a strong candidate for the camp.

To conclude, another question for you. We’re working on the details of this year’s curriculum, and would love to hear from you names of individuals you’d like to see as faculty for the camp. Who are your role models in entrepreneurial journalism? From whom do you wish you could learn something – in person and one-on-one – about starting a business online? We’ve had success in bringing some of the top names in journalism and entrepreneurship to the USC campus over the years and would be happy to invite the folks our potential campers want to see. Drop names in the comments, or by clicking the “Contact” link at the top the page.

And if you think that you should be one of those speakers, please, don’t be shy about stepping forward and sending your name to us. This camp provides a great opportunity for those who’ve had some success in this area to help ensure the survival of good journalism online by training other reporters and editors to make the step up to publisher and business owner.

Journalists must emerge from a culture of failure in order to survive

For a generation, journalists have been steeped in a culture of failure. Even during boom years, newspapers laid off employees, offered buy-outs, froze the hiring off new employees and cut the pay of the ones they kept. When the Internet brought unprecedented competition into the news business, and Chicken Little’s sky really did fall, the industry amplified its toxic narrative: “No one can make money online.” “Journalism is doomed!”

But it isn’t. All that’s doomed is the reactionary management philosophy of monopolists who could not adapt to world where people, not papers, controlled the narratives of their lives. Good riddance, I say. Journalism is not doomed; people can make money publishing online. All that needs to change to make that happen is journalists’ toxic attitudes toward themselves and the value of their work.

That was my message to the participants at the Knight Digital Media Center News Entrepreneur Boot Camp this week. We met at the USC Marshall School of Business for five days, working through a curriculum outlined by myself, KDMC’s Vikki Porter and Tom O’Malia of the Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies at Marshall. We brought in a team of four faculty to finalize the camp’s curriculum and instruct the campers: Mary Lou Fulton, Susan Mernit, Ken Doctor and Vin Crosbie. And we supplemented each day with expert speakers, including SEO expert Danny Sullivan, Dan Gillmor, entrepreneurs Shoba Purushothaman and Staci Kramer, and attorney Michael Overing.

Every day, the campers started by giving us their “elevator pitches” for their projects. Over the week, the pitches sharpened from rambling four-minute speeches to tight engagements of 20 seconds or less. At the same time, they learned how to flesh out their pitches into five-minute multimedia presentations, which they presented Thursday morning to a panel of business finance experts, including Lloyd Greif.

The camp wasn’t just about pitches, however. It was about changing minds. We wanted the campers to see themselves not as beaten-down employees in an ailing field, but as sharp thinkers, entrepreneurs in a thriving marketplace.

To that end, we held the camp at the business school, not the journalism school. At USC, like on every other campus I’ve ever visited, the difference between the journalism school building and the business school’s is like the difference between a Ramada and the Ritz. Environments can change attitudes. The physical building is one part of that. The company ones keeps the other. We aimed to change both.

Did we succeed? We’ll have to wait to discover how many, of any, of the projects developed by these 15 campers become financially self-sustaining. But we did see the campers’ attitudes change. They talked less of the past, and more of the future. Discussion turned from excuses to suggestions.

They smiled more.

Following morning presentations and discussions, led by the faculty, we broke after lunch into small groups, with individual campers meeting with the day’s instructor, O’Malia and me, by request. Those sessions were the most exciting, engaging and fulfilling of the week, for me. That’s where we got the opportunity to fine-tune ideas into concepts that had a real chance to succeed in competitive information marketplaces.

I’m not going to get into specific detail in describing individual projects – I’ll leave the campers to debut their own works. One moment stood apart for me, though.

One of our news entrepreneurs was pitching her site, “Do you have enough money?” she asked. It was an engaging, exciting pitch, one that would entice any reader to visit her consumer advice website.

But I told her she was doing it wrong. Citing O’Malia’s admonition to “target the customer,” I asked her how much money her readers would be paying for the site.

“Nothing,” she replied. “The site is free.”

So they’re not writing the checks, I responded. Who is, then? I asked.

“The advertisers.”

So who is your customer? I asked.

At that moment, she changed her pitch. “Does your business have enough customers?” she then began. With her business focus broadened from building audience to building audience to attract advertisers, she’d learned how expand her concept from that of a journalist-editor to a publisher-enterpreneur.

Before any old-school journalism purists protest, let me assure you that audience remains paramount. A website has no value to anyone, not advertisers nor the public interest, if no one reads it. In my experience, and the experience of many others in this field, publications built solely to appeal to advertisers often fail to catch on with readers. Without a loyal audience, those advertisers soon lose interest in the site and withdraw their support.

Kicking off the camp, USC Annenberg’s J-school director Geneva Overholser warned that journalism has been too bound by rules from previous era. “We need to keep the principles, not the rules,” she told the camp participants. Obstinate devotion to an old-school advertising/editorial wall that keeps journalists from understanding enough about the business side of the industry to make a living on their own is one example of a rule that needs to go, she said.

Telling journalists “you can’t do that,” when they seek to find a way to make their work profitable, or at least economically sustainable, is an example of the culture of failure from which we were trying to extract these 15 journalists. I want more journalists to get the message – you can do it.

USC executive in residence David Westphal (Overholser’s husband), tweeted during the final pitch session, “KDMC bootcamp presentations are at the intersection of great public-interest aspiration & the marketplace. (Good place to be)”

One of the industry professionals on the Thursday morning panel that heard those final pitches sent off the campers with a strong endorsement.
Angel investor Bob Aholt, a director at the Pasadena Angels said, “Before I came here today, I was concerned about the future of journalism” in this economy.

“But after hearing these presentations today, I see the fate of journalism is in good hands.”

Top 10 search engine optimization tips for online news start-ups

This week, OJR is helping present the KDMC News Entrepreneur Boot Camp at USC. We’ve brought 15 aspiring news entrepreneurs to the USC Marshall School of Business, where they are learning the basic of eliciting financial and community support while creating a small news business. They are building upon their existing journalism skills, learning how those skills have (or have not) prepared them to move from being reporters to publishers.

You can follow our Tweets about the camp using the hashtag #uscnewsbiz on Twitter.

I’ll write more about the camp, which ends tomorrow, with a wrap-up on Friday. But today, I wanted to dive into one important topic that we covered in a dinner conversation on Sunday evening.

Our invited speaker was Danny Sullivan, the editor of Search Engine Land, and a long-time expert in search engine optimization [SEO]. Danny’s a news entrepreneur himself, having grown his 1996 Webmaster’s Guide to Search Engines into two online news publications. (He also maintains a blog at, which I recommend for his sharp observations of the online news business.)

I asked Sullivan to come speak to our campers because of the importance of SEO to any boot-strapped online start-up. With few resources to draw readers to a new website, SEO provides start-ups a low-cost opportunity to get their site’s links in front of an interested audience. The only cost is the time to learn these tips, and the effort required to implement them.

Effective SEO not only causes your website’s pages to rise in the search engine’s results pages, it can help you make money, as SEO can help search engines tailor better targeted and more lucrative ads on your pages, should you participate in their advertising syndicates, such as Google AdSense.

Most of these tips are Sullivan’s, rephrased and with summaries of observations from me and from other camp participants included.

1) Use Google AdWords’ keyword tool to find the most popular keywords related to your website and your beat

Before you begin tuning your specific key words and phrases, you need to discover what key words and phrases Internet readers are using in search engines to find content like yours’. Google’s various keyword tools can help you do that. The AdWords tool will show you the approximate number of searches conducted on Google for words and phrases that you enter, or for phrases associated with a URL of your choosing.

Google’s Search-based Keyword Tool quantifies the popularity of various key phrases, with both search volumes as well as suggested advertising bid prices to “buy” those keywords through Google’s text-ad program. That last bit of information can show you not only which key phrases will drive the most traffic to the site, but which will drive the most lucrative traffic to you, as well.

Use the tools to identify the best overall phrases for your site, the ones that you will use in the site’s title and on its home page and navigation. Then, use the tool to build experience that will help you select the best key words and phrases to spotlight when writing and producing individual articles and blog posts on your site.

Google’s home page provides guidance, as well, as Google now suggests various keywords and phrases – and reports their popularity – based on the partial search terms you type in its entry box.

2) Use key words and phrases in your HTML title tag

Once you’ve identified your keywords and phrases, use them in the most importance place where search engines will consider them. The search engines give the content of the title tag the greatest weight of any single element on the page, so your most appropriate key phrases better be there, Sullivan said.

If you are using a content management system [CMS], know which input field will populate the title tag (usually the headline). Use the resources above to determine which words ought to make it into that headline. Imagine yourself as a reader, and ask what terms you would use on Google if you were searching for this story. Those terms had better be in your head, and page title.

Also, be sure to use powerful, popular keywords in the title, description and tags of your videos you post on YouTube and elsewhere online.

3) Write an engaging meta description tag for each page

Sullivan, and others, find little SEO use for the plethora of descriptive meta tags that can be included in the head of a webpage. But the description tag still provides good value, as Google uses it to create the short blurb that it displays under a page’s title on its search engine results pages [SERPs]. A sharp description can help lure a visitor to your site over others, including ones that rank ahead of you on the page.

4) Switch from AP style to “SEO style” on references in body copy

Keyword repetition and density on the page still play a role in where you end up in the SERPs (though not nearly as much as in the pre-Google era.) You can help yourself, therefore, by moving away from rigid AP style rules on second references and place names to more SEO-friendly use of full names on some (but not all) subsequent references within a story.

5) Use keywords in your URLs whenever possible

The search engines value the use of keywords in URLs, as well. If you’ve got one in your site’s domain, great. But keywords in the directory path or file name of the URL provide a boost, as well. Rather than use numbers or nonsense text in article URLs, opt for a CMS that uses real words, ideally keywords for which readers will be searching.

Sullivan also recommends that you configure your CMS to use hyphens instead of underscores to separate keywords in your URLs.

6) Never publish the same article under two or more URLs on your site

Duplicate content penalties have killed news websites’ positions in the SERPs in the past. You shouldn’t publish the same article at multiple URLs on your site. It’s fine to reference one piece with multiple tags and from multiple index pages, but they should all point to the same, single URL when referencing that story or blog post.

Much of Google’s decision on where to rank a page in the SERPs is based upon the number and quality of links to that individual page. Concentrate the in-bound links to one story on a single URL. Posting that content on multiple webpage addresses simply dilutes the power of all those links across those multiple URLs.

7) Create standing pages as linkbait for popular ongoing stories and issues

This extends the point above. In an ideal world, you would concentrate all the inbound links to a story you are following to a single URL, driving it to the top of the SERPs for all related searches. But that’s tough in a traditional news publishing environment, where each day brings a new article, with a new URL. Staff-written summary wikis and well-crafted index pages can provide a standing URL that others can link when referencing your coverage of a particular person or issue, boosting the search engine popularity of your work.

8) Never retire or change page URLs without providing a 301 redirect

Search engines respond to a variety of responses from a Web server when a search engine requests a URL that no longer exists. A “404” or page not found response is the worst response your server can deliver. It should, instead provide a 301 redirect, which tells the search engine to which new URL it should transfer the old URL’s SERPs position. Here’s how to do a 301 redirect in several CMSs and scripting languages.

9) Use or other URL shorteners that use 301 redirects and provide click stats when posting to Twitter

When you are using URL shorteners, you want to make sure that your site is getting the search engine “credit” for that link, and not the shortener itself. Sullivan suggested as one of several services that use 301 redirects, and after trying it, I’m impressed with the click-through statistics it tracks for each URL I shortened through it.

10) Link to other great, original content and invite other publishers to link to yours

The last advice might be the most important. Great on-page SEO ultimately will do little to move your pages up in the SERPs if other websites are not linking to you. Use your social media and offline promotional skills to let other influential online news publishers know about your work, and invite them to link to it. Tweet your posts and write them with enough flair that others will want to retweet.

Of course, the best way to encourage others to link to you is to practice what you ask, and to link to them and their best coverage.


For WordPress users, Sullivan recommended the All in One SEO Pack as an effective plug-in that can address several of these points on their WordPress sites.

Sullivan also advised not to worry about article length, after one camp participant asked. Article length, if it does affect SERPs performance, doesn’t count nearly as much as these other factors.

In general, don’t sweat other details when worrying about SEO until after you’ve addressed these basic principles in improving your website’s search engine performance.