Five myths I hope you don't hear at ONA 2011

Here are a few of the industry myths that I hope you will not hear during the Online News Association conference in Boston next week. The ONA’s done a good job over the years of inviting more speakers and panelists who are grounded in “real Web” experience, minimizing the number of speaking slots for print-side executives who’d rather pine for the days of their lost monopolies. Still, people who look at the Internet through an opaque sheet of newsprint still show up at ONA, and other industry conferences. These are a few of their favorite lines, ones that I invite you to ignore, or, if you’re looking for some fun, to challenge.

Myth 1: You can’t support a publication on online advertising revenue.

When you hear this line, here’s what the speaker really is saying: “I can’t support my publication on my online advertising revenue.” Just because one manager hasn’t figured it out doesn’t mean that the solution doesn’t exist. If you want to seek foundation support, great. Go for it. But don’t fool yourself for a moment into believing that “non profit” means “no money worries.” Non-profit is a tax status, not a business model. You’ll still need to find sources of income, and in the non-profit world those sources come with many more strings attached than advertising contracts have.

Myth 1 is often followed in the same comment by Myth 1.a: You can’t make money on AdSense. Again, what the speaker is really saying is: “I can’t make money on AdSense.” People who say this typically make the lazy mistake of thinking that AdSense provides incremental revenue each time it displays on a website, so they stick it into every ad slot on the site they can’t sell themselves.

Well, if your local or small-scale advertisers didn’t want to pay to deliver their message on a page, what makes you think that the big industry pros who are placing multi-million-dollar AdWords campaigns want any part of those pages, either? Slapping ads on pages that don’t convert causes Google to cut your payment on pages that do. Adding extra AdSense slots to your site can actually decrease your revenue. The key to AdSense is to limit its deployment to pages that will attract interested readers who will click through to big-dollar advertisers. Never use AdSense as remnant inventory. Use it as a tool to attract ads to pages of interest to national and global advertisers you can’t reach with your local sales staff.

Myth 2: Readers have short attention spans, so you must break up your content.

Readers only appear to have short attention spans because the media revolutions of the 20th and 21st centuries have left them bombarded with content options. They must make decisions within split seconds about which content to read or watch and which to ignore.

But once they make the decision to try your content they will stick with it as long as they continue to feel that it’s worth their time. People with short attention spans don’t spend hours without interruption playing Minecraft or Madden. They don’t read 800-page Harry Potter books cover to cover or sit through three-hour Lord of the Rings movies. But all of those were huge hits.

Breaking up content into multiple pages and components simply reminds people at each interruption that they have a choice and could be doing something else. Invest your energy instead into ensuring that your work is relevant and rewarding to your audience. Then craft an awesome lead or visual to grab their attention.

Myth 3: Online journalism = big Flash graphics

Back in the days of shovelware newspaper websites, staffers in the online department had to justify their existence while trying to define to their print-focused bosses just what this Internet thing was good for anyway.

Enter the big Flash graphic. Hey, I had a lot of fun with Flash presentations that turned investigative reports into facile video games, too. But there’s so much more for us to do today. And with poor or nonexistent mobile support limiting the usability of Flash content, I’d question continuing to invest significant resources in Flash development. Perhaps the bigger problem is the attitude illustrated by Myth 3.a: Interactivity = multimedia. No, they are not the same. Interactivity is the inclusion of the audience in the creation of a work. Multimedia is the use of multiple media, including photos, video, audio, text and animation, in a work. That readers must decide what to click on in a big Flash graphic doesn’t make it any more interactive than a Web browser, which also gives readers click choices.

Myth 4: You need a big editorial staff to do great journalism online.

This myth is a favorite of old-media managers who are trying to define away their competition. The market is evolving. Let’s deal with it, instead of trying to pretend that change isn’t happening. Devotion to large staffs explains why so many publications find themselves believing Myth 1, too. Their problem is using old-media models to compete in a new-media space. (Across-the-board cutting isn’t the solution, by the way. Reinvention is.) One-person websites can do great work. They’ve even won Online Journalism Awards in the past.

Myth 5: Paywalls are the best (or only) way to paid content online.

Paywalls work when you offer (a) highly-specialized, unique content of tangible value to people (see Wall Street Journal or Cooks’ Illustrated), or (b) offer enough free passageways through the paywall that the pay scheme becomes a voluntary contribution system (see The New York Times).

Despite how great you think your content to be, if you’re reporting daily news, your site probably doesn’t fall under (a). And if you are not a beloved national brand, you probably won’t make much money from (b), either. If you really want to sell content directly to the reader, do as I’ve been urging for the past two months and look into eBooks, an established market where consumers have shown that they’re willing to pay for content at higher price points than many paywall schemes have offered.

Have fun at the conference. Go ahead and poke the trolls. And, as with any conference, don’t forget to give yourself a daily goal of meeting at least five new people, then talking with each one for at least a couple of minutes. You’ll learn more from those interactions than from listening to any of these old myths.

The top 10 key lessons for hyperlocal journalism startups from ONA10

If you are dreaming about your own news site, you are not alone: hyperlocal sites are popping up everywhere. At ONA10 last week in Washington, D.C., veterans of the hyperlocal scene shared they experiences, both successes and failures. Here’s the top 10 of the recurring topics during the three-day conference.

1. Successful doesn’t mean beautiful

Take a look at the award-winning The design is pretty much out-of-the-box WordPress. Instead of fancy graphics, WSB has concentrated on more important things: great content and selling ads. As a result, the site is has provided income for Tracy Record and her husband for two years. Sometimes you don’t even need a site:, a news site that claims it’s close to $100,000 revenue per year, started as an email newsletter.

2. Legal stuff isn’t rocket science

If you plan to do proper journalism on your news blog, you probably will piss someone off. Or somebody in your very informal blog network will, and you all get sued. Citizen Media Law Project offers advice how to protect yourself and what to do with nasty comments or copyright infringements, how to create a “Terms and Conditions” policy, and what to do with DMCA (for those not into the jargon yet, that’s the Digital Millennium Copyright Act) takedown notices.

3. There is no such thing as free content

Running a neighborhood website where ordinary citizens produce content sounds tempting, right? You just gently advise the amateurs and wait for the stories to come in. Wrong. Read J-Lab report New Voices: What Works and learn how much work it requires to keep the contributors active. Less than 1 in 10 of those you train will stick around to be regular contributors.

4. Follow the data

When your resources are scarce, it is good to know where to concentrate to attract readers. Web analytics, such as Google Analytics, help in this case. Founder Susan Mernit from Oakland Local said that they thought people would read normal feature-like news stories. It turned out that the really simple stories about a new coffee shop or the heavy, investigative pieces were the most read. So they stopped doing features.

5. Focus on money from day one

Michele McLellan, Knight Digital Media Center consultant, leadership blogger, said her research at Reynolds Journalism Institute as a fellow last year showed that those who think about revenue at the beginning usually succeed, even if the business model changes. Mike Orren, publisher, reminded that advertisers don’t care how big you are if they don’t know you. It takes a long time to build a brand in advertising community and it matters, because ad buying decisions are not made rationally. If you have a three-year grant for your startup, you can’t focus on content the first two years and hope you figure out the money part in the third and last year.

6. Advertisers are buying your audience, not funding your stories

COO Ben Ilfeld from Sacramento Press reminded the future startups that you are not selling words or publication to the advertisers but the idea of being at the center of the community. That’s why you have to be everywhere in social media and get rid of the idea that your site is a publication. It’s only one way to reach and interact with your community/customers. Evan Smith, the Texas Tribune Editor-in-Chief, went even further, saying destination websites are dead.

7. Grants don’t come for free

Foundations are lot like other VC’s: they expect return on their investment. If they have a mission, make sure your mission matches it. Jim Cutie, COO of CT Mirror, explained that foundations are very much like any other investors: they expect you to have a strong business model, partnerships, management team and board from day one. And some expect you to be self-sustainable in three to five years.

8. Focus on multiple revenue models

Seeing the different journalism startup presentations at ONA10 made one thing very clear: being sustainable requires much more than selling ads. You can get some funding through crowd-funding platforms, such as or through ad networks, like Sloan. offers Design Services, Texas Tribune makes money on events. Steve Buttry, Director of Community Engagement, has made a good list of revenue streams.

9. Technology should be fast and cheap

Mike Orren from Pegasus News nailed the platform discussion: If platform isn’t what you sell, don’t waste your time on building one. Use WordPress or Drupal. Let nerds take care of the code.

10. Stop whining and just do it

Rafat Ali, the founder, said journalists spend too much time talking about the 50 different available business models or complaining about the lack of micropayments instead of doing stuff. And the lack of big media access can be a blessing: Georgetown didn’t like the way sports blog Casual Hoya wrote about the team and got their press passes revoked. Blogger Andrew Geiger said that it was the best thing that could have happened. Now they don’t have to worry about pleasing anyone and the casualhoyas can write whatever they want – and readers like that.

Pekka Pekkala researches sustainable business models at USC Annenberg, is a partner at Fugu Media> and a technology columnist. He used to be the head of development at Helsingin Sanomat, the largest Finnish newspaper.

The question everyone's talking about: Is AOL's Patch evil?

Hi, I’m “Evil Man.”

Well, that’s according to All Things Digital‘s Kara Swisher, who moderated a keynote presentation with America Online‘s Tim Armstrong and National Public Radio‘s Vivian Schiller at the Online News Association conference in D.C.

She dubbed me that after I asked a question that, to me, was clearly the elephant in the room.

For months before the conference, there has been a buzz in the journalism industry with people trying to understand AOL’s, a venture in hyperlocal news.

According to its website, the Patch network is in 14 states, but expects to expand into three more. It’s already in more than 300 cities (63 of them in California alone), and plans to add nearly 200 more.

The ISP-turned-content network is putting its money where its virtual mouth is by committing an investment of up to $50 million to this project.

They have hired a ton of people, among them laid-off journalists and recent j-school graduates. It has even partnered up with several universities, including the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

I know a few of their folks and they rave about their new, exciting job.

But, there are reports painting a less-than-positive side to this network. From claims of plagiarism to descriptions of “sweatshop”-like hours, these reported issues have raised concern.

At a recent Hacks/Hackers meetup in Los Angeles, the topic of Patch came up and there was concern that local, independent bloggers would be killed off. That said, it was also admitted that not enough was known about the venture, but the group would like to explore the concerns.

Still, even while I was at the conference, people were asking each other what they thought of Patch. In fact, there was an unconference session (an impromptu session proposed and voted upon by the conference attendees) that wanted to explore this question.

But by 45 minutes into the keynote, it looked like no one was going to ask the question. So I tweeted this out:

Ugh... I think I'm going to ask the Q on people's mind: Is Patch evil? @ONA10 #Ona10

And, once I was handed the mic, I did.

You can see the exchange, which aired on C-SPAN live (jump to: 00:45:58). It was also written up by Lost Remote. You can tell that the attendees were the shocked that I asked, but applauded the question.

One person told me she literally spit out her coffee when she heard my question while watching the live video stream.

For the record, I was not trying to say Patch is evil with my question, but merely ask the question that people were thinking. Prior to the conference, I had been on the fence about Patch and engaged other folks about this topic.

The reaction to my question has been overwhelming positive, but what has been interesting to me has been how a few folks thought I was either too soft or too hard on Patch. To me though, that averages out to the spot that I had intended: straight down the middle.

As you may have heard, the ONA10 attendees took to Twitter making me a local trending topic. Here are some of the reactions:

Maureen Linke
Vadim Lavrusik
Ken Sands
Heather Billings
Dave Stanton
Amy Webb
Bob Payne
Mel Taylor

A search of Twitter will show you a ton more, but Dani Fankhauser also compiled a list of her favorite tweets.

Outside of the comments, the two questions I got asked most were: What did I think of Armstrong’s answer? And, do I think Patch is evil?

Personally, I was mixed on his answer… I was surprised that he seemed like he didn’t know this vibe was toward Patch. While he talked in general terms about pay and pace, I did like his idea of partnering with local bloggers.

After all that, is Patch evil? From what I can tell, no. It’s hiring journalists. It’s trying to be a service to many communities. It’s investing in informing the public, while other media companies have just stopped cutting budgets.

But, I also don’t think it is all a giant Patch of roses. To me, it seems to be a move to become one of the largest ad networks in the country, going after local advertisers. Under the umbrella of “we care about the community,” this is a business venture. That’s not evil, that’s capitalism.

The bottom-line in this story isn’t my personal opinion. That alone doesn’t really matter. What mattered was that someone asked the question on everyone’s mind. What I did was not brave… it was journalism.

Not sure it merited being called “Evil Man,” but glad that the act of asking was applauded. I also like that the questioned spurred a dialogue about the project.

So, in keeping with that ongoing dialogue, what is your take on Patch? Are you a supporter or a hater? Email, comment or @reply me with your thoughts. I’ll publish the crowdsourced response soon.

Robert Hernandez is a Web Journalism professor at USC Annenberg and co-creator of #wjchat, a weekly chat for Web Journalists held on Twitter. You can contact him by e-mail ([email protected]) or through Twitter (@webjournalist). Yes, he’s a tech/journo geek.