The ethical journalist's guide to selling ads on a website: Part one

The reaction to my piece two weeks ago illustrates that the idea of a reporter selling ads on his or her website remains a troubling one for many would-be online publishers. So I decided to present a step-by-step guide describing how a journalist can sell ads without compromising his or her ability to report accurately.

Step 1) Commit to learning about ad sales with same dedication you brought to learning about reporting.

When you start your own website, you no longer are merely a reporter. You’ve become a publisher, with all the additional duties that this position requires. In the highly competitive marketplace of online publishing, you must succeed in each of those areas if you site is to be successful. (Relevant cliche: “A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.”) So you must commit to learning about your content management system, cultivating and inspiring your readership, recording and managing your expenses… and earning money from your site.

As I have thought about my experience with my personal websites, I kept coming back to my experience working at Walt Disney World. As an undergraduate at Northwestern, I worked at Disney during my school breaks, running rides at the Magic Kingdom theme park. (Yes, that’s how I got into running a theme park website.) Disney trained its employees that, even though they had specific assigned responsibilities for their position, their job was to ensure that the park’s guests were comfortably enjoying their visit.

That meant you were supposed to do whatever you needed to do, not only to fulfill your assigned responsibilities, but to support the overall “show” at the park and to help the guests in your area. If you saw trash on the ground, you’d clean it up. If a guest was lost, you walked them toward their destination and directed them the rest of the way. If someone looked grumpy, you’d make eye contact, smile, and gently try to engage them in friendly conversation.

That’s the attitude you need to bring to online publishing: Do whatever you need to do to make your site succeed, however you choose to define success. Now, at Disney, we couldn’t abandon our core responsibilities to float around the park as a roving concierge. I still had to drive a raft across a river, load a Pirate boat or push the button to start the singing bears – whatever my shift was at the moment. Nor can you abandon your core responsibility to report accurately and honestly on your chosen beat. You’ve got to find a way to do it all.

Fortunately, you are not the first journalist to face this challenge. Many others have started websites with great content and are earning money doing it.

Step 2) Learn about the market.

So your first assignment (and, yes, I’m assigning homework here), is to find five ad-supported websites you admire and learn how they handle their advertising. Get their rate cards and ad order forms. Find their readership profiles. Learn about how they manage ads, both now and when they first started publishing.

Maybe you can find that information online by clicking around their websites. Maybe you’ll have to send some e-mails and make some calls. Either way, you need to see the specifics of how other sites are soliciting and processing ads to help you understand how it is done.

Here’s what I want you to look for: What, exactly, are these sites selling? What ad sizes, positions and packages are available? How much do they charge? What restrictions do they place upon what can be bought, not just technical restrictions (e.g. no “pop-up” ads) but market restrictions as well (e.g. no “adult” ads, etc.)

Unfortunately (IMO), some sites do sell content, writing laudatory blog posts for payment, selling unmarked text links within articles, and the like. But you can find many solid websites that don’t engage in such un-journalistic behavior, and sell only access to their readers through assigned advertising blocks on their pages.

Ultimately, that is what the ethical ad-supported news publication sells to its advertisers: the opportunity to reach the publication’s readers through ad space on a page (or ad time during a broadcast). You’re selling your readers, not your content. But to do that effectively, you need to know what you are selling: You need to know about your readers.

Step 3) Learn about your readers.

If you haven’t done so already, go get the Google Analytics tracking code, as well as the code from Quantcast, and install them on your website’s templates. These services will track your site’s readership and give you loads of great data about the number of readers you’re attracting, from where they are coming to you, and what they are doing on your site. Quantcast also will tell you where your site ranks relative to other websites that it tracks (including, potentially, some of your competitors.)

You’ll need to know how many absolute unique visitors your site attractions each day, week and month. You’ll need to know how many pageviews your site serves each day and each month. And you should know how long each visitor to your site stays on the site, and what percentage of visitors come from your local area (if it is a geographically-targeted website) as well as elsewhere from within and outside your country. (If you have questions about the terms I’m using, read OJR’s online publishing glossary.)

The Google Analytics data can tell you that, and more. Do not trust the stats reporting program that came with your Web hosting account, unless you’ve configured it to filter out all automated agents, such as search engine spiders. Automated agents can account for 90 percent of a website’s server traffic. You want to report how many people are reading your website, not how many bots.

Not only do you need to know about the number and location of your readers, you need to know how they respond to ads. That’s why I encourage online publishers to start with an ad network such as Google AdSense before they attempt to solicit sales directly from advertisers. You need to gather some basic information about which ad formats work best in what positions on your page before you go to would-be advertisers.

The Internet Advertising Bureau has designated four ad formats as its “universal ad package”:

  • 160 x 600 Wide Skyscraper
  • 728 x 90 Leaderboard
  • 300 x 250 Medium Rectangle
  • 180 x 150 Rectangle
    I suggest that you should limit your experimenting to these ad formats, since they account for the vast majority of ad placements on the Web. You don’t want to ask a would-be advertiser to create a custom ad size for your site, when they might have ads ready to go in one of these sizes. That just increases the cost (in time and effort) for that potential client to advertise on your site.

    Learn how ads have performed in specific situations on other websites by looking at Google’s eyetracking “heat map” for online ad placement, as well as its tips for AdSense implementation.

    You’ll note that I am writing under the assumption that you already have a site up and attracting readers. I think that you’ll find it darn near impossible to sell advertisers on reaching your readers if you do not have any readers yet, and haven’t established a track record of attracting readers in the past. That’s why it is so important that you start your website before you need the income from it. Start while you still have another “day” job, ideally, or else you’ll need to rely on financial support from another source (such as a spouse, savings or investors) while your build a readership that you can take to advertisers.

    You might also note that I haven’t written a thing yet about actually approaching a potential advertiser and asking for a sale. (That’s what I’ll write about next week, in part two.) An ethical journalist-entrepreneur must do a substantial amount of reporting, about his or her readers and his or her market before he or she even thinks about asking for or accepting a sale. You’ve got work to do now. Go do it.

    I’ll see you back here next week.

  • About Robert Niles

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


    1. Well well well !! Very nice post . All your Points are true while the second one which tells a person about the market is really nice..One should noe the basic of market .and yea its true that some sites do sell content, writing laudatory blog posts for payment, selling unmarked text links within articles, and the like. But you can find many solid websites that don’t engage in such un-journalistic behavior, and sell only access to their readers through assigned advertising blocks on their pages. Correct.

    2. says:

      Interesting article – but would be even more valuable with a few examples of sites and rate sheets, exploring the extremes as well as mainstream results. Perhaps viewers can comment with their findings.

    3. Patience. This was just Part one….

    4. Incredible information for those who are just starting to realize the importance of getting out there on the web. I fell in love with Quantcast when someone turned me to it; they can give you so much information.