The news entrepreneur's dilemma: Which comes first, the money or the audience?

Reporters who would like to escape the annual threat of newsroom layoffs often ask me how they can get started running their own news websites.

They’re not so much worried about the technical steps in starting a website business. And the journalism doesn’t bother them one bit. What concerns them is the money.

“How can I raise enough money to start my own website when I don’t have a website yet?”

It’s the chicken and the egg question for the digital age. Which comes first – the money or the website?

Here’s the answer – the audience.

Let’s remember what people are paying for when they fund a publication. It’s not the wonderful journalism or your personal awesomeness as a human being. They’re paying for the opportunity to reach your readers. And that’s true for non-profit funders and as well as for-profit advertisers. A non-profit has no interest in funding great journalism that no one reads and never makes a difference in any community.

So, as always, it all remains about the audience. Show people with money that you have an audience they wish to reach – and they’ll show you their money. Don’t, and they won’t.

Too often, I’ve worked with journalists who are looking for funding so that they afford to move to the city where they want to start and run their website. Their career either took them away from their hometown or led them to a city where they just didn’t feel the connection that they had elsewhere. It’s tough to see the reaction when I tell people this, but no one’s going pay for you to relocate and build an audience from scratch. You need to be part of the community you want to cover in order to build an audience from it.

That applies to niche topic websites as well as geographically-focused ones. If you’re not part of the community, you’re not going to earn the credibility you need among potential readers, as well as advertisers and other funders. One of the bigger mistakes the newspaper industry made was consistently recruiting and hiring reporters from outside their local area, in an effort to broaden the labor pool, which lowers labor costs and boosts profits. That disconnected the newsroom from the communities they covered, and now that they have options, communities won’t stand for that any longer.

So start by being part of the community you wish to cover. Then take the next step by building an audience for yourself (not for your current employer, but for yourself). In almost every case, that means you’ll need to start your publication before you leave your employer. If you’re independently wealthy (or married someone with an income large enough to support you both), you would be able to run a website indefinitely with no income. But I would never recommend living on your savings while you start a site. Don’t jeopardize your retirement to start a news business if you can get started while you’re earning an income somewhere else.

Some employers are now barring their employees from working on personal websites. How convenient for them. Under the guise of “ethics,” these employers are inhibiting the development of potential competition within the market. If that’s the case you’re in, then publish under a spouse’s name or pseudonym while you see if the publication is viable and can begin attracting readers. Or find a lawyer who can look for a loophole through which you can publish. But don’t allow your employers to intimidate you into not pursuing your career options at the same time it is intimidating you with the ever-present threat of a layoff.

Start your news website business, then, by building an audience. Keep your expenses as low as possible, then use your voice to engage your readers, building that audience into an involved community. Once you have that in hand, trust me, the money will come to you.

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. One of the not-so-intuitive benefits of being a part of a community and understanding its idiosyncrasies is you will learn how to build an online community that attracts the real community.

    For example, if a community has an annual yard sale that involves the whole blocks of neighbors, an online site could feature a platform where locals upload photos or even short videos of their wares for sale.

    Or perhaps your community has a strong Pop Warner Youth Football league that attracts the parents every weekend. A part of the community site could have a Youth Football Locker Room that features all the teams, schedules, standings, etc. And parents can control the locker room page of their athlete, posting stats, photos and videos to show off their little star.

    There’s other ideas, like providing platforms for local bands, artists, and the list goes on.

    Or how about approaching the local Chamber of Commerce and engaging them as a consultant to help them build out their website in a way that’s appealing to the locals who will use the site?

    The biggest problem I’ve seen with journalists building sites is they approach the task with the idea that content is king. Um, not really. Content is important. But community is king. And if you build a platform that the community will USE, then they will come back day in and out. And if you place content on the platform the community uses, they will engage your content as well. That’s in addition to their primary purpose for visiting the site.

    That’s a tough new paradigm for journalists who have been taught that everything we produce has value while everything the community produces is worth less.