Have you been thinking about starting a news website? Are you considering “being your own boss” as the next step in your journalism career?
You can stumble your way into entrepreneurship, but you’ll likely find a greater chance of success if you start with a plan.
Starting a news website requires its own step-by-step process, sharing some steps with the launch of any new business, but including several steps unique to either journalism or online publishing.
Based on my experience launching and running news websites, here’s a checklist that I would recommend to anyone thinking about starting an online news business. I hope that you will use this list to help you along with the process of launching your site – or at least to give you a fuller sense of the work that would be involved, should you be considering this step.
This isn’t meant to be a complete guide to starting a news publishing business – that would fill a book – but simply a checklist for you to use as you proceed.
☐ Select a name for your publication
You’ll want a name for which you can obtain the “.com” domain of the publication name, without spaces or special characters such as hyphens. It should be easy to spell when pronounced phonetically, and while including a keyword that potential readers will be searching for is helpful that’s not as important as the other criteria.
☐ Register your domain name
Once you’ve selected a name, don’t hesitate to register it with a domain registrar, such as GoDaddy or Network Solutions. Don’t bother adding any of the hosting or e-mail options they’ll try to sell you. You’ll figure out that later. Just get the domain.
☐ Open a business checking account
No, you don’t have any income yet, but you’ll want a bank account as soon as you have a business name. Separating your business account from your personal from Day One will help you with accounting, taxes and projecting a professional image to your customers.
☐ Register a fictitious business name.
Banks often can help you do this when you set up your business checking account, which is another reason to take that step immediately.
☐ Trademark your name
I didn’t need a lawyer to trademark my website’s name. I simply followed the steps on the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office website. All of the paperwork can be filed online. Once you’ve applied, the process takes months, but the earlier you start, the earlier you will have your trademark in hand.
☐ Select a calendar app or system to record deadlines, meetings and assigned tasks
Once the work of establishing your name is complete, it’s time to get operational. You do not want to be relying on memory, or little random slips of paper to keep track of key dates and tasks as you move forward.
☐ Secure office space
You need a place to work. You can work out of your home (I still do), but you need to set aside space that’s just for your work. That has a tax advantage, as well, as you might be able to deduct dedicated work space within your home, especially if you rent. Out-of-home office space can be a better bet for many entrepreneurs, though (especially “hyperlocal” publishers), as a “real office” demonstrates that you are serious participant in the local business community.
☐ Obtain equipment
You’ll need, at minimum:
- Laptop computer
- Mobile phone (with e-mail and Web access)
- Digital camera
- Video camera (with tripod and mic for better production values)
- Digital audio recorder (be sure it can sync with your computer to upload audio files)
☐ Get insurance
You’ll need libel insurance, as well as insurance for your workspace and equipment. Visit the Online Media Legal Network before you proceed, too, so you’ll know where to go should you get into legal entanglements in the course of your reporting.
☐ Review publishing systems and select one
Here’s one review of content management systems popular with start-up news websites. If you’re simply looking to blog, and want to start ASAP, there’s always Blogger, too. E-mail small publishers you admire or your LinkedIn network for advice. This decision’s too important to leave to a single website article or Google search.
☐ Select a hosting provider
You’ll want a hosting provider with extensive experience supporting the CMS you’ve selected, which is why I listed that step first. Again, rely on recommendations from colleagues and friends to guide you.
☐ Install publishing system, if necessary
Depending upon the hosting package you select, you might need to install the CMS software yourself. Delve into your hosting provider’s support forums, or throw yourself upon the mercy of its support staff. If your hosting provider doesn’t have either online support forums or a helpful support staff, you’ve picked the wrong host.
☐ Design web templates
Once you have a CMS, you’ll need to customize it to reflect your website. Select an available theme, or design your own. (Or contract a designer to do the work for you.)
☐ Select a Web traffic analytic system and install tracking code in web template
I continue to use Google Analytics. It’s free and provides more than enough data for a small start-up’s needs.
☐ Create a Facebook page for your publication
Go to http://www.facebook.com/pages and click the “Create a Page” button. Be sure to add a prominent link to your Facebook page within your site template.
☐ Register a Twitter account
You probably have a personal Twitter account, but you should also register one for your publication, using its name. Always remember which account you’re logged into when you tweet!
☐ Create an e-mail list and online subscription form
I use Constant Contact, but other options are available, as well. Using a third-party provider for e-mail will help you avoid bandwidth overload issue on your host’s e-mail servers, and keeps you from having to deal with the hassle of blacklist management.
☐ Design and print business cards
Sure, you’re a paperless online business. But leaving behind plenty of these “old school” artifacts is essential in building a network of clients, sources, customers and readers.
☐ Create a rate card
Potential advertisers will want to know how much you charge for their ads to appear on your site. So you’ll need to establish (and publish) a rate card listing your available packages and prices. That means that you’ll have to select ad sizes for placement within your site templates. (I recommend the Wide Skyscraper, Leaderboard and Medium Rectangle. Check out Google’s eyetracking heatmap for more detail on where to place your ads.) Determine a CPM (cost per thousands impressions) for those ads and do the math to create impression packages. You might choose to run persistent ads, rather than rotate. But you’ll still need fixed ad sizes and to do the math based on a site CPM to figure an appropriate price to charge.
☐ Create a media kit
You’ll need to describe your site, on a single page, to convince readers to read it, advertisers to support it and other journalists to report about it. Here’s the who, what, where, when and why about your new website. That’s your initial media kit. Plan to update your kit, as you gather more readership data, laudatory quotes and refine your site’s focus.
☐ Create a customer lead list
Who will you solicit to become advertisers or funders of your website? That’s your customer lead list. Gather contact information, then use your calendar to assign times to contact everyone on your list. And then, to contact them again.
☐ Create a promotional lead list
Who can you talk into writing about your site? At what events can you meet and recruit new readers? Where online can you promote the site, without looking like a spammer or scammer? List these promotional opportunities, then use your calendar to assign times to follow up on each opportunity.
If you’d like more detail on fulfilling the items on this checklist, add one more task to the list: Apply for the KDMC News Entrepreneur Boot Camp when applications open later this year. We’ll be providing small group and individual coaching from me and other instructors who’ve started their own businesses, to help aspiring news entrepreneurs along their journeys. Keep reading OJR for the announcement of this year’s application process.