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You are burning with a passion for investigative journalism. Or maybe you want to report on what’s happening in your local community. Perhaps your goal is to provide incisive analysis for a niche audience of like-minded followers, whether the issue is climate change or the NFL draft.
But how will you keep your vision alive? Even a labor of love requires pockets deep enough to pay for the server space to showcase your “free” content. And if you do not find a way to pay yourself and your contributors at least a little something, chances are you will eventually wear out or burn out. The web is littered with tombstone sites that will never again be updated (a few of which are mine).
Please scan the list below to see if some of these ideas might make sense for your online news venture. None is guaranteed to make you millions, but if you can draw a crowd (or an affluent niche), one or more should help you “monetize” your efforts. (Think multiple revenue streams.)
- Paywalls – Whether paywalls will work in the long run remains an open question. Business publications like the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times appear to have few problems persuading their affluent audiences to sign up. The New York Times, arguably our national newspaper, abandoned its first attempt at a paywall but now seems committed to the strategy.My local Gannett paper, the Lansing State Journal, is experimenting with a paywall, though circulation appears to be declining overall. My favorite magazine, the pricey New Scientist ($154 a year for a subscription to the print publication) offers three different packages: (1) print only, (2) web-smartphone-tablet and (3) print-web-smartphone-tablet.
The strategy requires a modest investment in development to set a cookie that counts how many times a person visits and then blocks them if they reach the maximum without becoming a paying subscriber.
Most paywalls allow visitors at least one free view beyond the home page before they are required to buy a subscription to see more. However, many paywalls are relatively easy to defeat. NYTClean was a free downloadable browser extension that spoofed the Times into thinking you had not reached your maximum. Copying a story’s headline from the home page and putting it into Google often allows you to enter through a back door. Beginning in 2012, however, the Wall Street Journal ended First Click Free (FCF) on some of its stories.
Andrew Sullivan is no doubt the most famous blogger to go the paywall route at least semi-successfully. The Dish (formerly the Daily Dish when he launched it as a standalone and when it was part of The Daily Beast) became a standalone site again in January 2013. He originally charged a lump-sum payment of $20 a year but now charges $1.99 a month, at the request of his visitors. His a target is $900,000 for the first year, which he says is his break-even point. (Seems steep to me, but Sullivan has always done well since his days as the editor of The New Republic, and he now has a small staff to pay.)
In March, Poynter reported that Sullivan had cut free reads to five every 60 days and was tweaking his model to make signing up easier. According to paidContent, by July Sullivan had recruited 28,000 subscribers who produced $715,000 in revenue, though as this chart shows, signups dropped precipitously after the initial buzz generated when he was still a Daily Beast regular.
In another post, paidContent notes that Sullivan raised almost half of his initial nut during the first 24 hours after announcing his plan. They also report that this conversion rate remains stuck at 2.5%, though that is far better than the 1% that many sites achieve.
Paywall optimists often argue that the move toward tablets and smartphone apps offers new opportunities to begin charging. While it is true that an increasing number of people receive their news from mobile devices, questions remain about whether more than a handful of sites can compete against all the free content out there.
- Freemium (Free + Premium) – This model is based on providing the content for free, while giving visitors options to pay for various extras. This approach was championed by former Wired editor Chris Anderson in his book “Free.” In some cases, a dedicated audience might be willing to pay extra for a forum or “private” videos or other content. However, Salon abandoned its “premium” membership. The annual fee allowed people to enjoy their content ad-free, but advertisers no doubt complained.
- Advertisers and Sponsors – While many people knock banner ads, there are local and niche advertisers who may be eager to pay a daily, weekly or monthly fee to put up display ad with a link back to their site (or a page you can build them for a fee). Another strategy is to enlist a sponsor for a specific section or an evergreen entry. (“Evergreen” posts are ones designed to draw traffic over time, such as a directory or a historical package.) Startups can offer “Charter Advertiser” status for folks who pay to advertise from the start. That status could include a promise not to raise rates for the first year, or it could confer a 10% discount (or more) forever. A WordPress site often makes it easy to rotate ads, and premium themes like those from Elegant and Gabfire often offer widgets that handle the backend for you.
- GoogleAdSense – Many bloggers sign up for Google AdSense in the hope money will roll in without any additional effort. However, as Amy Lynn Andrews of Blogging with Amy writes, the key is either to have high traffic or a niche audience that Google advertisers will pay top dollar to reach through your keywords. She reports that Laura Turk’s site for crafters called TipJunkie.com attracts seven million visitors a month, generating $12,000 a month for its owner just through AdSense.
Our hearts beat faster when we read about these one-in-a-gazillion cases, but journalism is often a tougher sell. Google offers lots of tutorials on making the most of AdSense because it is in their self-interest to help you. However, it will also punish you by canceling your account if you fail to adhere to its requirement or you try to cheat by clicking on your own site or recruiting others to do so.
One of the best free resources is still John Saddington’s 2011 A Blogger’s Guide to Earning More with Google AdSense. Anything you do to improve your performance for Google AdSense is usually good for improving traffic overall. Learning how to tag using keywords that lure enough of the right audience is essential.
Last year Google announced a meta keywords tag for news sites. It takes a bit of tweaking your CSS to make this happen, but it means you no longer have to write dull headlines just to load them up with keywords.
Without going too deep into the weeds, Double Click for Publishers (DFP) is a Google product that integrates with Adsense. One benefit is that DFP may help you secure higher rates for some of the AdSense links on your pages. As always, Google products offer superior analytics that you can use you to help you make tweaks to boost your income.
- Alternatives to Google AdSense – If you are denied admission to AdSense or you are banned, check out the Top 10 Alternatives to Google AdSense. You might qualify for an option like Vibrant Media’s In-Text (where green links in copy generate popup ads). Or you may find that there is a particular ad network for your particular niche. For example, the Liberal Blog Ad Network offers established site that have more than 2,500 page views a week for more than two months that meet other criteria a chance to use their advertising widget.
Affiliate Marketing – Affiliate marketing is a way to earn a commission on clicks and sales. Some companies offer their own individual affiliate marketing programs. Liquid Web, which has its headquarters in my town, offers a fairly typical opportunity. If you qualify, the company provides you coding for a banner ad for your site. The coding contains your unique tracking code identifier so visitors who follow the link and buy the product generate a commission Liquid Web will then pay you.
An important key, however, is to make sure the advertiser fits with your audience. (In addition to his sexist Super Bowl ads, GoDaddy CEO Bob Parsons is famous for shooting elephants, so featuring his ads could alienate important audiences.)
Individual advertisers within the aggregator network may offer different commission options and a variety of display and link ads for you to choose from. Many offer specials at various times during the year. However, the challenge, as with AdSense, is that you must generate enough traffic and sales or you risk being dropped.
Commission rates vary from about 2% to 15% or more. Volume matters, but so does the cost of each item. My site Sustainable Farmer offers a link to Farm-Tek through Commission Junction, and I will start planning expensive vacations as soon as I start selling a $5,000 hoophouse or two each month.
Amazon, which sells just about everything, pays fixed rates on specific categories of products and escalating commissions currently from 4% to 8.5% on general products the more that you sell.
- Coupons – The major coupon sites Groupon and DealChicken both offer affiliate marketing opportunities through the aforementioned Commisssion Junction. Because coupons are typically geographically based, you may find that a major media market in your area has already tied up the rights to your location, so your application will automatically be rejected. (Though the money could be nice, the annoying DealChicken dropdown ads might also cost you some valued visitors.)
- Donations & Kickstarter-Type Fundraisers/Pledge Drives– PayPal offers a Donation button for individuals (check the rules) and non-profits, while Google Checkout only provides buttons for non-profits. For the most part, tip jars and donate buttons simply don’t produce enough to buy lunch now and then.
Sites such as Kickstarter, Indiegogo and GoFundMe allow individuals, for-profit companies and non-profits to raise money in a discrete period of time, which makes them potential sources of start-up funds or money for special projects. The Kickstarter model requires you to hit your target within a specific number of days, or you get nothing. Indiegogo and GoFundMe give you whatever you raise within the time period you specify.
Kickstarter also urges you to spend money on an escalating roster of inducements for your donors based on how much they give. Before you are approved, their monitors will often warn you that success often depends on offering a rich array of give-aways, but you need to remember that fulfillment will cost you time and money.
- Co-Promotions/Gifts – Alternative news sites such as Truthout periodically offer books by their writers or those who hold similar opinions as a gift for donating. These can be a win-win for the author and for the site. Journalism that focuses on a specific niche like food or sports might find creative ways to co-promote products with valued advertisers.
- Monetize Your Video – Video is becoming an increasingly important part of the mix on citizen journalism sites, so finding ways to make money from video could generate significant income over time. One options would be to sell custom ads and cut them into your videos. But not only does that require significant technical skill, the costs would include paying for servers that can handle streaming video. Note that both YouTube and Vimeo will reject videos with preroll ads.
YouTube is probably a better bet than Vimeo for most citizen journalism sites. TubeFilter reports that Vimeo recently added a tip jar and pay-on-demand, but neither makes good sense for a news site. Becoming a YouTube partner confers numerous benefits beyond making money, including the right to upload unlimited HD videos of any length.
I have uploaded more than 800 videos to my YouTube channel (bucqui) since 2006. I currently have more than 1,600 subscribers and more than 2.2 million views. Since becoming a YouTube partner and monetizing some of my videos, I have seen a healthy jump in the size of the payments paid to me through my Google AdSense account, which is how Google pays you.
Though I might do things differently if I were starting out today, I put videos from all my projects on the same channel, since YouTube provides additional benefits to partners whose total views total at least 15,000 viewing hours over the previous 90 days. If YouTube approves you as a partner, you will see a $ monetize icon show up alongside your list of videos in the Video Manager. Just click, answer a few questions and you are good-to-go.
Do you think the Bud Light can is there by accident?
- Product Placement in Videos – You can also make money by negotiating with an advertiser to place one of their products in your video. YouTube asks you to disclose when you do, since it does not want to place a Miller Light ad in a video where you are paid to display that Bud Light can.
- Showcasing Salable Skills – In retrospect, the traditional marriage between editorial and advertising barely made sense, since it required creating an entire department that had nothing to do with producing great stories. So why not create a boutique consulting firm based on what you have learned to do well – write great stories, shoot and edit quality video, develop and design killer websites and promote your site through SEO (Search Engine Optimization) and social media (Twitter and Facebook). Your services can range from providing the services directly or training other companies how to do these things themselves. A friend who reports on authors and the book industry in our state find himself offered jobs that range from helping authors promote their books to speaking engagements.
(Want me to help you monetize your site? I will often work for gluten-free food.)
But whoa, you say, you started this enterprise to make your living as a journalist. If you had wanted to be a web designer or SEO expert, you would have gone into that business. However, the challenge may actually find ways to generate enough to live on so that you can do journalism that matters. Your journalism serves as your marketing arm – an expanding business card that showcases your marketable skills. Doing contract work for others may also be more appealing than spending the time selling ads, and it ensures you and your staff stay busy and also stay current.
- Think Webcast – The success of online shows like Cenk Uygur’s The Young Turks suggests a real future for live webcasts as Internet TV. Services such as Ustream.tv and Livestream offer opportunities to produce live webcasts (here’s a comparison of what the four top providers offer for free and for a fee). Google Hangouts On Air allow you to broadcast live on Google+, YouTube and through an embed on your site.
My co-host and I simultaneously webcast the weekly show we do on the local community college’s radio station through a Ustream embed on Lansing Online News, our experiment in online citizen journalism. Ustream archives past shows, and a simple button allows us to upload the same show to YouTube.With a modest investment of a laptop with 4G access and one or more Logitech Business Pro 9000 webcams, you can start doing your own “remotes” supported with ads from your sponsors. Or you can offer services to host webinars or webcasts for clients, perhaps by paying a tech-savvy student to run the show.
- Market Your Own Products – If you have a food blog, a cottage industry marketing your own mustard or handmade aprons might make sense. My site Policing.com features a DVD I created called “A Brief History of Policing,” designed for police trainers and criminal justice profs. It comes with a 27-page Study Guide that I created as a PDF.
You might want to produce an ebook of your posts through Kindle Direct or a print book through Amazon’s CreateSpace. Start to think of yourself as a brand (or find a sole sponsor with deep pockets who wants to partner).
- Merch – Sadly, I have never been smart enough to come up with a name, logo, tagline or slogan so compelling that people would pay real money to own them on a t-shirt or coffee mug. Sites like CafePress and Zazzle allow you to create and sell custom products without keeping any inventory, though their prices make it hard to charge enough to justify more than a dollar or two for you on each sale. If you have some up-front funding, a place to store the items and the ability to fulfill orders, you can use sites like CustomInk (t-shirts) or Vistaprint (coffee cups) to create your own items and sell them directly.
- Grants, Contests & Incubators – To be eligible for grants, you may need to apply to the IRS for 501c3 status. However, the Knight Foundation’s Knight Challenge has traditionally allowed for-profit enterprises to apply as well. The competition can be fierce, but grants have the virtue of not having to be paid back. Women who have an idea for a news site should look at the rules regarding the J-Lab’s New Media Women Entrepreneurs program before launch because they only fund startups.
- Hold a Contest – Charge a fee to enter and plan your prize schedule so that it more than covers the cost of the awards. It could be as good a friendraiser as a fundraiser.
- Cut Costs with Free Custom Content– Rarely does a week go by without receiving an email that includes an ardent pitch from a freelancer willing to give me a free article that they will write to my specs. The catch is that they want to include a link to a particular product. While this raises the hackles of journalist who grew up believing in the sanctity of the firewall between advertising and editorial, at some level, the question becomes whether adding a text link to an Amazon product mentioned in a story is significantly different. Though I have yet to succumb, I have checked the work of some of these writers, and many are quite good. I suspect they would have to be to make their living doing this. It may be that this is one way to have others sell the ads for you.
- Barter – Lansing Online News once worked with a developer on creating an easy way for local advertisers to place an ad in exchange for bartering us products and services we could use as gifts to our contributors. (Our goal is to remain ad-free if we can.) For many news sites, it might pay to barter free ads with a developer who would build you a free app in return.
- Community Fundraisers – Don’t forget to think about offline opportunities if you have a strong local following. Perhaps you could host a dinner or a talk where tickets not only cover costs but put something into the pot. If you cover local theater, you might be able to persuade them to allow you to put up a table where you could sell merch and ask for donations.
What have we overlooked? Please leave your comments below so we can update and add new ideas.
by David Poulson, associate director of the Knight Center for Environmental JournalismStephen King recently offered advice useful for journalists covering the environment.
I don’t mean covering it as a horror story – although that’s certainly a reader engagement strategy we all use often enough.
The prolific author of scary tales like The Shining and Carrie and of the current mini-series Under the Dome, tells the Atlantic about crafting first sentences. He spends months – even years – rewriting them, often while lying in bed before falling asleep.
Any writer can benefit from what King has to say about minimalist first sentences chock full of meaning and that establish the voice that carries through the piece. Follow that link; read what he says.
That said, no journalist in the deadline-a-minute crunch for news can afford the luxury of nightly rewrites while lying in bed. My students panic when I suggest they spend half their writing time before deadline crafting a lede.
And yet I argue that it’s time well-spent. It makes the rest of the job much easier. Nail that first sentence and you’ve focused the story and launched a path to the end.
It is a wondrous relief when I get that first sentence right, or at least close enough to right that I know the rest will come.
Environmental reporters write about complex stuff. We have limited space. We know way more than we can report. And we need to engage readers with limited time and attention and perspective and context on what we report.
The challenges are steep enough that until I find that lede, I fret – even panic – if I can ever adequately tell the story. But once I do, the rest is almost following a recipe. Hard work may remain – checking facts, finding quotes, handling nuance, understanding complexity, deciding what to leave out – but the way forward is clear.
I have a roadmap and I know that I have a better than even shot of getting to my destination.
Of course, there is a whole lot more to writing than that first sentence. There’s a danger in overemphasizing its importance. As King notes in the Atlantic, “Listen, you can’t live on love, and you can’t create a writing career based on first lines.”
And I don’t want to make the case that every first sentence has to be a literary gem worthy of lengthy honing. We do journalism. In the best scenarios we have very limited time.
We rarely deal with the best scenarios.
The creation of the lede for the piece you are reading now is an example of what I’m getting at. King’s advice is relevant to any writer. But for this use I needed to connect it with journalists interested in reporting on the environment.
I had a vague idea of linking King’s genre of horror writing with writing about environmental horrors. It’s a hokey concept. And I unsuccessfully worked with it before doing what I often do when I’m stuck for a lede: I wrote a poor one just to get the piece underway.
I rarely can get far without going back for another try. And this time, about four paragraphs in, it struck me that merely including Stephen King and environmental journalism in the same sentence is a plenty good hook for my audience. He’s famous enough that I don’t have to immediately explain him. And sticking King and environmental journalism in the same sentence prompts readers to think, “What’s up with this? I’ll read more to find out.”
As a nod to my original idea, I stuck that reference to environmental horror storytelling in the second paragraph. It just seemed to work there when I couldn’t make it work in the first sentence.
The rest of this piece was work – but I’d call it downhill writing once I figured out those two paragraphs. I’m not saying it’s a first sentence that I’ll lie in bed re-crafting. It certainly won’t show up among the favorite first lines cited by these authors, also in the Atlantic.
But in my view it does the job and was worth the additional time I invested. You may disagree. Got a better idea? Stick it in the comments below.
The importance of compelling ledes is hardly news to journalists. Writers and writing instructors rightfully talk about the importance of beginnings to readers.
But I like what King has to say about their importance to writers:
“Because it’s not just the reader’s way in, it’s the writer‘s way in also, and you’ve got to find a doorway that fits us both. I think that’s why my books tend to begin as first sentences — I’ll write that opening sentence first, and when I get it right I’ll start to think I really have something.”
David Poulson is the associate director of Michigan State University’s Knight Center for Environmental Journalism