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Tuesday, October 4, 2011
Digital Media Toolbox

Start-up news sites: Think practical

By Jennifer Peebles

Three years ago I quit my job at a mid-sized metro daily newspaper to be part of a startup online news operation. And ever since then I’ve had people coming up to me, emailing me, calling me, asking me about the startup news site they dream of launching.

So let’s talk a bit about what it takes to create a startup news site. We’ll focus on some of the stuff that people don’t think about until it’s too late.

Gotta grab that name. Whatever you want to name your site is fine with me, as long as you can lay claim to it. This is not just about seeing whether the domain name (YourSite.org or YourSite.com) is available. A small startup lives and dies by social media today, so make sure your startup’s name is still available through Facebook and Twitter. Best way to do this: namechk.com, a free service that lets you put in any name and see on which services it’s still available.

Setting up your business. Unless this is really just a blog you’re running on nights and weekends, you’ve got to think about how your business operations will be structured. Do you need to incorporate, or register as an LLC or LLP? (If you’re going the non-profit route, as a lot of people are today, you’ll have to incorporate, and that may include hiring an attorney to help you. You’ll also have to go through a pretty involved process to file for 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status with the IRS.) You may also need a business license from your city or county and tax-exempt status from your state government; if you’re a non-profit, you may need to register with state and local agencies that regulate charitable solicitations.

How will you fund your operation? In other words, how will you make money? Google ads are a cinch to install on your site, but unless your site gets tons of traffic, the amount of money they generate is a pittance. Will you accept advertising? If so, who on your staff will handle that? Will you create a partnership with an existing news institution that will give you some revenue? And if you’re going the non-profit route, there are a whole lot of other considerations — grant applications to be written, whether you should sell memberships like your local NPR station probably does, and creating a PayPal account and button to let readers send you a few bucks when they like your work.

You’re going to need to think about a budget. We’re not just talking about payroll here. There are all kinds of other services you’ll need from freelancers, such as graphic artists to create logos, charts and Flash presentations. Creative Commons art is free, but it’ll only go so far, so you better start taking pictures or budget for hiring a freelance photog. You may also need to hire out Web developers or programmers to help with the site. Doing investigative journalism? Budget for purchases of public records and data and maybe a Caspio subscription to post searchable databases. Video cameras and other multimedia equipment can set you back hundreds or thousands of dollars, depending on what quality you buy. And what will you expect you, or your staff, to pay for out of their own pockets? Will you reimburse staff for meals with sources, or for parking at the courthouse to cover this week’s Trial of the Century?

Staffing: If you’re running a news operation, you’re in management. So you’ve got to decide whom to hire. This much I know: You cannot afford to have any dead weight on a small news team. All people have to pull their load. And bringing on other people raises a whole slew of other financial and logistical considerations, including whether you’ll offer health insurance (you’ll have a hard time hiring people without it) and 401(k) contributions, and how much vacation and sick time each employee gets a year. In other words, not only will you become management, you will become your own HR department.

Jennifer Peebles is deputy editor of Texas Watchdog in Houston and chairwoman of the SPJ Digital Media Committee. Reach her at Jennifer@texaswatchdog.org or on Twitter at @jpeebles.

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