Starting a news website is not for the faint of heart.
For journalist Glenn Burkins, it took personal investment, round-the-clock content creation, securing advertisers and more. His site, Qcitymetro.com, serves the African-American community in Charlotte, N.C. It uses about 10 freelance writers and employs a Web development company. Launched in 2008, the site surpassed 200,000 unique visitors in three years.
In a recent Poynter chat, Burkins, who worked for more than two decades at major newspapers, talked about why and how he started Qcitymetro.com and what he has learned in the years since. His experience can be useful for those looking to start their own news sites.
Here are a few of his tips:
1. Get off to a good start
If you don't start a site well, why would people come back? It took about a year to set up Qcitymetro.com before launch. That included building the site, putting together a business plan, securing content producers and more. And a lot of that was self-funded – it cost Burkins about $20,000 up front. (Since then, he estimates he’s put another $10,000 over the last four years, and he says he may do so again soon.)
While Burkins says many start-up sites begin basic, such as with a Wordpress platform, Qcitymetro.com was custom made, which was a large expense.
“I wanted to give my readers a pleasant experience,” he says. “I wanted a site that looked like it was built for them.”
2. Target a specific audience with original content
How to strike a balance between original and syndicated content varies depending on the site. But for a niche site like Qcitymetro.com, a high percentage of original, local content is extremely important.
“Why else would someone come to me?” Burkins asks. “They have to get something they can't get elsewhere.”
Featured content should be geared towards a target audience. The typical Qcitymetro.com reader is a woman in her 40s. Burkins' eventual goal is to expand targeted demographics by building a network of interconnected local sites, all catering to different segments of the local black community. (He has already started to build this network by launching a site geared toward brides.)
3. Have a business model
Advertising is a key part of Burkins' business model. “With enough advertising dollars you can develop a following,” he says.
But with two weekly newspapers and several magazines competing with Qcitymetro.com for readers (and ad dollars), securing advertisements requires a lot of work and follow-up.
Burkins recently brought in a local consultant to help him diversify his strategy. He's considering adding events and publications to the mix.
Qcitymetro.com is also an online news partner with the Charlotte Observer. The two publications share a limited amount of content under a partnership agreement.
4. Use social media
“Social media eats up so much time,” Burkins laments. But it is worth it. “When I don't deploy an aggressive social media strategy, I see my numbers fall immediately.”
Fewer and fewer readers are finding websites through the front door, he notes. “They are coming in through side entrances...social media.”
5. Be ready to work hard and make sacrifices
Burkins is so committed to Qcitymetro.com that he doesn’t even let himself consider the possibility of failure. “I know entrepreneurs are supposed to have an exit strategy, but I have lots more I'd like to do with the site before I think about exiting. Exit will be bankruptcy or death.”
While the site is functioning under its current business model, Burkins can't sit back and relax. His job requires constant work and new idea generation.
"'Sustainable’ is a funny thing,” he says. “Even now, if I take my foot off the accelerator, I don't eat.”
Photo by Flickr user :Elizabeth: under a Creative Commons license.