Last week, I wrote a blog post on The Zonie Report (TZR), my Arizona news blog, that I was temporarily shuttering it to spend more time working on CityCircles, a Knight Foundation News Challenge project.

Since most of you probably haven’t heard of TZR, here’s a quick recap of my post: In my digital farewell, I talked about why I did what I did, outlined a few things I learned, and shared what I planned to do next. Since then, I realized I should have elaborated more on my lessons learned because I feel they have been misinterpreted. I could do that on The Zonie Report, or I could do that here for the greater good of online journalists. I chose the latter.

What follows is a top five list of things I learned along the way of running a critically acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful news website in the great state of Arizona. I am applying what I learned to CityCircles, a hyper-local information tool for light rail riders and nearby residents in Phoenix, and I hope this comes in handy for your respective online journalism projects as well.

Lessons Learned

  1. Identify the community you are serving and get really, really close to it. On The Zonie Report, I tried to write about “the rest of the Arizona story” (thank you, Paul Harvey) by focusing on regional and statewide topics that I felt mainstream media outlets missed. Great idea, except I was entering the “being all things to all people” territory that challenges metro newspaper coverage today. With CityCircles, we are drilling down to everything within a five-block radius of Phoenix light rail stops, which run for 20 miles. This is much more efficient and doable — and more relevant for a higher concentration of folks.
  2. Differentiate your presentation, voice and method as much as possible. This one may seem obvious, but shouldn’t be overlooked. At TZR, I tried to write with more of a folksy style, and I think people enjoyed it. It engenders conversation, comments and trackbacks (which help site visibility) while appealing to readers. If they want drier or more official writing, there’s a lot to choose from. Experiment with a weekly editor’s video/podcast. Make yourself “human” – and not just an unseen editor – as much as possible.
  3. Identify your competition, then link to them whenever possible. First, use of the word “competition” in online media can be debated, but any journalists reading this will know it’s a commonly used term in the industry. This may seem like heresy, but don’t be afraid to link to other sites with overlapping work. It’s good practice and a good service to readers, and it can help with site visibility in the long run. One of the most successful things I did at TZR was find the most interesting statewide news stories of the day from rural news outlets and point to it. I plan to do the same kind of linking with CityCircles.
  4. Use social media for more than just marketing. On New Year’s Day, David Carr of The New York Times wrote a great post about Twitter. He quoted Steven Johnson, a tech observer who wrote about the 140-character phenom for Time, as saying that Twitter “is looking more and more like plumbing, and plumbing is eternal.” I agree. My point is that a tool where millions of people can write about anything at any given moment on almost any device is incredibly more powerful than something that you’d just use to market your stories on your website. That’s mostly how I used it at TZR; at CityCircles, we’ve bent Twitter so that train passengers can “tweet” all types of content – from news to events to classifieds and more – across any of the train stops. Be creative with these tools.
  5. Put together a business plan that acts like online ad revenues don’t exist. Banner ad networks continue to drive online advertising prices into the floor. Unless your startup is the next Facebook and can produce volume and deep targeting, you will need a more diverse plan for sustainability. I tried this with TZR and it went almost nowhere. At CityCircles, our initial plan is to bundle online advertising with other marketing services for light rail merchants, and to make it very affordable. This may change, but, for now, we’re rolling with it.

And on that note, I’d like to add more thing: Never be afraid to change your strategy on anything. The biggest mistake I made with The Zonie Report was taking too much time to let go of ideas/concepts that weren’t working. Don’t do this. It will bog you down – and keep you from the ideas/concepts that really do work.

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