By Harry McCracken
“You’ve got to walk up to the edge of the cliff, jump off, and build your wings on the way down.” I didn’t hear Ray Bradbury say that until I saw him interviewed in late July, nearly two months after I left my job as editor in chief of PC World to launch Technologizer, my own Web site about personal technology. But the great man neatly summed up — better than I ever could — why I quit one of the best jobs in technology journalism to build something from scratch.
Actually, when people asked me what the heck I was thinking, I did have a ready answer: “I want to scare myself.” I loved PC World—I’d spent nearly fourteen years there, starting as an associate editor—but it was successful before I got there, and I knew it could thrive without me. Being a good steward of an existing brand is hard; jump-starting an entirely new brand is a harder, more exciting challenge. Moreover, I believed that the Web, open-source software, free services, and ad networks made it possible for a smart editor to reach millions of people and make money doing so, without the backing of a large media company. So I resigned from PC World (while remaining a contributing editor) and got to work on Technologizer.
As I write, it’s been about six weeks since I began posting content on Technologizer in earnest. That’s way too early to gauge the success of a new media brand, but I’m extremely happy with the site’s progress. Its monthly traffic now numbers in the hundreds of thousands of page views. Its most popular stories receive tens of thousands of views. It has a growing community of visitors, and the technology industry I cover has been tremendously supportive.
And every day, I feel like I’m building my wings on the way down—taking risks, experimenting, and learning as I go. Yes, it’s scary. But it’s also the highlight of my career to date.
Herewith, some advice to any journalist who’s intrigued by the idea of going it alone:
Don’t do it if it sounds awful. If you launch your own business, you’re going to need to pour your heart into it. If you love what you’re doing, that’s a joy; if you don’t, why bother?
Use everything you know. I’ve been in this business for seventeen years, and I use every bit of my knowledge about journalism every day—including plenty of things I learned when my words appeared on dead trees. Much of the art of pleasing readers is the same whether you’re working at the world’s largest magazine or the world’s smallest Web site. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
Focus on creating compelling content. Plenty of Web gurus will tell you to obsess over search engine optimization or other technical matters. None of them matter much unless you’re producing articles, video, and/or audio that captures the imagination of the type of people you want to reach. I work far harder to optimize Technologizer for smart human beings than I do to optimize it for search engines, and it’s paying off.
Understand your traffic. On one level, building a successful Web site boils down to one rule: “Figure out what people want, and give them lots of it.” Use tools such as Google Analytics (analytics.google.com) to see what your readers do — and don’t — find interesting enough to click on.
Join conversations. It’s easiest to attract visitors to content that’s newsy and which links to other discussions of the topic at hand elsewhere on the Web. Link to sites you like, and you’ll often find that they link back to you, bringing new readers to your material.
Be part of the community. That means building community features into your own site and participating in them. Technologizer, for instance, includes a full-blown social network, using the Ning (www.ning.com) service. It’s also worth introducing your site to new readers by participating at other sites where people who might like what you’re doing hang out. (To that end, I’ve guested on several podcasts since Technologizer’s launch.)
Leverage the power of free. So far, I’ve incurred two major expenses: I hired a lawyer to help me incorporate my company and deal with contracts, and I bought a nice new notebook. Otherwise, I’m feasting on free stuff. I use services like Google Docs and Gmail, hop on free Wi-Fi networks whenever possible, and generally try to avoid paying for anything when a solid no-cost alternative is available.
Find good partners. At the moment, I’m Technologizer’s sole writer and designer, but I knew I couldn’t do everything. In particular, I needed help on the advertising front, so I signed up with Federated Media — one of a growing number of companies in the business of handling ads for independent blogs and other small sites. I also partnered with Automattic, creators of the WordPress blogging platform, to host my site. When the day comes that I get hundreds of thousands of page views all at once, I want to be ready, and nobody knows more about handling massive amounts of traffic than Automattic does.
Be patient. Building a site that has enough readers and advertisers to be a self-sustaining business can’t be done overnight. Create a business plan that’ll get you there—and make sure that you know how you’ll pay your bills along the way.
I still run into folks who are surprised at my new adventure, and even skeptical. And I wouldn’t recommend that every journalist do what I did. But a few years from now, I think that going it alone will be entirely commonplace—and that the world of journalism will be far better for it.
Editor’s Note, added Sept. 18, 2008: Inspired partly by writing this post for us, McCracken today launched a blog featuring his observations on the media business. It’s called McCracken on Media.