Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

Online ad revenue: what journalists are getting wrong

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on April 9, 2010

Image credit: DavidDMuir (cc)

How much money has your website made you recently?

For all but the lucky ones, the figure is rarely enough to buy a latte, let alone support a family. And for all but the smart ones, the figure is usually from Google Adwords revenue.

Here’s the crunch: journalists running their own websites, whether they’re hyperlocal blogs,  online magazines or video sites are getting it wrong. They think there’s only one way to make money from a website – advertising. It’s how newspapers do it, so why should they think any different?

Actually, running a website for profit isn’t about building an audience of millions and raking in the ad revenue. For most of us, even the top niche bloggers, your audience will be in the thousands, not the millions. And that just doesn’t pay.

Doing it right

I was kindly invited to speak London’s prestigious Frontline Club this week, on how to make it as a freelancer in the modern age. Speaking alongside me was the inspiring Deborah Bonello, a journalist who actually has made money from her website, without using ad revenue at all.

In 2007, realising she wasn’t doing the journalism she dreamed of, she packed her bags and moved to Mexico, to carry out what she called “an experiment in digital journalism”. She set up, a website which would be the foundation of her business. Starting life as a free wordpress blog (like this one) Deborah spent months filling it with content, covering stories all over the country.

It became hugely popular with the English speaking expats in Mexico, of which Deborah estimated there are more than a million from the USA alone.

If you ask Deborah how much she made from ad revenue, chances are the amount would be small. But if you ask her how much her website has made her: she’d answer ‘a lot’. By putting loads of free content online she had a strong portfolio to show editors when she approached them with stories. Before long she was getting commissions, and shortly after a retainer from the LA Times.

Now based in London, she’s landed a great gig with the Financial Times. In other words, her website has made her thousands.

And it’s likely she wouldn’t have had the same luck without

How to really make money from your website

The secret is this: your website is a vehicle for making money elsewhere, not an automatic money making machine on its own.

01. promotion: keep your website regularly updated with examples of your work. And keep producing content, even if it’s without a commission. It pays dividends when you’re offered work or a job off the back of your portfolio. Deborah’s work came because she updated even though she had no-one to pitch to.

02. expertise: maintain a targeted, well promoted, blog which establishes you as an expert in your field. The money comes when you’re offered work because you can prove you know what you’re talking about. I have become both a lecturer and a trainer because of this blog, for example.

03. affiliate: be clever with your links. Affiliate links are dedicated hyperlinks to a product which give you a cut of the money if that product is sold. Reviewing a book, CD or anything else available on Use an affiliate link to share the revenue. Many companies offer affiliate deals to bloggers.

04. sell: use your website as a vehicle to sell products, targeted around your niche. If you specialise in a certain type of journalism, or Google Analytics tells you your audience are a certain type of person, can you create an online store so they buy direct from you? Tracey Boyer has opened a store on her blog Innovative Interactivity with just that in mind, and Media Storm run a store too.

05. and yes, adverts: but you can be clever with adverts too. The UK based service Addiply created by Rick Waghorn solves some of the problems with Google Ads by offering locally targeted adverts for local based websites. Local bloggers say it’s bringing in results.

A combination of two or more of these things could bring in more money than the Google Ads cheque could. If more journalists looked beyond advertising as their sole business model, we’d move so much faster towards a financial base for the future of journalism.


33 Responses

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  1. Josh Halliday said, on April 9, 2010 at 11:45 am

    You’re not wrong Adam.

    Here’s just a couple of quantifiable benefits launching and running hyperlocal news site has given me in the last six months – discounting all I’ve learnt:

    – Catching attention of U.TV media company with help of @willperrin and them subsequently advertising around my content has more than covered my costs, meaning I’m operating at a (small) profit – which is currently the limit of my financial ambition.

    – Similarly, being showcased at the North East IFNC public meeting completely boosted employment prospects in a part of the business that’s currently very hard to find work in (local news). If it wasn’t for a pesky election I’m confident I would be in the privileged position of finding a job I’m highly passionate about immediately after graduation.

    All the best,

    • warren said, on August 31, 2010 at 3:47 am

      for a newbie in internet marketing I wish I had a set blueprint for success. There is so much material online, it is so difficult to select which is the best and fastest way for making money. It seems almost like the wild west, everyone is looking to make money and most time there is no concern about taking advantage of other people. My question is, where do you reall begin to ensure consistent results?

  2. Gary King said, on April 9, 2010 at 11:56 am

    This an absolutely excellent post Adam. I relaunched at the back end of last year and although it’s still under ‘working’ development it has been instrumental in getting me work, making me contacts and reinforcing my position in what I do.

    In addition I’ve had people approach me about stories, pictures and products.

    The site has been invaluable in allowing to continue what I love – journalism.

    All the best

    Gary King

  3. chris g said, on April 9, 2010 at 12:20 pm

    Well done to her. But you’ve missed one key way of monetising a site. It’s called building an EMAIL LIST. Provide an ebook that is FREE. Then an opt in form and BUILD A RELATIONSHIP with your email list. Mainstream media don’t seem to be doing that very well.. including their USE of the social networking sites.


  4. adamwestbrook said, on April 9, 2010 at 4:18 pm

    Wow even more examples – great stuff guys! There’s more to it than Google Adsense!

  5. Craig McGinty said, on April 9, 2010 at 4:28 pm

    A bucketful of great ideas, and must agree very strongly with the newsletter, there is a lot of value in offering one to readers.

    I have 5x as many subscribers on the newsletter than on RSS, I think this is especially important if you cover a non-techy subkect.

    I’d also work with related business, similar to an affiliate, but take requests for further info and pass them on.

    You can be paid either a commission on the successful conclusion of a service, or on a per-lead basis.

    More expensive services are worth pursuing if you want to offer this to readers, and again these type of promotions work well in newsletters.

  6. jfruh said, on April 9, 2010 at 6:10 pm

    But isn’t the whole point that people are starting their own blogs because there aren’t any (or many) traditional salaried media jobs left? And there are lots more writers out there with their own blog than there are paid writing gigs for major outlets to go around!

    I’m not saying that doing a blog can’t get you paying gigs elsewhere (it did for me!). But it’s not some automatic road to riches either. There’s definitely something of a pyramid going on, and not all the bloggers will end up as paid reporters. In fact, the spread of people doing news-type writing for free on their blogs — often with some token advertising presence that could otherwise be subsidizing a professional operation — tends to depress the market for journalists and journalism generally, as it increases the quantity of journalism available without increasing the amount of money out there to fund it.

    I also think it needs to be emphasized that Deborah Bonello succeeded because she found a niche — English-language news about Mexico for Anglophone expats — that hadn’t really been occupied yet. If you’re just another local journalist in a big American city and you’re blogging about something that many others are writing about — for pay or on their own blogs — your chances of moving up the pyramid are much lower.

  7. Elaine said, on April 9, 2010 at 8:03 pm

    OK, so are we talking about having a blog/Web site generate its own revenue, or act as a promotional vehicle for its owner so he/she can get paid via other channels? If it’s the latter, we’re pretty much admitting this news-blog thing isn’t a viable business proposition on its own.

    If we’re talking about true revenue generation, missing from the conversation are marketing services to target businesses (including but not limited to market analysis, design, SEO and SEM services, campaign management, media buying, and self-serve capabilities); target business directories; mobile subscription, advertising and promotional opportunities including location-based services; online and offline events; repackaging of niche content — all for both the site itself and for its customers. There’s plenty of opportunity for Web site revenue out there, if we would just learn how to go get it.

  8. said, on April 11, 2010 at 4:04 pm

    Wew nice tips and nice share…bro

  9. […] Making money online: Journalists are doing it wrong. [Adam Westbrook] […]

  10. sandySandy said, on April 13, 2010 at 8:41 am

    I always appreciate a different approach on things, thanks for sharing.

  11. Jon Moss said, on April 13, 2010 at 1:30 pm


    One of your best posts so far, and spot on. Hull Digital, set up only 16 months ago has led to:
    Radio slots
    A fair bit of work
    Advertising revenue

    and a whole lot of fun, plus have met some wonderful people, including business partners.

    Speak soon,

    Jon 🙂

  12. Selena Forti said, on April 13, 2010 at 3:37 pm

    I was looking for this the other day. i dont usually post in forums but i wanted to say thank you!

  13. […] – Journalists are too focused on using ads to make money on the web according to Adam Westbrook.  I’m sure this is true, but as I’ve said before on this […]

  14. […] after I wrote here that journalists need to move away from ad revenue as a the way to monetise a website, John has […]

  15. […] How to really make money from your website […]

  16. ian said, on August 3, 2010 at 10:24 pm

    thanks for sharing this tips .. I am planning to have my own blog soon.. I would create one for sharing my knowledge in another way of earning money online.. not just in blogging.. but blogging is one of the best way in earning money.

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