Starting an online magazine isn’t an overwhelming task, but making it successful is a challenge. You will face technical, stylistic, editorial and marketing issues, each of which can create financial stress. Nevertheless, an online publication has the benefit of lower upfront and ongoing costs than a print version.
What’s Your Market?
Define your market by asking what articles do you want to see in your magazine. What are you passionate about? At first, you may think too broadly. Narrow your focus from subject to topic, especially those topics that are underserved. An online magazine will have a better chance of success if it focuses on a niche market that has a loyal following rather than on a broad market so popular that it’s already well covered.
Test Your Market
Use a blog to test your market. This can serve two purposes: First, to discover if there is reader interest in your planned niche, and second, to increase the odds that readers will discover you. Unlike a print publication, which you can drop in storefronts and sidewalk newsstands that many people will see, it's unlikely that potential readers will stumble across your magazine’s website. A blog allows you to build a mailing list first, even if it comes slowly. That list will be your magazine’s initial subscribers.
Invite other bloggers to write guest blogs on your topic or related topics, and trade links with those bloggers. Listen to their advice on shaping your magazine's direction. Be active in social media, announcing every new post. Create buzz even as you finalize plans for the magazine.
Register a Domain Name Early
As soon as you come up with the magazine’s name, register the domain URL that incorporates the name. Domain registration is cheap, and you can take your time before putting up the actual website.
Select a Content Management System
Decide on a blogging/content management system platform for your website. For your editorial department, you will likely have a mix of staff writers and editors, freelance journalists and interns. Your writers will report on stories and interview people and will likely need photos, video and audio media within their articles. Select the platform that’s best suited for handling and displaying this type of journalistic content and will still fit within your expected budget. Mike Johnston of the website CMS Critic noted that platforms such as WordPress.org, Joomla and Drupal are popular, but no single CMS platform is best in all situations. WordPress is the easiest to use, though you should use the WordPress.org version to self-host the site and sell advertising. Johnston described Joomla and Drupal as having more capabilities but generally requiring more expertise. You can choose from free and premium templates for a design that best fits your needs.
For CMS platforms designed as a publishing content management system, Johnston listed Bright Spot, eZ Publish and Movable Type. The first two are open-source programs that are free to download, though eZ Publish charges for support. Movable Type has a significant yearly fee.
Determine a Budget
As you gather publishing information, you should also be developing and refining your budget. Costs to consider include:
- Website development: It's a fairly low cost if you use a template and handle any customization yourself. If you bring in a web designer, the cost can run from several hundred to a few thousand dollars.
- Editor: If you take that role, you don’t have to pay yourself, but you should have another income source or money set aside to meet living expenses. If you hire an editor, it should be at a substantial rate. Depending on the workload, the position can be freelance. Also plan for a separate copy editor.
- Writers: Some writers will work for a byline or because they share your devotion to the magazine, but that gets old quickly. You should offer at least a token fee per article, but increase the fee to a more reasonable rate as the magazine grows.
Success won’t come quickly, so make sure you have enough funds through a small business loan, crowdfunding campaign or your own reserves to keep you going for at least a year.
Advertising Is Vital
Your online magazine will not succeed without ad sales. A contextual advertising network such as Google Adsense, Apt from Yahoo! and Microsoft Pub Center can provide pay-per-click ads on your website at no cost. Income, however, depends on your site’s traffic and how many readers click on those ads.
If you want to sell ads directly, you’ll need an advertising sales staff. A local ad staff can be especially valuable if your magazine has a local or regional focus.
Tom Chmielewski is a longtime journalist with experience in newspapers, magazines, books, e-books and the Internet. With his company TEC Publishing, he has published magazines and an award-winning multimedia e-book, "Celebration at the Sarayi." Chmielewski's design skills include expertise in Adobe Creative Suite's InDesign and Photoshop. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from Western Michigan University.