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B.J. Roche - Stepping up the website for women

August 4, 2010 | Kim Milata-Daniels |

The news media has always been known as a tough industry, but things have never been tougher for news outlets as they have been in the past twelve to fifteen years - since the internet began to compete with newspapers and TV as the prime information source. With the ability for anyone to publish these days and with the rise of the blogosphere, many journalists have begun to move from traditional employment to "entrepreneurial journalism" - that is, publishing their own news sites and running them the way they see fit, learning entrepreneurial and business skills along the way.

B.J. Roche and her website Fifty Shift dot comB.J. Roche, a freelance writer for the Boston Globe and senior lecturer in the Journalism Program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, is one of the many journalists making the jump to self-publishing online. Along with other writers, B.J. runs a site for women in midlife called FiftyShift.com. While FiftyShift covers some of the topics that are stereotypically (and legitimately) important to women in mid-life, like caring for aging parents and fashion for the "normal" ladies out there, there is also some great tech and career advice, and it's done in a more intelligent way than what's done on many other women's sites. No one gets preachy or talks down - you just get the straight story.

I am so thrilled to have found B.J. and her site. It's great to see other women working together to make our space in the world better, and doing it without following the cookie-cutter shapes that currently make up a big percentage of women's websites. She is also a Chicken Whisperer, which is just plain bad ass. I asked if she would give us some insight into what propelled her to "go off the grid" and start her own thing, and she was gracious enough to answer a few questions for me.

K: What inspired you to make the move and start FiftyShift.com?

B.J.: I had originally considered writing a book for women moving into their fifties, on the different physical, financial, career and relationship landscape they face. But once I started working on the proposal, I got discouraged at the idea of having to circulate a proposal for a year or so, with no real guarantee of ever getting something published.

Also, quite frankly, I was pretty tired of the publishing landscape: the long waits for a response from editors, and, of course, all the rejection! I was just too old to put up with it!

Once you get into your fifties, you realize, if you want to do something, it's now or never. I teach new media and journalism at UMass Amherst, so I thought, well, I can self publish online instead, and try to bring a smart, journalistic approach to a women's website. I've worked for several small weekly newspapers and as a weekly columnist for The Boston Globe, so I knew how to run publications and work on a deadline--I bring all that to this job. And I have a lot of
writer friends who I browbeat to contribute material.

My goal is to have a site that's like sitting down and having a glass of wine with a very smart friend.

Lisa Williams, who runs a site called Placeblogger.com, and who speaks a lot about journalistic entrepreneurship, says you can do anything online with $3,000. That's about what it cost me to get the site up and running, using a drupal theme. Now, two years later, I'm preparing for a redesign. I have no idea whether I can create a successful, financially sustainable business from this site, but that is my goal now. Whatever happens, I have learned a lot from the process of trying to make it all work. And I bring that back into the classroom. So life is a big soup.

K: In your blog post "How I'm Spending My Summer Vacation," you mention "the lackluster evolution of women's websites." Do you see FiftyShift nudging that evolution into something more than what many women's sites offer now? How?

B.J.: First of all, the writing on a lot of these sites is pretty bad, and many are pretty self-centered. It's a delicate dance when you blog because you want some elements of the personal, but you also need the universal, so it's not just about you, and so the reader can engage with the piece, and can see a bit of herself in it.

They are also generally written for younger women. It's like mainstream media: women over 40 or 50 don't seem to exist.

As a journalist, you want to be independent, transparent and credible. You're not the story. You are always thinking of your audience first. Who's going to read this and why? What information can I convey that's going to add value to the reader's day? How do I keep my reader engaged to the end of the piece? You also need to be a ruthless editor, and tighten and polish constantly. I have about a hundred half-written posts that just weren't good enough to publish.

The other interesting (and to me, surprising) thing that's evolved is, through my college student interns, I get voices from 20-somethings speaking to their moms, so we've had some fun stories and posts about intergenerational topics. There are more intergenerational households now than there were in 1980, so that's a big area: how to manage mom, granny and a recent college graduate in one home.

K: In your experience with FiftyShift, so far, what have you found out about what works for women on the web and what doesn't?

B.J.: Readers seem to like real fashion stories written for people who aren't just size 2 and who spend hundred of dollars on a top. I get a lot of hits on my fashion stories, which are written for people who buy their clothes at the mall and from catalogues. This fall, this
will be a regular feature: Fashion For The Rest of Us, with a focus on clothes real people can afford and wear.

I am betting that there is a future in well-written content, and that a site that publishes good writing and has a kicky tone to it will eventually draw readers. I might be wrong about that; the jury is still out, and the guy who does ICANHAZCHEEZEBURGER is a gazillionare.

Many sites like Yahoo Shine are trying to draw women readers, but I find the content there to be not so compelling or well written. Yet this site probably gets a lot of traffic. I can't compete with search engine optimization, so I don't try. I think that's a little like competing with Wal-Mart on price. So I try to draw traffic through Facebook and friends and connecting out, and by linking in and out on other sites.

K: Are there other women's sites that you see as contributing to a better women's corner of the web?

B.J.: I like wowowow.com, which has a real robust community and some great
writers. This site has evolved a good deal since it launched and it has some nice fire power, with Leslie Stahl, Liz Smith, and Joni Evans as owners and contributors. It's a lively read, nicely written, and always packed with interesting stories. I also really love The Midlife Gals, published by two sisters down in Texas, who produce very funny videos about life in the fifties. Jezebel is a good read for women's topics. There are also dozens of really fun women bloggers out there
who don't get a lot of traffic, but they are fun to read and connect with.

K: What is the top advice that you give to your students who are looking to start their own journalism-based website?

B.J.: I teach a course each fall called Entrepreneurial Journalism, and I tell them to search for ideas from their own passions, and to just get stuff out there. Don't be afraid to fail. Last semester some great website ideas came out of that process. Also, you really have to "cowgirl up!" and take yourself seriously. Get an understanding of how business works, how to talk about yourself and your ideas without "ums" and "ahs."

I also tell them to get comfortable with the inner workings of technology--most successful web entrepreneurs have a bit of that background. You need to either learn how to do a lot of things, or
build a team of people with complementary skills. And you really need to be able to work collaboratively.

K: What's up with the backyard chickens?

B.J.: Ha ha, as Woody Allen said in Annie Hall, I need the eggs!

Thanks, B.J.!