A photojournalist needs a website.

Having a portfolio website in 2011 is as pro forma as getting your pictures in focus. Editors use portfolio websites to find freelancers, gauge job and internship applicants and follow the progress of photographers they know. Potential subjects use websites to see if you’ll present them fairly.

Yet for some photojournalists, having a website is an afterthought– even though for editors and sources it’s often a first impression. If you have a poorly implemented website, that first impression is the digital equivalent of having a piece of lettuce stuck in your front teeth.

This is the first of a three part series on how you can plan, design, build and maintain a successful photojournalism portfolio website. Part 1, below, focuses on planning your website. Part 2 covers template options, JQuery plug-ins, basic HTML and basic CSS. Part 3 has advice for putting it all together with smart graphic design.

• Understand your audience.

Just because the web has an enormous audience in theory doesn’t mean a website needs a huge audience to succeed in practice. Sure, VII or the New York Times Lens Blog gets hits from all over, but the potential audience for your portfolio website is more niche. Editors and potential employers will take a look, along with your professors, colleagues, parents, friends and the people you’ve photographed. Understanding the needs of that comparatively small audience is vital for building a successful website.

When you’re applying for a job, internship or assignment, ask yourself this: who is your specific audience, and what do they want to see? Mark Lennihan is a 23-year veteran of the Associated Press who works as a photo editor and photographer on the New York City desk. He always asks potential freelancers for a link to their website.

“For the wire service,” he said, “we look for people who can really hit the nail on the head with a single image.”

As a photo editor at the Columbus Dispatch, Lisa Marie Miller likes to use photojournalism portfolio websites as secondary resources. The newspaper asks applicants to send in a hard-copy DVD portfolio. Websites, said Miller, are “a way for people to stay on the radar, and a good way for people to stay in touch without being too obtrusive,” she said.

But “be aware of your audience. We’re a family run newspaper.” She said that editors had received portfolios with photos they considered inappropriate that the Dispatch would never publish.

Just like you don’t want to pitch a story about Cheetos to Saveur Magazine, you don’t want to pitch a community newspaper a portfolio befitting Vice Magazine.

• Use the Google Keyword Tool to scout out the competition in your area.

The Google Keyword Tool allows you to reverse engineer the keywords people use to search for photographers and photojournalists online– and then incorporate those keywords into your own website presentation.

What you often find is that the most contested real estate for photographers online is wedding photography. That means you should pay special attention to defining yourself as a photojournalist in the <title> and heading <h1> tags. (There will be more on S.E.O. in Part 2.) The tool can help also help you decide whether calling yourself documentary, multimedia, backpack journalist, video journalist or the like will be the most likely to match the searches of googlers. Simply type in the term to find out how often people search for a concept using different keywords.

Remember that geography is important for searches, and you should always include where you live and work in your page title and description.

• Always edit your work tightly…

By definition, portfolios exhibit your best work. That means you should edit your photos mercilessly. An iffy feature shot can cast a dark cloud over 20 good ones. If you have questions about whether a picture belongs on your website, it’s a good bet that a viewer will too.

…but show more than just your core portfolio.

Online, you can balance the priority of tight editing with the freedom to cycle in new work that shows your process and personality. Every editor I talked to likes the option of seeing in-depth projects and ongoing work on a portfolio website.

“Oftentimes, a portfolio only contains final pieces, as applicants are overly concerned about presenting perfection,” said Liz Danzico, a designer who is the chair and co-founder of the MFA in Interaction Design program at the School for Visual Arts in New York City. “Polish doesn’t communicate process though, and therefore I’m left with only part of the story. Messy problems- and how applicants work through them- can show a great deal more in a portfolio than one finished, airtight solution.”

• The best way to strike this balance is by designing smart navigation for your site.

Mark Lennihan at the AP likes a straightforward menu on photojournalism portfolio websites that allows him to jump easily to traditional categories like news, sports and features. But he also likes to see the “emotional commitment of a photographer to a particular issue,” whether that’s a gallery of photos from Occupy Wall Street or from fashion shows.

Sort your pictures into categories that make sense to the viewer. Ed Ou’s website features a descriptive and straightforward menu. Allison V. Smith’s website menu has more whimsy, but it’s still intuitive. Both successfully allow the viewer to quickly choose the content that interests them.

Some photojournalists base their menus entirely on project titles- say, “December Reflections.” At minimum, there should be a prominent description of the project as soon as you click through.

Nielsen once described Internet users as “selfish, lazy and ruthless.” Make navigation easy for them! Like the general public, editors will not take the time to meditate on the philosophical enigmas of your sub-menus.

“A ton of stuff is rolling across your desk,” said Columbus Dispatch photo editor Lisa Marie Miller, “and everyone has to juggle their time.”

• Professionalize Your Entire Online Presence

Employers expect journalists to show savvy social media instincts, so it makes sense to link to sites like Facebook, Twitter, Vimeo, Tumblr and LinkedIn on your website.

Here’s the caveat: everything attached to your name online must be professional. A 2009 survey found that 45 percent of employers use social media sites to screen potential hires, whether they got there through a portfolio website or not.

The takeaway is don’t link to your Facebook if your friends are posting pictures of you on a booze cruise or to Twitter if you have a lot of nasty things to say about your boss. Better yet, behave as if there’s no such thing as a private online posting.

Finally, make sure the user names of your email address, blog titles and online handles are professional. Sexy...@yahoo.com or picturesoflosers.tumblr.com will raise red flags for employers.

Brian McDermott teaches web design and photojournalism at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He designed the logo above, which will make sense for those of you who don’t know HTML after Part 2 of this series.