The Substack Podcast

The Substack Podcast

May 29, 2020 48 min

Substack Podcast S2E01: Local news with Tony Mecia of The Charlotte Ledger

For our inaugural Season 2 episode of the Substack Podcast, we’re pleased to chat with Tony Mecia of The Charlotte Ledger, a publication focused on local business news in Charlotte, North Carolina in the United States. Tony started as a regular journalist who decided to strike it out on his own. He started a newsletter and spread it the old-fashioned way, relying on word-of-mouth from friends. Today, The Charlotte Ledger is a full-fledged business: when we spoke, Tony had just started hiring freelancers and adding new contributors to his team. We spoke to Tony about the local news ecosystem, the freedom that comes with writing for a subscriber audience, and his mission to create the sort of local news publication he’s always wanted to read. Links The Charlotte Ledger, founded by Tony Facebook’s announcement about giving grants to 400 local newsrooms to support COVID-19 reporting, including Charlotte Ledger City Hall Watcher, a publication about the Toronto City Council Importantville, a publication about Indiana politics Highlights (04:38) How Tony uses a personal angle to differentiate from other local news outlets (10:58) How he grew his list, despite the challenges of a geography-based audience and not having a big name initially (16:49) The local news ecosystem in Charlotte, North Carolina (22:41) How he launched paid subscriptions (33:55) Bringing on freelancers, growing Charlotte Ledger to multiple contributors and writers On getting started: I just started out like most people would. I worked here for the paper for 12 years. I left in 2009. It's not like I had a massive social media following or that I was some well-known name in Charlotte by any stretch of the imagination….The piece of advice that I liked from Substack was like, "Okay, look, you can sit around, you can plan this all you want, but actually, why don't you start writing? Just start doing it?" On the freedom that comes with writing his own publication: I feel like I'm doing some of the best work in my career. I feel like I'm making a difference just hearing from people, making connections with people, and working with people I want to work with. It's been really exhilarating. Transcript Nadia: (00:39) You write The Charlotte Ledger Business Newsletter, which you describe as, "Fresh and real Charlotte business news that makes you smarter." This is Charlotte, North Carolina, by the way, for people that are listening. I would love to dive – Tony: (00:53) Yeah, a lot of times people get Charlotte confused with Charleston, which is in South Carolina, or Charlottesville, which is in Virginia, but no, Charlotte is in North Carolina. You're right. Nadia: (01:00) It's funny. All of the Southern states picked their cities to start with Cs. Tony: (01:05) Right. Nadia: (01:08) I would love to dig into your background. Before this, you worked at The Charlotte Observer, which is a local newspaper, and then you freelanced for a while. Then, you started The Charlotte Ledger about a year ago, and so I'd love to hear a little bit about that trajectory and how you went from being a full-time journalist to… Well, now you're also a full-time journalist who's working for yourself. Tony: (01:32) Yeah, sure. Well, I'll just start talking and if you have any questions, just feel free to interrupt me. Nadia: (01:37) Sure. Tony: (01:37) My background is a journalist. I worked at a newspaper, The Charlotte Observer, for about 12 years. Left there in 2009 as many newspapers around the country started downsizing, buyouts and that kind of thing. Freelanced for a while. I was on staff for The National Magazine for a couple of years. It folded a little over a year ago, and so I started looking around and I said, "Well, gosh, I guess I could go back to freelancing for freelance national publications or websites or what have you." Tony: (02:07) I started looking around in Charlotte and realized, well, the scene for local news was really... The newspaper had shrunk a lot. There weren't a whole lot of innovative new digital publications, but I felt like there was still this appetite for local news. I figured, "Okay, look, I have some skills I can bring to bear." Just your normal reporting skills, such as they are, calling people up. What's a news story? What's interesting to people? Writing things in a way maybe that's a little bit interesting. I said, "Well, maybe I could start something up that sort of helped address this issue of a lack of local news?" Tony: (02:50) You see this around a lot of communities. I mean, yes, nationally, okay, if you're in New York or Washington or Los Angeles or San Francisco, there are any number of publications, national and local, but some of the mid-sized cities like Charlotte and smaller cities, I really feel like that local news has really taken a beating over the last 10 years. I said, "Look, I've got some skills I could bring to bear. Maybe I could start something up that sort of addresses this need." Tony: (03:19) Started looking around. I don't remember how I first saw Substack, but I came across Substack and I started thinking, "Wow, maybe I could start something up", because I had seen all of these national newsletters. You see Axios and The Hustle and The Skim. These were all nationally sort of business-y focused. Because I do that on the local level, just focused on Charlotte. Charlotte, just so you know, it's in a metro area of about 2.5 million people and the City's about 900,000 people. Tony: (03:52) I figured, "Okay, maybe I can just kind of give this a go and sort of see if there's a market for this. Is this something that people would be interested in?" The thinking would be use sort of old-school journalism, making it fact-based, making sure it's accurate. Having those be important values, but then also making it kind of punchy and lively and easy to read with a little bit of a voice. The idea was not super long sort of thumbsuckers in the business. Not these really long articles that people have to wade through, but, "Hey, can I do something that's sort of punchy?" I figured, "Okay, so take those skills, put them in this kind of new format, focus it on Charlotte, and then see if there's an interest and kind of see where that goes." Nadia: (04:38) I found this really interesting because you went with this newsletter format and you talk about Charlotte Ledger as a newsletter even though it sounds like you were inspired by these national newsletters and you're applying that to a local market. Are there any other sort of local newsletters that you know of in Charlotte or elsewhere as you've been doing this? Have you found inspiration from other people who are trying similar things with local news? Tony: (05:03) Yeah, that's a good question. I can tell you locally in Charlotte it's a little bit different than what other people are doing. The traditional model on a newsletter that the main newspaper and the other media in Charlotte do is they use the newsletter as a way to drive people to their website, which a lot of news organizations do. The different here is that I am saying the newsletter is the product. I don't really need you to click anywhere. I think it can create some bad incentives. Tony: (05:33) If my model is that I'm selling advertising on a website and I need you as a reader to go to that website and I'm giving you a newsletter, then the incentive is create a bunch of sensationalistic articles and teaser headlines and clickbait to get you to click through to go to that website so that I can sell advertising off of it. I don't like that model as much. I would just prefer to actually just do responsible journalism, put that in the newsletter, and whether you click on... I have a lot of links, the things that I reference, but whether you click on it or not, it's sort of immaterial to me. It's really more about if the goal is to serve your readers and develop this connection with your readers, then I want to serve the readers. Tony: (06:22) I want to do what's best for them. I don't want to necessarily be having them have to navigate to websites and go to a bunch of different places. I want to establish myself as, "Hey, The Charlotte Ledger is giving you everything you need to know. If you want to know more, you can click here and go to the other sources, but you don't have to do that." I think that's important is that if your customer is your reader, then that suggests one way to go, but if your customer is really your advertisers, then that creates a different way to go and you're not necessarily always your readers. I guess I would make that point. Tony: (06:57) Then, as far as, are other people nationally doing this? I talked to the people at Substack and they gave me a few names of people who are doing similar things. I talked to a guy in Toronto, we emailed. He's doing one called City Hall Watcher, which is not on business. It's focused on, as the name suggests, on municipal government in Toronto. It goes through lobbying reports and he talks very specifically about what's going on in Toronto city government and developed a following out there. Tony: (07:32) I've read some of the other ones on Substack. There's one I think it's called Importantville, which I think is on Indiana politics. I looked at that a little bit. It's my impression that there are not a lot of newsletters that are just squarely focused on local news and using the newsletter as the main platform for local news. There are a few other, I guess, examples here and there, but there aren't a whole lot that I've found. Nadia: (08:04) Do you ever find yourself having to explain this when you're reaching out to people for interviews or comments? Or, when you are the publication breaking news – and it sounds like you've broken a bunch of news in Charlotte – how do you position yourself to people that might not necessarily be familiar with the model? Tony: (08:19) Yeah, that's a good question – Nadia: (08:19) Or do people not even notice the difference? Tony: (08:21) Yeah, I mean, some people don't really understand the model. Of course, then, when you're starting up, most people have probably never heard of you, so if I say, "Oh, yes, I'm calling from The Charlotte Ledger", people are like, "Okay, what is that? I don't know what that is." Then, it's, "Oh, it's an E-newsletter", and in their minds they think, "Oh, it's like a small-time thing." It suggests that it's pretty small, and yes, compared to the circulation of the main metro daily newspaper, it is fairly small. Tony: (08:50) Then, I've had people say, "Oh, hey, here's something that would be good for your blog." It's like, well, I understand, it's written in a blog-y, sort of conversational style, but I have to constantly explain like, "No, the product is", I say this a lot, "The product is the newsletter. I'm not trying to sell you or get you to go somewhere else." It's like, "The newsletter is what I'm delivering to you and that's what I really want you reading." Tony: (09:20) Even though, obviously, Substack does back up to a website and people do get their information in different ways and some people probably just get it from the Substack site and some people get it through the email, that is a question I get. It's like, "Well, why are you doing this as a newsletter? Why wouldn't you just set up a website like most people?" It's like, "Well, there are a lot of good reasons, I think, not to just have it be website-based and that if you're website-based, you're having to drive people to that website. Tony: (09:54) The way you typically do that is through social media. You go on Twitter, you go on Facebook, and I think as we all know as anybody who's looked at the publishing industry in the last few years knows, those big tech companies, they really kind of cut you off at the knees. You post something, if you have 2,000 followers, you don't know how many of those 2,000 followers are really going to see it. You're kind of dependent on those tech companies and the social media companies to drive people there. When you have a newsletter, you have a direct connection to your audience. I've got their email addresses, Substack has their email addresses. It just goes directly into their inbox and it shows up there until they opt out of it and say they don't want to receive it. Tony: (10:34) It's harder to acquire those customers. It's a little trickier than just getting them to click. You have to get them to put in their email address and some people don't want to do that for understandable reasons, privacy reasons or whatever, but once you have those, you can develop a good relationship with those people. You're deepening that relationship. You're not just kind of saying, "Oh, I just want you to click and move on to the next thing." Nadia: (10:58) Makes perfect sense. How did you seed your initial email list? I feel like this is an interesting question for you in particular because your ideal niche audience is a geographic one and not to say like an online interest or community. When you're doing something that's online, how do you reach all of these people who care about Charlotte, the physical location? Tony: (11:21) Yeah. No, that's a good question. Well, I just started out like most people would. I worked here for the paper for 12 years. I left in 2009. It's not like I had a massive social media following or that I was some well-known name in Charlotte by any stretch of the imagination. You see like The Athletic, their model is to peel off the best-known sportswriters from the papers and hire them onto The Athletic and to get all of their Twitter followers. That doesn't describe me at all. What I did was I did what most people would do. I started up... The other piece of advice that I liked from Substack was like, "Okay, look, you can sit around, you can plan this all you want, but actually, why don't you start writing? Just start doing it?" Tony: (12:01) I didn't plan it out that much. I had kind of a concept in my head. I did one, I did a couple maybe, and then I went on LinkedIn, since it's sort of a business publication, LinkedIn was I think kind of helpful, Facebook, Twitter, and just said, "Hey, friends. I've started this newsletter. It's focused on Charlotte business news. I'd love for you to check it out. Let me know what you think. It's an E-newsletter. Here's how you sign up for it. We're going out three days a week." That kind of thing. Tony: (12:31) Right off the bat, I had probably a couple of hundred free subscribers I think in the first three or four days. Then, I just kept producing content, kept producing newsletters. Was doing three days a week, Monday, Wednesday, Friday, just a variety of things and, again, trying to do it in a way that not everybody else in town was doing it. It was important that I have content that was differentiated. Tony: (12:54) There wasn't just the same thing that the main newspaper and the alt-weekly, and the digital entertainment publication and everybody else was doing, but it was actually trying to break news or tell you something you didn't know or identifying a trend and then trying to do it also with a very Charlotte kind of voice. This isn't something that could just have been produced in New York or Chicago or wherever, but this is actually specific to Charlotte and it's making reference to things that people know in Charlotte, those touchstones in Charlotte. Tony: (13:25) Just started doing it, put it on social media, and then kept producing content. Then, asking people, "Please, if you like it, please tell your friends." It was a lot of word of mouth, and then also as I would report stories and talk to people, interview them, would follow up with them afterwards, send them the articles. Say, "Hey, I quoted you in this article. Let me know what you think. If you like it, feel free to sign up for the newsletter and tell a friend." That kind of thing, so it's sort of on the front end and on the back end, trying to just build it. Over time, it took a while but people kept reading and the free list kind of kept growing from there. Nadia: (14:06) It's actually really incredible. I had no idea it just started truly from friends and family kind of start since you've had such awesome list growth since then. Tony: (14:18) It's been encouraging. Nadia: (14:19) How do people continue finding it? I know you mentioned in your writing that it's just sort of word of mouth. Do you have any sort of like shape around that? Or is it just sort of like somehow it's spreading between people that are reading it? Tony: (14:34) Yeah. You know, I don't really have great visibility into that. If you have a website, the metrics that you have on a website, you can see all kinds of things like, who are the readers? How did they get there? Substack has some of that, but oftentimes when somebody signs up, all I really have is the email address for the most part. I don't necessarily know how they got there, whether it's a friend of mine telling the friend, or whether they happen to Google a topic and came across it and signed up. I don't have a lot of visibility into that, so I can't really tell you. I just kind of know what I've done and I can tell you that I believe is kind of word of mouth. Tony: (15:16) Then, occasionally, a lot of it is content-driven, too. Not all of it, but if I have a big story, if I'm able to break a story and beat the competition on a story and then they recognize that it's a story and write about it and happen to credit me as breaking it, that is helpful, too, sort of leveraging those audiences who have bigger audiences. If the audience of The Charlotte Observer sees, "Oh, this was first reported in The Charlotte Ledger", well, they're much bigger than I am, and so if somebody reads that and says, "Well, what is The Charlotte Ledger? Let me check that out." That can be very helpful, too. Tony: (15:52) It's not just about the content because a lot of times, I think, you can have really good content and nobody will see, it, but there are ways to kind of... Partnerships are kind of a big thing in a lot of these circles to help leverage someone else's audience to grow your audience. Then, you mentioned them and it helps their audience. It's not exactly everybody scratching each other's back kind of a thing, but it can oftentimes sort of work out that way. I mean, there are different partnerships that I've kind of developed that I think have been helpful, but it's not like there's just one major one. Nadia: (16:28) That makes sense. It feels like those two things almost go hand-in-hand of having really great content and then also doing that extra work to make sure that you're maximizing the surface area of people that are going to be able to discover it, but if people are discovering it and it's not good or you write good stuff and no one's discovering it, then it's not going to work out either way. It definitely seems like you've got both. Nadia: (16:49) I'm curious, as you're talking about making reference to local news in Charlotte, I confess, I really just don't know very much at all about the world of local news except that I hear headlines that it's dying. I'd love to hear a little more explicit of your take on within Charlotte, who are the major players or institutions? Within that, what is local business news like since you focus specifically on business news? Does it have the same sort of trajectory that we're hearing about local news? Is there a different sort of revenue model? Is there anything different about that sort of space? Tony: (17:27) Yeah. Well, I can just tell you a little bit about Charlotte, and I hope that doesn't bore people, but it just kind of helps you understand the competitive environment here. Obviously, the biggest player for many, many years was the big metro newspaper, which in our case was The Charlotte Observer, where I used to work. When I was there, we had a print circulation of 250,000 people. That was about 15 years ago. Now, the print circulation is more like 60,000. It went from a newsroom of 250 journalists to now a newsroom of 40 journalists over the span of 15 years. You can see that the main metro newspapers are shrinking and so they can't do the sorts of things that they used to be able to do even though there's still an audience for the kind of work that they used to do. That's sort of the main one. Tony: (18:09) As far as business, we have a business journal, The Charlotte Business Journal. They have a print product. It's weekly. They have, obviously, a digital product. They do a lot of events. They channel a lot towards events and awards and sort of selling ads to the business community. There's a new-ish digital publication in town called Charlotte Agenda. It's entirely online, started five, six years ago. It's received some national attention. I mean, a lot of their coverage traditionally has been on dining and entertainment, sort of geared toward Millennials, the people in their 20s and 30s who are just moving to town and want information. Mostly directed at that group. They've made some moves in the last few months. Hired a journalist from The Charlotte Observer. They brought in another one from The City Magazine. They're trying to bulk up sort of their journalism chops a little bit. Tony: (19:22) Obviously, you got the public radio station. I've got a partnership with them, actually, where I'm on the air once a week talking about Charlotte business news, so that's sort of a nice little thing where it kind of gets me a little bit of exposure and gives them insight into the business news and they don't really have a business reporter for the most part. You have the TV stations. That's I think a little bit of a different audience there. They still have a fair number of people watching TV news. Tony: (19:51) Then, there are a number of other publications. There's the alt weekly, there's The Charlotte Magazine, there's any number of other, and I'm probably leaving some off, but a number of smaller publications. It's not that there's no coverage of local news in Charlotte. There definitely is, it's just it's a big city and the number of journalists working in Charlotte has definitely declined over the last 10 or 20 years. I think there's room to be doing more things. As it relates to business journalism, the big players often is thought of being The Business Journal, and circulation-wise, I think their print circulation is somewhere between 10 to 12,000 or something like that. Actually, I'm not exactly sure. Maybe I'm confusing that with their digital circulation. They're sort of the big player. Tony: (20:46) I'm trying to do content that's different than they do. I'm trying to sort of make it a little bit punchy, trying to make it a little bit fun, shorter, kind of quick hit pieces. Again, my audience is the reader. I am not dependent on advertising sales to big companies, so I don't have to soft pedal it toward big companies, for example. If I'm working for the reader, I can be truly kind of independent and I sort of live or die on what the readers think, so for journalists, that's always sort of what you want is to be working for the readers. That's just sort of the lay of the land here. Tony: (21:37) I think just generally a lot of people I talk to in Charlotte, they sort of lament the decline of local news and they say, "Oh, this is great that you're doing this. Charlotte needs something like this. Good luck to you. I hope you can grow it. I think it's a good thing." It's probably a little bit of self-selection bias that they like what I do and they tell me they like it. I'm sure there are people that don't like it, but you don't have to please everybody. The numbers are such, to make this work as a viable business, you don't need 200,000. If you can just kind of sort of do the math and say, "Okay, if I have a thousand people and they're paying a hundred dollars a year, well, you can do the math and say, 'Well, okay, that's how much money this brings in.'" Tony: (22:24) The numbers are not as big or as daunting. I think you're finding that probably not from other Substack writers that there's a saying that, "All you need is a thousand dedicated fans who are willing to pay you", and you can make a living off of that. I think that's definitely true. Nadia: (22:41) I'd love to dig into this model a little bit more for you. Tony: (22:44) Sure. Nadia: (22:45) You went paid pretty recently, actually, adding paid subscriptions to The Charlotte Ledger. I think it was like a year into you were starting to write. Did you know that you were going to eventually make this a paid thing when you started it? Did it start out as just as like, "I'll see where it goes and if I can get enough people to sign up"? Why did you finally decide to go paid? Tony: (23:07) Well, yeah. When I started, I mean, I knew Substack's model and I knew that that ultimately would probably be the endgame. When I started it up, I said, "Well, let's just see if there's a market for this." I didn't really know and you never really know when you start. I figured, "Well, if I start it and nobody really reads it, then, okay, maybe I'll sort of move on to something else and figure something else out." It kept growing and I kept adding free subscribers. It was about the rate of maybe 200 to 300 free subscribers a month or so. It was fairly consistent numbers on that. Tony: (23:43) I kept it free for a fairly long period of time. I know Substack probably would have recommended a shorter period for that, but I really wanted to get the free numbers up because I perceived that it might be harder to kind of keep growing that free list once you switched to paid. I really wanted to get that number up. I had initially thought, "Oh, it'll be great if I could get to 10,000 free subscribers." I had no idea how long that would take and I never got anywhere near that, but after about eight months, I was at about, I don't know, 2,000, 2,500 free subscribers or so. This was I think back in November. I think it was about 2,000 free subscribers back in November. Tony: (24:26) I said, "Okay, well, here's what I'm going to do." I put out a post and said, "I'm going to go to a paid subscriber model starting in late winter/early spring and here's why. Here's the rationale." It's all of the things that if you read anything that Substack puts out, it's all the same sort of thing, direct connection with the reader, develop a community, giving you important insight, if you value it you should pay for it, those kinds of things. That's a little tricky, too, to tell people. A lot of times people are used to getting news, especially local news, for free. We can get a lot on the internet. You can watch it on TV. It's like, "Well, what are you adding that is making it that I should pay for it?" Tony: (25:07) Again, the argument I was trying to make was, "I'm giving you something you literally cannot get anywhere else. If you want to know about the Trump Administration and what they're doing, you have dozens and dozens and dozens of potential sources for that, but if you want to know what's going on in South Charlotte on this particular plot of land where developers are wanting to build a shopping mall, you're not going to get that anywhere else except for The Charlotte Ledger." It was making those sort of arguments. I did that in November, announced that in November, and then in late February, I did another couple of posts. I said, "Okay, we're going to a paid subscription model. Here's how it is. Here's how much it works, or here's how much it costs, here's how it works." Tony: (25:47) I said, "$9 a month or $99 a year." Then, I also had a premium tier that I aimed at companies and people who wanted to give more. It was $379 a year. I sort of laid that out there. By that point, I had about I guess around maybe a little more than 3,000 people on the free list. The first day, it was great to see. I put it out there and then, boom, it just started coming in. After being like basically at zero revenue for 10 months, to actually have some money coming in, I can tell you, Nadia, it was just a great feeling to be able to do that and say, "Okay, this is very validating here." It's personally validating to know that people want to pay for what you produce, but it's also nice to have some money coming in. I've used a few freelancers and kind of gone out of pocket for. It's just nice to be able to kind of get some of that money in. Tony: (26:54) The first few days, there was just a pretty big spike and I basically left open this two-week window where I said, "Okay, I'm going to switch to paid subscriptions", but then the first paid post was going to be March 11th, sort of ramped up. I had a bunch of good content lined up. I had some good freelancers who had written some really smart things. Just try to take advantage of that two-week period as much as possible. Got a bunch of people signing up. Money kind of came in. Did that first paid post March 11th. Again, I saw a pretty good increase. You all had said... I had talked to Chris or Hamish and they had said, "Well, you can probably expect at the beginning you'll see a rush and then at the end you'll see a rush", and that's exactly what happened. Tony: (27:43) We did that first paid post March 11th, and then I was thinking, "Okay, I'll have some money coming and I'll kick back and sort of figure out the next step." Of course, that's right when this coronavirus stuff started hitting. I mean, my timing on switching to paid was actually pretty fortunate in the sense that if I had waited any longer, it would have gotten completely lost in all of the coronavirus stuff that's going on. The timing wound up being pretty good. Nadia: (28:10) Did you find that... You started reporting also, obviously, on how the crisis has been affecting Charlotte. You got this awesome grant from the Facebook Journalism Project to focus on reporting about the crisis in Charlotte. Did you find on balance that the crisis has been... I don't know exactly how to – Tony: (28:39) I understand what you're saying. Nadia: (28:40) Yeah. Tony: (28:42) Yeah. I initially was going three... well, I'd gone three mornings a week and then right before I announced that I was going to start switching to a paid subscription, I added a fourth day a week on Saturdays, which I had envisioned as I'm going to basically kind of roundup the news of the week and also use that as a way to point people toward the paid content that free subscribers wouldn't have seen. Saturday was going to be it's a free content day. The paid days would be Wednesdays and Fridays, and so the free days would be Mondays and Saturdays. The Saturday one was going to be a roundup, pointed people toward the paid content so the free subscribers could see and say, "Oh, wow, that sounds really good. I should subscribe." Tony: (29:24) That was my initial conception. Then, the coronavirus thing hit and I kind of had to make a choice. I could either sort of lay back and kind of stay on that schedule of what I was doing and keep the focus on business news as I had been, but I kind of felt like if I did that, it would... It's hard to write about just business stories when you have all of this stuff going on locally in which you don't really have enough journalists in town to cover it all. I kind of made the decision. I'm like, "Okay, we're going to ramp this sucker up. We're going to go from four days. We're going to come out now as much as we can." We've been going... As we're talking, this is recorded in the second week of April, and we've been going every day for the last month pretty much, seven days a week and a lot of that's with freelancers. I can't crank out that much content. Tony: (30:22) That's just saying, "Okay, look, this coverage is not necessarily business coverage, but it's important to the community. A bunch of the businesses are kind of shut down anyway, so let's just do good coverage." I've always thought, "Let's just do good material that's local rather than say, 'Oh, well, that's not a business story so I'm going to ignore it.'" It was sort of that decision where it's like, "Okay, let's go to seven days a week." It's not like there's any shortage of things to write about. It's not like some artificial thing where I'm saying, "Oh, we need to go to seven days a week. What are we going to put in tomorrow." There are multiple things going on every single day, so I sort of decided to do that. Tony: (31:08) Then, actually, the number of paid subscriptions throughout, they've continued to come in. I mean, it's not like they were during that two-week period where I had announced the paid subscription but hadn't turned it on yet, but we'd be getting a few every day. That's been positive. The nice thing about this model is that if you do good work and people like it, they subscribe. That's just very validating. That's just a very positive, positive thing, I think, not just for The Charlotte Ledger, but I think it's positive for the community. Tony: (31:44) That's one of the arguments, too, is that, "Look, this is a community good. This is something that actually Charlotte needs and it is good for Charlotte." That's really the motivation in starting it up. It wasn't like, "Oh, how can I make a bunch of money? Oh, I'm going to start a local media company. That's a genius move. That's a way to like cash in or whatever." I wouldn't advise people if they're in it for the money, starting up a local media company is probably not where you want to be just generally. Go into like Fintech or something like that. If you do the work... I think our work is good and I'm happy there are paid subscribers who agree. Nadia: (32:28) It's cool hearing the story about how you started to add in more coronavirus coverage to your business coverage because, to me, it feels like the kind of thing that having this more independent model is better suited for it. People are subscribing because they care about your perspective and you're offering them this point of view and this style of writing that they're not going to find anywhere else. Yes, you are a business newsletter and you're focused on writing about business news, but when something crazy sort of like once in a century happens, it's also possible to write about those things and have people say, "I'm here because I love your perspective on things. I want to hear what you think about all of these things." Right? Tony: (33:09) Yeah. That's been kind of interesting, too. If you come from a traditional journalist background, you're sort of programmed to just be completely neutral, right? I tried to have a little bit more opinion and a little bit more edge. I find that people... I don't know. I know that people tend to read and tend to consume what they agree with, but I get nice notes. I got one the other day from somebody saying, "Hey, I completely disagree with you on this, but I love The Ledger. I think you're wrong on this, just so you know." That kind of thing, which is kind of a nice... You can have like a respectful dialogue. It's one of these things that you kind of always want to have, that sometimes you hear about people trashing each other on social media or whatever. It's actually kind of nice. That's kind of been positive, too. Nadia: (33:55) As you were bringing on, you mentioned that you've had freelancers who are also helping to write for The Ledger. You recently announced that you brought on a managing editor and you have a contributing editor and you have like a whole kind of staff now that you're spinning up. You've got swag I saw, which seemed great. It's starting to be like more of this thing now. Given that part of the origin was you had this sort of specific voice and perspective that people are subscribing to, what is it like bringing on more people in that sort of context going from just you writing to people writing or whatever number of people writing? How do you sort of manage that? Tony: (34:39) Yeah, that's a good question because when I started this up, I kind of didn't really know like, "Okay, well, I'll just kind of try this on a lark." Then, you kind of do it and you get kind of locked in where it's like once there's a little momentum behind you, it's hard to just say, "All right, I want to do something else", and pull the plug. There are actually now a whole bunch of people who are reading and then they got freelancers and all of this. No, I basically said I was going to bring in... I knew when I was ramping up to paid that it would be nice to have some other content and other people providing content to take the burden off of me. Tony: (35:12) There are a number of journalists in town who have left the newspaper or are available who are now freelancing that I knew and that I could reach out to. I knew I would have this money coming in as soon as I turned on the paywall, so I was able to basically kind of borrow against that, pay some of the freelancers to do a little bit of work. It's like on the one hand you want to kind of keep the voice and keep the kind of tone and attitude. Sort of as you grow, I don't necessarily want to force people who are writers to just develop my tone and my attitude. I still try to write as much as I can, but during this whole coronavirus issue, it's like I definitely need freelancers to do that, to help out with that coverage. Tony: (36:08) As you mentioned, I did apply for a grant from Facebook and they came through and they've been funding a bunch of local news initiatives related to coronavirus. I got a $5,000 grant from them, so that helps pay freelancers, which is a big help. I just brought on this week, as we're talking here in the first part of April, a managing editor. It's someone I've known for 20 years who was at The Charlotte Observer. She decided to leave and come onboard with The Ledger, which is great. That is something that you kind of have to manage a little bit, again, but if the proposition is we're telling you things that you don't know and we're breaking news and we'll maybe give you some feature stories here and there, I think it's okay to have a few different voices. Tony: (36:54) There's this whole thing now where people sort of identify with personalities. I've never really been comfortable kind of being like the front person on this or my face associated with it or whatever, but I acknowledge that's sort of the reality now. I think it's okay to bring in multiple people. I think the results, I hope, will speak for themselves. Nadia: (37:20) They definitely do. Something I really love about just reading some of your writing is that this like heart and this mission really come through. You do explicitly say that you're doing this because you really want to offer something new and not just provide yet another kind of local news option. You're really trying to push the medium forward and push the conversation forward, which I think is just so awesome. Nadia: (37:42) It's made me kind of think like, you know... Maybe this is sort of like more of a philosophical question, but do you think of The Charlotte Ledger as... Would you put it in the bucket of a newspaper? Or a newsletter? Or is it like you and a bunch of other awesome people who are essentially freelancing with a platform? As you think about your plans for the future, as you think about growing, what sort of bucket do you mentally put it in? Tony: (38:11) Yeah, that's a really good question. I think the important thing and sort of the philosophy I have behind it is like I just want to tell you stuff that you don't know and stuff that makes you smarter. I think what Substack has proved is that there are multiple audiences for many, many different things, whether it's feminist poetry or 15th century literature or current events or tech or whatever, there are multiple, multiple audiences. What I'm trying to do with this is say, "Okay, my audience is people in Charlotte who are interested in their city and what's going on in their city and want to learn stuff about it and get insights and information that they can't get anywhere else." Tony: (39:00) As long as we're kind of doing that, whether it's my voice or whether it's someone else's voice or whether it's a combination of voices, I feel like that's going to be okay. I think that's going to kind of work itself out. I just want to constantly be doing just smart stories and sort of things that aren't obvious. I think we're going to be able to do that even as we have different people providing that information. I guess it's sort of a hybrid of all of those things that you mentioned, so it's sort of like a newspaper in that sense, but it's also kind of like a blog in the sense that it's kind of chatty and conversational. Tony: (39:45) It's also very kind of staccato. We're not doing a whole bunch of long-form stuff. I mean, we could. There are ways to do that. We could put a long-form thing on the website and excerpt it in the newsletter. There are all kinds of possible combinations. It's sort of a mixture of all of the above, but I'm trying not to make it just purely opinion thing. What I really wanted to do is not just be reactive to what everybody else is reporting, but I really want to do original pieces and have people talking about us and looking to us as a source of information. Tony: (40:23) The other part of it is, if you're serving your reader, you can kind of be above the fray. I don't mind if The Charlotte Observer or Charlotte Agenda or The Charlotte Business Journal, if they've got a good story, I don't mind mentioning it and saying like, "Hey, you should check out this thing in The Charlotte Business Journal they had on how many people are paying their rent this month during the coronavirus", or whatever, and you could link to it. I want to establish us as a trusted source that is sort of agnostic about where the information comes from. Tony: (40:54) A lot of places, that's not a traditional news mentality. The mentality traditionally, certainly in local news, is, "Hey, if you have a story, you promote that story and you kind of pretend that like nobody else exists." That just doesn't reflect reality. I have no problem. If somebody has a good story, I'd like to send them to the story because I'm working for the reader. If I can say to the reader, who is my customer, "You should go check out this story over here", then that serves my reader. It might give a click to this other publication, but that's fine. It's just kind of a different mentality, so I don't really know quite what bucket to put it in, Nadia, but it's kind of a hybrid, I guess. Nadia: (41:38) What is it about, I guess, everyone else's model that makes it harder for them to do that? Is it just because they are more about driving readership numbers and having exclusive information does that better? Tony: (41:53) Other models that are out there, I think... I just really like the model. I like having that direct connection with readers. It's just very simple, it's very straightforward. It's like in pretty much any other industry that if you find value in something, you pay for it. I think in media, a lot of times that can get very confused if you're very dependent on advertising. Tony: (42:14) I think it can be kind of confusing toward readers toward, are your interests in looking out for the readers? Or are they in looking out for the advertisers? Is this paid content? Are advertisers paying for this content? Or is this legitimately your honest opinion? I think it can get very confusing, I think, for readers. I don't care for those models as much. I would prefer to do what I'm doing with a direct connection to the readers. I think it's a little bit cleaner. Nadia: (42:43) This has made me wonder how you decided on your pricing, especially given that for local news, I guess, people are sort of mentally used to maybe more of an advertising model. How did you come up with your numbers? Tony: (42:55) Well, I had months and months to kind of think about this and work on this. I'd loved to tell you there's some scientific reason I settled on $9 a month or $99 a year, but it was really just sort of... A lot of people said, "Don't underprice." I had a few people who had newsletters that told me that. Then, the other part is if it's a business publication, and I sort of straddle that line between just doing pure sort of business stuff and things that are little more sort of direct to consumer, general kinds of things. I said, "If you're a business publication, you can probably command a little bit of a higher price because people are going to be able to expense for this business." They can put it on their company credit card and they can write it off as an expense if they're a small business owner. Tony: (43:44) You can kind of capture some of that. I think the minimum on Substack was $5 or $6 or something like that, but I said, "Okay, let's go up to nine. Part of it was also kind of marketing, thinking, "Okay, like when you go buy gas, it's like $2.19 and nine-tenths. I was like, "Let's keep it under 10. Let's go nine", and then same thing on the yearly." I said, "Let's go 99 because it sounds cheaper than a hundred I think mentally." That's sort of like I said not really scientific but that's sort of what I landed on. Nadia: (44:23) Makes sense. Just to sort of wrap up the conversation a bit, now that you've been doing this for a while, I'm wondering just from the personal side, what has it felt like to write for essentially yourself or for the reader versus writing for The Charlotte Observer versus the tine that you spent freelancing? You've really seen all different aspects, I guess, of doing local journalism and the good and the bad. Just would love to hear from a personal side, how does it compare? Tony: (44:55) That's a really good question. There's positives and negatives. The one thing is, it's extreme... Well, I mean, let's just break it all down. It's extremely liberating to just be able to kind of write whatever you want to write on the one hand. You have a whole bunch of freedom that if you're coming from a traditional media organization, you might not have if you have an editor that doesn't want this kind of story but wants that kind of story. I can pretty much do what I want to do, on the one hand. Tony: (45:26) Now, on the other hand, I don't really have, or I haven't had until lately, really an editor. Editors can actually make stories better. If you have a good editor, that can really make all of the difference in the world. On the one hand, the good news is I didn't have an editor. The bad news is, I don't have an editor, so that's kind of a plus and minus. The other thing I'll say is that since I'm sort of doing this for myself, I'm a lot more invested in it and I'm willing to spend more time in it than I would if I were just an employee of somewhere. This is kind of my baby. Tony: (45:59) Fortunately, there is something like Substack that allows you to do something like this, but it's like I was able to create this, and so I'm invested in it and I'm invested in its success. That is very motivating. It makes me spend a lot of time on it because I want it to be good. I don't just want to do it kind of halfway. I really want it to be good. The downside of that is I wind up spending a lot of time, a lot of late nights, a lot of getting up early in the morning, a lot of kind of extra phone calls, a lot of things. Tony: (46:35) It's tremendously fun and exhilarating and there's a whole strategy side of it that I haven't really had to deal with before but that's kind of interesting and neat. It's not just the writing, but there's the whole marketing side and the business side and all these kinds of partnerships and things like that. That's tremendously fascinating and it's also a little daunting because it's like, "Do I really know what I'm doing here?" Tony: (46:56) There are pluses and minuses, and I'm sure you hear this from a lot of other Substack writers, but it's like you can spend a lot of time. You can really pour your heart into something and spend a lot of time doing it because you want it to be good, and so that's just sort of a consideration. I guess if you're just somebody who wants to kind of occasionally write, it might not quite be the thing for you. There are a number of pluses and minuses, I guess. Nadia: (47:28) Sounds like an adventure. Tony: (47:31) Definitely an adventure. It's been a lot of fun. It's been really tremendous and it's been great. I feel like I'm doing some of the best work in my career. I feel like I'm kind of making a difference just hearing from people, making connections with people, and working with people I want to work with. It's been really exhilarating. It's been a lot of fun. Nadia: (47:52) That's a great note to end on. Thank you, Tony, for joining and chatting with me. Tony: (47:57) Thanks, Nadia. Get full access to Substack Blog at
Mar 04, 2020 16 min

How Delia Cai grew Deez Links from zero to 2,000+ signups

We invited Delia Cai, author of Deez Links, to speak to an audience of Substack writers in New York about how she grew her newsletter to 2,700 signups. Delia started her daily media newsletter as an intern at Atlantic Media. This transcript has been lightly edited for readability. You can also check out the slides from Delia’s talk.. Takeaways Be your newsletter’s wingman. Talk it up to everyone. Borrow other people’s audiences to reach new readers. Build credibility by getting other people to write about you. Why Delia started a newsletter I write a newsletter called Deez Links. It’s basically a daily-ish media newsletter that sends you a link to something worth reading, tied to the larger media industry. I started Deez Links four years ago, when I was just out of college. I had an internship at Atlantic Media that was cool, and not cool, in that I spent all of my time just reading news about the industry, and I was writing corporate memos. It was cool because I was learning a lot about digital media, but I was also just sitting in a cubicle all day, not interacting with other humans. This was 2015, 2016, around when newsletters like Today in Tabs and Ann Friedman's newsletter were getting a lot of hype. I was reading those and I was like, “This is so cool. I want to try to do this. I want to try to write in some kind of outlet that isn't just in corporate memo speak and maybe I can just do this for my friends and it will just be a funny thing that I do during the work day.” So I started Deez Links. It was on TinyLetter. I made the logo in three seconds in MS Paint. It was an extremely lo-fi situation. I sent it out to my friends, friends from college, and friends that I worked with and I was just like, “I'm going to do this every day. Let me know if this is interesting.” I had no real aspirations for it other than just getting in the practice of writing about something every day. Deez Links grew to about 500 subscribers by 2018, which was fine. It was mostly people that I'd met on the internet, or just people that I knew personally. Then I moved it to Substack in 2018, and since then it's gone through this amazing growth trajectory to where I had 700 subscribers and got a shout-out in New York Magazine and Vanity Fair. We're also doing this merch store which is really cool, which has taught me a lot already about ecommerce and supply chains. Deez Links was mostly people that I'd met on the internet, or just people that I knew personally. Then I moved it to Substack in 2018, and since then it's gone through this amazing growth trajectory to where I had 700 subscribers and got a shout-out in New York Magazine and Vanity Fair. Looking back over those four years, it seems like there's this very calculated path to growing the newsletter, and I have to be totally honest and admit there was not. I was just bumbling along. This was my passion project. I just tried a bunch of things, so I’ll share with you the three buckets of things that have worked out for me. Be your newsletter’s wingman So the first one is super obvious. It's just to be your newsletter's wingman. I think the really wonderful thing about newsletters is they're so personal. They're tied to you and your name most of the time. Bring it up to your friends, your work friends, while applying for a job. I put my newsletter in my resume. And I was like, “I don't know if this is work appropriate, but this is what I got.” When you start a newsletter, you may not have a lot of cred to go off of. You don't have a built-in audience unless you're already a writer on other platforms, and I didn't have that. I was just out of college. Your first 500 subscribers are going to be the people who are just naturally invested in you, your friends and your mom. So you should make your newsletter an extension of yourself and bring it up all the time when you're talking to people in your circles. I think the trick to this is always consider how to widen that personal circle, whether it's going to meetups, going to hangouts, or interacting with people on Twitter and making Twitter friends, which is my favorite thing. That way you're always adding to the circle and you're being your own best advocate for the newsletter. Then at the end of the day, after you've bonded and had a normal human social exchange, you can say, “Yo, I have a newsletter. I write about X, Y, and Z. I would love to know what you think about it.” Telling them to Google it, or even texting them the link, is super easy. That way, you’re treating it as a way to stay in touch with people that’s less weird than, “Can I add you on LinkedIn?” It's like “Hey, we bonded. Do you want to support my art a little bit?”, which feels like a more natural ask. Borrow other people’s audiences The second tactic I stumbled upon was borrowing, or being exposed, to other people's audiences. I think this is the most effective one. I ended up coming across this tactic in three different ways. One was with classifieds. When I first started out, I was thinking, “I'm a young woman in media. I feel like other young women in media would like this newsletter, what are they reading right now? What am I reading right now?” I loved Ann Friedman's newsletter. She had this huge subscriber base, mostly women, and her newsletter is tied to current events and news as well. I feel like that's my audience. And she does this thing where she’ll place classified ads on her newsletter. It costs $50 to write a 140-character line about why you should subscribe to Deez Links and put the link in there. So that went out in her newsletter and I got 70 subscribers from doing this, which doesn't sound amazing, but when I first started out, it was like great. I didn't have to meet 70 people to do this. I just put an ad in this newsletter with a very loyal following. The other tactic that I accidentally came across, in terms of borrowing other people's audiences, was doing weekly Q&As. I first had this idea in 2018 where I was like, “I'm just going to do a Friday Q&A with someone in media, just ask them questions about their job.” Like if you cover Congress, what do you have to wear? What does that mean? Or if you do PR for the avocado industry, do you get free avocados? Just dumb questions that I would ask my friends anyway. I started doing them with my friends, and then once I ran out of friends to bug, I started branching out to people I really admired on Twitter, people I knew from work. And just realized this golden rule of how the internet and media works: if you interview someone, they're very likely going to share it with their following, and that's how you get exposed to their audience. If you interview someone, they're very likely going to share it with their following, and that's how you get exposed to their audience. For example, I did an interview with Alana Hope Levinson, the Deputy Editor of MEL magazine earlier last year. When it came out, she shared it with her followers. And she had a huge Twitter following. Then MEL magazine tweeted out to all of their readers, and I was like, “Oh, this is how it gets done.” With each weekly interview I do, I've noticed I get a handful of followers, especially when it's someone who has a very loyal following and audience of their own. Finally, honestly, the single biggest boost I got in terms of sign-ups was through a newsletter swap with this lifestyle site called The Good Trade. I wasn't super familiar with them, but their managing editor reached out to me at some point last year. I don't know if she found me through the classifieds, but she was like, “I love your newsletter. We have one, too, it's called The Daily Good. It seems like maybe we would have the same kind of audience. Let's do newsletters.” And I was like, “Yeah, sure.” But I had no idea what that even meant. I was just like, “I'm open to anything.” What I found out it meant was basically just plugging each other's newsletters. They wrote their own line and I put it in mine. So I wrote, “If you love a good semi-spicy newsletter, subscribe to Deez Links and you get a daily-ish link to something gossip worthy happening in the media industry.” And that was it. As soon as their newsletter went out, my inbox was just completely spammed and I got 400 sign-ups in one day from this. And I was like, this is really crazy. I didn't even know this community, this audience existed. Get credibility The third bucket of tactics is to get institutional cred. I mean that in very loose terms. One of the biggest things that worked out for Deez Links was when this email platform called Revue wanted to do a survey of the top media newsletters in the industry. It was a very unscientific poll. They were just reaching out to people in newsletters and saying “Hey, can you plug this poll? We just want everyone to take this survey.” So I put it in my newsletter at the time and said, “Hey guys, if you like this newsletter could you vote for Deez Links in this survey?” I only did it because I thought maybe it would be really funny if we got in the running. But it turned out that enough of my subscribers voted for Deez Links that it showed up in the top five between America Press Institute and Digiday Media, really legit places. When this came out I was like, “Oh my God, this makes us so legit.” And so again, people in industry were talking about it, there was a lot of buzz. A lot of people were like, “What is this one that I don't recognize? I'm going to Google it and subscribe and see what the deal is.” So when that came out I got about 200 subscribers. Finally, the one that I'm most proud of is when Deez Links was named in Vanity Fair. I'm going to be totally candid and tell you it's because the editor who wrote this piece is a friend from college. When she was researching this piece, she talked to me and was like, “What do you think? What are some people that you think would be good to talk to?” And so I was like, “You should talk to the Substack people. You should totally mention these newsletters.” We just bounced ideas off each other. Then she just did me a hugely gracious favor and quoted me directly and included Deez Links in this piece about the state of newsletters. That was huge, because it felt like this vote of confidence. When this piece went out, I got around 200 or 300 subscribers and bragging rights forever. I do want to acknowledge that there was a huge advantage in terms of starting my newsletter when I had a day job in media, and still do, and it automatically exposes me to this whole network of people with these followings and power, like the way the Vanity Fair writer had when she was writing this piece. I also want to acknowledge that there is nothing that media people love talking about more than their own industry. So that also was a huge help. But nevertheless, I do think that no matter what industry your day job is in, no matter what your newsletter is about, it's a really good exercise to just think about, “Who is my intended audience? What do I think that they're listening to or reading now? And how can I find these middlemen or platforms that can serve as a megaphone for reaching this audience?” Growing your subscriber base is like making friends It's like when you move to a new city and you don't know anyone. You can go and try and meet people one-on-one, but it would take a long time. The better route is to call up your super-popular, super well-connected friend in the city and be like, “Hey, can you introduce me to all of your friends?” And they do, and that's just so much faster. You get exposed to these various communities a lot quicker, and you come with this vote of confidence from your popular friend. It's cheesy to think about growing your subscriber base in terms of making friends, but I do think that it speaks to this very personal nature of newsletters. You're sliding to their inbox every morning, or every week, and your subscribers can just hit respond and tell you what they think. That's something really precious and beautiful. It does take longer to build up in ways that, say, maybe blogs were different. But I do think it's worth investing in those relationships, because once you become friends with these people, they’re there for you forever. They'll introduce you to their friends, and then your community just keeps on growing. For more advice on growing your newsletter, check out how Sarah Noeckel's Femstreet went from zero to 5,000 subscribers. Photo by Bess Adler Get full access to Substack Blog at
Mar 04, 2020 22 min

How Emily Atkin turned her climate change newsletter into a six-figure income

We invited Emily Atkin, author of Heated, to talk to an audience of Substack writers in New York about how she successfully launched paid subscriptions. Emily left her job at The New Republic to start Heated, which offers original reporting and analysis on the climate crisis. Her newsletter is now her full-time job, bringing in six figures of revenue. This transcript has been lightly edited for readability. Takeaways Focus on building your free signup list first. Announce a paid launch date. Offer a discount for early birds. Every day during your launch week, give people a different reason to subscribe. A day before your first paid post, make a final pitch. I write a newsletter called Heated. It’s been in existence for five months now, and it’s going well. It’s my full-time endeavor. Being able to make a living off my writing has always been my dream since I was in college and I took my first journalism class. Eight years and a lot of failures later, Substack provided me with a platform to be able to succeed. It’s honestly allowed me to achieve my dream. I make more money now than I had at any salaried journalism job. I make more money now than I had at any salaried journalism job. I’m going to talk about how to grow your free newsletter into a paid newsletter. At this point, you’ll already have had a newsletter for a while. You’ll have enough subscribers that you think you can convert some to paying. You’re ready to go. I’m going to share the tactics I used. You can adapt these however you like. I only launched my paid newsletter a little over two months ago, and I’m already in the six-figures range. I’m not a genius; I just followed a formula. Make your newsletter free for as long as you can Step one is to make a free newsletter, and make it original. Make it consistent. I think consistency is really important; that’s something I’ve heard from a lot of my subscribers. I have a little over 20,000 signups on my free list and a little over 2,000 on my paid list, including subscriptions I’ve given away. Give your newsletter away for free for as long as you possibly can. Especially if it’s getting a lot of traction off the bat, and people are like, “I would like to pay you for this. Can I pay you for it?” Don’t let them. Hold on for as long as you possibly can, because almost all the paid subscriptions you’ll get will be conversions from your free list. People don’t just sign up and pay. They want free content first, so they can decide if they want to pay. From my analysis, the average amount of time that people take to convert from free to the paid list is about a month, although I don't have much data yet. Give your newsletter away for free for as long as you possibly can. People don’t just sign up and pay. They want free content first. Foster your community. Make people want to pay for your stuff. Market your newsletter in a way that will almost make you uncomfortable, because it sounds like you're just talking and promoting yourself all the time. Announce you’re going paid So you've done all that, and you're ready to launch your paid subscription. Don't just put a paywall up. Give your readers at least a week's notice. I write my newsletter four days a week, Monday through Thursday. So, two weeks before I put up a paywall, I said, “Okay, guys. Now's the time. It's been three months. Next week, I'm going to give you the ability to pay.” I wrote that on the bottom of a Thursday newsletter, the last one of the week. I told my readers that I've written this newsletter for free because I wanted to demonstrate its value first. I said that next week, I’ll start accepting payments, and I'll announce the rates then, but it’ll still be free all of next week. Once you turn on payments on Substack, the format changes. You unlock the ability to write preambles to your newsletter. That's where I did my marketing. I went personal on it. I was like, “Guys, I'm scared. I quit my job to do this. Please don't let me fail.” That's another thing about newsletters. You can get personal. I did some positive marketing for this, too. I was like, “If this works, imagine how many more people we can reach; if I can hire a research assistant; if I had a copy editor...” Kick off a paid launch week The next week is your paid launch week, where you remind people every day that you’re going paid, but you still keep all your content free. Make sure your content is really good all week. Put in extra work. Every day, in your preamble, try to give a different reason why people should subscribe. Set your price high – higher than you’d think. During your paid launch week, offer a discount. I did 25% off the first two days and then 20% off the second two days so I could say, “All right, you missed 25% off, but you still have 20% off”. Then the price goes up from there. For day one, I focused on a personal appeal and giving a discount. I made it feel like: “Today’s a special day, cue the air horn sounds!” Especially after you've been giving stuff away for three months, you've built up a community, so it should feel like, “Yay, now it's your turn.” I made a personal appeal there that was, “I gave this to you for free, but it's not sustainable for me. I want to be able to do this every day. I want this to grow. I have so many aspirations for this. We, together, can make this a thing. Let's make it a thing.” People are like, “Yeah, let's make it a thing!” I also do this thing where for every 100 people who sign up, I'll give 10 subscriptions away to people who need it. It helps. It's good because it helps grow your paid list, but it also gives your stuff to people who can't afford it. People are like, “Oh, okay, if I can afford it, I’d also like your writing to go to somebody else.” For day two, I used the excitement from day one for momentum. You can send different emails to your free and paid list. So I sent an email to those who’d paid on day one that was like, “Guys, you signed up. Yes. Thank you so much. You're amazing.” Then I sent an email to my free list that said, “If you're getting this message, that means you didn't sign up. How dare you? After all I've done for you.” But then I said, “This is the last day you can get 25% off, so you're going to want to do it today.” Build upon your momentum from day one. Include quotes from people on Twitter who are signing up for your newsletter, even if it's just one of your friends. For the next two days, experiment with different tactics. You know your community, so you’ll know best what would appeal to them. For day three, I tried this messaging about how the fossil fuel industry poured billions of dollars into disinformation. My newsletter is about climate change, but it's specifically about powerful people and climate change. So for day three, I used that angle. I was like, “Let's combat this with information. Let's produce journalism that makes the truth louder than their lies. That can only happen with your support.” On day four, I didn't do any marketing. I just did an ‘Ask Me Anything’ [AMA]. I used the discussion threads feature on Substack, which is a way to interact with your subscribers. On that day, people had a lot of questions about the paid launch, so I was able to go in there and answer their questions. I did five newsletters this week instead of my usual four, because I just wanted more opportunities to promote my launch. I decided to make my last day something big, to demonstrate the value of this work that your money would buy. On the last day, I launched a project I had been working on for a long time. I published a large anthology of fossil fuel advertisements. There was an embargoed study in there, some interviews, all this stuff. Instead of having my marketing preamble at the beginning, this time I did it at the end. I said, “This is an ongoing project. There's so much we're going to do, but it can only happen with your support.” Make your final pitch By the end of this week, you've asked people to pay you every single day. It’s now the weekend. Take a break. The last thing that happens is to make your final big pitch. For me, this was the Monday after my paid launch week. This will be the last time your newsletter is free. After my final pitch, I put up a paywall, and now 75% of my content is paywalled. I told my readers that after three months, this will be the last time you're going to get it. Write a post explaining everything that you've accomplished while your newsletter was free. If you’re thinking about going paid, you should always keep a list of every good thing that has happened, like getting a nice email, a good tweet, seeing your work cited in another publication – just any way you can say you've been influencing the conversation or making people feel good. You want to be able to say, “This newsletter is original in this way. Nothing else like this exists.” Write a post explaining everything that you've accomplished while your newsletter was free. You want to be able to say, “This newsletter is original in this way. Nothing else like this exists.” That's what I put into my final pitch. I showed what I’d accomplished in the past three months. I had sections about how this reporting is making a difference, how it’s shifting the national conversation, where it's been cited. Every amount of praise that has ever happened, I put into one place. “Vox called it great. Earther called it wonderful. Environmental Health News called it a unique blend of insight and smartass.” Back when my newsletter was still free, I’d done a survey where I asked people to tell me why they liked the newsletter. I compiled that into a spreadsheet and used it for marketing. I was able to say things like, “Six people said that they felt less alone when they read this newsletter. It's helping you guys feel better, and that's what makes me feel better. So let's keep this going.” Your first and your last pitch are the days where you’ll get the most subscribers. The first day you launch, you get a lot. The second day, especially if you do a two-day discount, you get a lot. Third and fourth day, you're like, “Uh-oh, it's over.” And then on the final day, you’ll get a lot. The final step is to put up your paywall. After you do that, your daily audience will become much smaller. At that point, I probably had 18,000 free signups. All of a sudden, with my paid subscribers, it's 1,000. For the majority of the week, I'm now writing for a much smaller audience, which is actually way easier, because they like me enough to have paid me. After launch week is over, you might panic because you think it's all over and no one will ever pay you again. But just keep that process going. Every time you have a free newsletter, try to say something to encourage people to go paid. How do you know if you’re ready? You might be asking yourself, “Am I ready to launch?” So I came up with a list of considerations that might help you decide: How many free subscribers do you have? Conversion rates tend to be around 4 to 10 percent, according to other Substackers I’ve talked to. If your free list isn’t very big, consider waiting. How much money do you want to charge? Have you asked your subscribers what they’re willing to pay, or looked at similar newsletters to yours? What impact have you made that you can point to? People like knowing they’re supporting something meaningful. Have you asked your readers for feedback? What makes you original and worth paying for? Before you launch paid, you should feel really comfortable saying why your thing is different than anybody else's thing and why it should exist. You’re going to have to make your case and do a lot of shameless self-promotion around it. It’s going to be awkward. Get over it. If you have a highly specialized niche audience, you might be ready. That means people who like you, really like you. Some of the best advice I got was that you don't have to please everybody, but you have to please some people a lot. Not everybody has to like you, but a small amount of people have to really like you. Your impact doesn't have to be big. Use language to make a small impact seem bigger. We were cited in this local paper with a circulation of 20,000. That might not feel big to you, but people like to feel like they're part of something. That's why the newsletter model works. Your readers want to feel like they're part of this community that's growing and making a difference. The most important question, though, is: Do you feel ready? The most important question, though, is: Do you feel ready? This process is really different for everybody. Since starting my newsletter, I've talked to many other Substack writers who are going through this, and their newsletters and communities are so different from mine. Their subject matter is different. Not everyone is a reporter. Some of us do creative writing. Some of us compile links. We all have different communities. In the end, I feel like you'll just know. Even if you're scared, you'll have a gut feeling that you think it might be time, and you might be willing to make it work. Just trust that feeling, because that's what I did, and I'm still winging it. For more advice on launching a paid publication, check out our guide to going paid. Photo by Bess Adler Get full access to Substack Blog at
Mar 04, 2020 15 min

How Walt Hickey of Numlock News expanded to multiple newsletters

We invited Walt Hickey, author of Numlock News, to share with an audience of Substack writers in New York how he thinks about spinning off multiple newsletters for fun and profit. Walt started off with Numlock News – where he writes about the numbers behind the news – then added paid subscriptions, an Oscar Awards supplement, and a book club. This transcript has been lightly edited for readability. Takeaways Multiple newsletters are a lightweight way to experiment with new ideas. Use your main newsletter to create spin-offs, so you never have to deal with the “zero subscriber” problem again. Get creative with your paid subscriptions. You don’t just have to send one free and one paid post. Depending on your topic, you might consider publishing paid content during a peak season, quarterly in-depth reports, or more. I run a newsletter called Numlock. It’s a daily morning newsletter about the numbers inside the news. I started it after working at FiveThirtyEight for about five years, where I’d started a newsletter called Significant Digits. As a guy with a math-y background, I realized that my biggest liability as a person in journalism was that I needed to get better at writing, and doing something every day was a really effective way of practicing. I really enjoyed writing that newsletter, and then it hit a point where the scuttlebutt was that FiveThirtyEight was going to be sold. I looked at where Sig Dig was and realized there was more value in there than we were currently unlocking. The open rate was great. People enjoyed receiving it. In building the case for why FiveThirtyEight should keep me, I actually built the case for why I should leave and start my own newsletter. I did that, and it's been great. How he started multiple newsletters My main newsletter is Numlock, it’s my bread and butter. It’s what I've been doing for more than two years now. I have a product that I think is good, and that my audience thinks is good. As a result, I have a good “in” with people who enjoy reading my work. If I were to describe Numlock in Uber-for-pizza terms, what I think of is, “It's Good Morning America for nerdier folks.” This being Substack, at a certain point, it came time to monetize, so I launched a Sunday edition. For $5 a month, I talk to either a writer who wrote a really cool story that I put in the main newsletter, or I talk to an author who's got a good book out. This is a really fun way to add value. If you think about traditional media ecosystems like late night shows, there’s a reason they have written jokes in the beginning and then an interview at the end. It’s because interviews are easy to book, and people tend to like them a lot. It’s a nice way to have something that’s less work than the newsletter itself, but gives people more insight into the stories that we find. But I’ve also started a couple of other spin-off newsletters, one of which is the Numlock Awards Supplement. I’m a culture writer, and I love predicting the Oscars using math. It's a good time. I started about two years ago and wanted to keep doing it. I think we learn a lot about ourselves, and how we can predict things, through this institution that is very obscure. It's a fun little puzzle. So I started a pop-up award season newsletter. It runs from November-ish, or whenever I feel like starting it, until Oscar night and the week after. It's a nice opportunity to talk about a thing I'm really passionate about, but not have to throw it at my traditional people who just want to watch Good Morning America and never talk to me again. That spawned another idea. I love engaging with audiences, and discussion threads are such a cool feature that Substack has built. I wanted a way to tap into that without compelling people who just enjoyed the passive nature of newsletters to participate. So I thought, again, having interviewed a lot of authors and seeing the response that that gets, my audience is one that enjoys reading things, learning new things, cool ideas, cool books and stuff like that. I figured one way to expand that was through a book club. The Numlock Book Club is kind of a democracy, and it's also kind of an experiment. The idea was we're going to vote on books to read, and then we're going to vote on these books. Whatever book you pick, we're going to read, then it's basically just going to be a managed reading thing. We've gone through three so far. We're in the middle of our fourth, and it's really fun. You get a chance to cover things that you wouldn't normally cover. You get to engage with readers that you might not normally be able or willing to, based on how you normally interact with your newsletter. Spin-offs make it easy to try new things Here’s the real reason that you should make spin-off newsletters. Who’s having fun in media anymore? I think about this question constantly, because I'm having fun in media, but many other people are not. So I made this list of all the people I could think of that are currently having fun in media: Top TV talent Private equity capitalists extracting enormous quantities of wealth for a style of business operation not entirely unlike the episode where Tony Soprano busted up that camping store Walt Disney People who make a living directly from their audience People that get residuals from NBC television shows that aired in the '90s and early 2000s Jake Paul I can't be any of these except for one, but it’s really fun. To give you an example of other people who’ve tried this, I’d like to highlight the example of the McElroy brothers, which is a family of brothers who have podcasts. They started with a podcast called My Brother, My Brother, and Me. Then they tried to do one episode about Dungeons and Dragons, and it went well. So they spun that off and made a podcast called The Adventure Zone, which ended up becoming a lot more popular than the original podcast. Eventually, they started adding some other weird spin-off podcasts. Some of these then turned into other opportunities to cross-promote. The idea is, if you like The Bachelor, you can listen to Rose Buddies. If you like medical history, you can check out Sawbones, which promotes everything else they have. Everything they do internally plugs into one another. So if I’m a person who likes the first thing, I can eventually wind my way to other things that I like. Maybe you don't want to listen to Sawbones, but you might be really down for The Adventure Zone. And this also turns into other opportunities like a book, or a graphic novel, or the fact that they had a podcast called The McElroy Brothers Will Be in Trolls 2 and eventually it happened – they're in Trolls 2. Spin-offs are great. They address a lot of things that are annoying about starting a newsletter from scratch, namely that you know the people who like you the most already. They're the ones who currently subscribe to your newsletter. So you can reach the people who are most likely to subscribe to your other newsletter. Spin-offs are great. They address a lot of things that are annoying about starting a newsletter from scratch, namely that you know the people who like you the most already. The Golden Rule I've found is that every new subscriber is slightly easier to get than the previous subscriber, because networks scale. It's very difficult to go from zero to one. Going 10 to 11 is easier. Going 99 to 100 is easier than that, and so on. So you never really need to relive the “zero-subscriber newsletter” that really takes guts to send. As long as you come into it like that, you can say, “I don't know if this is going to last forever. This is just a fun little thing I'm going to do on the side.” But your spin-offs have an opportunity to bolster the way that you interact with your audience. You might get that hit. You might make a sidebar newsletter that ends up being bigger than your initial one. Nobody really knows what's good anymore, but experimenting a lot is a good way to try that. Also, collaborations are great. I do my Oscar Awards one with the person I’m dating, who knows much more about the Oscars than I do. Get creative with paid subscriptions The internet spent a lot of time figuring out how to really optimize ads. We know a lot of ways to make money off advertising to people. We also now know that, yes, subscriptions are great. Last night I wondered: what is the average frequency with which a paid newsletter sends out paid posts? I pulled the top 25 Substack newsletters and found that 14 of the 25 were sending about even amounts: one paid post for one free post. Some were more like me, where you do five free, one paid. And then some were the opposite direction, where you get five paid and then one free per week. So we know what tends to do well when it comes to subscriptions, but I want to point out a few other business models that I think people should try. There are different ways to use subscriptions that are not simply, “Half my posts are behind a paywall and the other half is free.” For instance, you can use what’s almost like demand-based pricing. If there's an election going on, in October lots of people are going to be interested in that stuff. And so maybe you have something that’s like, “We're an elections newsletter. In October, only paid subscribers get the really timely material.” On the other hand, you could have a paid-only edition that arrives quarterly or yearly. You just have to figure out what you need to promise and then deliver on that. It doesn't need to be once a week. It doesn't need to be twice a week. It doesn't need to be once a month. As long as you figure out your social contract with your readers, you can do whatever you want. It can come in the form of, “I cover an industry and once a year, you're going to get a big report from me and that's what the money's for.” You can promise to do 20 paid-only editions per year and only send them when there's actually news on your beat. I'm not going to monetize my Oscars newsletter, but maybe I have one that’s awards all year-round, and then I only send the paid editions when the news is hot, which is going to be in January and February. There are all sorts of ways that you can use ancillary newsletters to both experiment with content and experiment with delivery formats. For more advice on growing your newsletter, check out “How to build community around your publication.” Photo by Bess Adler Get full access to Substack Blog at
Jun 21, 2019 40 min

A growth masterclass with Judd Legum of Popular Information

Of all the writers who use Substack, no one is as good at promoting their newsletter as Judd Legum, publisher of Popular Information. Judd was previously the editor-in-chief of ThinkProgress and has also been a political campaign researcher and lawyer. I convinced him to join me on a special pop-up episode of the Substack Podcast to share his advice on how to run a one-man newsletter business, build an audience, and turn Twitter to your advantage. Below, I’ve summarized some of the key takeaways. Enjoy! —Hamish Play to your strengths “When I’ve been able to leverage my skill as a researcher and then turn it around and put it out in the newsletter and help inform people in a deeper way about something they care about – whether that’s been the corporate donations to Cindy Hyde-Smith or Steve King, or whether that’s been really diving in deep to the election fraud issues in North Carolina, or some of the more recent stuff I’ve done about Facebook ads or the corporate contributions to some of these politicians pushing abortion bans in the United States – that’s what the audience really responds to. And so knowing that, I try to look at what’s going on the news and see where is there a topic that I can research further and pull out stuff that’s really new. That’s information that people didn’t have and I think that’s what people value and are willing to pay for.” People pay to feel empowered “From what I’ve heard from my paid subscribers, it’s just that they really want to support this kind of journalism, and they feel good about it when I do that kind of work. They feel empowered and they feel more informed and so that’s what’s motivated them. And that’s something I didn’t anticipate either. I thought it was really just the paywall that motivates people and the fact that you were withholding content, but I think for most people that’s not it.” Sell value instead of volume “Most people do not want more email. So if the only thing you have to offer them is, ‘Hey, subscribe to this newsletter and you’ll get some more email,’ that’s not that compelling. But if you can create a different value proposition where you can say, ‘Look, I’m creating the kind of writing that you can’t find anywhere else and I need you to be a part of this and to support this work if you value it,’ then I think that people get into that. And they want to get it four times a week, but it’s not necessarily the idea of getting it four times a week that is going to be the motivating factor.” Why he spent the first three months publishing everything for free “I thought that if I could get people in the door and show them what I could do with their support, that maybe people would go for it. And I think that’s largely what happened, because that’s still been my best little, you know, two-week period, was right when I turned on the paid subscriptions and the people who had been receiving it during that free period were given an opportunity to switch over.” The importance of free content “If you think of it from a business perspective, because this is a little business that you start – it’s a newsletter but it’s also a business – the free content is by far the most important content for your business. Because one, it’s something that anyone can read and it can help grow your free list. And two, it’s what gets sent to your total mailing list and gives you an opportunity to convert people.” If you don’t self-promote, you won’t get a promotion “I think probably the easiest mistake is just to think that, ‘Oh, I’m just going to write and put it out there and we’ll just see what happens.’ I can tell you, nothing will happen. You’ve got to really work on it... If you’re trying to earn a living doing it, you’ve got to work on it. And in addition to your job of writing the newsletter, you have another job, which is you’re the marketing officer for your company.” How to use Twitter to drive growth “I don’t know the exact percentage of subscribers who first came on Twitter but I think it probably approaches 50% of my paid subscribers. And the way I use it is to give people essentially a thesis statement of what the newsletter is about that day. And I’ll do that in a thread of tweets. It might be 5 to 15 tweets where I lay out my main points or the things that I’ve learned. And then I try to use that to build up to a period where one of those tweets – not the first tweet and not the last tweet but somewhere in there – there is an organic place where I can ask people to sign up for the newsletter and that that’s the best way to get the information”. Use Twitter to grow even if you don’t have a huge following “If you don’t have a huge following to begin with, you can still be successful. And one of the ways to do that is to reach out directly to people and tell them about what you’ve written if you do it in a thoughtful way. So you’ve got to think about what your topic is, what you’ve discovered, what you’ve written about and think about who does have a large audience on Twitter and might be interested in that, and send them a nice polite note about that thing. And that’s still something I do on a targeted basis, even though I do have a pretty good following, because there’s people with even bigger followings and there’s also people with smaller followings but they have really engaged followings that you want to get your information in front of.” Threads are better than single tweets “One, it’s just more space in people’s feeds. Social media is a brawl for people’s attention. And it’s basically like sending eight or nine people into the ring versus one person into the ring to see what they can do, so that’s an advantage. I think you have a better chance of capturing what’s interesting about your newsletter in a thread than you do in a single tweet. And I think that, just as a matter of Twitter strategy, I know that creating a popular thread is something that is likely to get you new Twitter followers, whereas just an individual popular tweet is not. And I think that’s because a thread indicates that you are a thoughtful person.” (See example below.) Tweet something valuable “Anyone can tweet a link to their website, but you have to come up with a value proposition for why people should do it. I think the shortest way to explain the value proposition that works best for me is that you should do it to receive and support accountability journalism. But no matter who you are, you have to be able to succinctly describe the value proposition. If you don’t have that, it really is not going to matter how much you promote your website, because you haven’t given people a reason to do it.” Get full access to Substack Blog at
Feb 28, 2019 53 min

#012 – Media critic Jesse Brown on the secrets behind Canadaland's crowdfunded success

Canadian journalist and media critic Jesse Brown is well known in his home country for big media scoops and uncompromising commentary. These days, he’s creating a name for himself as a media entrepreneur, too. With his latest venture, Canadaland, the former columnist has created a podcast network funded by its audience through Patreon. In this interview, we discuss Brown’s colorful career, his surprise side success from cofounding a startup that many years later was acquired by Snapchat, and why he thinks every journalism student should start a newsletter and charge for their work. Brown is a sharp media thinker and digital media expert. I thoroughly enjoyed this conversation and think you will too. —Hamish Click here to listen in your favorite podcast app Get full access to Substack Blog at
Feb 07, 2019 6 min

Introducing Substack for audio

Today, we’re moving into paid podcasts with the launch of a tool for audio publishing. The first Substack publisher to use the tool is Anthony Pompliano, who is launching a daily podcast for Off the Chain that will be available to his paying subscribers. We’ve always believed that one of the great benefits of Substack is that you can subscribe to a person. That power is intensified when you can actually hear that person’s voice. Subscription podcasting through Substack works in the same way as publishing newsletters. Once the feature is enabled, you can create an audio post that is just like a normal post and can go out to everyone or only to subscribers. After receiving the post by email or accessing it on the web, subscribers can listen to the audio through the Substack web player. (Try it by listening to our special announcement episode right here in this post.) It used to be that the web-player experience for audio wasn’t great. In iOS, for instance, audio that was playing from a browser wouldn’t keep playing once you switched apps or turned off the screen. These days, however, the web-player experience for audio is good, with persistent playback and controls that are accessible from the lock screen. With the Substack player, you can speed up the audio, too, so if you like to listen at 2x you’ll be well looked after. We may soon add the ability to add a private feed of episodes to podcast players, but we like the web solution for now. (Give us your feedback, etc.) We also like email being the distribution channel. When you are constantly bombarded by tweets, push notifications, and updates, receiving an email that gives you a direct link to a podcast episode just feels... sane. Plus, email is a decentralized system that avoids depending on platforms that may or may not be interested in helping you build a subscription business through a direct relationship with your audience. Anthony has been doing amazing work with Off the Chain, so we’re thrilled that he’s pioneering this feature for us. The new podcast, Off the Chain Daily, will feature episodes of 10 minutes or less that discuss the hot issues of the day in crypto. Listening to an episode feels like receiving a personal audio-letter from a highly knowledgeable friend. It’s a great format and one that we hope many other Substack publishers will use in the future. Substack’s audio feature is in private beta, but we’ll be rolling it out to more people over the coming weeks and months. If you’d like to get your name on the invitation list, please fill out this application form. Get full access to Substack Blog at
Oct 19, 2018 47 min

#011 – How Bill Bishop cut a path from the Tiananmen Square Massacre to the inboxes of America's power brokers

Bill Bishop is the author of the Sinocism China newsletter, and our very first publisher on Substack. In this interview, we discuss his secrets to building a great newsletter business and his fascinating career, from running video tape for news stations at Tiananmen Square during the 1989 massacre, to co-founding the financial news site MarketWatch, attempting to build a gaming business in boom-times China, and ultimately starting Sinocism. Get full access to Substack Blog at
Oct 12, 2018 54 min

#010 - How Luke Timmerman created the top paid newsletter in biotech

Luke Timmerman is a veteran biotechnology journalist that decided to launch his own subscription-based publication (The Timmerman Report) because he wanted to create a better incentive structure for himself than advertising allows. Get full access to Substack Blog at
Sep 28, 2018 42 min

#009 – Emma Beals on life as an independent war reporter in the age of ISIS

First as an investigative journalist, and now as an analyst, Emma Beals has been covering the rise of ISIS and the wars in Syria and Iraq since 2012. During that time, reporting on the conflicts has become so dangerous that the nature of war reporting itself has had to change. Journalists, now targets in these wars, have increasingly turned to digital tools to augment their reporting. Get full access to Substack Blog at
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