March 3, 2021

Tony Mecia was at a crossroads.

His job as a senior writer at The Weekly Standard was over — in December 2018, the publication announced its demise.

It was time for Mecia to determine his next step. As a former business reporter and editor at The Charlotte Observer, he knew he had options. He could go back to freelancing or look for another national writing job.

But when he surveyed the local news landscape, he felt that something was missing. There were local issues that just weren’t getting covered. There was an opportunity for real change.

At the same time, he found Substack, a newsletter platform that allows journalists to engage directly with subscribers, relying on a paid subscription model to earn writers money. The timing triggered a lightbulb moment — he would start a local newsletter.

“My original idea was to curate some of the best of what’s out there, get a little bit of analysis and insight and do some original reporting,” Mecia said. “I’d been a journalist here in Charlotte, I knew a fair number of people and knew the lay of the land, so I figured there’d be some value there.”

Thus, The Charlotte Ledger was born. Mecia’s first post went out on Feb. 27, 2019, with little fanfare about the newsletter debut, other than a subhed reading, “Welcome to the inaugural issue of The Charlotte Ledger” and a short italicized description of the newsletter’s ethics and staff at the end.

From its start, the newsletter had a business bent, given Mecia’s background — its full name is the “Charlotte Ledger business newsletter.” The publication is described as offering “original, business-y information about Charlotte that you won’t find anywhere else.”

While the focus is certainly on Charlotte’s business community, weekly issues also explore what it means to be a person living in Charlotte in an engaging and conversational way, comparable in many ways to a newspaper’s features section. Ledger writers unearthed Charlotte’s feta cheese shortage and covered a Charlotte chess boom. Some newsletters include comments from Ledger readers, reminiscent of a newspaper’s letters to the editor page but in a casual tone more common of the digital age.

It’s been about two years since Mecia launched the newsletter and one since he began offering paid subscriptions at $9 a month and $99 a year. It’s safe to say that The Charlotte Ledger is a success. In roughly seven months, he reached 2,000 unpaid subscribers. Now, the publication has 7,000 total subscribers — paid and unpaid — and Mecia has hired a managing editor, Cristina Bolling, a former Charlotte Observer reporter herself.

Substack writers can be guarded about paid subscriber numbers — Substack suggests converting about 5 to 10% of an email list to paying customers. But Mecia said the Ledger is “pretty comfortably” above that 10%.

By all accounts, things are going well, but Mecia and Bolling said they are not yet earning what they were in their full-time staff jobs. They’re optimistic that they’ll get there, but Mecia said they’re still in “building mode.” He likens it to founders starting any company — they expect to pay themselves a below-market salary as they get things off the ground.

“You don’t turn the lights on and, all of a sudden, the money is just gushing in,” Bolling said. “You play the long game, you see the growth, you see the numbers going up and you keep working toward that.”

A barebones newsletter platform

The news business — and local news, in particular — is an industry practically begging to be disrupted. While national news outlets have largely found a new model that works, many local newspapers are trying everything to find something that might change their fates.

The pandemic has only worsened this trend. A Poynter analysis found that, since coronavirus began, more than 60 local news organizations have shuttered or temporarily closed in the United States. Many of the ones that continue to survive are searching for a cure: often through audience engagement, nonprofit partnerships or increasingly restrictive paywalls.

Into this landscape came Substack, a barebones newsletter platform founded in 2017. The site’s aesthetic, with its white background and text-heavy format, is the antithesis of most local newspaper websites, which call to the reader with headlines, visuals, advertisements and videos, all on one page. Among other things, Substack is known for its simplicity — both in appearance and user experience. Almost everyone interviewed for this piece noted how easy it was to register and get started on the platform — in fact, for some, that was a large factor in choosing Substack.

Since Substack’s founding, the company has become less of a neutral platform and more of a media organization, with hordes of high-profile writers leaving high-profile outlets to start or further a newsletter on Substack. The “pivot to Substack” has become the new “pivot to video” that so many newsrooms made previously, seeming to reach a fever pitch at the close of 2020. But there is one key difference: instead of a newsroom diversifying its employee base through hiring, the pivot to Substack puts the agency in the hands of the employee. Whole newsrooms aren’t pivoting to Substack — individual reporters are.

To give a sense of scale, in the last year, BuzzFeed News’ Anne Helen Petersen left her role as senior culture writer to focus full-time on her Substack, Culture Study. Longtime Vulture writer Hunter Harris left her job in November to start Hung Up, while feminist writer Jessica Valenti started the All in Her Head newsletter on Substack in February and The Verge’s Casey Newton left in September 2020 to start Platformer. At the same time, more controversial writers left — or, in some cases, were asked to leave — their full-time media jobs to start a Substack, like Glenn Greenwald, who started a newsletter after resigning from The Intercept, and Andrew Sullivan, who resigned from New York Magazine and began The Weekly Dish.

‘You don’t need a giant audience to succeed’

Most of these writers have one big thing in common: a built-in audience. In fact, all of the writers listed above have more than 100,000 followers on Twitter — in some cases, like Greenwald’s, they have much more. And while there’s no science that says Twitter followers translate to Substack readers, there is likely some correlation.

With local news, the numbers are much lower. A successful local news reporter, on average, might get up to 10,000 Twitter followers. Is that enough to build a profitable following on Substack?

Substack co-founder Hamish McKenzie, a former journalist, thinks yes.

“One of the beauties of the subscription model is that you don’t need a giant audience to succeed financially,” McKenzie said in an email. “If you can find 1,000 people who are willing to pay $100 a year for the work you are doing, then that is enough for a livelihood.”

Still, much of Substack’s overall “wealth,” if you want to call it that, comes from its top writers. The top 10 people on Substack make a combined $10 million a year, according to an interview Substack co-founder and CEO Chris Best gave to The Verge. The company has reportedly recruited and paid out advances to writers, including Petersen, based on a story from Bloomberg Businessweek.

When asked whether Substack plans to invest in local reporters the way it has in national writers, McKenzie pointed to the company’s fellowships program. In 2020, the company selected 10 fellows and five honorary mentions from its roster of writers. The senior fellow received a $100,000 grant, while nine other fellows got advances of $25,000 and stipends of $3,000. Of the 10 fellows selected, only one appeared to focus on local news — Adam Wren of Importantville, a newsletter on “the intersection of Indiana politics, business and power.”

Substack also has a program in the works that will focus on local news reporting, according to McKenzie. “Stay tuned,” he said.

If Substack does continue to move into the local newsletter market, they won’t be the only platform to do so. In December, Axios acquired the Charlotte Agenda for about $5 million, according to The New York Times. That deal came with a newsletter model set to be replicated in four local markets, Tampa Bay, Denver, Minneapolis and Des Moines.

There’s a reason newsletters are getting so much traction. They provide intimacy, said Tim Franklin, the senior associate dean and the John M. Mutz chair in local news at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, Media and Integrated Marketing Communications and a past president at Poynter.

“They are like this friend that shows up in your inbox every day or every week at an appointed time that you’ve welcomed in and that you have a propensity to want to read,” Franklin said.

In fact, he said, research shows that an email newsletter is the best way to build reader loyalty and reader following.

For readers and consumers, Franklin said, the trend of newsletters is potentially a very positive one. But for local news publications, particularly legacy media organizations, the rise of Substack adds “yet another layer of competition.”

“If I was still running a newsroom, one concern I would have is if you lose this beat writer who has been covering a topic for many years, is incredibly well-sourced, knows the subject front and back, if that person can now go out and basically build their own business on Substack,” he said, “you’ve not only lost a talented journalist, but potentially now you have competition in a way that didn’t exist until recently.”

That’s part of the reason The Charlotte Ledger has been so successful. They’ve managed to occupy a piece of the market they feel other local news outlets — and certainly national news outlets — are not covering.

“A lot of people conflate the decline of metro newspapers with a decline of interest in local journalism, and I think that’s not really fair,” Bolling said. “The New York Times is great, but if you’re in Charlotte, the Times is not going to tell us: Are schools open or closed? Who is getting the vaccine in Charlotte today? When is the health department doing this or that?”

The stories that made you read the paper

Petersen notes that the challenge of running a local newsletter is balancing the community’s desires. Sure, readers want breaking news and scoops on local politics, but they also want what she calls “the glorious ‘soft’ news,” like “profiles of locals, interviews with kids,” stories that made her read the paper when she was growing up.

Former Sarasota Herald-Tribune columnist Carrie Seidman knows that better than most. In December, Seidman left her post at the Herald-Tribune, ending a newspaper career that had spanned more than 40 years.

She was done … or so she thought. Upon the publication of her final column in the Herald-Tribune, she received roughly 600 emails from readers begging her not to go and asking where she was going to write next.

It was serendipity that led her to Substack. A reader suggested the platform, and Seidman had recently read a lengthy New Yorker piece on the newsletter company. She decided to look into it and see how difficult the process might be.

“The things that were important to me were, one, that it requires me minimally to have to deal with any technology,” she said. “I just want to get on there and write.”

Within one week of starting her Substack, Carrie’s Chronicles (now called FACEing Mental Illness) she had more than 500 free subscribers. Within about a month, she had 1,000. She credits much of that to her previous readership at the Herald-Tribune and her social media following.

Her newsletter doesn’t stick to the personal essay or traditional reporting dichotomy, but that’s part of what makes readers come back for more. Some weeks she tackles hyperlocal news, like the resignation of Sarasota’s police chief. Others read more like a cross between an advice column and a personal essay, like a piece on the value of writing a cathartic letter, whether or not it gets sent. A feature she has decided to make recurring — My Sunday Stroll — yields Seidman’s observations on a walk through various local neighborhoods.

For Seidman, yes, the goal is money, but it is mainly to write and to share her writing with the world. She is also working on a book project, and she hopes that having a Substack audience might be a selling point for a potential publisher.

“The primary motivation was how can I grow my audience beyond Sarasota and beyond Florida,” Seidman said. “And Substack just seemed like the easiest and most promising way to do that.”

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Elizabeth Djinis is a writer based in St. Petersburg, Florida. Follow her on Twitter at @djinisinabottle or email her at elizabeth@grafonwritingco.com.
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