Getting started with local news on Substack

The world needs local news more than ever. Local journalism informs and brings together communities, but has never been more under threat. We strongly believe in the potential of the Substack model for building a sustainable, subscription-based business model for local news writers and readers alike. Emerging publications like The Mill (Manchester), The Rover (Montreal), The Addison Times (Addison), The Charlotte Ledger, and City Hall Watcher (Toronto) are already leading the way, and we’re fostering more local news publications through our Substack Local initiative.

In this guide, we provide tips and strategies for starting and succeeding with a local news publication on Substack:

  • Getting started

  • Planning your subscription pricing

  • Preparing for launch

  • Developing an editorial strategy

  • Growing your publication

Getting started

Before launching your local news publication, it’s important to define the overall editorial and business strategy for your publication. What makes it different from the existing local news ecosystem? What is the unique value your readers will only be able to get from your publication?

  • Decide what job you’ll do for your readers. Clearly define for yourself and your readers your publication’s value proposition: the reason that your writing is useful and can’t be found anywhere else. You might cover a beat other reporters aren’t, focus on data and quantitative methods like City Hall Watcher, or bring perspective from an underrepresented community or location. Substack writer Casey Newton explains and provides more examples here.

  • Go newsletter-first, and stay lean. A great newsletter requires focus. It’s lower-cost to operate than a traditional web or print publication, and more importantly, is a format that cultivates a direct relationship to readers. The goal is to write a fantastic regularly scheduled newsletter that readers can make part of their daily or weekly news habit.

  • Develop deep ties with the local community. Obvious but important! Successful local news writers should have broad and deep context, knowledge, and relationships in the community they’re writing for and about – ideally, they should already be known as trustworthy, credible thinkers by the community. 

Planning your subscription pricing 

Paid subscriptions are the core of a sustainable news publication. They represent not just an exchange of goods and services, but an ongoing relationship between writers and readers. 

  • Decide on your launch pricing. Decide whether you want to start with the paid subscription option on or off. We suggest that smaller writers build a substantial free audience first, but if you start free, have a plan for how to think about paid subscriptions within 90 days. If you have an existing audience elsewhere, we recommend providing readers the option to pay at the beginning to support you, but announcing that you’ll keep all posts free for the first 2-3 months. This acts as a teaser of your future paid content, helps build a free audience, and enables you to do a second launch once you begin publishing paid-only content.

  • Define monthly, annual, and founding price levels. Many local news writers who aim to make their Substack their full-time business charge between $5-10/month and $50-100/year. To pick a price, consider browsing publications in similar categories and defining your audience. For instance, business readers can often pay more if they can expense the publication, or you can set up student discounts. Remember that an extra $1/month for your publication won’t deter most individual readers, but it’ll make a huge difference to you. Finally, make sure to turn on the “Founding Member” price, which allows your biggest supporters to contribute extra.

  • Make your biggest news content free, but bring paid readers into a community. Think of free posts as the main concert and paid content as the backstage pass. Big, important stories go a long way in terms of building your audience, while committed readers who value your mission will pay to become a community insider. Deeper content for paid readers could include exclusive subscriber events, community member spotlights, discussion threads, commentary on local events, or restaurant reviews. 

Preparing for launch

The launch is one of the most important moments of your publication. It’s an opportunity to establish your publication’s mission and drive a wave of initial interest and subscriptions. 

  • Set up your publication. In your publication Settings page, fill in your publication’s title, tags, one-line description, About page, logo, and theme. You can also customize the Welcome email that new subscribers receive and choose to enable community features (commenting) and/or podcasting. If you’re launching with payments enabled, make sure also to connect to Stripe, fill out monthly/annual/founding prices, and list the benefits for paid subscribers.

  • Write an announcement post. Your announcement post is the first thing you publish on your Substack site, and it should be the page you link to when you launch. Think of this as the “jacket copy” of your publication. The announcement post tells readers about the story and motivation behind your publication: why you’re doing this, your publication’s mission, where you want this to go, who you are. Let it give readers a flavor of your voice and your passion for this project. It should also include several subscribe buttons and an explanation of subscription options and benefits. For inspiration, check out examples from The Line and Platformer.

  • Share, share, share! Before launching, reach out to your network – friends, business contacts, local community leaders – to give them a heads up about your publication and launch date. On the day of launch, write posts on relevant social networks (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn) explaining the motivation for your publication, linking to your Substack announcement post, and requesting people subscribe. Ask your contacts to share your post with their networks as well. Here are some extra tips for writing effective and shareable Twitter threads.

Developing an editorial strategy

Your publication’s editorial strategy involves deciding what kinds of content to post, how frequently to publish, what to make free vs. paid, and more. 

  • Plan a consistent editorial schedule. We suggest that free and paid subscribers receive at least one post a week, so for paid local news writers, we recommend publishing at least twice a week and at most daily. Establishing a regular schedule (e.g. Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 9am) increases your professionalism and builds a habit among readers. You can explain your schedule on your About page. If you’re worried about publishing frequency, consider varying your post types to include discussion threads, interviews, or other formats.

  • Write and format posts for email. Newsletters are often formatted differently from print and magazine articles. Because readers are reading in their inbox, use section headers, bullet points, images, and dividers to make posts concise and easily skimmable. Most newsletters are under 3000 words, and longer posts are usually split up with multiple headers. You can learn more about using Substack’s tools to style a post here.

  • Use publication sections for multiple columns. If you have multiple regularly published columns or post categories, Substack’s publication sections feature allows you to list and manage these under a single umbrella publication. Subscribers can choose which sections to subscribe to on their Account page. For example, The Charlotte Ledger includes an obituaries section as a paid exclusive.

  • Check out more editorial strategy tips from Substack writers like Craig Morgan, Camila Russo, Christopher Curtis, and Scott Hines.

Growing your publication

Publishing great writing is the first step in growing your Substack. Next, there are an array of growth tactics across content, marketing, and partnerships that you can implement to reach different audiences in your community.

  • Make Substack your main landing page, and link to posts elsewhere. Making Substack your main landing page (e.g. in your Twitter bio) gives readers clear calls-to-action by pointing to a subscription option instantly. It’s also good for SEO: search engines rank sites partly based on how many other pages link to your site.

  • Talk about your publication everywhere. Most writers feel they are too self-promotional, but talking about the mission of the publication is something people want to support. Post regularly on social media, attend relevant local events and conferences, and build relationships with other local writers and reporters – especially if you’re breaking news. 

  • How you talk about it matters. You aren’t asking for clickbait, you’re asking people to support work that is interesting, high-quality, and directly useful – on an ongoing basis. Give potential readers a taste of your content where they are, such as teaser excerpts, and share the hard work, research, or inspiration that go into your Substack pieces. The more people get a real sense of what you do and why, the more likely they are to check out your larger world of content on Substack, and then subscribe.

  • Get creative to reach less tech-savvy readers. Certain demographics may be very likely to consume local news but not as familiar with newer social media channels or newsletters. To reach them, consider sharing on Facebook, publishing stories relevant to targeted reader demographics, and even possibly explaining how an email newsletter works while first promoting your publication.

  • Establish local content partnerships. In a denser local news ecosystem, you can partner with community media publications for content such as regular guest columns, participation in social media groups, or cross-promoting to others’ newsletters. This is especially helpful for reaching a range of audiences.

  • Interview influential subscribers or community members. Publishing interviews or guest essays by community leaders helps your publication “borrow” your guest’s audiences: if they share the post, their followers are likely to subscribe to your publication too (Delia Cai explains more here). Use these opportunities to co-create content like interviews, audio conversations, or collaborative articles that you’ll both be proud to share. 

  • Use CTAs (calls-to-action) in your posts. In every post, use lots of buttons and email headers and footers to ask readers to sign up, become a paying subscriber, comment, or forward your emails to their friends.

  • Check out more growth tips from Substack writers like Stew Fortier, Delia Cai, Edwin Dorsey, and Abigail Koffler.

More resources

You can check out the recap of our conversation with Tony Mecia of The Charlotte Ledger about how he launched and grew his independent local news publication.

For more guidance on building and growing your Substack, check out these guides:

Above all, embrace experimentation! This is your journey, your plan, and your content. Substack is here to help, and we're so proud to support a new ecosystem for local news.

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