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Grow: How Michael MacLeod quit his day job to focus on local news for the civic good
The Grow interview series is designed to share the nuts and bolts of how writers have gone independent and grown their audiences on Substack. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
We invited, who writes , to share insights on re-engaging citizens with their city, designing a payment model that rewards support, and ultimately quitting his job to focus on running the newsletter.
In 2010, Mike MacLeod was a young beat blogger for The Guardian in Scotland, testing a new version of online reporting at a time when local news was in decline and newsrooms across the country were laying off staff in droves. When the Guardian Local project folded a year later, citing lack of a sustainable business model, the community he had fostered through daily news updates never left him.
Residents continued to send Mike stories long after the Guardian Edinburgh doors were closed to them. He never lost his drive for generating civic good from small stories—and a deep desire to reignite the blogger-style local news bulletin and find a way to make it sustainable.
Twelve years later, Mike has done just that.
He launched The Edinburgh Guardian in January 2023 and, eight months later, announced to his 3,800 subscribers that he was able to quit a stable £90,000-a-year job at Meta to focus on the Substack. In an announcement post to his subscribers, he wrote:
It’s a gamble for me financially, but I strongly believe local news needed a more modern model, making it easier to keep up with all the things going on in and around the city. . . . I’m a big believer in trying to make tiny positive changes. The more we all care about where we live, get involved in local democracy and connect on shared interests, the better our lives can be.
Now every morning, Mike gets up at 5 a.m. to source, draft, and edit a roundup of links to local news, culture, events, and grassroots happenings that simply doesn’t exist in one place anywhere else. His goal: “to make it easier to find local news without having to wade through problematic social feeds and noisy websites full of irrelevant clickbait.”
We interviewed Mike as part of our Grow series to learn more about how he made The Edinburgh Guardian a sustainable local news site in less than a year and what advice he’d pass on to other journalists seeking to make the leap to independence, and we take a look at other publications on Substack paving the way for a new generation of local news.
What’s your Substack about in one sentence?
The Edinburgh Minute [the daily newsletter of The Edinburgh Guardian] is a free daily curation of Edinburgh’s news, culture, and communities in a one-minute-ish read.
Who reads your publication?
Thanks to word of mouth, nearly 4,000 people, mostly based in Scotland. They include local artists, students, politicians, campaigners, cultural leaders, grassroots community groups, venue owners, and expats.
What do you uniquely offer readers?
I’ve been a journalist for around 18 years, so I’m well-connected locally. Thanks to my contacts, I receive between six and 12 messages per day from people who have something to share in The Edinburgh Minute newsletter. The humanity of it makes it unique.
What’s your content strategy?
Publish every weekday: Some weekends I’ll share a ‘most read’ post laying out the 10 most clicked/tapped links from each week’s newsletters.
Format: A daily list of links, each with a relevant emoji at the start of the sentence and the name of the journalist who wrote the linked piece. The goal is to create something that takes around a minute to read and send it at 7 a.m. each day.
Growth by numbers
Started Substack: December 2022
Went paid: March 31, 2023
Total subscribers: 3,937
Paid subscribers: 325
How did you get started?
I began in stealth mode during the winter holiday of December 2022. I spent a couple of months publishing only to myself while I figured out Substack and tweaked the format and workflow. I started telling people about it in February 2023. I realised that the only way to do a daily news roundup newsletter was before I started my day job, so I got into a routine of waking at 5 a.m. and publishing at 7 a.m. for the commuter audience.
I’ve shared my work on Twitter since 2011. Back then, I would publish a daily links blog post for The Guardian’s hyperlocal news project. Ever since that project closed, I wanted to keep that format going somehow.
How did you come up with your payment model?
Naivete! Honestly, I wasn’t planning to monetize because I wasn’t sure it was worth anything. I was still in the experimentation phase. Another hyperlocal news publisher encouraged me to go paid when I had 515 free subscribers. My model is to keep the daily links roundup free, while allowing people to pay if they want and giving those paying subs some additional extra value with more niche-topic weekly local newsletters. I realised allowing people to pay while also keeping it free is a good way to find out your natural free to paying ratio. Then, by studying the types of stories readers click on most, I decided to launch the Culture Minute as an added-value weekly newsletter for paying subs.
Meaningful growth moments
Getting started: I had the fortune of two weeks off my day job with Meta during the winter holiday. I had always wanted to return to daily local news somehow, because I care a lot about the city of Edinburgh. I believe that the more we all care about where we live, get involved in local democracy, and connect on shared interests, the better our lives can be. A little bit of civic pride can go a long way, right? I hope so, anyway. Substack came into my life at the perfect time, so I spent a while publishing in stealth to figure things out.
Without my asking, my friend Oli shared a link to my Substack on the local Reddit forum. People were asking for alternatives to the usual local news sites, which are littered with adverts and pop-up autoplay videos. Thanks to Oli’s recommendation, subscribers doubled.
The boost on the weekend of 22 April 2023 came thanks to a few factors: I had printed off a few hundred stickers with QR codes and gave them out during an annual Critical Mass safe-cycling campaign ride through Edinburgh. I also tried advertising on Instagram and saw a boost anytime I boosted a post; however, that trend plateaued through the year and I’ve stopped advertising online.
The early July 2023 spike resulted from three things: I shared some posts on my personal social media channels (LinkedIn was most effective) about hitting 100 daily posts. I also launched The Culture Minute newsletter that week and was fortunate enough to be featured on Substack that week.
Today:The fifth arrow shows a spike when I published a personal post about committing more to my Substack. I told readers that things were looking promising enough that I had quit my job at Meta so I could focus more on the newsletter. That day, I saw 50 new paying subscribers and a lot of kind words on social media supporting my decision, which is admittedly a gamble, but a bet I believe in. I’ve secured part-time work for four hours per day. The rest of my time is dedicated to making this thing as good as it can be. I have surveyed the audience on what they want more of, so will factor that into which additional niche newsletters I roll out for paying subscribers. My goal is to hit 1,000 paying subscribers while still keeping the main daily newsletter free to all. That may mean slower growth than is possible, but I do believe in this links roundup format being free to all.
How does your Substack fit into your professional life?
It’s a side hustle just now. I was on a good contract with Meta earning £90k. As I approached the end of the second year in that job, I had saved up enough to quit and commit to this.
As I approached 150 daily editions, I was pretty committed to this newsletter. The 5 a.m. start for my self-imposed 7 a.m. deadline is, on reflection, pretty hardcore, and I’ll admit I was burning the candle at both ends. But I believed in it. Do I want a salary with a ceiling or do I want a salary with no ceiling? I’m more motivated to wake up at 5 a.m. to write this than I am to wake up at 9 a.m. for most other jobs.
About 12 years ago, you ran the Edinburgh beat of the Guardian Local project. Did you always think you’d bring Guardian Edinburgh back to life?
Sadly, we didn’t have a tool like Substack in 2011. Some readers encouraged me to make a Kickstarter combined with a mailing list, but the internet was clunkier back then and I wasn’t confident I’d have the audience.
However, people kept sending me stories, events, and grassroots news, expecting me to publish somewhere. I’d been fairly immersed in my career for a decade, until I found myself listening to The Active Voice podcast episode with Joshi Herrmann. He spoke about how people’s need to know was still strong, despite the chronic underinvestment in local newsrooms.
I felt energised, so began listing my own ideas to help people find out their local news. As a nod to the original home of these daily links blogs, I flipped the name of the publication to ‘Edinburgh Guardian’ and got started.
I didn’t plan to or ever expect to make money from this, so I am truly riding a wave that was more than a decade of swell I hadn’t seen coming.
It feels exciting and empowering to see those payments come in. I get as much value, though, from people’s responses. People tell me they wanted to stay off social media for their mental health and find this daily email is a perfect solution to stay in the loop locally.
Read more: 💌 Community love: People saying nice things about The Edinburgh Minute
Do you plan to expand your offering to more in-depth pieces?
Previously, I passed these on to local journalists. But now I can commit more time to ‘proper news,’ as I call it. I’d rather my publication was known for celebrating brilliant people doing cool things, however, so I’m selective about the stories I take on. I’m happy that my bread and butter is the daily news links plus a ‘what’s on’ vibe, as people tell me they are constantly surprised at how much is happening in the city that they didn’t know about. I feel the same, every single day, thanks to people sending in things.
What surprised you about writing a local news publication on Substack?
So many things have surprised me! Firstly, how easy it is as a publisher, because Substack and Stripe take care of the financial transaction side of things. I separate my income into a tax pot using a Monzo Business account, and that’s the only financial admin I have to do. Another surprise has been how personal people are when they respond. Being able to just hit ‘reply’ on an email gives people a direct line back to your inbox. As a result, I’ve had some very generous words about why people appreciate what I do. The feedback is much more wholesome than I would get in previous journalism jobs.
I’ve also heard firsthand from local journalists that this daily newsletter’s very existence has shaken up newsrooms. They’re underfunded, cutting staff, and young reporters are stuck at their desks churning out press releases, which is very sad. They should be talking to real humans, going to local government meetings, and scrutinising how our taxes are spent. I’ve heard that my newsletter’s open rate outperforms some of theirs and has got newsrooms talking about what works and what doesn’t. Again, it’s not what I planned, but if it improves things for readers, then it’s a win. Those newsroom journalists also email me their links before they go live, asking to be featured, because they know it’ll bring them traffic. Since launch, the Minute has had more than 125,000 link clicks, so it works!
Who’s another Substack writer you’ve turned to for guidance or inspiration?
After listening to his Active Voice interview, I’ve had a few phone calls withto learn more about how his local news Substacks work. He inspires me because he employs journalists and is scaling things in a sensible way. I don’t plan to go down that route, but Substack truly connects people who are navigating things for the first time, together. I rarely feel lonely in this solo writing job.
Set a schedule: While Mike says the 5 a.m. starts were rigid, ultimately they allowed his publication to stay consistent and tuned into the commuter readers, which fit the newsletter content.
Find your product-market fit: Mike understood his publication needed to fit a need for readers that didn’t already exist—and encouraged other writers to do the same. He also found readers where they were, with stickers at in-person events.
Seek advice: Mike reached out to another journalist with experience in creating successful local news Substacks to share ideas and ask advice.
A new wave of local news is building a sustainable model for independent journalism on Substack
Mike’s story isn’t unique. Since pioneering the Substack Local program, which launched a number of local news publications across the world, we have continued to see slow and steady growth pointing toward the continued sustainable model the platform provides.
Joshi Herrmann, who runs three other publications out of the U.K.—The Manchester Mill, The Liverpool Post, and The Sheffield Tribune—with a team of eight full-time staff, recently hit a slew of important milestones. After reaching 5,000 subscriptions across all three newsletters, the team expanded and its parent company received a £1.75 million valuation from the media mogul Mark Thompson. Joshi is now considering opening editions in Birmingham, Leeds, Glasgow, and Newcastle.
He and others paved the way for a new generation of independent journalists covering their local beat. These publications continue to add proof to Substack’s potential as a new model for building a sustainable, subscription-based business for local news writers and readers alike. Notable and recent examples include:
- recently hired its first staffer, Cathrine Dyer. The newsletter delivers commentary about the political economy in Aotearoa/New Zealand on their website. The premium paid version gives access to all the articles, podcasts, and emails, along with invites to special “hoon” webinar events.
- —Dominick is able to support himself full-time with his Substack of investigative journalism in Central Washington State.
- is a journal of South Dakota politics, government, and culture that features journalism from veteran reporters Jonathan Ellis and Joe Sneve. It includes newsletters and the state’s top political podcast, The Scouting Report.
- , by Cameron Hurst, Sally Olds, and Oscar Schwartz, is a weekly newsletter aiming to revive the art of reportage—to step away from the screen and get back out into the streets. Whether writing on the global elite or the neighborhood wine bar, the reporters promise to pound the pavement in search of stories with longevity.
- , by Gaía Passarelli, chronicles São Paulo, Brazil, sharing essay-style stories about the city in the 1920s.
- is a daily insider publication for political outsiders, run by longtime local journalists Rachel Leingang and Hank Stephenson.
- offers a clear-eyed, engaging look at the decisions and decision makers that affect Tucson, Arizona, to help readers understand and improve their community.
- shines a light on New Zealand’s Southland region—its people, businesses, and key issues—in an interesting, informative, and entertaining way.
- —the online version of The Leveller newspaper has become the U.K.’s leading news outlet for Somerset county.
- covers the district of Medway, U.K., with local news, politics, culture, and the weirder side of its towns.
- curates news in Swindon, U.K.
Read more: Getting started with local news on Substack
Do you know of a local news publication in your area on Substack? Take a look at this thread on Notes, and add your own:
What questions do you have for Mike that we didn’t ask? Leave them in the comments!
To read more from this series on growing your publication, see our interviews with Laura Kennedy, Hetty Lui McKinnon, Katelyn Jetelina, Rob Henderson, Tyler Bainbridge, Melinda Wenner Moyer, Leslie Stephens, and more.