Substack Podcast #018: Corporate governance with Francine McKenna
We spoke with Francine McKenna of The Dig, a newsletter about accounting, audit and corporate governance issues at public and pre-IPO companies. Through her newsletter, Francine analyzes the most widely-held and widely-shorted companies in the world.
After two decades of working for companies like KPMG and PwC, Francine’s original goal was to write a book. She started an anonymous blog, just to help her get material on paper. Over time, she amassed such a loyal following that she quit consulting, fully dedicating herself to her newsletter as an independent journalist.
We talked to Francine about her career journey from accounting to journalism, her rigorous approach to writing and research, and how she grew a loyal following of readers across her blog and newsletter.
The Dig, Francine’s newsletter
Francine on Twitter
Matt Levine, a business journalist that Francine admires
(06:20) Why Francine became an early Twitter adopter, even though others in her industry avoided it
(09:27) How Francine grew her audience, despite starting under a pseudonym, by analyzing metrics and reaching out to readers
(17:34) How Francine keeps up-to-date by developing meaningful relationships within the world of academia
(29:26) Francine’s transition from blogging to writing a newsletter
(41:43) How Francine differentiates paid vs. free content
On writing for herself:
Frankly, I wanted to just write what I want to write, the way I want to write it. I like writing long, I like writing detailed. I like writing for an audience that already knows that they want to read what I want to read. I'm not interested in converting the unconverted, but I'd be glad to teach those who are willing to learn.
On the loyalty of her audience:
I have students who were just seniors in college or just about to embark on their career when they first started reading me. Now they're partners at the firms or they're professors in the universities. I've been at it long enough that I've seen people grow and they've seen me grow.
You write The Dig, which you describe as digging into accounting, audit, and corporate governance issues at public and pre-IPO companies.
Yes, it's very similar to what I've been doing for the last 15 years in terms of writing and journalism. But I put a new brand spin on it for my Substack launch.
Awesome. I'd love to dig into, I'm going to be saying that a lot probably, dig into your background a bit since you had an entire career it seems. Several decades working in public accounting at KPMG and PwC, and all these big firms. Then you later went on to become an investigative journalist. You've had multiple careers it seems like. How and why did you make that transition from working directly in accounting to becoming a journalist?
Sure. I like to say that journalism is my second profession. Because accounting, being a CPA, is my first profession or at least my original one. If you're an accountant, you're always an accountant. Now I'm using that subject matter expertise and writing about it instead of doing it. But I had been working in industry, in banks, and then in KPMG, KPMG consulting, its spinoff, BearingPoint. I worked in Latin America for a while. Then for PwC was my last job with a firm. I left PwC at the end of 2006 thinking I was going to write a book about the accounting firms in the global financial system.
Of course, that went over like a lead balloon with agents and publishes. They wanted more sex, drugs, and rock and roll. I thought, well, I should start a blog in order to start getting some of that material on paper. Sort of see what people were going to respond to. I started a blog first on Blogger, which is the pre-Google Blogger version, anonymously. I was doing it sort of still thinking I was going to go back and work at a firm or at a company in the kinds of roles that I had been working before. A little worried, like all accountants are, about your reputation and getting on the blacklist of people who are not on the right side of the firms.
I started it anonymously at the end of 2006, beginning of 2007. People started emailing me like, "Who are you?" Including from outside the U.S., because I was talking about the firms from a very critical perspective. The big four public accounting firms and their consulting arms: PwC, Deloitte, Ernst & Young, and KPMG. Very few people have the freedom to talk about sort of the inside, the business end of those firms. Because you're usually either working for them or you're working for a company and you're dependent on them. Or you're somehow in the ecosystem of lawyers and the consultants, who are also dependent on their good favor.
Very few people actually know what goes on inside the firms and are free to talk about it. People were really curious and then I realized, why am I writing anonymously? How am I going to get a book deal from writing a blog if people don't know who I am? I'm going to have to stand by my opinions. I put my name on the blog and it's called re: The Auditors. R-E, The Auditors. Like in re: a litigation, or in reference to the auditors. I started writing and lo and behold, that was the beginning of 2007, 2008. We started having issues with the subprime and then the financial crisis.
The expertise that I had became very much in demand. Very few people could explain all the complex accounting and the role of the auditors in all of the different banks and companies that were under stress. At a certain point, I was at the point of no return because I had been so critical and had been talking so frankly about what was going on that nobody was ever going to hire me back in the firms or anywhere else. I had to just go forward and try to become a journalist and I approached that from the same sort of professional perspective that I did my previous career. And tried to learn from the best people and work for the best editors, and eventually ended up in a full-time role at MarketWatch in 2015 here in Washington, D.C.
Wow, it's funny hearing you talk about it. I didn't realize I guess that your blog was anonymous at first. It seems like there was this pattern of behavior. We have a couple of other Substack writers as well who write anonymously. And people who write in saying, "Can I start my newsletter anonymously?" I've seen it with sort of these industry insider kind of publications and writing. Have you seen this happening with other I guess anonymous Twitter accounts or blogs? It's just sort of I guess interesting to think about. Maybe in the past you had a whistleblower source that would go to media.
Whereas now people are just kind of doing it themselves and staying anonymous.
Sure, sure. Well, I was a very early Twitter adopter. I've been on Twitter since April of 2008. Again, because as an independent journalist, I needed a way to promote my work, to let people know I was writing and what I was writing about. Some of my old technology consulting friends who were on Friendster said, "Oh, Twitter is a cool place to go. You need to go there and you can connect with people." No one was there. I mean, no journalists, no accountants and auditors for sure. No lawyers, all of the people that were afraid of social media stayed away for a while.
But for me, it was a really good place to promote my work. I would run into people all the time, the accountants and the lawyers and the auditors and other... and then eventually the traders who started taking advantage. It was an early site that's still around, Stocktwits, which allows for... was using Twitter tags in order to sort of pull in information that people were posting on Twitter about individual stocks. That's much more sophisticated now. But the idea was people wanted to be anonymous because they had regular jobs.
They were either worried about saying something negative and getting fired or saying something that was confidential and getting fired. Or ticking off somebody that was going to hire them later and not having a career. I mean, the risk-averse professions or anybody who wants to hold a job where they're employed by somebody else is going to be worried about if something I say or something I do is going to be... is going to break the rules or is going to somehow alienate me from my employer. In my case, I was an independent journalist. I didn't have anybody that I had to alienate.
I had made a decision that I was never going back to the firms. It was sort of, hey, gonzo. 150% take it or leave it. I had to take the consequences of my actions. But a lot of people can't do that. People have obligations and responsibilities. They need to keep their day job and it's sort of a difficult balance. We run into that now. As a journalist, I run into that now with people who have great information. They want to be whistleblowers, but they need to be anonymous. They want to be sources.
They want people to know about their expertise, but they don't want to have it come across as critical. I write critically and maybe they don't even want to be quoted in my newsletter, or in the past, even in my news stories. Because I have a reputation of being critical of the people that they are beholden to. It's a dilemma. You can't have it both ways. You either are willing to stand by your opinions and take the consequences, or you're not going to get fame and fortune, the whole thing.
How did you solve the cold start problem of you're writing this anonymous blog, but you want it to be read by people who you might interact with normally. But you don't want to tell them that it's you. How did you initially get your readership out there?
As an accountant, I'm really into metrics. I looked for the tools that could help me see who was reading, how they were reading, what they were looking for. In the early days, you had tools. Even before Google Analytics, I've been subscribing to a tool out of the U.K. called Statcounter for now, gosh, it's going to be 14 years. They've got a lot of my money.
The idea was that I could look. Even if it was five people clicking on it, I could see where they were coming from. I could see what keywords they used to search. That's not as easy anymore. Of course, there's much more sophisticated analytical tools that have developed over time. Every major media organization now uses all kinds of analytical tools to look at their traffic. Especially from social media, Facebook, etcetera, etcetera. But I was an early adopter of analyzing that data.
If somebody came to my blog from another blog or from media, I called them. I reached out, I emailed them. I said, "Hey, I saw, I heard you went to my blog. How can I help you? What do you want to know? Why are you interested?" Some people were put off by that, but I met so many amazing people. People that I still work with and talk to today.
As an investigative journalist, and you were writing this blog from the beginning, and then also writing columns elsewhere and working at other media firms. How did you decide what went on your blog versus what you wanted to write in a column? How did you mentally separate personal writing and I guess professional writing is...
I didn't initially. Not being from a journalist background, I didn't initially pitch anybody. I just wrote, the blog was my outlet. It was my place to put everything down and I write long and I write detailed. I was very linky and I would just... it was my diary of everything that was going on and my way to explain. It developed a following because in particular, people that were working in the public accounting firms at that time during the crisis, in the midst of the crisis. They were craving information about what was going on, in particular about what was going to happen if all of these banks went out of business.
Those were their clients, and so when layoffs and other sort of more HR personnel issues came up, I mean, they just flocked to the blog. Because I would say, "Hey, this is going to happen." Or, "Hey, I heard they're going to have layoffs." Or, "Hey, the partners are going to get their pay cut." A lot of what's going on now in many industries. People crave that information because they want to know, am I going to have a job? Or how do I maneuver through this difficult situation?
I was writing on the blog. People started asking me, media organizations, and I was promoting that work on Twitter mostly. People started asking me to be quoted in articles. The very first major media quote I have was from the FT, from Stacey-Marie Ishmael, who is now the executive editor at The Texas Tribune and has been at the FT and Buzzfeed and lots of other places. She asked me to comment on this live conference call at the SEC. She quoted me and said, "Blogger," which was extraordinary at that time. A blogger was not a legitimate quote source for major media.
They were always asking me, "Well, don't you have a consulting firm?" Or, "Don't you work for a firm or a university?" They wanted some other kind of legitimate thing to identify me by. FT was kind of bold in that regard. FT Alphaville was bold in that regard. They were very big on the bloggers at that time. There was a whole group of a cabal of financial bloggers. The FinTwits early, early, early in the financial crisis. People who now are in some major media organizations like John Carney, who is at Breitbart and who was at The Wall Street Journal and CNBC. Joe Weisenthal at Bloomberg. Felix Salmon, who has been everywhere.
These were people who were blogging in the beginning of the financial crisis. First, they started quoting me. Then some outlets actually asked me to start writing. Then one thing I did have to do after only a couple of years, barely two years, is I could not do any other kind of consulting. I was doing some consulting, internal audit kind of consulting. The dilemma was, how can you write about stuff you're working at? How can you work at stuff that you want to write about?
My normal conflict of interest hat came on. I had to make a rule, I'm not going to work if I want to write about it. I'm not going to write about it if I'm working on it. Well, I started wanting to write about things more than I wanted to work with them. I stopped doing consulting and lived on freelance and the kindness of strangers for a long time. It was a very gradual thing, people asking me to write about it instead of being quoted. That was a transition in and of itself because if you've been quoted in a major media outlet, they won't let you come back and write about it from a plain news perspective. You have to be an opinion person, opinion writer.
Well, I didn't have the stature to be doing op eds, so I had to be careful too, if I wanted to write about something, not to be quoted by that journalist. And start gravitating towards writing about things. People came to me, I never pitched. People came to me. American Banker eventually came to me and asked me to do a column. Forbes came to me and asked me to do a column. I never pitched.
It wasn't until later, after the crisis when things sort of calmed down, that I had to start pitching. By that time, there were a lot of people who were very aware of where my expertise was and what kinds of things I would be interested in writing about. I wasn't blindly pitching anybody and trying to convince them to let me write about the stuff that I could write about the best.
I'd love to touch on this point you mentioned about either writing or working on a thing, and kind of having the separation out between the two. Which I think is really interesting. I found at least for myself and in talking to other writers that sometimes you also need that mental separation. Just to be able to fully focus and kind of wrap your brain around one kind of problem versus the other. Then of course in your case, there's maybe ethical or just conflicts of interest as well.
Do you find it hard to, as you kind of go deeper into the writing part and you have more time now between when you were working versus when you were writing. The cycles are pretty long. Do you find it harder to stay in touch with what's happening on the ground?
That is a big challenge, in particular when you're writing about technical issues. If I'm writing about the business of the firms and how they're working with their clients, which is sort of the meat of a lot of what I write about, I have to stay in touch. What I started pretty early on, probably for the last seven, eight years, is I started having universities, professors, ask me if I would come out and talk to the students.
I have a pretty heavy schedule and I do any talks or speeches to students. That's just free, that's a public service. That's me giving back to the profession. I go out and talk to students about what's going on in our profession. I bring stories from the headlines about accounting, audit, capital markets, corporate governance, etcetera. I give them real life examples because they don't really hear about these things in school. Certainly the recruiters from the firms don't tell them about any of the negative stuff.
By going out to the schools and developing that connection, I have lots and lots and lots of people who want to help me get it right. In addition, you have all the academics. Then of course you have litigation, so you have all the lawyers. My sources are very broad in terms of people who want to help me get it right. I'm smart enough to know not to write without that support if you're writing about something that you don't know about, something new or technical. And to double check and make sure that my information about something is current.
I have students who were just seniors in college or just about to embark on their career when they first started reading me. Now they're partners at the firms or they're professors in the universities. I've been at it long enough that I've seen people grow and they've seen me grow. Very loyal, loyal following.
It's interesting you bring up academia. I saw that you are an adjunct professor of business at American University. It sounds like you've just had a lot of exposure to the academic model. Something I've thought about is just how... where the line is drawn between academic research and journalism. Since in a lot of ways, especially in investigative journalism, since in both cases you're digging deeply into this topic. You're writing about your insights and sort of publishing it out to an audience, right? Did you ever think about maybe doubling down on academia instead of journalism? If so, why did you decide to focus on the latter?
Well, I've been a teacher all my life from a kid. My mom thought I was going to be a teacher. I'm the oldest of six. We used to play school. We had enough in our family to play school in our basement. Teaching is sort of natural to me, even when I was working in the firms and consulting as a managing director, as a practice leader. My role is to develop other professionals and to guide and to teach and to... and then to teach clients how to use new software or how to do something correctly.
It's natural for me, and I always wanted to find a way to also someday teach in a university. When I first started the blog though, the academics were not too crazy about me. Some of them were kind of snippy. I'm talking about in the early crisis periods: 2007, 2008, 2009. They did not like someone writing about these issues and not writing about it from an academic research perspective, from a very quantitative, statistical approach, heavy data. My writing was... they considered to be anecdotal. My opinion was that my anecdotal experience was pretty broad and deep.
My sources were impeccable. I wrote like I audited. I gathered evidence and I supported my opinions with enough facts and documents and evidence that I thought made my case. They were not really crazy about me. I used to get a lot of criticism. "She's just this sort of carpet bagger academic." I was encroaching on some people's territory.
However, eventually what it usually takes to win people over is you need those people who suddenly decide that they're going to be supportive instead of critical. There were some key academics who came out in support and started inviting me to speak at academic conferences. Suddenly, there was this whole group of academics who were hungry, again, for this outside point of view. One that was not allowed in some cases to be incorporated in their discussions, in their discussions of what to teach the students. In their discussions of how to interact with the firms from a recruiting perspective. They were just really sort of squelched.
Some of them who had the power and the position to entertain an alternative perspective or a critical perspective started inviting me. That sort of won some of the academics over. Academic research was always something that I wanted to use to bolster my writing. I wasn't getting their cooperation. They were dismissing my work, they did not want to cooperate. Then the tide turned sort of at the end of the crisis period: 2009, 2010. Suddenly, I started having academics coming to me and wanting me to write about their papers. Some of them wanting me to look at their papers. Eventually to, how can I participate or contribute to their papers?
I've got a lot, a lot, a lot of credits or citations of my work, and some thank yous in some papers at this point. Because I had ideas that many of the academics who had never worked in the profession would never have thought of. They were pursuing something that maybe I could contribute some kind of additional information or additional source that was outside of academic. It's been a really fruitful relationship. I'm one of the few business journalists who pretty consistently writes about academic research, and will get it early in the game and write a whole article about it, not just cite it.
You can look on my MarketWatch, on MarketWatch, where there's a lot, a lot of articles that are just about an academic paper and applying it to what is going on in life. But I've also encouraged a lot of academics in accounting, in economics at the schools that I've been associated with, to write more... that has a more immediate policy impact. A lot of academic research, especially in accounting, is very esoteric. It's just spinning angels on the head of a pin.
I was always encouraging, when I would go out to the schools, I would sit also with the PhD students and with the professors and say, "Tell me what you're working on." They would ask me questions and we would develop that collaboration. So that if they were interested in doing something more timely and focused on policy impact, I was always there to help people.
As you're describing this, I'm almost getting flashbacks to what's happening now with the current crisis and pandemic. In that there is some tension now around I guess incumbents or institutions and recommendations around both from a health perspective and economic perspective, and just on every level right now, of people trying to figure out, how do we take all the sort of established knowledge? How does that reconcile with a lot of the new and confusing situations that we're all in right now? Do you feel like there's any sort of parallel happening with that in your world of writing from the 2008 crisis that you describe and today?
Sure. There are a lot of journalistic topics that lend themselves really, really well to leaning on research, using research, highlighting research. Obviously science or anything science-related is one of them, one of the most important ones. The problem is that no academic discipline is unchallenged by the influence of money. Every academic discipline has the lure of money from private sources, that encourages research in certain areas. Sometimes custom orders research in certain areas, whether it's science, economics, data security. I mean, you name it. Every academic discipline is hungry for funding. Some academics are willing to sell their platform for the opportunity to have it funded. And also for sometimes the fame or promotion that comes with getting funding from certain think tanks or certain professional organizations, or chambers of commerce, or whoever it is that are in a private funding situation.
Just like journalism, just like media, you have to be very discerning. In using research in journalism, in looking at what research do you talk about, how do you report on it. Whether or not you should, how can you vet it? The most important thing is to look at who is behind it and who is funding it. That should be transparent. Sometimes it isn't, but journalists have been fooled over and over and over again by research that is coming to them, that is being pitched to them. The schools have professional media outlook, outreach to pitch research, new research to journalists. You have to, have to vet and check, where is it coming from? Why is it coming to me? Who is behind it? Why now? Why this research now? Make sure that you're not getting spun.
I'd love to move from, you talked about a lot your blog and now you've more recently picked up a new newsletter. I'd love to just sort of talk about that transition a little bit too. What inspired you to want to go from writing a blog for many years to now also having a newsletter?
The blog had to go on hiatus while I was at MarketWatch. I started at MarketWatch in May of 2015. Even when I was writing freelance for Forbes or American Banker on a regular basis, you don't want to undercut work that someone is paying for by repeating it or scooping it on your own blog. Certainly that's not the best way to win friends and influence people. It's not necessarily the best way to get your work out there and showcase it. When you're writing about accounting and investigative corporate malfeasance, you also have to be careful that when you do the work, that it's very, very well edited and checked and verified. And that you don't make mistakes, or there's enormous consequences from that, including legal liability.
One of the reasons why I joined MarketWatch full-time is because I wanted a full-time editor. I wanted that protection that comes with working for a large media organization. So that as I was writing more complex things with more consequences for corporations, things that were more high profile, that I would have that editorial and organizational protection. In exchange, I had to sort of put the blog on ice. I only put information about where I was speaking or, "Hey, I wrote this at MarketWatch." Or sort of promoting the things I was doing and what I was writing, rather than putting any original content on the blog.
That went on for almost five years until this past November, when I decided to leave MarketWatch. I had already been aware of Substack. I had talked to Bill Bishop, who is one of your... probably your most successful newsletter writer. And had been in touch with Hamish and some of the founders because they were encouraging me. "When can you start using our platform?" I could not do that while I was working at MarketWatch. To me, it was not going to be worth it to do it, since I already had a blog, because I couldn't get paid.
While I was working at MarketWatch, I couldn't convert to a paid subscription format and get paid separately. Can't do that. If I wanted to write something and not get paid, I had my own blog or I could ask permission. But in general, I didn't write anywhere but MarketWatch while I was at MarketWatch. I knew I was aware of the platform. I watched as it developed, I watched as functionality was added. When I decided to leave MarketWatch in November, it was an automatic decision that that's where I was going. I think I published my first article within a couple of days of turning on the lights on the newsletter.
Can you talk a little bit more about these trade offs between... In some ways, I mean, you've been writing about the same broad focus area and topic for a long time. But you've written about it on your own blog and then you wrote about it on MarketWatch. You've had other columns elsewhere and then you also had this newsletter. Just the sort of trade off of deciding. It's your same brain, but it's sometimes I guess temporarily rented out or owned to a different institution. Do you have a preference for one over the other? It sounds like sometimes there are just practical benefits to being under an institution versus not. But creatively, do you have a preference?
Well, I think after almost five years at MarketWatch and looking around at the media landscape, I had developed the confidence that one, I had a large enough following. Two, that I could make sure that when I put something out independently, that it had its T's crossed and its I's dotted, and I would not have any issues. Which I have not had any issues. I've never been sued, I've never had a cease and desist. I've never had a takedown order on my blog since 2006.
I was sued once for something that I wrote at Forbes, but it was actually just an extra thing that I wrote because Forbes was sued and one of their major reporters was sued by Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal from Saudi Arabia. I got kind of dragged into that. Here I am having been independent all these years and I've never been sued because of my own lack of care or fastidiousness in making sure that everything is all locked up. The only time I've ever been sued is under a huge giant media umbrella.
I was pretty confident that I could make sure that I protected myself and that I knew how to do things the right way. Frankly, I wanted to just write what I want to write the way I want to write it. I like writing long, I like writing detailed. I like writing for an audience that already knows that they want to read what I want to read. I'm not interested in converting the unconverted, but I'd be glad to teach those who are willing to learn.
I had a mailing list, an email mailing list still from the blog that was pretty big. Almost 3000 email subscribers that never left me, didn't unsubscribe in all those years. I started with that as a base. I will say that that substantially increased just in three months. I've had more success than I ever imagined in terms of people pretty quickly subscribing on a paid basis, in enough volume to make me willing to keep going. I had set sort of this gate for myself that I would start the paid version in January. That was about a month after I started the newsletter in the beginning of November, or I'm sorry, the beginning of December. If I wasn't up to a certain level within three months, then I would have to go find a job. But I had no intention when I left MarketWatch of looking for another media job or even freelancing. Other than one op ed in the FT, I haven't done any of that since.
Can you talk a little bit about how you message paid subscriptions to your readers? How do you decide on your pricing?
I have the good fortune of having a very good friend in Chicago, where I'm from originally. He was formally a marketing expert at Arthur Andersen before the collapse. He now runs a marketing communications firm for professional services firms, lawyers and accountants. He and I are... we're joined at the hip and the soul. We know each other's worlds. I asked him and one of his associates to help me sort of suss that out in December. To look at sort of what other publications that were focused on a very focused sort of accounting, compliance, risk management, lawyers. Sort of what other people were charging.
I also looked at... asked them to help me draft some of the boiler plate kind of introductions and emails, and things that go out to people when they subscribe. Only so that I could sort of take myself out of that, sort of not be navel gazing all the time and get an outside, fresh perspective. But in the end, it's my product. It was a collaborative effort. They made very good suggestions to me. This was a paid consulting assignment, I paid for someone else's expertise to do that survey. I had an idea in my mind what I was going to do and they sort of confirmed it and I went with it.
Frankly, on first glance, because it was so... I had such good results right off the bat. I thought, I'm charging too little. People were paying for the full year all at once. I almost thought, maybe I'm charging too little. I didn't put that price point in the right place to sort of convey, I'm providing something that is unique, original, and actionable information. That was the key. It was not just, I'm going to tell you something that I'm thinking about as I'm looking out my window.
I wanted to provide company specific, actionable information that people could use to... that might influence their decisions about investments. I thought about it and then I thought, you know what? I'm not going to second guess. I'm just going to go with it. I'm sticking with my original plan for now, and it seems to be a price point that says, "I see a value in this, but I don't want to make it unattainable for somebody who is not a hedge fund or a big plaintiff's law firm or a big PR person from a big public accounting firm." I have all of those subscribers and those are people that have budgets to pay, universities.
It's developing and now I have a few entities who are asking me about group subscriptions. Bill Bishop knows because I asked his advice. I saw that on his newsletter and I said, "Oh, people want to do that because people are worried about copyright protection." My newsletter, somebody subscribes at a university or somebody subscribes at a hedge fund or at a law firm. Then they want to circulate it to others. Well, these are all smart people that are worried about me getting pissed off and suing them for copyright protection. They're calling me and asking me how to make sure that I don't come back and give them a hard time about this if I find out about it. Thank goodness, so we're... so I crossed that bridge. That's what happens. You don't know until you do it and then you go from there.
That's funny, that's definitely something that's specific to your audience. But it sounds like you sort of turned that into an opportunity to be able to offer group subscriptions, which is cool.
Right, so again, you have to get... I'm not a lawyer. I had to look around and see, what do other similar publications do in order to make sure people understand that they can't just re-email your newsletter that one person paid for, out to the other 50 people in their firm? I found some examples and I have a lawyer in the family. He helped me refine that. But again, it didn't take much because I'm a consultant, okay? I've written contracts for $10 million system implementation projects. I have some interest but also some aptitude for this stuff.
For people listening who might not be familiar with your world, did you find any sort of I guess surprise from people who had been following your blog for a while who... are they used to paying for this sort of information? Did you find that you had to message it different to them? How did you decide which posts to make free versus paid, only since you do write both?
The decision right... I put out everything that I put out in December for free obviously. To get people to understand this is what I'm doing, right? To introduce to everybody who may or may not have been following my work recently. This is what I'm doing now. I put out some pretty quality stuff I think, right off the bat. The first story that I put out was one that unfortunately was spiked at MarketWatch, about Under Armour and why I thought Under Armour is under criminal investigation for their accounting right now.
Highly successful. I mean, 10 times more than my mailing list, okay? In terms of views. It went out to everybody and then it got circulated 10 times over. I put out good stuff. Then when I started the paid version in January, I have to keep in my mind, I'm going to put under the paywall things that are company specific and that I think provide actionable information for investors. Or regulators, or lawyers, or accounting researchers, or people who are very interested in these issues.
If it's not company specific, if it's not... if it's more educational, if it's more observational, then that's free. Again, making sure that people are getting something all the time and that people who are just signing up for free are getting something that they don't get anywhere else. But for those that are willing to pay, looking at how other newsletters approach that. You have to give people something that they're willing to pay for, something that they're not going to get anywhere else. I do promise nobody else writes about the stuff that I write about.
Now that you've been writing a newsletter for a little bit, how does it compare to blogging for you? Since I think for a lot of people right now, newsletters are sort of like a newer or different form. Even though they've been around for a while, the way that people write newsletters now is different. I think, yeah, there's a sort of parallel to blogging, but it's still different. Do you find that they are similar or different?
They're different. One is that when I started blogging, mobile was not in there at all. It didn't matter, nobody read long blog posts on their phone. I mean, it was not an issue in 2006, 2007, until probably 2011 or '12 that you started seeing this focus on mobile. The other thing is, when I first started blogging, it was enough to just have a whole bunch of text that was really interesting to someone. You didn't have to mix it up with a lot of video or audio or whatever. I personally on my blog had this thing, because I like music and movies, I would always try to find some fun piece of music or film scene that I thought was sort of snarky or punny on what it is that I was writing about.
It was to entertain myself more than anybody else. Sometimes people probably didn't even get the joke, but it was for me. I would put some photo or some piece of music or some snippet from a film up at the top. That was me, so none of that was really mobile enabled. It was not oriented for that. My blog was very, very, very dense, okay? It's not a top to bottom chronological format. I specifically custom designed it to look like a magazine. If you go there and you go to the front page, people usually come back to me and say when they go for the first time, "Oh my God. It's overwhelming, there's so much stuff." That was the exact effect I wanted.
I wanted people to see, "Oh my God, she's so smart. She has all this information. Where do I start?" Until they dig in. I had really, really long time on site metrics. I mean people would, when they would come to my site, they would stay for hours. Because they'd just go from one thing to another. You can't do that with a newsletter. Your format in Substack does not lend itself to that. I write way too long for the Substack format, I realize that now. But I just wrote a 4000 word piece that went out this morning anyway.
My pieces are hard to write on the phone. But then again, I read New Yorker articles on my phone. I read 5000 word Atlantic articles on my phone. There are nerds who do it anyway. But putting it in the newsletter, mixing it up with other links, video, photos, charts. A lot of charts, so the people who are looking at information and looking at it in terms of their investments. They want share price, they want charts, they want comparisons. I learned that in five years of MarketWatch. Writing for an investor focused site got me thinking about, why does the investor care? That's always the question I ask, why does the investor care?
My mind has now been trained to that. I may resist it, I may push against it. But I know it now, I know that that's something I have to keep in mind if I want a post to be successful. Newsletters should be shorter, it should be punchier. It should have personality, but my writing has always had my personality infused in it. When you were at MarketWatch, when I wrote for MarketWatch, even though it was straight news, people said they always knew it was my piece. They could always see me behind the words, and that's my goal.
I really love that. I think there's something to what you're saying of... even your style of self describing, very dense or something that only nerds are really going to dig into for a long time. I think that is in itself a style, which is really cool to hear.
A really good example of somebody I admire a lot is Matt Levine at Bloomberg. What he gets away with at a major media site in terms of writing a column that has 10,000 words and 19 topics. He's won the Loeb Award. I'm a Loeb Award judge, which is... the UCLA does this journalism award. He's won the Loeb Award for commentary. He does sort of the piece de resistance of dense business journalism in a fun, interesting, slightly snarky but always on point way. I sometimes say, "Does he not have an editor?" But in a way, that's sometimes good. Because the person and their knowledge shines through and those of us who are willing to take the consequences, we go, "Okay, fine, whatever. If somebody doesn't like it, well all right. Don't read it."
Yeah. In that way, I think it feels very newslettery to me in that it filters probably out for a lot of the general population. But the people that stick around are the people that fought through it and are really there to stay, which is cool to hear. Did you ever consider monetizing your blog when you were writing it, or do you think of monetizing your newsletter as sort of a picking out that thread where you left off? Did it never really occur to you to monetize before?
Oh my gosh. I went through that over and over and over again because certainly people would ask me that question. "You're doing all this work, why don't you monetize it?" How could you monetize a blog back in those days? You could get sponsors, you could get ads. You could get somehow, I guess sponsors and ads, really. Well, the problem was that I was writing something about the business of the big four public accounting firms.
As I said, you don't have too many people that can talk about the things that I talk about in the way that I do. Because very few people are free to openly express those opinions. In the same way, very few are openly able to sponsor or pay for a site that expresses those opinions. Sponsors were kind of hard to find. Anybody who was also looking to stay on the right side of the accounting firm did not want to be seen next to me.
I had a couple of sponsors. One software firm that sponsored me for a while and then... that stuff is fickle. I tried Google Ads. I ended up with having the accounting firms advertising next to my articles, which was comical. Really what I wanted to do is I wanted to write. I did not want to run a website. The idea of cultivating sponsors, cultivating things like having paid webcasts or things like this, I didn't want to do that. I wanted to write. I ended up using the blog as a showcase for my writing and then eventually to get freelance writing and full-time writing jobs.
It does seem like that's sort of the way it... the only way you could really make money off your reputation before was that, right? If you wrote for your side projects, that's sort of how you grew your reputation. Then some other firm takes notice of you and offers you a full-time job, it sounds like.
Right, right. I mean, the original purpose of the blog was to attract an agent and get a book contract and write a book. I never wrote the book. I'm trying to write one now because I have more time and the freedom to do that. But that was the idea, was to use the blog as a showcase for my writing, to let people know who I was and what I knew. What that led to was a journalism career and an opportunity to work full-time at MarketWatch.
Just to sort of wrap things up, you've been writing for a while obviously in a lot of different formats. How do you find and tap into new leaders? Do you feel like you've sort of found your sources and you're kind of doubling down on them? Are there any surprising sources of readership that you've experienced?
Well, I would say in the last four or five years, the trading community, the community of people who are actively trading has just gone bonkers. There are lots of little niches and forums and other sites. I don't focus on that as much as I do on making sure that I'm writing about companies that people are interested in, that are actively traded, and that they're interested in, and that they have active questions.
For that, I have to say that Twitter has been very, very good to me. Every journalism thing that I've ever done pretty much has come from having been on Twitter since 2008. Tweeting constantly, tweeting very, very frankly. Giving my opinion, answering anybody's questions, and letting people know, and developing sort of that reputation as someone who knows about accounting and auditing and the intersection with public companies and pre-IPO companies. At this point, when something happens and it's an auditor, I'll start getting requests. "Francine, can you re: The Auditors?"
There are people who probably have no idea what my real name is. I see that when I meet them in person. But they'll ask me a question and I'll answer it. Why? In the interest of education, in the interest of peaking interest, in the interest now of getting them to read the newsletter.