Substack Podcast #013: 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.
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
(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.
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 –
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.
It's funny. All of the Southern states picked their cities to start with Cs.
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.
Yeah, sure. Well, I'll just start talking and if you have any questions, just feel free to interrupt me.
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."
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?"
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."
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.
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."
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
Yeah, that's a good question –
Or do people not even notice the difference?
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.
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."
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.
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.
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."
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?
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?"
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It's been encouraging.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.'"
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.
I'd love to dig into this model a little bit more for you.
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?
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.
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.
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?"
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."
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.
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.
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.
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 –
I understand what you're saying.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?"
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.
Sounds like an adventure.
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.
That's a great note to end on. Thank you, Tony, for joining and chatting with me.