Can local news thrive on Substack?
The Charlotte Ledger focuses on the city’s business district and generates revenue through subscriptions.
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Dozens of writers have shown by now that you can generate a sustainable living through Substack newsletters, but does this also apply to local news?
That’s a question Tony Mecia sought to answer. A former business reporter for the Charlotte Observer in North Carolina, Mecia thought he had both the sources and knowledge to deliver real value for the Charlotte community. So in 2018, he launched the Charlotte Ledger, a business-focused Substack newsletter.
The newsletter started out as fairly simple, focusing mostly on curation and commentary, but Mecia slowly built more and more original journalism into his workflow. Eventually, he launched a paid version of the newsletter, and two years later he now brings in enough revenue to employ a managing editor and several freelancers.
I interviewed Mecia about his weekly workflow, how he differentiates his coverage from the Observer’s, and why he decided to bring on additional help.
So by the time you launched The Charlotte Ledger, you weren't exactly new to covering the Charlotte business sector. What was your previous experience on that particular beat?
I had worked for about a decade at the main paper in Charlotte, the Charlotte Observer. Most of that was covering business. But that was about 10 years ago, and since then I have covered a number of business topics both as a freelancer and working for a couple years at a national magazine called The Weekly Standard. So I was a little bit out of the Charlotte business scene but still knew a number of local sources.
When did you first start thinking about launching a local newsletter, and what was the initial plan?
When the Weekly Standard shut down in December 2018, I figured I would go back to freelancing for national publications or websites. I was going to take a few months and figure it out. But then I started looking around in Charlotte and saw that there were some pretty big cuts that had been happening in local journalism and that the quality of local coverage had been deteriorating, as it has in many cities. So I started thinking maybe I could put my skills to better use rather than writing for national websites. I figured I could add some value on the local level.
My initial plan was to create a curated newsletter with some analysis and opinion. Maybe add some original reporting. I figured that I had some experience and some knowledge of the community that I could bring to bear and could explain things to people perhaps in a way that younger reporters in town could not.
When did it officially launch? And why did you decide to go with Substack?
I did a test post in late February 2019. My first actual post was in March 2019. March 11, I think. The first post went to 12 friends and family members, and then I posted it on my Facebook account, LinkedIn, Twitter. I decided to go with Substack because I had read about it somewhere online, and it sounded really easy to use. And as I experimented with it, I found that it was. I didn’t have to build anything or integrate WordPress and Stripe and MailChimp or anything like that, which is good because I don’t have a background in that, and it sounds expensive. So I found it easy to use and just went with that.
What did the newsletter look like in terms of format in those early days, and how did it evolve over time?
It was pretty basic for the first few months, and that says something because as anybody who uses Substack knows, Substack itself usually looks pretty basic. It was almost all text. I didn’t have a logo or anything like that. It was a lot of ‘here is an article that was written locally and here is some background that I’m providing you on that,’ or ‘here is a take on that that you’re not seen anywhere else.’ Nationally, of course, you have all kinds of people giving hot takes on everything, but In smaller markets that doesn’t necessarily exist. So it was fairly heavy on curation, although I tried to do some original work as well. I tried to make it punchy and interesting, as opposed to writing long, boring, dense articles.
Over time, I started adding more things like graphics, logos, photos. That made it a little more approachable. And I started doing more original content, because as my subscriber list grew, I started receiving more tips on things to look at. I also felt as though it was important to distinguish what I was doing from other products in the market, and there is just so much going on that there is never a shortage of topics to write about that other media are not exploring.
How did you start growing an audience?
I would love to tell you that I had a sophisticated plan, but I didn’t. It was very elementary. I would post an article and ask people to forward it. I would post it on Twitter. When I did an original piece and I quoted somebody, I would make sure to forward the article to them and let them know how they could share it. Those sorts of things. I kept looking for a switch that I could turn on that would accelerate the growth, but it really is just a matter of doing little things every day.
I also started developing some partnerships. The local NPR stations started having me on the air every week to discuss business news, so that helped. I made a connection with a woman who runs a large private Facebook group in one part of town, and she let me start posting articles there. So really a bunch of little things.
How much time passed before you started thinking about a paid version of the newsletter? What was your initial strategy with the paid rollout?
Well the paid version was always in the back of my mind, because that is how Substack is set up. But I was thinking well, it would be nice to get to 10,000 free sign ups before turning on paid, then convert 10%, then you have 1,000 paid subscribers. But I had no way to know how quickly something like this would grow. And so while it grew quickly, it was pretty clear getting to 10,000 would take an awfully long time. It’s not like I was a well-known name or anything like that or came in with a big base of readers. So after about seven or eight months with no revenue, I thought, well it’s time to make a move. At that time, by November I had about 2,000 on my free list. And I announced that in a few months, I was going to convert to a paid model. And I explained the reasons why.
On the paid roll out, I just followed the advice of the Substack people, who were very helpful. As you know, it is what is known in the industry as a freemium model. I had been publishing three mornings a week for free. And when I converted to paid, I decided to add a day and go two days free and two days paid. The thinking is that you need the free content to attract new readers, but then of course you also have to have the paid content so that people are willing to pay for something.
Other than the days they were sent out, was there any difference from what you sent out on the free days versus the paid days?
Not too much. Our paid days tend to be a little more hard-core business coverage, and the free days tend to be a little bit lighter. More shareable. More general. In addition, our Saturday edition, which is free, is not on business much at all, and it has a round up of Charlotte news of the week regardless of its source.
I know in general that it is good advice to have some differentiation between free and paid. I’m not certain that’s as important when you’re doing hard news like we are, as opposed to more timeless analysis and thought pieces. If something happens on a Tuesday that is important and that nobody else is covering, we’re going to put it in on Wednesday and put it behind a pay wall. So the fact that we are dealing with news I think makes it ok that there’s not as much differentiating.
How do you get people to convert to paid? What are your strategies for enticing your free signups to convert into paying subscribers?
Great question. The important thing, as you have written I think Simon, is to let the free list people know what they are missing. We copied a tactic from The Dispatch in which on our paid days, we also sent out a free version that lets people on the free list know what they’re missing by not receiving the paid version. That has been helpful. That end of the week round up also points them toward the premium, paid content.
And in our messaging to the people on the free list, we hit a variety of messages. We go philosophical and say how their support is important to deliver essential local original journalism. And then we also deliver the straight up value proposition of hey, for just nine dollars a month, you can receive all of our original material that you literally cannot find anywhere else. If you want to know something about national politics or tech, you can probably find that somewhere. You want to know what a developer is planning on a certain corner in Charlotte NC? You’re not going to find that information anywhere else.
I've talked to a lot of local newsletter writers who have seen a lot of interest from local advertisers for native ads. Have you experimented with running these in the free version?
Yes. In our free versions, we do run what we call sponsorships. We cap those at 3 per newsletter. They are a logo and a brief introduction and are completely separate from editorial content. In our market, there are publications that do a lot of sponsored content where it’s difficult to distinguish between ads and editorial. We want to draw a clear line. We also do not accept sponsorships from companies that we regularly write about as to avoid conflicts on editorial. But yes, there is interest in that. Some of the sponsors just really like what we do. Others are more interested in data on click throughs to their sites.
That said the vast majority of our revenue will come from readers, and that’s by design.
Flash forward to today: How successful has the business been? Is it possible to make a living as a Substack writer focused on local news?
I am biased, of course, but I would say we have been successful. When I started, I really didn’t know what to expect. What we are doing has proven to be popular. It is possible to make a living as a Substack writer focused on local news. But it does take time. The money doesn’t just show up on day one. You have to have the ability to have no revenue for a while. And it is hard work. But it is fun and invigorating work, too. It probably isn’t for everybody.
You decided to expand beyond just yourself and start hiring help. What's your strategy there?
Yes. We use freelancers, and I brought on a managing editor in April. My thinking was that it would first of all be more fun to work with others. And also, I think in local news it would be perceived to be more credible if it were an actual organization as opposed to a guy sitting on his couch in his living room. We also reap the benefits of being able to do more and cover more and cover it better, which is the whole idea of being mission-based and actually improving local news in Charlotte.
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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. For a full bio, go here.