How 6AM City is scaling crowdsourced local journalism

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Depending on the day of the week, Erin McPherson had one of two roles at RALtoday, the Raleigh-based newsletter she co-edited before she was promoted to a different job earlier this year. “The way that our co-editing experience works is that every day one of us is focused on the newsletter and the other editor is focused on our social media audience development,” she told me in a February interview, prior to her promotion. 

On the day that we spoke, McPherson was in charge of compiling the newsletter. “In the morning, I aggregate events and news, identifying what's going to be most relevant to our readers.” Once she was done choosing the news items, she then set about writing small, conversational blurbs around each one, making sure to include links to the original sources. “Then I will also write that day's conversation, which can be anywhere from 200 words to a full 1,000-word feature.” Today, for instance, RALtoday devotes the opening 216 words to the history of the North Carolina governor’s mansion. A few days ago it opened with 328 words recommending 10 things for tourists to do while visiting the city.

On the days McPherson was assigned to write the newsletter, her co-editor Carly Delengowski would be on social media and email duty. “We’ll be on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram going through and responding to posts from other organizations and community members,” McPherson said. “Our goal with both emails and comments from readers is to be as close to 100% responsive as possible, making sure that our readers know there are two people on the other side of the product and that we're listening to what they have to say.”

This isn’t just for brand-building purposes; a tremendous amount of content that ends up in the newsletter is crowdsourced from its readership. Those 10 tips for tourists I referenced above, for example, were all submitted via social media and email.

The RALtoday newsletter debuted in late 2019 and now has over 50,000 recipients, almost all of whom organically opted in to receive it. Its success wasn’t a fluke; by the time of its launch, its parent company 6AM City was already operating several other newsletters, all of which utilize the exact same model for curating news. In the five years since its founding, the company has developed a scalable model for crowdsourced local journalism, and it plans to operate in all 50 states within the next few years. I recently interviewed its founders on how they developed this model and what role 6AM City plays in restoring local news.

Founding the company

6AM City’s two founders, Ryan Johnston and Ryan Heafy, come from completely opposite backgrounds.

Johnston grew up in a family that owned a newspaper; his father Mark launched it in Greenville, SC two decades ago, and though Ryan didn’t spend much time in the newsroom as a child, he did grow an appreciation for the newspaper’s civic role within the community. The company eventually launched other newspapers, and in 2012 Ryan joined to run a new business publication called Upstate Business Journal. “Over the course of five years we grew it into the largest circulated business product in the state of South Carolina,” he told me in a 2020 podcast interview.

Heafy, on the other hand, graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering and moved to Greenville in 2012 to run an aerospace manufacturing company. In the mid-2010s, Heafy and Johnston started running into each other at a local coffee shop and eventually struck up conversations about their mutual interests. 

At the time, Johnston was a longtime admirer of daily newsletters like Morning Brew and theSkimm, and he began to wonder if their model could be replicated at the local level. He really liked the idea of having a direct connection to an audience via the inbox, and he thought that a newsletter could become a daily habit in a way that a digital news website couldn’t. 

When Johnston met Heafy, he felt that he’d found someone with the kind of operational and engineering background needed to scale such an operation. “After a conversation or two and a few beers, I convinced him to come in and help us put together the framework for what this product would look like,” said Johnston. “Ryan likes to joke that he helped engineer a media company, but one of the largest challenges in scaling a local media company is in the consistency of the distribution and the content.”

Heafy didn’t bother with trying to build proprietary publishing technology, but instead cobbled together already-existing cloud products. “Our IP is our playbook,” he said. “It’s kind of like when you buy a Subway franchise. There’s this playbook for all the stuff that you have to have in your store, with rules on everything from the paint colors to the labels to how you greet your customers. We've built that for local media, and so now our ability to scale and launch in a new city in less than 60 days is locked and loaded. We can go to as many cities as we want as fast as we want, as long as we have the cash to pay for it.”

The 6AM City model is fairly straightforward: every city has two editors, each trading off between writing the newsletter and community development. Heafy developed a training workflow that can bring a newly-hired editor up to speed within a matter of weeks. “Their job is to experience the city we serve and then share that experience with the community in a conversational tone,” he said. The 6AM City newsletters typically steer away from politics, both local and national, and focus heavily on businesses, events, local history, and culture. The ultimate goal is to pull the local residents into the content creation process. “We like to say that the public is our publisher,” said Johnston.

They launched their first newsletter, GVLtoday, in Greenville. Over the next few years they expanded to Columbia, Charleston, Asheville, Chattanooga, and Raleigh. Within the last few months they debuted two new newsletters in Nashville and Richmond, and Heafy said he hopes to have newsletters live in 15 cities by the end of 2021. According to statistics on the company’s website, 6AM City reaches 400,000 individual email subscribers and generates 15 million monthly impressions. 

Can 6AM City replace local newspapers?

Given the struggles of legacy newspapers and the rising anxiety around local news “deserts,” I couldn’t help but wonder what role 6AM City played in the delivery of local news. Both founders were adamant that they didn’t see their companies replacing local newspapers. “We 100% are not investigative journalists,” said Heafy. “We are not trying to compete with or replace the local newspaper. We kind of describe ourselves more as like an Amazon distribution center for local content.”

Johnston argued that the company is complementary to local news. “One of the first things we do when moving into new cities is try to sit down and have conversations with editorial management of the local TV stations, local newspapers, radio stations and say, ‘Hey, this is how we operate. We try to really collaborate, not compete.’” And though 6AM City is advertising supported (more on that in a moment), Johnston is a real advocate for newspaper subscriptions. “One of my favorite comments from readers is when they complain that our links are to news sources that have paywalls,” he said. “And my response to that feedback is always, ’if you clicked on a link six or seven times and then a newspaper asks you to pay, then maybe you should do just that.’”  

Still, the newsletters do more than aggregate. Via their crowdsourcing, they’re often the first outlets to report on businesses that are opening or closing. They amplify and contextualize government messages. They may not be sending reporters to cover city council or school board meetings, but they seem to actually influence the community around them. 

Johnston told me an anecdote about a regular series the newsletters run called Be the Broker. “It’s a situation where maybe a landmark retail building comes up for a lease, and we crowdsource and ask everyone, ‘What business should go into this space?’” One year a building opened up for lease in Columbia, and COLAtoday readers suggested en masse that it was the perfect place to put a popular regional restaurant chain. “One day [the restaurant’s] Instagram started blowing up because our readers were begging them to come to Columbia, and six months later they announced they were coming to that location. They attributed the decision specifically to the conversation we had that morning.”

How to launch in a new city

I wanted to get a better sense of how 6AM City launches and grows a new newsletter, so that’s why the company connected me to Erin McPherson. At the time that we spoke, she was one of two co-editors at RALtoday, but later that month she was promoted to a senior editor position at 6AM City that spans across several of its newsletters.

McPherson started her career working for traditional magazines, both on the print and digital side. “I wasn't super familiar with 6AM City’s products at the time that I applied, but I was really interested in learning more about what they were doing,” she told me. “I got hired as the launch editor for RALtoday. At the time it was their seventh city.” Six weeks later they hired her co-editor Carly Delengowski.

McPherson’s job was thoroughly mapped out for her prior to her hiring. She started by introducing herself to several Raleigh-based organizations and businesses. These community leaders proved crucial in both supplying the newsletter with early news tips and growing its audience. And as that audience grew, both editors became hyper responsive, striving each day to operate at Inbox Zero. “We get a lot of readers on a daily basis who just will send us pictures of a sign or say, ‘Hey, I read about this, are you guys going to cover that too?’” Much of RALtoday’s historical content is fed to it by readers who have lived in the city for decades. “Email is probably our biggest connection to the community,” she said. “And then Instagram also feeds into that. People will use our hashtag to tell us about businesses and restaurants opening. Companies engage with us there as well to let us know when they have news.”

RALtoday launched in late 2019 and saw some of its most explosive growth during the pandemic shutdowns. “We shifted from covering events, which had been a huge part of the newsletter, to providing readers with alternate ways to interact with their community,” said McPherson. The newsletter maintained an updated list of restaurants with heated patios. It also kept readers abreast of new restrictions mandated by the state and city.

Monetization

In February of this year, 6AM City announced it had received a seed investment round that would help accelerate its expansion into more cities. But the company isn’t one of those startups that dragged its feet on monetization; from its very first day it built an aggressive advertising operation that mostly relies on native ads within the newsletter itself. “We have a lot of local and regional advertisers that advertise either in one or more of our cities,” said Heafy. The mix is heavily indexed on hospitality, tourism, grocery, and real estate companies. Local organizations generate about 80% of advertising revenue.

The remaining 20% are national direct-to-consumer brands, the kind that will often offer up discount codes and ship directly to your door (think Casper mattresses and Blue Apron meal kits). “Once we crossed the quarter million subscriber threshold, we saw a pivot to more national interest in direct advertising with us,” said Heafy. “We've been told by folks that when we get to the 500,000 subscriber mark, it will be an even bigger game-changing opportunity for us to pick up some more of these bigger national brands.” In the early days, the newsletter editors were responsible for writing the ad content, but 6AM City eventually hired a team to handle it. 

Is 6AM City the future of local news?

Whenever you read about the struggles of legacy newspapers, you see a lot of complaints about the unfair monopoly powers wielded by tech giants like Facebook and Google, but I rarely hear complaints about these platforms when speaking to the entrepreneurs behind local news startups like 6AM City. “If you look at Facebook's local content, it is so bad,” said Heafy, referring to Facebook’s local news widget it launched a few years ago. “We're not concerned. They would be better off acquiring us to launch in all the different markets versus what they're putting out there right now. If you look at the local content that's aggregated, it's typically homicides, car accidents, and national news. Their algorithm is elevating clickbait, and it's not necessarily elevating value. I think that's a problem for those bigger platforms.”

While everyone I spoke to for this article assured me that 6AM City wasn’t replacing the local newspaper, it was hard to ignore the level of community engagement that these newsletters spurred — the kind of engagement that legacy newspapers need to attract if they are to survive. “I think with the way that consumer reading habits are shifting, our product is providing that experience within a framework that actually still fits into people's daily routines,” said McPherson. The similarities hadn’t been lost on her. “We've received a lot of feedback across different cities where people write in and say, ‘you know, this is the closest thing I've experienced in a while to just having my cup of coffee and reading the newspaper.’”  

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.