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Food for thought

“What we have now is an opportunity for people to create their own media diet based upon all the digital entities that exist in specialized ways. … Newspapers can no longer be all things to all people.”
-Robert Feder, media columnist for the Daily Herald in Chicago

Chicago is a real microcosm of our industry’s crisis right now, a city where the long-running largest media players (the Tribune Publishing Co., especially) are being gutted while digital start-ups and others are riding a wave of new funding sources and producing some of the most-innovative journalism out there (Hearken and City Bureau, among others). So there was some great discussion (from folks like Feder) at a 300-person town hall last week, including especially the potential power in setting up pool funding among foundations looking to support journalism. See more here from Mark Jacob for the Medill Local News Initiative at Northwestern University.

Before I get into this week’s newsletter, a request: please email or tweet at me me if you or any English-language news service you follow is doing reporting in Spanish. I’m going to spotlight next week how many local news outlets are producing reports in Spanish (or providing translation), on their own and via partnerships. And I’d like to know more about who’s doing it well and who’s most effectively overcoming the challenges of writing in multiple languages.

OK, hope everyone is staying healthy out there. And thanks for reading!

Email newsletters a booming business

Newsletters are an increasingly common and powerful way to reach people, both because they directly reach people where they are every day (even the SnapChat generation) and because they're relatively low cost. And unlike social media and other third-party platforms, you control everything about the messaging and the audiences. What’s more: there's a strong correlation between newsletter habit and propensity to subscribe. In short: they’re an integral tool in the ultimate game of habit-forming ...

So newsletters are ever-important both for traditional and established media companies as well as for new start-ups, many of which are forming as newsletter-only news products. The Morning Brew and the Daily Skimm are among the most famous examples of these startups, with the Morning Brew my favorite case study for how to grow a newsletter-centric business: using compelling referral tools and strong content, they have grown to 1.5 million subscribers in 5 years and to … $13 million in revenue in 2019. See an interactive case study here.

Just in North Carolina, there are several email-centric startups of note. Take 6AM City, for example: the newsletter-centered company out of Greenville, S.C., just last week celebrated cruising past 15,000 email subscribers in four months with their RAL Today newsletter (they also have an Asheville Today newsletter). Lynsey Gilpin’s environment-focused Southerly newsletter (see more below in “good reads”) is growing rapidly as only a newsletter, this year announcing that they would hire staffed reporters for the first time.

This week, I’m going to briefly spotlight two other newsletter-centered news organizations that are growing rapidly in our state and finding new and innovative ways to serve their readers and to pursue the D word of diversification: (1) Tony Mecia’s Charlotte Ledger newsletter and (2) Sarah Day Owen Wiskirchen’s Raleigh Convergence newsletter. Both made big announcements recently and reflect the tremendous potential of newsletter-centric news organizations.
Part 1: The Charlotte Ledger

Former Charlotte Observer reporter Tony Mecia started the Charlotte Ledger almost a year ago (last March) as a newsletter-centric experiment to answer a question: How much interest do people in the Charlotte region have in local, independent business news?

More than 3,300 have signed up for the MWF newsletter that just last week announced a new Saturday wrap-up edition that aggregates content from journalists around the Charlotte area. I emailed Mecia to ask about the Saturday roundup email (one of my favorite low-cost ways to expand your newsletter toolkit) and he shared with me even more exciting news: starting March 11, The Ledger will begin offering a paid-only version of the newsletter (he writes a lot more about his long-term vision here).

There are a bunch of tiers of offerings, with different perks, but one I like? Paying subscribers will receive a special Ledger email address they may use to send comments and questions that will receive a priority response. Mecia says to “think of it like the Bat Phone at Wayne Manor, or an I-77 toll lane (but one that is ready to go when it is supposed to be).”

And importantly: Mecia’s plan is to still offer two newsletters a week for free.

Why this approach? Mecia said "when you receive information from other media that costs you nothing, you are often paying in some other form … usually by being marketed to relentlessly. Media companies have become quite crafty in devising ways to make money from your eyeballs." With the Ledger, he wants to make a more "straightforward offer: If you pay for The Ledger, you are our customer, and our incentive is to deliver for you.”

Mecia told me that to succeed with subscriptions, "I need to focus on the experience for readers.

“I’m trying to create a product in these e-newsletters that people will want to read because it is newsy, insightful, interesting, punchy and relevant to them. I don’t want them to feel that they are being assaulted by marketing pitches, or that advertising influences editorial coverage. It’s about establishing a relationship with readers that is based on honesty, transparency and trust."

On the advantages and disadvantages to running an email-centered business model, Mecia said: there’s both. “On the downside, people are used to finding news by clicking somewhere. Some are reluctant to provide an email address. Spam filters can be an issue. Analytics are not as robust as a website’s, and it is tougher to get the high readership numbers you need to impress potential advertisers.

“However, there is a lot of upside. Most importantly, email establishes a direct connection with your reader. You don’t depend on Google, Facebook, Twitter or other unreliable partners whose algorithms are a mystery. You don’t worry about playing games with SEO. For the most part, tech companies do not stand in the way between you and your reader."

Ultimately, Mecia told me the subscription offering and the Saturday wrap-up email are part of his commitment to ensuring that Charlotte-area residents get the information they need as they all "worry about the decline of local news."

Mecia told me more specifically about the Saturday email: One way to better serve readers is “to acknowledge that you are not the only source of information in town. ... Readers know that. They know that there is good work being done all over Charlotte. As the number of journalists in cities such as Charlotte dwindles, why not assemble all of it in one place? The traditional view would be not to acknowledge that others exist, and to drive them exclusively to your own work. I’d rather acknowledge the reality and help my readers find that good and important work, wherever it is, and I think they will appreciate that and value The Ledger because of it.”
Part 2: Raleigh Convergence
The Raleigh Convergence is a 3x/week email newsletter and publication of Sarah Day Owen Wiskirchen’s Minerva Media Co. She moved to Raleigh last year and started the newsletter in April, after stints at the USA Today among other newspapers. In the last year, she has grown the newsletter from friends and family to more than 550 subscribers. And that is with basically no paid promotion and with Wiskirchen spending considerable amounts of time building relationships in a new city as a new business owner.

Excitingly, late last month she announced that she had received a Community Network grant from the Facebook Journalism Project and The Lenfest Institute for Journalism to help launch a “New Neighbor” project that should help her grow her reach, and impact, even more. With the project, Raleigh Convergence aims to help especially new residents (62 new neighbors move into Wake County every day) learn more about their new home, get connected to other neighbors and become engaged new residents.

This New Neighbor project will fund four ambassadors to create content in Southeast Raleigh, Knightdale and Cary, in addition to a general Raleigh audience. The ambassadors will report information via the newsletter, will moderate community-specific Facebook groups and will help to host quarterly in-person events to better cover and make connections within the four communities.

Later this week, in her newsletter, Wiskirchen will announce the four community ambassadors she has tapped. The first New Neighbor events are going to be in late April/early May. In her announcement of the grant, Wiskirchen said she didn’t think such a project was even possible for Raleigh Convergence until further down the road given where her company was in its gestation.

So what else did she tell me about the program and her growing business?

1) How are you evaluating success for the New Neighbor project? What does success look like at the end of this project?
The measurable success for this will be 500 more email newsletter subscribers and a new revenue stream. 
Qualitatively, I want to see meaningful growth in people's understanding of their communities, measuring impact from survey results. 
More difficult to measure but important philosophically is building community and equitable information. In Southeast Raleigh, for example, I want to see neighbors moving to gentrifying areas become knowledgeable on historical context and better connect with existing neighbors.
2) How did you come up with the neighborhoods you are focusing on?

I looked for interesting elements and fast growing places. Cary is growing even faster than Raleigh and it's going to transform in East and Downtown Cary. Knightdale is the fastest-growing municipality in Wake County. A lot of growth is happening east of Raleigh as people get priced out of the Raleigh market, especially for developments like new builds. Southeast Raleigh is seeing a lot of displacement, and there's a disconnect between existing neighbors (who are mostly Black people) and new neighbors moving in (who are largely white people). There's opportunities there to serve not only new neighbors but existing communities by providing history, context and trying to facilitate connections. 
3) Events are a notoriously low-margin business and one that is tough to balance for a lot of publishers with ... everything else, so how are you pursuing the events piece of this and are they more about engagement/participation or revenue? How are you planning for events at Raleigh Convergence generally?
2020 is really the year of events for Raleigh Convergence. I recently launched a new live storytelling series, Converging Stories, with Transfer Company.  (See more here.)
I also launched Making Raleigh, an event series that highlights the unique places, products and ideas in Raleigh. That first event will be on local cocktails at Watts & Ward on March 5. (See more here.)
I wouldn't say it's tough to balance events, I would say it's tough to balance things that aren't priorities, but events are a priority for me for growth. 
I treat it like any other piece of content or project. I create timelines. I create promotional schedules. Events do help with the revenue piece, because I've found partners who are willing to work with me on taking home most of the event ticket price, but it's also about growing Raleigh Convergence in areas that are on-mission and on-brand. 
For both of those event series, I pulled a set of values from the overall Raleigh Convergence values. That guides which details are a yes or a no. For example, a national brand was pitched as a partner for a Making Raleigh event, but it was inconsistent with the values of that series, so it was an easy no.
Like these other series, The New Neighbor Project meetup events are right in line with what I'm trying to do -- build connections between new and existing neighbors. People form more lasting connections when they see other people in person and can talk to them face to face. They're also more likely to feel a connection to Raleigh Convergence if we're helping connect them with their new hometown. 

4) How would you describe your business today vs. when you started? How would you describe where you are and the path ahead for you generally?
How people have engaged with the newsletter has been surprising to me, specifically in how it's shared. Last week's campaigns alone had about 190 views as a link, for example. I can tell it's being forwarded a lot, but that's more challenging to track. 
But in the last 10 months, it's grown from the few people I knew in town to about 550 subscribers. How people are engaging with the newsletter is working better than ever. Open rates for the last month averaged 46%, which is an increase even while growing.
In 2020 so far, reached nearly 1,000 users and now has 1,440 Instagram followers. 
Raleigh Convergence's first live storytelling event at Transfer Company sold out with 60 people on a Monday night, and there are three more Converging Stories events planned.
The New Neighbor Project will also help [with our] audience growth, through the ambassadors' networks, the corresponding events and the paid promotion in the budget.
Raleigh Convergence is poised for big growth this year. I have more things in the works like a membership program and other projects that aren't ready to announce just yet. 
Philosophically, I want to continue to grow while being focused and intentional on the values I think are important for the future of local journalism. It's a long game.
Want more on newsletters as a practice?

Email me anytime, it’s in large part what I consult about “on the side” of this newsletter. And here’s someone else I really trust: Dan Oshinsky, formerly head of newsletters at The New Yorker and now running his own collective. He is one of the best around on email strategy and he writes a monthly newsletter (in the form of a Google doc) about trends and best practices for email, including this month a checklist on five things to do right now. Check it out here. Also, if you like this newsletter, you’ll like a lot of them in this shared doc started by my friend Joseph Lichterman to create a running list of email newsletters about journalism (including Lichterman’s brilliant Solution Set email).

Some good reads

Another week, another week of great work happening across the state. Please message me anytime if you see more you think should be included!
  1. Next week is Super Tuesday and the primary elections in the state. What coverage are you doing (or seeing) that you are proud of, that really solves a reader problem (and isn’t the same ol’ horse race speculation)? Please DM me or email with what you’re seeing and I’ll highlight a couple next week. Until then, I like the uber practical, reader question-centric article that Carolina Public Press ran last week: Answers to 18 frequent questions about 2020 elections in NC. And a similar, FAQs-centric guide from The Asheville Citizen-Times.
  2. Southerly’s Lynsey Gilpin has written extensively about the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which runs through West Virginia, Virginia, and North Carolina. And last week in the Columbia Journalism Review, she called attention to one troubling aspect of the pipeline project: many of the communities that the pipeline will go through are in “news deserts,” as defined by Penny Abernathy’s pioneering research at UNC-Chapel Hill. “These places lack consistent, informative local coverage of energy, justice, and the environment,” Gilpin writes. “The absence leaves ample space for powerful campaigns by Duke and Dominion, the pipeline’s developers and buyers of its natural gas, as well as industry-aligned lobbyists and politicians, to shape the pipeline narrative.”
  3. Gentrification. Durham, Charlotte, many places in and outside the state are grappling with the G word and what has become a sort-of common set of aesthetic choices: such as “newly built cubed houses, at least one restaurant that serves acai bowls, microbreweries, yoga studios, and, of course, the ever popular Bird scooters,” according to Amber Delgado from the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke. Delgado explores the visual principles guiding and driving gentrification in Durham and other places across the country in a Scalawag piece that is thought-provoking to say the least. She reminds that aesthetic choices, such as building design and demolition decisions …, often carry more than aesthetic intentions. As she writes eloquently and powerfully: “Understanding that gentrification is also a battle of aesthetics with implications for individual lives is a necessary reframing for people looking to preserve the cultural and iconographic integrity of their communities. Curated tolerance foregrounds the stark inequities that are presented as natural by connecting visual symbols to their ideological underpinning.”
  4. “Some Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools parents and teachers say they're concerned about a mandatory survey being given in class that asks students in grades 6-12 to list their sexual orientation and gender identity.” Well, I’d say if my kids went there, I’d have some concerns, too. WFAE’s Ann Doss Helms wrote at length about a story that’s unlikely to go away soon.
  5. The Center for Cooperative Media has compiled nearly 300 excellent examples of journalism collaboration from the mid-2000s’ onward in a public database and now also a collection of tips on getting buy-in to launching such collaborations (especially with one-time competitors). See here on how to get buy-in from management, for instance. And check out the database, which has a bunch of examples of collaboration among NC entities, including:

    (a) the Carolina Public Press-led collaboration last year on the low conviction rates for sexual assault;
    (b) the two-year partnership among public media stations including WUNC on gun-related issues; and
    (c) the series late last year that ran in partnership with the Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity on the challenges facing community college students.
  6. And speaking of EdNC: Liz Bell wrote last week about how grants from the state community college system office help 750 students with child care assistance each year. But the state's child care subsidy has around 30,000 children waiting for support. Bell (who writes about early childhood issues) details in this piece how this huge gap is reflective of the struggles of parent-students at community colleges across the state.
  7. David Zucchino’s book has brought hopefully lots of widespread attention to the Wilmington massacre of 1898. (See here for a podcast he did on WFAE last week.) But Coastal Review Online this week published a fascinating story about how just 200 miles away from Wilmington (and other areas of the state where Jim Crow laws and widespread racism ravaged and subjugated African-American communities), Pea Island and other remote areas along the Outer Banks provided a refuge where African-Americans lived somewhat undisturbed lives. And held many well-respected jobs in the U.S. Lifesaving Service (not to mention a front-row seat to the Wright Brothers first-in-flight experiments). Check out Catherine Kozak’s article here.
  8. Finally, recent UNC-Chapel Hill graduate Andrea Martin published an adapted version of her journalism master’s thesis last week in Poynter: “Local newsrooms deal with online harassment daily. Here are 3 things to help ahead of the 2020 elections.” It’s a compelling read about the online harassment that local journalists face—and spells out clearly what newsrooms can and should do in response.

To-do list

  1. WUNC/North Carolina Public Radio will hold its first-ever “Pints & Politics” event at Top of the Hill in Chapel Hill tomorrow, Feb. 27. Political reporters Rusty Jacobs and Jeff Tiberii will chat about the 2020 elections ahead of the March 3 primary, and record an episode of the WUNC politics podcast. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. with the program set to begin at 7 p.m. More information here on this free event. Tiberii, WUNC’s capitol bureau chief, told me that WUNC started the twice-a-week podcast four years ago and he’s hoping to use the Thursday event to promote engagement with the podcast, which has grown steadily despite not a lot of marketing effort. He said he is hoping to do “three or four more” of these types of events in the next year. Because their terrestrial radio listening area stretches from Guilford County to Manteo, the plan is to try to schedule the others for outside of the Triangle.
  2. The Elon University School of Communications on March 4 will host a panel titled “Media and the Culture of Shame,” delving into society’s cancel culture, resiliency, shame vs. embarrassment, and the responsibility of individuals and media/journalism in public discourse. Panelists include Frank LoMonte, director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida and long-time executive director of the Student Press Law Center in Washington, D.C.; Deborah Dwyer, a UNC doctoral student; and  … me. The event will be held in the LaRose Student Commons and begin at 7:30 p.m. More info here.
  3. Love FOIA, comedy, and bluegrass? Then you’re going to love “FOIA Love,” a touring comedy/bluegrass show from Curtis Raye about “strange public records.” And you should check it out when it comes to Durham on March 20. Tickets and more info available here.
  4. If you’re in Chapel Hill between 5 and 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 27, come to Wilson Library to hear a talk by Penny Abernathy, Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics at UNC-Chapel Hill who led the “news deserts” research. Abernathy’s talk will mark the opening of the exhibition "Papers for the People: A Treasury of North Carolina News Sources,” a University Libraries exhibition that features two centuries of written news archives, including newspapers, newsletters and magazines and other examples of hyperlocal journalism. It will be on view through May 31 at Wilson.
  5. Another reminder for email newsletter lovers: the UNSPAM conference is coming to Greenville, SC on March 12th and 13th. 6AM City is hosting a newsletter-focused hackathon during the conference, among other panels and workshops over the two days (this is one of those “un-conferences” that I find much more worthwhile and help to program myself; no sitting in rooms passively listening for eight hours!).
  6. And a close-to-final reminder that Sunshine Day 2020 will be held Monday, March 9 at North Carolina A&T State University in the NC A&T Student Center. Guests are invited to attend a slate of events on openness and transparency issues facing North Carolina citizens. Events will begin at 9:30 a.m. Go here for more information.
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