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3 tips for monetizing your email newsletter

It’s been a year since Substack Local helped 12 independent news startups get off the ground, and thanks to Simon Owens’s recent newsletter, we have a snapshot of how several of those businesses are doing – and how they’re defining success. 

The full newsletter (and its comments section) are worth a read, but for the tl;dr crowd, here are a few insights that seem broadly relevant for aspiring or early-stage news founders:

1. Focus on revenue as much as editorial. The Substack Local winners received about a year of runway funding for their newsletters, but they still needed to figure out a long-term revenue strategy to sustain their businesses permanently – and that hasn’t been easy. 

Iașul Nostru founder Alexandru Enășescu says he’s “not sure any one of us is quite at that stage at the end of year 1”, and Murray Bridge News founder Peri Strathearn had a similar assessment: “I'm optimistic, [but] I know some of the other Substack Local recipients are not quite as optimistic, despite the high quality of the work they're producing.”

Peri’s takeaway: “Those of us in the program who are most clearly on the path to sustainability are… the ones who have put the greatest focus on the business side.”

2. Be prepared to pivot. As a startup founder, it’s almost inevitable that you’ll experience a growth plateau – likely within a matter of months. The challenge is figuring out how to pivot out of that plateau, which Arizona Agenda co-founders (and LION members) Rachel Leingang and Hank Stephenson wrote about for Nieman Lab in March

Arizona Agenda added more than 700 paying subscribers in its first four months after launch, but its growth slowed from there, forcing Rachel and Hank to test new ways to attract readers and subscribers, including:

  • Ditching a Friday newsletter round-up to give themselves more time for the kind of deep-dive original reporting that's most likely to generate buzz and bring in new readers
  • Producing more subscriber-only content to strengthen the value proposition of a paid subscription
  • Spending more time on Twitter and pursuing other ways to promote their work 
Rachel and Hank haven’t shared yet how these pivots are working, but by identifying their growth plateau and developing a plan to address it, they’re already ahead of the game.

3. Don’t default to daily. While many local email newsletters have adopted the daily publication cycle of legacy newspapers, there’s nothing sacred about that daily rhythm, and LION members The Food Section and The Charlotte Ledger have shown what’s possible when you break it. 

The Charlotte Ledger launched on Substack in 2018 (before the Substack Local program) and published three free newsletters a week to start before switching to a freemium model with two free and two paid newsletters each week. The business now earns more than $200,000 a year and has expanded to publish multiple spin-off newsletters. 

The Food Section launched last year with a similar three-newsletter-per-week rhythm, including two weekly editions for subscribers and one free weekly edition on Fridays, and it now has more than 400 paying subscribers

The lesson: You don’t need to publish every day to build a loyal audience, and sometimes publishing less often can give you more time to do the original reporting that your biggest fans value most. 

— Ben DeJarnette, communications manager, and the LION team

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7 resources for independent publishers

Here are seven resources and opportunities that can help you build a stronger, more sustainable news business

1. Boost your reader revenue. In Zephr's latest e-guide discover how 4 successful digital publishers achieved significant subscription growth by utilizing data. Download the guide» (Sponsored)

2. Choose a CMS built for small independent publishers. Patch Labs offers all the features you need to publish and monetize your work – and none of the things you don’t. Request a demo» (Sponsored)

3. Raise money for your new non-profit. Watch this webinar on how to find donors and position your new nonprofit to raise all the money it needs to launch successfully. 

4. Request an invitation to our News Entrepreneur Community on Slack to join conversations about managing freelancers, accepting donations, launching new products and other topics being discussed by independent news publishers. 

5. Develop a viable business plan for your news business at this step-by-step workshop with an award-winning instructor. (June 18)

6. Get support and funding to strengthen your news business. Nearly 60 LION members applied for the first cycle of our LION-GNI Sustainability Audits and Funding program, and 20 publishers have already been accepted. To be considered for the July-August audit cycle, make sure you’re an active LION member and apply here by June 13.

7. Buy a ticket for this fall's Independent News Sustainability Summit, a first-of-its-kind conference focused on revenue and sustainability for independent news businesses. Capacity is limited, and the early-bird ticket discount ends on August 19.

What we're reading

Not so fast. A government plan to boost local news in Canada would disproportionately help the country’s biggest outlets while shutting out most independent publishers. (Canadaland)

Real talk. The grief caused by traumatic news events doesn’t end at the start of the work day. Here’s why leaders shouldn’t try to ignore it. (Huffington Post)

Doomsday planning. Market analysts are split on the likelihood of a recession in the next 12 months, but Dick Tofel says news business leaders would be wise to plan for the worst. (Second Rough Draft)

A crisis by any other name. The most honest language to describe climate change might not be the most effective, at least not if your goal is to get through to the skeptics. (Nieman Lab)

Oh, the injustice. The big bucks in podcasting don’t come from deeply reported local news. They come from ~checks notes~ relaxing background noise. (Bloomberg)

LIONs in the news

Block Club Chicago is no stranger to breaking the news, but last week they played a part in making some news – in the very best way. 

It started when a beloved neighborhood crossing guard launched a GoFundMe campaign to try to raise $5,000 to pay off back rent and avoid eviction. 

Block Club Chicago had written a story about Tammy Anderson’s work as a crossing guard less than a month earlier, so last Friday, they shared an update about Anderson’s predicament and the campaign to help her.

Within minutes, Block Club readers had contributed more than $10,000 to the GoFundMe, which has now nearly quadrupled its original goal.  

It was a much-needed bright spot in a very dark news week, so hats off to Block Club Chicago, and long live local news.

And in other LION member news…
  • The Institute for Nonprofit News’s 2022 Emerging Leaders Council includes LION members Angela Saavedra (El Paso Matters), Kassie Kelly (The Texas Tribune), Cassie Young (Matter News), Deana Balinton (El Tímpano), Ryan Sorrell (The Kansas City Defender), Keri Mitchell (Dallas Free Press) and Jacob Fries (InvestigateWest).

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