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Sept. 2, 2021, 10:08 a.m.
Business Models

“Facebook has always been where my audience was”: Meet some of the local journalists writing the first paid newsletters at Facebook

“I just really wanted to be independent of the chains, quite frankly.”

It’s tempting to be cynical about Facebook’s push into local news.

The company last week named 25 local journalists who will join Bulletin, a newsletter platform that provides “independent creators” with a website, podcasting capabilities, and a host of social, monetization, and content moderation tools.

I spent the past week talking to a handful of the local journalists who have partnered with Bulletin, and I found that while they’re aware of Facebook’s mixed history with publishers, they can’t help but be hopeful. Facebook has been responsive to their suggestions and requests, several writers told me, and the platform offers an enormous opportunity to reach local audiences where they’re already spending lots of time online.

Some of the journalists are early in their careers, others have been in newsrooms for decades. They’ve worked for chain newspapers and legacy publications and digital-only reporting collaboratives and journalism nonprofits. They’re invested in their communities, dedicated to publishing local stories that won’t otherwise be written, and intent on reaching audiences that have historically be overlooked.

The local news cohort will receive support and coaching from the email consultancy Inbox Collective and a tailored version of CUNY’s Entrepreneurial Journalism Creators Program.

Facebook says it’s providing “licensing fees” to the local journalists as part of a “multi-year commitment” but spokesperson Erin Miller would not specify how much the company is paying the writers or for how long. The company has said it won’t take a cut of subscription revenue “for the length of these partnerships.” But, again, it’s not saying how long those partnerships will last. The writers I spoke to indicated they weren’t at liberty to discuss the details of their arrangement with Facebook, but at least some are keeping part-time jobs to make ends meet.

The cohort of local news writers selected by Facebook includes the first writers on Bulletin to monetize their newsletters. Roughly half of the newsletters are written by journalists of color. Madison Minutes by Sam Hoisington and Hayley Sperling, The Kerr County Lead by Louis Amestoy, Right Down Euclid from Evan Dammarell, and Black Iowa News from Dana James are the first to offer paid subscriptions, which range from $5/month or $50/year to $7/month or $70/year. (The local news announcement follows a release that focused on more famous writers — like Malala Yousafzai and Malcolm Gladwell, whose offering is called, really, “Oh, MG” — joining the platform. See the full list here.)

Bulletin writers own their subscriber lists, and can take their content elsewhere if they choose. Readers don’t need a Facebook account to read, subscribe to, or pay for a Bulletin newsletter. But the two platforms are intertwined, which is fine by former Des Moines Register reporter Dana James, who writes Black Iowa News. Much of her audience is already on the site, especially compared to the other social platforms she uses, like LinkedIn, Twitter, and even the Facebook-owned Instagram.

“Facebook has always been where my audience was,” James said. She has an active Twitter, but feels like she mainly interacts with other journalists there. Facebook gives her the opportunity for her to meet — and serve — her readers directly. “You’ll see me in the comments having different conversations with people, you’ll see me track down information for people, things like that,” she said.

Black Iowa News covers issues that matter to Black Iowans,  whether they’re living in the capitol (like James) or Waterloo (hometown of journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones) or anywhere else in the state. James sent me the exact number of Black Iowans, according to the latest census data, after offering a (very close) guess during our conversation: 131,972. “In some places, that’s a suburb, you know? I think about it as, yes, it’s statewide, but it’s still manageable in terms of the size,” she said. “I tend to view it as just one big community.”

James, who was a reporter at the Register for seven years, has worked in communications (including writing newsletters at a local university), insurance, and other sectors since. When the pandemic hit, she quickly clocked that the media stories she was reading weren’t focusing on the disproportionate effect Covid-19 was having on Black people in her state.

“I was reading all of these stories about what was happening with the pandemic and none of the stories here in Iowa zeroed in on the numbers for Black Iowans,” James said. “I had this fear that the pandemic was going to happen to us, and we were going to get wiped out, and never really know how bad it was.”

She pitched a story to an outlet and while she was waiting (and waiting) to hear back, she thought: You know what? I’ll just do it on my own. She hit send on Black Iowa News, which first debuted as a Substack, and has been publishing ever since.

“The stories here in the media will just say, Iowa has X percent of people fully vaccinated, and X percent of people are infected, but they rarely drill down,” James said. “I always drill down.”

Freed from the grind of a daily newspaper, James is looking forward to taking her time, making that extra phone call and taking the extra beat to figure out the best way to make a story resonate with readers. She’s already planning a deep dive into maternal mortality rates, including highlighting the work of a promising doula collective doing trainings across the state.

“I can’t chase every story,” James said. “But what I can do is do what I do best, which is really dig in and be the best storyteller that I can be with each story that comes along.”

Down in Kerrville, Texas, Louis Amestoy also described his new newsletter as freedom from a more traditional newsroom. Amestoy, who writes Kerr County Lead and hosts a morning webcast The Lead Live, had previously served as editor of The Greenville Herald-Banner and Kerrville Daily Times. The experiences gave him an idea of what the future of journalism doesn’t look like.

“When you look at legacy institutions — newspapers, specifically — they can’t escape that legacy. They’re still dealing with circulation issues, still dealing with the printing presses, still dealing with issues that essentially deflect and distract from your core purpose [and] your core mission,” Amestoy said. “That’s the biggest freedom I have. I’m not worrying about, you know, the fact that I can’t get newspaper carriers to deliver my paper. I’m not locked into advertising or accounting practices that were set up in 1975. I feel like I have some wiggle room.”

Kerrville, about 65 miles from San Antonio and deep in Texas Hill Country, isn’t a news desert, strictly speaking. The Kerrville Daily Times, owned by Southern Newspapers Inc., is there — though its six-days-a-week schedule was reduced to three during Covid and its newsroom has shrunk — and there’s two community weeklies. Their presence, Amestoy emphasized, was not sufficient. “You may have newspapers here,” he said. “You don’t really have substantial journalism happening.”

Amestoy originally launched The Kerr County Lead in late 2020 but took another newsroom job after a few nervewracking months of spending down his savings. The support from Facebook allows him to commit to The Lead, and gives him some breathing room as he seeks the revenue and subscribers he needs to achieve long-term sustainability. Amestoy has managed entire newsrooms, in Texas and at The Bakersfield Californian, in the past, but there were always “finance people” around. Now, he’s on his own. It’s a tradeoff — despite the nerves — that he’s quite happy to make.

“I just really wanted to be independent of the chains, quite frankly,” Amestoy said. “I’ve worked for a lot of dumb publishers — you can quote me on that — who have obstructed the ability for journalists to do their work. Covid was a good example. I told my reporters, ‘This is the most important story we’re ever going to write.’ But I had a publisher who just didn’t really get it.” (The Lead has already published more than a dozen articles on Covid; The Kerrville Daily Times’ Coronavirus tab shows just 1o stories since December 2020.)

One newspaper-y vestige that he’s taking with him, though? When Amestoy first launched Kerr County Lead, back in December, the “No. 1 driver of conversions” was a weekly e-edition mocked up to look like a print paper. Each one brought in 15 to 20 new subscribers and the engagement numbers were “crazy good,” Amestoy said. The design was a time-intensive process, but he plans to bring back the e-edition for the Bulletin version, too.

At one point, Amestoy turned a question — something like, “Is Facebook a friend of local journalism?” — on its head. Facebook, he indicated, could really use the on-the-ground expertise and dedication of community journalists. He hopes that Bulletin’s foray into local news helps the tech giant see that the investment is not mere charity.

“I think it’s important for Facebook to recognize this opportunity and say, ‘Okay, what do we really want to be?'” Amestoy said. “You see in certain communities that Facebook has come to fill a hole left by news deserts. Who becomes your local authority? The messaging group that’s there? Is there really someone there to curate that — someone who is objective and can differentiate the good stuff from the bad stuff? I certainly hope that they take some of the lessons that they’re going to learn from this, and make some more investments, because I think that there are a lot of opportunities. There’s so many talented journalists out there who really want an opportunity to do kind of thing that I want to do.”

Meanwhile, in Wisconsin, Sam Hoisington and Hayley Sperling have been brewing Madison Minutes, which gives local news stories and event listings an Axios-like format. (Their first email includes the line “Brevity is beautiful.”) Hoisington, who worked in social media at NPR and Inside Climate News before becoming a project manager at News Revenue Hub, started the newsletter in April and, a month later, invited Sperling, whose previous experience includes engagement work at the public media collaborative WisContext, to join him.

“He invited me to be a guest editor, and then said ‘Do you want to do this all the time?’ I asked, ‘How much can you pay me?’ and he said ‘Nothing,'” Sperling recounted dryly. “And here we are today.”

The Bulletin partnership has given them some financial cushion, and they’re recruiting local advertising in addition to revenue generated from their new subscription program.

Madison Minutes wants to be “relentlessly useful” to its readers, as Hoisington put it. To that end, the pair invested in software that treats reader emails like support tickets — making it difficult for any feedback to fall through the cracks. Sperling said she had been frustrated in the past by the red tape she encountered when trying to incorporate reader feedback in other newsrooms.

“Whenever we get feedback from our audience, I really want to take that to heart because if one person took the time to email us about something then other people are probably thinking it as well,” she said. With Madison Minutes, she added, “[We] want to push boundaries and to be the people that innovate in journalism and to be the people that try new things. We’ve done a lot of different experiments on many parts of the newsletter and letting our audience guide us in this path forward has been a really awesome and really interesting journey.”

Ultimately, the two cofounders see the newsletter as a news product, rather than a newsroom. Madison Minutes will publish explainers, resource guides, and subscriber-exclusive content in the future, but it’s more focused on filling information gaps and providing a service than competing directly with other outlets for scoops. To boost their email list, they partnered with Tone Madison, a reader-supported blog with “music, culture, and strong points of view,” and promised to donate $2 to Tone Madison for every one of their subscribers that signed up for Madison Minutes. (Hoisington said he emptied out his 401(k) — around $12,000 — to start Madison Minutes, and that the $500 donation to Tone Madison came from those funds.)

Though they’re focused on being collaborative — both Hoisington and Sperling spoke highly of a number of local journalists in Madison — the pair was animated when talking about the mistakes they feel the leadership of larger news organizations have made. They pointed to The Wisconsin State Journal publishing an openly homophobic letter to the editor and that their editorial board had been made entirely of white, middle-aged men until June 2021. (The Wisconsin State Journal’s executive editor, Jason Adrians, clarified that the newspaper has had several women on its editorial board over the years, but said he was unsure if any people of color had served before he sought to diversify the board earlier this year. He added, “I only wish we had done it sooner.”)

They’ve also felt — and heard, through reader feedback — that a general willingness to treat police and other official accounts as unquestioned fact has eroded trust in some of the other news outlets.

“I think the biggest source of issues between trust in the media and the public comes from protest reporting and police reporting” Sperling said. “There’s not usually a whole lot of questioning of official sources in our local news media and people are frustrated with that. People are frustrated that newspapers are essentially just publishing quotes from the cops … It’s ‘Here’s what the police chief said at a press conference’ and that’s it.”

Madison is home to the oldest and largest of the University of Wisconsin campuses. The Madison Minutes cofounders said they felt the city was “behind” similar college towns in terms of news startups and coverage.

“I personally don’t think we have everything that we deserve,” Hoisington added, giving credit to startups like Madison365 but pointing out powerful pieces published by legacy news organizations in other cities that examine their history with race. “I don’t think the opinion section reflects Madison, for example. I don’t think the coverage reflects that we’re a progressive, open-minded city very interested, for the most part, in racial justice.”

The Madison Minutes cofounders described their Bulletin newsletter as an opportunity to step into a void left by other, larger outlets.

“If they committed to our vision or a similar vision, they could blow us out of the water in a matter of weeks,” Hoisington said. “If this newsroom with millions of dollars in its budget went all in on what we’re doing, they could probably do a better job. But they won’t, and so we will.”

Sarah Scire is deputy editor of Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email (, Twitter DM (@SarahScire), or Signal (+1 617-299-1821).
POSTED     Sept. 2, 2021, 10:08 a.m.
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