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March 16, 2022, 11 a.m.
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A Substack-funded local news publication’s founders talk candidly about how things are going

“We don’t have bad news to share about how it’s going, but it’s not great news either. It’s just…news.”

The Arizona Agenda is a Substack newsletter about Arizona government and politics run by Rachel Leingang and Hank Stephenson. You can find their archives and subscribe at arizonaagenda.com.

Another quarter in our experiment as our own bosses flew by, and we weren’t sure whether we should do another quarterly update on how our business is going.

That’s because our update isn’t as rosy as our first quarter was. When we were the brand-new kids on the block, our growth took off.((For any questions about how we pay the bills, read our last quarterly update. And if you’re like, who is this royal “we”?, then read our About page.))

Our last few months looked more like a gentle slope. We don’t have bad news to share about how it’s going, but it’s not great news either. It’s just … news.

It’s hard to be candid when you aren’t sharing big wins. But we’re committed to not just showing you a highlight reel, so we’ll do a quarterly update anyway.

We are six months — halfway — through our one year of funding from Substack. And we are about halfway to the bare minimum amount of annualized revenue we’d need to fully financially support ourselves as two experienced journalists. So, we’re right on track. But, as you’ll see, we’re not celebrating that yet.

Here’s how the Arizona Agenda fared from December til now:

As of March 10, we have 3,136 total subscribers, more than 827 of whom have chosen to pay (and 13 more people who have gifted a subscription to someone).

(Our 42 “founding members” who paid $250 annually to support our work also receive comped subscriptions for their friends or colleagues as part of their higher subscription tier, as shown in the purple line. By the way, if you’re a founding member who hasn’t added any comps, just email us and we’ll put them in. We’ve also comped around 100 subscriptions so far.)

In annualized revenue, this is about $68,000, and fees from Substack and Stripe would come out of that, too.

We grew from nothing to about 2,500 subscriptions in our first few months, which means we’ve flattened out considerably on our growth since then. This makes sense: We received media coverage early on about our launch, allowing lots of interested people to find us.

And now we’ve kind of tapped out the easy-to-find readers.

Still, despite our lack of paywalled content, our percentage of paid subscribers remains very high by Substack standards. A “good” rate for paid subscriptions is about 5 to 10%. We’re at more than 25%.

We do not want to paywall our journalism unless necessary. But we have some ideas we just instituted, like audio files and reading lists related to the behind-the-scenes of stories, that provide paid subscribers a chance to dive deeper into a reported story. The nuts and bolts, like our daily newsletter and original reporting, will remain free unless or until we have to make it paid. If you want this newsletter to remain free for everyone, do your part and pony up $80 for a year’s subscription.

So far, offering a discount for a set period of time and enticing readers to pay in exchange for a badass sticker have helped us add paid subs. But we also make daily pithy pitches, and they seem to be successful at converting free subscribers to paid.

Why we think we’re stagnating

Our core audience is incredibly dedicated. We know that a good number of you start your day by reading our newsletter, and that’s truly an honor.

But that core audience is the audience that is nearly always engaged in political news. We love that. We also want to reach beyond it.

We most frequently hear from people who unsubscribe that it’s just too much news to follow. Totally fair! Or that they hated a particular thing we wrote or published, and it pissed them off enough to leave (and maybe email us calling us names, too). Also fair! Spend your money however you want to spend your money.

A few other factors affected the past three months: We took time off for the holidays, which meant we didn’t publish or bring in new readers for nearly a month. And we’re really glad we took that time off because we probably won’t take another break until the maybe two-week period between the session and peak campaign trail.

That really didn’t deplete our subscriber base — when you aren’t publishing, people generally don’t unsubscribe. But if you’re not publishing, new people don’t find you, either.

Then came January, which, to put it succinctly, sucked ass. There was not a single day in January where one of us wasn’t sick — yet we still put out the morning email every day. There are no sick days when you’re self-employed. We did our best. That’s all we can do. But y’all noticed we weren’t performing at peak potential and subscriptions suffered.

So, here we are, at the six-month mark now, realizing that we do not know anything about marketing ourselves. When you work at a news outlet, your job is just the news. When you start your own business, your job is the news and a bunch of other work you’ve never done before, like selling your product.

Looking back at our Substack Local application, we were laughably naive about it: “Basically, we understand we aren’t yet experts on how to make money — like we said, we are local journalists. But we know how to work hard and we’re willing to try pretty much anything to make this profitable.”

We’re now spending a lot of our time on trying to grow this publication’s reach, which means less time on reporting. We’ve enlisted some help on the marketing front.

A lot of you fellow small business owners and political geeks have offered to help us on that front over the last six months, which is incredibly flattering. But we haven’t really started taking advantage of that yet, in part because we’re wholly ignorant of what help we need. It’s hard to ask for just “general help,” so if you have any concrete ideas of how to grow this thing, we’d love to hear from you.

As it stands, we’re hitting the limit of the number of subscribers we can get without any marketing. And it’s pretty good! Definitely enough to pay for one journalist.

If it all ended today, we’d be nothing but proud of where we landed. But we know we can get further with some outside expertise and some elbow grease, so we’re going to work our asses off to do that.

Where do we go from here?

This is probably one of the coolest jobs in journalism: Just fucking around all day on what we want to do, not waking up early to do it, not answering to a corporate overlord with some gimmick of the week.

But we’re playing like 10 different roles on any given day, many of which we’ve never done before. We are, in many ways, out of our depths.

That said, we do have collaborations underway to help share expertise and boost our journalism. And we want to continue talking with locally owned media to understand how we can all help each other.

While we’ve heard some suggestions of conglomerating the small outlets, we want you all to think about what conglomeration has led to — not just in journalism. It’s a degraded product, with underpaid, disregarded employees. We won’t do that again.

Everyone has told us to expect peaks and valleys. We’re in a bit of a plateau, though our latest in-depth story gave us a nice little upswing. We would love another peak! It’s hard on the psyche to inch up very gradually, especially when you started on a high note.

But it’s better than a huge backslide, and we’re glad we haven’t experienced that.

There is churn. Some days, we lose a few subscribers. So far, we’ve been able to grab a few new ones each day to supplant the lost ones.

As our avid readers will note, we ditched our Friday weekly roundup in favor of more reporting time for original work. The fruits of that extra time are becoming visible to you all now — you saw our story last week about a Democratic gubernatorial candidate. Those deeply reported stories will continue in the coming weeks, as our reporting finishes up on several stories.

We also want to prioritize a good, short, straightforward scoop here and there. Those bring in new eyeballs, some of whom might just stick around.

We have plans for outreach to civic organizations and political groups to share what we do. If you run an organization like this and want to share the Arizona Agenda with your colleagues and members, let us know; we have a discount option for civic groups we can share. We’re also happy to talk to your group about local political journalism.

We intend to pitch and promote our work better — we hate Twitter so much, but that’s one way we’ll do it. We also will reach out to places where we could discuss our work, like radio and TV stations. If you’re someone who books people on these shows, we’ll always try our best to make it work. Don’t hesitate to keep asking!

We feel some kind of responsibility to share how this is going since we’re the first crop of local journalists doing this. There really aren’t people to turn to — there are no “veteran” Substackers. At most, people have done it for a year or two.

But every Substacker who we’ve reached out to has been SO exceedingly nice and helpful, and that is lovely. And we want to contribute to that healthy sense of collaboration and community.

Substack, the company, has suggestions on how to grow a subscriber base, but they don’t know what’s a surefire success either outside of big-name national writers. Success in one Substack could completely not translate to another, we’ve found. We are always happy to share what’s working for us and hear what’s working for others, so any Substackers with ideas, we’re all ears!

We have so many outstanding questions about what the next six months will hold, and some big answers we need to arrive at by the end of our funded year. But there’s no way to plan that far ahead when we’re in the middle of the experiment, so for now, we’ll just keep swimming.

If you have offered to help in the past, we’re going to take you up on it. And if you haven’t offered to help but now you’re like, shit, I should like to help these two nice people, then please email us. It’s gonna take a village to keep this newsletter going.

POSTED     March 16, 2022, 11 a.m.
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