Time flies when you’re having fun
It’s been nine months since we launched, and unlike crypto, we’re still hot.
Nine months ago, we launched this little two-person newsletter with a goal: To become the go-to guide for both political insiders and the politically curious Arizona citizen.
And, if we can brag a little, we’d say we’re crushing it.
We’ve crossed 1,000 paid subscribers, sent more than 200 emails, broken stories that received national attention, spotlighted real people affected by state policies, uncovered malfeasance and incompetence in government, become the first daily read for a lot of people we respect and had a lot of lolz along the way.
We’re bringing in $80,000 in annual revenue so far, which isn’t enough to support two people, but is pretty damn good for a brand new publication charging $8 per month.
We’re making a name for ourselves and building something different that we love and that our readers seem to love, too. And, unlike any newspaper we’ve worked for, this could actually grow into a comfortable living. And we haven’t killed each other yet, which is perhaps our greatest achievement.
The big question y’all keep asking us is: Will we stick around after our initial funding from Substack dries up in August?
And we’re happy to announce that we’ve decided to keep doing this for the foreseeable future.
We truly believe that if the Arizona Agenda can survive until 2024, it can probably survive forever. But one year is a short runway to start a business that can sustain two people.
Luckily, more people want to hire us now than ever. We’re still freelancing and working side gigs to make ends meet. But that’s exhausting, and we’d rather be putting all our energy into the Agenda. To do that, we need your help.
Switching from free to paid on Substack, unfortunately, is not exactly intuitive. If you’re having problems with the process, click this link, which will walk you through it.
Also, make sure your credit card didn’t expire — that’s the biggest reason we lose paid subscribers.
If you’re already paying us, you can help us out by sharing our emails with others. Tweeting, Facebooking, emailing, texting, doorknocking … any way we can reach new people helps us.
Just like our landlords, we’re raising the rent
We have one quarterly payment left from our overlords at Substack, then in mid-August, we’re on our own. No more big checks. Just your $8 at a time.
So let’s talk about that $8.
We don’t get to keep the lion’s share of our subscription revenue for the first year (in exchange for those guaranteed quarterly checks), so we priced our product deliberately low to get people in the door. We promised early subscribers that we won’t jack up their rates. And we intend to keep that promise.
But in order to stay in business, we probably need to charge more.
So here’s the deal: We’re going to ask you to volunteer to pay more. (Crazy, we know!) We already surveyed you about how much you think our daily dose of news and snark is worth, and the answer was a resounding “more.” The vast majority of you said you would be happy paying $120 or more per year, so starting in August, that’ll be our new price.
Sometime before then, we’ll send you an email asking you to opt in or out of our new price. If you can’t afford it or think we’re only worth the $80 per year that you’re paying now (or $70 for our very early subscribers), fair enough. If you can pay a little more, it would be a huge help. If half of you paid the new rate, we’d immediately hit our bare minimum goal heading into year two.
The last three months
Our last quarterly update found us battling a holiday slump and a month of illnesses. We lost steam and felt down about the state of the newsletter, and we were candid about that.
A few factors have boosted us in our third quarter.
Our last quarterly update ping-ponged around the internet, and it brought us new people with ideas to help us — and encouraging words that we were actually doing quite well. It helped us tremendously just to understand the lay of the newsletter land and how we were faring compared to others.
We added hundreds of new free subscribers and converted free riders to paid at solid rates in the third quarter. Growth is still much slower now than it was in our first quarter, but that’s expected.
And we finally got our rhythm down, and that predictability seems to matter to you as readers and has helped stabilize us mentally.
We also got a few collaborations under our belt. We worked on two solutions-focused stories with the Arizona Daily Star, which put us back in the pages of newspapers, because, god help us, we still love to see our names in that smudgy newsprint.
Unfortunately, we had to pay taxes for the first time as freelancers. But even that couldn’t (fully) dampen our spirits. We’ve suddenly found ourselves optimistic about our prospects. Maybe it’s all that good hash we’ve been slinging.
Group subs and other big ideas
We have other plans to make money in the works, too.
Until now, we’ve focused on selling (and we use that term very loosely) one subscription at a time. We haven’t done any real marketing, other than a brief, spotty experiment in Facebook ads. Our growth has largely been a result of word-of-mouth. That’s awesome.
But we’ve spent a lot of time this past quarter in meetings with people who understand business and the newsletter economy, and the advice that keeps coming up, aside from raising prices, is to think bigger.
Instead of selling single subscriptions, we want to focus on selling group subscriptions. We’ll sign up everyone in your office, group, large family, whatever, for one discounted price.
If you work at a lobbying or law firm or a government office or are a member of a civic or political group, we’ll probably be hitting you up about a group subscription. Better yet, hit us up! Reply to this email or leave us a note if you’re interested in getting your whole crew hooked on the Agenda.
As an added bonus for group subscribers, we put together a few slideshows that we can present at your group’s next meeting. They cover a variety of topics like political and journalistic ethics, campaign finance and the legislative process. (They’re the fun kind of PowerPoints, we swear!)
A few dozen group subscriptions will go a long way towards putting us into the sustainable category.
But because of the terms of our contract with Substack, we’re in a bit of a holding pattern right now for some of our other ideas. We can’t sell advertisements until August, for example, but that’s another revenue stream we hope to develop.
We’re inclined to stay away from the wholesale “sponsorships” that other newsletters employ. It just doesn’t sit right with us to be sponsored.
Instead, we think our audience can benefit from our audience — our listserv contains nearly 4,000 of the most plugged-in people in Arizona (and growing). Many of our readers work in Arizona politics, the rest follow it closely. These are the people you’d want to hire or ask to volunteer for your cause. We’re going to develop a classified advertisements page that we hope can bring in a small revenue stream and help fulfill your needs.
We might even team up with some local artists to develop and sell some merch. Who wouldn’t want an Arizona Agenda T-shirt, mug or hat?
To paywall or not to paywall?
We’re grappling with how to handle our paywall.
So far, we rarely employ one. Paying subscribers receive access to commenting and a little podcast so you can get to know more about our reporting and us (and the satisfaction of supporting locally owned news). And we’re doing great at converting free subscribers to paid ones. A “good” metric by Substack standards is 10%. We’re at 30%.
Ideologically, we’d like to keep this publication free. But we can’t do that unless more of our dedicated fence-sitters start paying.
After August, we’ll start experimenting with a soft paywall. That could mean we send the morning email at 6 a.m. for paid subscribers and later for unpaid subscribers. (We know — because you guys keep telling us — that a lot of you read us during your morning trip to the bathroom. If you’re not paying now, maybe you’ll pay to keep that routine. Morning routines are very important.)
We also might try a partial paywall. That would mean free subscribers still see part of our morning email, but can’t read all of our daily sections unless they pay.
We will never let someone’s inability to pay stand in the way of getting news. But if you’re reading regularly and not paying, expect an email or two trying to shame you into paying.
That said, we hope that this newsletter can eventually be a community benefit kept afloat by those with the ability to pay. It’s a bold dream, but we think it’s attainable in the long run. But like everything else in our lives right now, that depends on you.
We have a whole lot of business-side ideas in progress and on our minds. And while that’s just the reality of being a journalist and a small business owner, we never want our focus to drift too much from journalism to business. We’ll stay trained on the work we’re trained to do.
The next big things
Starting in June, our focus shifts to elections. Sure, they already enter heavily into the Daily Agenda, but our original reporting will largely be elections related as well.
Our “bill of the day” section in the Daily Agenda will morph into a “get to know a district” section. We’ll also include dispatches from the campaign trail in the daily newsletter.
We’ve got stories in progress to key in on how political news gets to you, and we have plans in the works for a campaign roadtrip story. And of course, we’ll have constant accountability coverage of your current and prospective politicians.
We’ve got all sorts of fun plans for 2023, too.
We are committed to keeping the Agenda alive. We’ve worked too hard, and brought so many of you along for the ride, to close up shop just yet. We’re part of your daily lives, and we feel like we’re adding to the journalism scene — and to the community — by doing our work.
At the same time, building this newsletter has helped raise our profiles. We’re getting pretty tempting offers to do other things out of state. We don’t want to have to go back to real jobs, and we certainly don’t want to leave Arizona. But if paid subscriptions don’t pick up and these other revenue streams don’t pan out, we may not have a choice.
Once again, we depend on you, dear reader. If you want us to stay around, you’re gonna have to put your money where your mouth is. Don’t make us beg (again).