What it’s like to run this newsletter
In honor of our first birthday, we share the ups and downs of trying to create a tiny local publication.
In the past year, we’ve published some of the best work of our careers, right here in your inboxes.
The freedom of running our own publication has allowed us to take risks and try things we otherwise wouldn’t have. Some of it didn’t pan out, and that’s cool! We also have the freedom to stop doing things that don’t work.
Before we get into the details of how the business side of things are going with this annual update, let us take a moment to appreciate you all.
Thank you for caring about local news and local government. Even if you’re not a paid subscriber, you’re here, and you’re reading. That shows you care.
In 12 months, we built a community of political insiders and outsiders around this newsletter. That’s one of our proudest accomplishments. Aside from two short mental health vacations, we published nearly every day every week. Also a big deal. We learned how to be business owners (kind of) and we’re running a successful small business. And for the first time in our lives, we’re truly independent journalists working for an independent publication — our own!
We gave you a fancy bullet-pointed list of the stories we’re proud of in our brief birthday post this week, so we’ll instead tell you what we’ve heard from you all.
One of you told us you decided to apply for a seat on a city commission after geeking out on politics through the Agenda. Several of you have told us you’re sending way more messages to your lawmakers or filing more records requests. A couple of you have shared our zines with students you teach. One of you randomly met one of Rachel’s siblings at an event in Minnesota and shared that you were an early and dedicated reader of the Agenda. These stories warm our hearts the most.
But if we’re going to keep doing this for the long run, we still need to grow. A lot.
We refrained from a final push to bring in more money for a very strong reason: In the year we got funding from Substack, the majority of our revenue diverted to them. We wanted a big push for revenue to actually keep us in business.
Now, we’re on our own. We keep 90% of our revenue (the standard with Substack), so your money is going directly toward supporting local journalism. It pays our bills.
If you’re a free rider, now’s the time to subscribe. We are locally owned and operated. Your support keeps us, Rachel Leingang and Hank Stephenson, two journalists who know this community, employed locally.
For those of you who already pay, please make sure your credit card is up to date and won’t expire before your subscription renews. That’s the biggest reason we lose subscribers!
The financial bottom line
Since we started, we’ve been radically transparent about how our business is doing and how we’re funded. We were awarded $100,000 from Substack as part of its venture into local news to prop us up for the first year. Substack isn’t continuing to support these local publications into a second year — a bummer, but that’s Substack’s right.
On the bright side, we’re already cracking six figures in annual subscription revenue. And now we get to keep that.
Now, you readers are our only funders. No single person provides us more than a few hundred dollars a year, which means we’re not beholden to anyone.
We’re able to keep running the Agenda in part because we have side gigs. We both freelance regularly. We’re grateful for those opportunities, but we both work way too much. We can see a future, not too far from now, when the Agenda alone pays our salaries, so we can work just one full-time job.
We grew from nothing to about 4,400 subscribers in a year. More than 1,200 of you chose to pay us, even though we’ve never put up a paywall to read our work.
That rate, about 25-30% paid, is extremely high for a newsletter. It means we have a very dedicated audience, but also that we have room to grow our list of overall readers. Help us do that by sharing the Agenda with others.
Our business expenses are relatively low, but not non-existent. We pay for a desk at the League of Arizona Cities and Towns, but mostly work from our houses or coffee shops. We pay for gas, meals and coffees for meetings we take, and public records as needed. Our website and email addresses cost a small amount. We both need new computers and phones, but we’re making do for now. We’ve paid some for freelancers and photos, both of which we’d love to do more of, should money allow.
We had some assistance paid for by Substack through the past year, as well as some other services, like health care stipends. Those are going away, so our expenses are going up. We intend to use some of our money this coming year for a person to help with marketing and sales, so we can avoid any direct management of payments for things like group subs for ethical reasons and because we are not good at business-side stuff. And media liability insurance ain’t cheap.
But for the most part, your money is going directly into our pockets.
The dreaded paywall is coming soon
We surveyed our readers a while back to see what the proper price should be for the newsletter.
The majority of answers fell between $100 and $150 annually. So we increased our price to $120 a year, or $12 per month, to better reflect our daily product and expertise. We’ll still have occasional sales and coupons for those of you on a budget.
(If you signed up at a lower rate, we won’t automatically increase your rate this year, but if you’d like to opt in to paying the full price, please click here.)
But we can’t give away our work forever. Starting Monday, we’re putting in place a soft paywall. If you’re a paid subscriber, you’ll still get the Agenda at 6 a.m. If you’re a free reader, it won’t arrive until 10 a.m.
If you like having us in your inbox for your morning coffee and constitutional, pay up.
That timed paywall will be in place until Election Day. After that, we’ll set a hard paywall at some point lower in the Daily Agendas, likely around the Other News section. That means free subscribers will miss out on a solid chunk of the daily newsletter.
Our Friday stories will remain free — we want those to spread widely.
If we reach enough subscribers to pay ourselves a salary befitting our workloads and experience levels, we’ll drop the paywall entirely. We don’t *want* to have one. But we need one in order to grow the business and pay the bills.
And, as always, if you can’t afford the subscription, you only need to ask us to be comped, and we’ll give you a free subscription for as long as you need.
We can offer free subscriptions thanks to our founding members, many of whom have opted to donate their additional subscriptions to those who want to read, but can’t afford to pay.
Other ways you can help us
Founding members, those people who value and rely on local journalism, get occasional invites to coffee with us and additional subscriptions to share with family and friends.
For $500, you can become a founding member to support us bigly and sign up four friends. To upgrade to founding member status, just click here and follow the steps.
And if you want to sign up your whole civic group or office, we have steep discounts for larger groups. We’re also happy to do a presentation at your group’s next virtual or in-person meeting.
Respond to this email or shoot us a text or DM if you’re interested in more information about our group rates. We finally have the rates figured out and a way to manage group subs.
You can also send individual gift subscriptions to the activists or political nerds in your life. It’s a gift they’ll get all year!
And we want to celebrate you, too. We’re hosting our first birthday party next month — Sept. 23, Crescent Ballroom, 5-7 p.m. Come grab a drink on us (we’ll pay the bar tab up to a certain amount) and tell us what you enjoyed about the Agenda and how we can do better.
What has worked for us
Over the past year-plus, we’ve talked to anyone who will give us time about how to grow a newsletter. Other Substackers, newsletter consultants, other local journalists, people at Substack, people who work in digital strategy … you name it. Without their help and sounding boards, we’d be worse off. Sometimes, it just helped to hear we were doing well.
It feels lovely to work with people who so readily share what they’ve learned. We intend to do the same. Here’s what’s worked for us.
Consistent publishing that people can rely on (as reliable as their morning poop, really) has helped us grow an audience. You know you’ll be hearing from us at 6 a.m. on weekdays. Beyond that schedule of Monday to Thursday Daily Agendas, though, we vary up our original reporting. We’ve published zines, cheatsheets, breaking news, scoops, enterprise work, people-focused stories, deep dives, Q&As. We sometimes have discussion threads where we hear from y’all.
Showing up on or in other local media helps. We take every opportunity to appear on local TV unless we really don’t have the room in our schedules. We have talked to various groups of civically minded people (and would love to do more of that, so feel free to ask us to come to your meetings).
Substack launched a recommendations option a few months ago. That has brought us hundreds of new readers.
We also know that asking you all for money every single day works. Maybe it’s because our daily pitches are funny? We’d like to think so. A lot of you are free riders for months, then will pay up one day out of the blue. That’s cool. Thanks!
Our willingness to shift gears quickly played a role in our growth. When we noticed a type of feature wasn’t working or was tedious, we’d analyze whether we wanted to keep doing it.
For example, early on, we answered reader questions about Arizona government stuff — those were interesting, but not revelatory. Our podcast, which we admittedly did not invest much time or effort into, didn’t grab too many ears (it did ignite one hell of a discussion, though, so we’ll revisit podcasting someday when we have the time or expertise available to do it correctly).
Where are we headed next?
In our second year, we won’t be resting on our laurels. We’re getting right back to work.
We’ll still be in your inboxes at 6 a.m. daily (or 10 a.m. for you free riders). We won’t have layoffs. We won’t get any golden parachutes. We will likely have some typos. We’ll probably publish something on any given day that pisses you off. But we’ll be here — and isn’t that awesome?
We have some stories underway that provide insight into the campaign trail and accountability to the people running for office. Hank has a couple more antics he’d like to pull. Rachel will try to reel in those antics to an acceptable, legal level.
For example, we strongly believe Arizona needs a monument to Don Bolles, the Arizona Republic journalist who was murdered by car bomb in 1979 for reporting on organized crime and its nexus to local politics.
But to put a monument up at the state Capitol, you need a bill. We’re working on getting a bill sponsor, and Hank wants to register as a lobbyist to help push the legislation, then write about the bill’s fate. It’s a good gimmick for a good cause!
We’re honored to have become a part of your daily lives in just a year’s time. It’s a privilege we don’t take lightly. And we can’t wait to keep working for you — you guys are the best bosses we’ve ever had.
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Kudos to you both. You fill an important gap in local news coverage. May you grow to 10 times your current readership!
As local newspapers disappear your work becomes ever more important