Local journalists highlight the importance of DIY news reporting
Cari Wade Gervin lost her job at a Tennessee alt-weekly in 2018 and turned to freelancing. She had found a story that involved the office of the state’s speaker of the house apparently faking an email in order to get the bond of an activist.
“I pitched it, and no one wanted the story. I was like, ‘Well, I’ll just start a newsletter and send it out, because somebody needs to write about it.”
In March, she launched The Dog and Pony Show. Then she wrote about the governor’s staff using auto-deleting messaging apps to circumvent open records laws. Likewise, she went on to cover many such stories.
In North Carolina, Tony Mecia was laid off from the conservative Weekly Standard when it shut down. “I didn’t want to borrow or invest a bunch of money starting something up,” he said. So Mecia started sending out a newsletter three mornings a week.
Inboxes are swelling with newsy email newsletters these days, and a lot of the industry dialogue centers on major national brands like The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and other such brands.
As revenue-starved local newsrooms shed journalists, some of them are using newsletters as a tool to build out their own one-person-show reporting operation. Newsletter companies like Substack and Revue have opened the tech-stack doors to building your own publishing system without relying on social media algorithms and earning from subscription revenues.
Holly Fletcher, a journalist, crunched the numbers on all this when she started her Nashville-focused newsletter on local healthcare and technology news.
“I was a trade reporter for five years covering power and utilities and the intersection with finance,” Fletcher, now a senior media strategist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, said. “I was always exposed to very in-depth reporting as an object that someone was willing to pay for.” After working at The Tennessean for three years, she decided to run a little experiment with a local healthcare business newsletter she called BirdDog: “I wanted to know that there was still an audience for thoughtful reporting…and wanted to show that people still respected good information.”
Unlike Gervin and Mecia’s “just do it” approaches, she researched the business models and prospective audience.
Additionally, other options are also available like acquisitions. Pittsburgh writer Adam Shuck started a local news roundup email in 2014 that recently moved its 9,000 subscribers to Postindustrial Media, rebranding as The Pittsburgh Record.
However, managing and running your own newsletter is not an easy task. “This is more than 40 hours a week for far less than minimum wage. To be frank, it’s exhausting. I only do it because it’s so important,” Boulder Beat’s Castle said.
“Once you get momentum, you’re kind of locked in,” Mecia of The Charlotte Ledger said. “If there’s days I’m out of town or with my kids, I don’t want to let readers down.”
“I would not recommend starting a local news subscription newsletter if you don’t have contacts in the news field that you feel like you can reach out to about the ethics of running something,” said Gervin, the Tennessee journalist whose reporting led to a state rep’s resignation. “It’s good to have a sounding board whose judgment you trust, where you can send them a text and say, ‘I think this is a great story, but I’m kind of worried.’”