Tony decided to build a subscription news service focused hyper-locally on Charlotte. In this episode he talks about new business models in media enabled by Substack. He talks about creating a free service and converting it into paid. And the two discuss the changing landscape of tech and media broadly.
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John E: Hello folks. In today’s episode, I interviewed Tony Mysia in the studio. We were supposed to do the interview a lot earlier, but, uh, decided not to because there was a COVID outbreak and we prefer to do it in person since he’s in Charlotte, he’s the editor and founder of, uh, Charlotte ledger. Uh, this was a really fun episode for me.
I read a lot of Stratec Curry and, uh, there was a lot of talk on Stratec Curry about stubbed sub stack. That is the technology that Tony himself used to launch his business. We talked a lot about that and strategic Curry talked a lot about the changes in his industry. Really fascinating for me to dig into the business model and to see.
How quickly he was able to build a revenue generating, um, uh, publication that, that, that serves a niche and serves it very well. And I think that we’re seeing that across the board in a lot of, uh, localities where these tools like sub spec sub stack are enabling this type of innovation. And I think that’s a very encouraging sign.
Enjoy the episode. Thank you.
Hello folks. And thanks for listening. My guest today is Tony Mysia. Did I say that correct? Yes. Awesome. Founder and editor of the Charlotte ledger, a business newsletter. I’m obviously pretty focused on the Charlotte area. I get the ledger every day delivered to my inbox and I met Tony through a mutual friend fairly recently.
I myself am fascinated by the changes going on in the media, uh, right now. And so I’m really looking forward to this conversation, Tony. Thanks for joining me. Thanks for having me. And I’m especially thankful that you’re here because you recently had a surgery. So thank you for soldiers.
Tony M: No, we scheduled it a while ago.
I’m happy. I made it through to the other side and I’m here. Awesome.
John E: So can you tell the listeners what the Charlotte ledger is?
Tony M: Sure. Uh, the Charlotte ledger is, uh, an e-newsletter on sub stack. Well sub-set course is a newsletter platform backs up to a website and what we cover, we cover, um, we call it businessy news in Charlotte, North Carolina.
So, um, you know, we don’t want to do things that are boring. We don’t want to, you know, a lot of times people think, Oh, it’s business news. It’s kind of dry. It’s not, for me. That’s not really what we want to do. We want to do, uh, locally. It’s interesting. We’re doing original local news reporting, uh, responsible about, we also try and have a little bit of fun with it.
So, um, you know, we, we’d like to think we’re delivering smart and essential news to Charlotte. That’s
John E: great. And how long ago did you start the ledger? Yeah, it
Tony M: started at a couple of years, years ago. Uh, two years ago, this month, uh, March of 2019.
John E: Awesome. And you mentioned sub stack. I want to dig into that.
I’m a tech guy I’m really into platforms and it’s, it’s fascinating to me what they’ve created. So we will come back to that. But did you originally start off on substance?
Tony M: Yes. We’ve been on sub stack, um, for the entire time, uh, for two years. And that’s really, you know, when I started, you know, I don’t know how far back you want to go here, but, you know, I started looking around it, it just, it made it very easy.
You know, my background is not in tech. My background is in journalism. And so, you know, for me, you know, a typical way to start a publication, like this would have been, Oh, you know, you, uh, integrate, uh, MailChimp with WordPress and Stripe. And I don’t really know how to do that. So, you know, sub stack was out there, they made it very easy.
It’s basically geared toward writers. You can just write and they handle all the backend stuff.
John E: My favorite newsletters is a strategically. Are you familiar? That’s one of the big ones. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’ve, I’ve, I’ve been subscribed to that. Yeah. For a while. Um, I take it there that, that came out, that, that Stratechery came out before sub stack.
Do you know if is on subs or is the idea of make it as make it as easy as possible to build a media property such as, uh Stratec or
Tony M: Stratec URI? Uh, you know, I think it was an inspiration for a lot of what you’re seeing in the newsletter space. I mean, newsletters are kind of hot right now, you know, subs Tech’s gotten a lot of, and I know we’ll get into this subs has gotten a lot of press the last few months, but it’s been around for several years, but I think, you know, even before that, you’ve seen a lot of newsletters nationally that have been doing really well.
I mean, in the tech space, you know, Stratec re sort of one of the big, well known ones, but then, you know, you see all these other ones too, you know, you see, uh, morning brew, you see the skim, you see the hustle. A lot of these are oriented toward, you know, uh, entrepreneurs or business type of business minded people.
So I had sort of seen a lot of those that were out there. Those are all national. And I said, well, I wonder if we can do that on a local. Um, on a local basis, you know, knowing that okay. It probably, it doesn’t scale the way a national publication would scale. Right. But, um, so that was sort of my thing. And when I started it and yeah, I mean, I think that probably was some of the thinking behind the starting of so.
John E: Awesome. Um, what was your background prior to starting the
Tony M: ledger? Yeah, so my background was in, uh, journalism. Um, I was with the Charlotte observer for about 12 years, uh, left there in 2009. I’d been a reporter and editor there, mostly covering business in Charlotte left there in 2009, um, freelanced for about a decade or so.
I was on the staff of a national publication covering business for a couple of years. It shut down in December of 2018. So I started looking around and I said, well, I guess I can go back to freelancing. But then, then I, I was looking around Charlotte and I said, you know, Local news has gotten pretty weak in Charlotte.
You know, you’ve seen a big decline and, you know, Metro newspapers, you have newspapers of all kinds, mostly, um, obviously a few national newspapers to New York times, Washington post wall street journal, you know, doing pretty well, but in, but in cities, the size of Charlotte, you know, mid-sized city, um, you know, they’ve been a lot of cutbacks.
Um, you know, you you’d seen other cutbacks in media locally, and there were just many fewer, um, boots on the ground. People covering things that are going on in their communities, even in a city like Charlotte, which is, you know, has been growing like gangbusters. I mean pretty much since its inception, but I mean, certainly in the last decade or two.
So there’s, I just felt there’s a lot going on in Charlotte. It’s not really getting covered. Um, so maybe I could start something, maybe I could sort of add some, add some value maybe that people would be interested in, um, you know, in another source of, of information.
John E: So, um, I’m curious was, um, was Charlotte agenda around at the time that you started this or did they had they already been successful
Tony M: or, yeah, I think Charlotte agenda started in 2015, I believe.
Um, you know, and, uh, maybe for your listeners who aren’t familiar, I mean, it. It’s um, you know, digital publication focused on Charlotte things going on in Charlotte, they do, you know, traditionally a lot of sort of lifestyle coverage, you know, best places to get oysters, um, you know, best places to get street tacos.
You know, th it’s almost an owner’s manual
John E: for new charlatans, which is great because we have so many people coming to the city who need to figure out where all of those places are.
Tony M: Yeah, no, I mean, uh, you know, w what they do, I mean, they, they do very well and they’ve, uh, you know, th then they do do news.
I mean, they do break news and they’ve moved. Um, I think, especially in the last couple of years, more toward that, um, toward that orientation. Um, but, you know, but they’re, you know, digital first, um, you know, real digital only real, I mean, it’s, it’s, uh, you know, it’s, they have a newsletter Instagram, um, I mean, all that, you know, website very well-designed very, um, Attractive, uh, you know, um, very smooth and they make it very easy for you to pay them if you’re an advertiser, which, um, you know, which is, which is really smart.
And, you know, they’ve done a lot of good things. Um, you know, and we should
John E: mention, they were recently acquired. I think I read $5 million by Axios who has a handful of these throughout the country. Right. All kind of second tier cities like Charlotte, but growing cities that, that maybe are, you know, a little bit under the radar compared to an LA or a San Francisco or New York, but I think D D do you think that that is going to be a growing trend because I think people see the power of local, but then trying to aggregate the local, or do you think that that might be a one-off type of thing where we’re Axiom is trying to be local, but
Tony M: everywhere?
Yeah, no, I think there is, um, an interest among national outlets to have that local connection, because I think they. Have seen over the last few years that, you know, the New York times, I mean, they have people spread all over the country, but they’re mostly based in New York, but they, I think they see the value of having people who understand their communities.
And that I think you’re, I think what you’re seeing with Axios and Charlotte agenda and some of its other properties in covering local news is that they like having those people in those cities because they can spot trends a little bit sooner. You know, they’re coming out, they’re telling you what the news is in that city every day.
And I think they’re able to sort of incorporate that a little bit more and it gives them a little bit more currency. Um, not just in, in Washington where Axios is based, but you know, throughout the country. So I think, I think you are going to see that. I think you’re going to see a lot of. National media kind of moving that direction.
Maybe not necessarily, you know, acquiring, um, uh, media properties in smaller cities, but at least trying to figure out some way to have some sort of press yeah.
John E: Maybe be a little more decentralized so that you get more of that local,
Tony M: local. Yeah, exactly. I mean, I think, you know, we saw that, you know, after the 2016 election, there was a lot of hand ringing in the media about why didn’t we see that, you know, Trump was gonna win the election.
And it was like, Oh, well, is it because we’re just sort of writing what we see in New York and Washington, and we’re not, we don’t have people on the ground in Michigan or Wisconsin or wherever. And I think there was, I think there is a little bit of that realization.
John E: Excellent. So, so, so you were doing freelance, you had been with, with, uh, the observer.
Did you have frustrations with the industry that made you realize you needed to start the ledger or was it just being opportunistic or what, what kind of inspired you to, to go that route? Yeah, I
Tony M: mean, part of it was this, seen this decline both in the, in the numbers of local reporters, but then I also found that, you know, the quality of what was out there.
I mean, you just can’t cover a city. Um, you know, when I was at the observer. You know, we have a newsroom of about 250 people. This was in the probably mid, I don’t know, 2005 or so. Uh, I mean, and now that newsroom, uh, from my understanding is, is closer to something like 30. So I mean, th the cutbacks have been dramatic and it’s not just Charlotte, you know, this is going on all over the place as, as that industry changes.
Uh, and you know, newspapers try to figure out, okay, how do we, you know, how do we manage at a time when people are getting a lot of their news digitally? And they’re trying to make that transition, but it hasn’t, obviously it hasn’t been easy, but I think that in cities like Charlotte, you see, I mean, they’re just not able to, the media is not able cover things as robustly as it was before.
So I just saw an opportunity there. Yeah. At the same time you did, I know we mentioned Charlotte agenda. I mean, you, you have a rise of publications like that. And, um, you know, a lot of what they had focused on was sort of lifestyle coverage, but I just thought, you know, doing actual. No serious news. I thought there should be a market for that.
I thought, you know, cause a lot of times people think, well the decline of newspapers just kind of shows that people aren’t really interested in local news as much, you know, they’re, they’re watching national news, they’re seeing what’s going on, you know, in Washington or whatever. But I think that’s a wrong, that’s not a correct diagnosis because you know, if you look at the popularity of things like next door, um, you know, and I think people were really tied to their communities, um, and they want to know what’s going on in those communities.
And I just sort of saw an opportunity to add to that. Now, a lot of times what you see is people want to do commentary. You see this nationally to say, well, I’m going to start, you know, sub stack or whatever. And I’m like, I’m gonna, you know, give my opinion and that’s fine. But we also need, before we do that, I think we need more facts.
And I think we need more original. Reporting of what’s actually going on and people who are going to call, you know, a city council member are going to call a business and say, what’s, what’s up with that, you know? And you see it driving around Charlotte, you know, we’re sort of business oriented, but you know, we get a lot of questions like, Oh, there’s a bulldozer, you know, on this corner, what’s going on there, you know?
And it’s like, who else is going to answer that question? You know, people want to know what’s going in next to them. Is it an apartment complex? Is it a new restaurant? So
John E: they have the know what’s going on with famous Charlotte teens fighting with each other over their home views and quail hollow too.
There’s all sorts of fun side stories,
Tony M: right? I mean, there’s a lot going on, you know, there’s a whole bunch of, you know, the court records. I mean, there’s all kinds of people Sue in each other each day, there’s all kinds of, um, you know, interesting intrigue, excuse me, that never quite, you know, a lot of times doesn’t make it into, uh, the media that there’s a huge opportunity, I think in local news to do a lot of original stuff.
And so that’s, that was my thinking was we can, um, We can break some news. We can tell people trends. The other part of it is, you know, I’ve been in Charlotte for 20 years. Um, a lot of reporters in a lot of other media organizations are, you know, are, are younger, you know, they’re in their twenties. Um, no problem with that.
I was in my twenties at one point too, but you know, it’s, it’s nice to have some experience and to kind of know the city and know it have a point of view that it is maybe a little more experienced and there’s a little more mature. And so our readers, you know, they tend to be, they tend to skew a little bit older.
We’re not just, you know, a lot of the big thing is, Oh, go after the millennials, what are they doing? You know, everybody wants to advertise to the millennials. Great. But there are a whole bunch of other people who are in their forties. I’m 49 years old. I’m at 44 people in their forties and their fifties in their sixties who, you know, who own homes are very interested in what’s going on in town and they just want more.
And better information,
John E: not, I think you’re right. Um, I’m real curious your perspective, because obviously you started this at a time when you could go to sub stack, how different would it have been to create this business 10 years ago? 15 years ago in your mind?
Tony M: Yeah, it would have been a lot trickier and I don’t know that I would have done it, frankly.
I mean, that’s, that’s an important piece of it. And that’s a good question in that, you know, technology has advanced to the point where it’s, you can basically have an office off the shelf solution to just for people like me who don’t have a tech background. Um, but yeah, I mean, if I were starting this 10 years ago and there were digital publications, you know, that it started in Charlotte 10, 10 years ago, and they basically, you know, you hire, you know, a web designer and someone who can integrate all these different moving pieces.
And, um, you know, you spend, I think probably a lot of your time managing that and, Oh, the, you know, the system’s down at, you know, six o’clock at night, on a Saturday, I got to call the guy and get them to put it back up, you know, there’s, there’s, you know, I don’t think nowadays, I think it’s a lot smoother.
I think, you know, you have a lot more possibilities. You have a lot more, um, you know, options on things and in a way that makes it a lot easier and a lot cheaper.
John E: Absolutely. We see it in my industry. I I’ve been developing enterprise technology since, uh, the late nineties, early two thousands. And back then you’d go raise $20 million to buy the hardware that you would then install software on that you would buy.
And then you’d hire an army of consultants to build the software. And it would take six months before the first version came out and then six months later you might have a product market fit or you might not. And then you’d go raise money to scale it. And, and now people can go out there and rent, Amazons, computer space with very advanced technologies that have been contributed and are all almost universally open source and free software.
And you pay by the minute of computing resource that you use from Amazon or Google or Microsoft. And you really can get to that first version of a product for a hundred thousand dollars. And it’s coming down and down and down even even lower. And it’s exciting to see that because it creates opportunities for people like yourself, who in the past might have not been able to start their own newsletter because the overhead costs were so high and you would have had to probably go raise some money to build that team that could support it.
And this to me is the exact example of why they say software is eating the world, because it allows a strategic Curry or a Charlotte ledger to compete in a, in a very meaningful way against these established players who have big newsrooms and big investments in technology.
Tony M: Yeah. And, and, you know, the, the weird thing is.
You know, they’re also kind of burdened by that the legacy systems that they have, you know, it’s almost easier I think, to start fresh and I’ll bet that a lot of media companies that are out there and have been there for a long time. You know, while they have things like, you know, institutional knowledge and a good brand and a legacy.
Oh, a but a lot of them think, well, gosh, it’d be nice. If I could just sort of have a clean start here, use the use modern technology. Um, you know, there are, I think it’s hard for them. A lot of times to convert, to, you know, to take advantage of the existing technologies that are out there. We, we
John E: see that in a lot of industries, I’m waiting for a new airline to start.
That starts from the ground up with better technology because the technology systems, the airlines use are in many cases, 30 40, 50 years old and internet net. There’s no way you could re you could rewrite them unless somebody came in from day one and said, we’re going to build it. But I think that you see that in a lot of industries.
Well, I think you see it in a lot of the banks, some of these challenger banks that don’t even open up a single branch are able to start investing and buying technology that they can assemble into a digital only user experience. And so again, I think it’s across all
Tony M: industries. So I’m just curious, what kind of airline would you, if you were building an airline, what would that look like?
John E: Well, I think that number one, and I’m not an expert in, in the airline industry at all, but, but I think that the way that the scheduling works and the way that the pricing is forced to work, a lot of it seems like the tail wagging the dog to me. I think that a lot of business processes in that industry in particular.
Our shoe or kind of wrapped around the technology, right. Getting to saber, which is the underlying reservation system. Um, I think that there are much easier ways to it, like when you go in and want to change your seats and you see them typing, you know, thousands of characters, you’re like, what are they typing into this
Tony M: green screen?
Click clack clack clack clack clack clack.
John E: Right, exactly. Yeah. And just spend some time doing consulting for some of the bigger airlines and just see the complexity and the infrastructure for fairly simple things. And I think anytime you can unlock that and just say, okay, we’re just going to build a notion of what a user is.
Well, here’s a notion of what a ticket is. Here’s a seat and build it without all of the complexity that layered in over the years and all of the technical debt as they call it. I think that you could streamline that user experience. I think that when you think about. You know, the whole experience of understanding that your flight is late.
They know pretty early on if your flight is going to be late. But I think that there are some systems, you know, some software reasons that you might not find out about it, right. Till right. You’re already late. And we don’t, we don’t accept that type of behavior from other industries, but, but in the airline industry, it’s, it’s just expected.
It’s like, Oh, great. If it’s, if it’s on time, this is when it’s going to leave. And I get that. There’s the complexity of just the whole operation, where we’ve got this team of hundreds of people working together. And if any, one of them. Can slow down the process, that’s going to create delays, but I think there are also things that are just software related, where they could better optimize and make sure that they’re pricing correctly so that the flight is full or that they’re charging the right amount of money to the, to the type of customers who are willing to pay more money, but to have less people on the airplane, I think there are all sorts of things that from a software perspective, you could improve that experience pretty dramatically.
Now, at the end of the day, you’re getting into a metal tube. That’s flying 30,000 feet over, over sea level. And in re-circulated air in the little tiny windows, I don’t know how good that experience can be, but I do think that. That’s the type of industry where, um, not that you would build an Uber for, for it necessarily, but the same type of appending that Uber did with the experience of hailing a car.
I think you could do, do, do something similar with, with that airline experience. Now I will say Delta airlines in particular has a venture group down in Atlanta that is invested or an innovation group that is looking at some pretty, pretty cool things. They actively invest in startups through a group called engage VC down in Atlanta.
And so I know that they are trying to figure out how do we use technology. I just think it’s an uphill battle with all of these legacy systems to your earlier point.
Tony M: Yeah, no, it’s just interesting that I know we’re getting off a little bit on a tangent. That’s why not? That’s my favorite part. I used to cover airlines.
And so you would see these. Yeah, new carriers pop up, whether it’s, you know, jet blue or before that, you know, Southwest, and they would have these sort of innovative business models, but then over time they kind of creep into the become more like a legacy carrier, you know, Virgin, uh, what was the Virgin America, you know, you’d get on and they have all these cool lights and be like, wow, this is really neat.
And then I think they got merged or something maybe they got bought and they all sort of become the same. And I don’t know, you know, it used to be, uh, at one point, you know, us airways, you know, its ticker symbol was LCC, low cost carriers. What they were trying to say right after the merger with America West, I think.
Um, but you know, it is sort of interesting to see how that works, that they start off with these intentions of being different. But then at some point that kind of gets sucked into. Doing things, you know, the usual way. And you can say Southwest, okay, you don’t pay bag fees and they’ve been doing different things here and there, but that’s really sort of at
John E: the margins.
Yeah. Yeah, no, I think you’re hitting on a great point here, which is where did the 10 X improvements come from? And that’s something that people in my industry are very focused on. How do we create 10 X improvements? And I think Southwest created a better experience, but I don’t know that it was 10 times better than, than, than the experience before it, um, So I think another instructive example that it’s right along the lines of what you’re talking about as GM wanted to change the way they do cars.
So they created Saturn and initially Saturn was a completely separate entity, completely separately funded. I personally didn’t like the vehicles or think, but, but they did change. It was very different initially. And then they ended up rolling Saturn in the GM. And now it’s just part of GM. Whereas the 10 X improvement is in a company like Tesla who can go out there and say, we’re just going to completely rethink the way that we do this.
And eventually if they do it correctly, we see it. I mean, Tesla is worth more than GM and Ford and Chrysler combined. At least the last time I looked at it, maybe worth 10 times what they are combined.
Tony M: Yeah. I guess one more point on airlines. I think that, I think they would make is that they’re so heavily regulated that, you know, even after, you know, what, 40 years after deregulation that they still.
Have all these regulations they got to comply with and they’re the FAA systems that they have to link into our ancient. And so I think they would probably say they’re hamstrung, but I think, you know, on some of the things, as far as how do you blow up the model and make it more appealing to customers?
Um, there’s probably, I mean, you know, everybody kind of hates the airlines, right. But kind of wedged in the guy next to you paid five times as much, or you paid five times as much as the guy next to you, depending on when you bought the ticket. I mean, there’s a bunch of things that are not very consumer friendly.
And I think airlines have sort of made the deal that they’ll try to be, they’ll try to appear as consumer friendly as they can, but at the end of the day, they’re they really want to just Maxim. I mean, obviously like any other company, they want to maximize the profit and they would say that I think if they were being honest, that they figured out a way to do that, um, under their current systems.
But, um, but yeah, I mean, you look at it from a consumer point of view and I don’t know if you looked at. Have you pulled people and said, Oh, which, which airline out there is really consumer friendly and it gives you an awesome experience. I don’t know. I don’t know those surveys exists, but I don’t know
John E: what that is.
I couldn’t think of a domestic airline that’s differentiated itself. I will say that having flown Quantis a handful of times having flown, um, what is the Japanese airline that I, that I flew won? I mean, that, that customer experience was better. It was also more expensive and they were longer haul flights.
So I was on a bigger plane, but I do think there are some international carriers that I don’t know why they do so much better of a job. I do feel like our international flights on domestic airlines are better than our own domestic flights. There must be some dynamic there that’s causing that. Yeah.
Interesting. So I’d love going, going off on tangents, but I’ll try to get back to, yeah.
Tony M: I mean, you sort of see the global view here that isn’t, we’re not just talking about a single industry or just single publication, but you see these threads going on throughout. And I know technology is sort of the one that.
That kind of is the common denominator, pretty much of everything, but just to sort of justify our tangent on that, that, that, that we’re making connections to other
John E: industries. Right? Absolutely. And, and, um, you know, I’m a lifelong technologist, so it’s very self-serving and made a point out that the technology often enables these, these new business models, which is what’s the most fascinating to me.
I mean, I think your journalism is great. I I’ve, I’ve read most of the articles that, that come in, but what’s fascinating to me is the fact that you can go out there and create it and build a sustainable business model.
Tony M: Yeah. I mean, you just can, I mean, anybody can kind of do that. So it’s sort of the ultimate free market in a sense.
It’s like, okay, any everybody, and sort of the promise of the internet really, which is it’s going to be dramatic democratizing, everyone’s going to have a voice. Everyone’s going to have a chance to kind of have their say. And so we’re just sort of out there trying to put out content that is just, you know, um, frankly, better than other people’s content and hope that people gravitate to it and pay us for it, frankly.
John E: So. Was there a moment where you knew this was a sustainable business model before you started? Or was it after you S did you start it and say, let me see how this works out. And then all of a sudden you say, Oh, wait, this is actually sustainable. How did
Tony M: yeah. Well, the second part of what you said there.
Yeah. I mean, I didn’t really have an, I, I, it was one of those, I talked to a few people and they said, yeah, that could work. You know, I don’t know, just try it, you know, and the advice I got was sort of just try it, uh, start writing, um, you know, I talked to the subs tech, um, you know, uh, founders and they were like, yeah, just start writing, you know, sort of see how it goes.
And so I, I approached it with that mentality that was sort of an experiment. And, uh, so, okay, well, let’s see how, you know, how good a job I can do started coming, you know, writing, uh, three mornings a week, you know, just sending out initially to France. I had, no, I didn’t really know, like, is this some, it hadn’t, you know, that sort of model hadn’t really been done as far as I know, covering local business in an E newsletter first, you know, email platform, you know, on a local level.
Um, so I didn’t really know. I didn’t really have any great model to follow or any sort of playbook that, you know, guaranteed success, but I thought, well, okay, if I think I can do some quality journalism, I think people would like it. I think I can do something that’s different. Cause that’s kind of the key is that if I’m just doing the same thing that everybody else is doing, you know, there’s not really a point.
Yeah. Are a lot of things that can
John E: take our attention right now. Oh yeah.
Tony M: Not all of them are news. Well, it’s, it’s an interesting time. Yeah. There’s a lot that catches your attention. Um, definitely. But, you know, how do you, you know, ha ha what do you need to do to get people’s attention? So, I mean, I thought it should work.
Um, but I frankly didn’t really know at first. And then I just, you know, kept growing, adding followers, adding subscribers, and it’s been a fairly steady growth and, um, you know, a few months in, I said, wow, okay. I guess, I guess people kind of like this. So I think it could be a thing.
John E: That’s great. What has surprised you the most in starting this newsletter?
Tony M: The thing that’s been really kind of fascinating that I’ve really, um, enjoyed is, you know, the old model is sort of, you know, you write something and people read it and it’s really been more of, as it’s grown, it’s become more of, I don’t want to quite say it community, but you know, it’s really interesting to see, you know, when, when someone signs up, you know, we send them an email, say, Hey, if you have any ideas or any tips, let us know.
And that, that part has really taken off. So we’re getting all kinds of people writing in saying, Hey, you should check this out. Hey, you should. It’s like we have. Eyes and ears, like all over town, kind of a thing where it’s like, um, so we’re really sort of, I guess I would say, you know, to answer your question, you know, the buy-in from people that they feel that it’s not just something that they’re sitting there and consuming and then going on with their day, but they’re saying, Hey, you know, I can give something back.
I can contribute back. I can say, I can let someone know about something that I’m seeing or something that I have a question about. And so it’s really that, um, two way street.
John E: Interesting. So when you think about sourcing stories, do you have, uh, it sounds like you, you can source some of it, even from your readers who can get feedback, but how do you go about figuring out what you want to write about in the newsletter?
Tony M: Um, this is going to sound probably kind of narcissistic, but it’s what is interesting to me is basically, you know, and, um, on the one hand while that sounds right, Probably selfish or self oriented. I mean, the, the idea is we’re trying to produce a newsletter that we don’t really want to be all things to all people.
Um, and you know, I’ve been in journalism for, I don’t know, 20 plus years. I think I have a good sense of what people are gonna, um, resonate. What’s going to resonate with people. So, um, it’s not really any more complicated than that. I mean, we do have analytics. We are able to see, you know, which newsletters have the most views and who’s forwarding the most emails on what newsletter.
So we have some data on that, but I tend to go, um, frankly more with my gut than, um, than looking at those, um, those numbers, which I think oftentimes don’t really tell you what you really need to know.
John E: I think that makes a lot of sense. Have there been any specific stories you’ve broken that really changed the landscape for you or that really generated 10 times the buzz that, that others would
Tony M: to do?
Yeah. One of the ones early on, I think you made reference to this earlier with this, um, property dispute, uh, quail hollow, quail hollow is a big, um, uh, country club of the championship golf course. There’s, you know, a PGA event there every year and it’s basically a story. Oh yeah. I mean, million, you know what, four or five, $6 million homes, which for Charlotte is a pretty, you know, pretty expensive.
Um, uh, I mean it is expensive. I know some parts of the country, you know, if you’re listening to this and you’re in the Bay area, you’re like that $5 million home as a 1500 square foot bungalow in Palo Alto or something. But
John E: just to put this in perspective for folks who aren’t from the Charlotte area, my fiance recently, um, Helped Christian McCaffrey buy a home that it leaked out that it was him.
They were trying to keep it quiet, but it was, it made it in into the news and it was a seven and a half million dollar home. And for the Charlotte area. That was the most expensive property sold through the MLS of all times. Right. So, so that’s the, that’s the high
Tony M: end, right? Everyone from New York and California is moving here.
Basically. It was like a buy houses like that. But, um, but anyway, so this was a story about the, um, the, uh, CEO of lending tree. Uh, you’ve probably seen the commercials, you know, financial marketplace company, but based in Charlotte and his next door neighbor was a former Congressman Robert Pittenger. And so they were having this big property dispute, basically where the CEO of lending tree was building a house, but the former congressmen thought it was too close to his property line.
And two gargantuan didn’t meet the setback requirements. That garage was too big and violation of the neighborhood covenants. So he sued as a big court case and we covered it. Um, You know, and people re I don’t know, it’s it’s, it was a little gossipy and it’s, you know, but it’s this thing where it’s this weird combination of, um, you know, celebrity and real estate porn and power, and it’s just, um, and people really, really were interested yeah.
In that. And it was a court case. It’s all public record, you know, it’s out there. And if this had happened in New York, it would have been on the front page of the New York post, like, you know, every week kind of thing. And nobody here was really covering it, which was odd to me. So I’m like, all right, I’m gonna, we’re just going to kind of cover this and say what happened and people, um, I don’t know, people enjoyed that and that, you know, that’s sort of one of the downsides, I guess, of being, um, a celebrity or, you know, in public service is that the media is going to cover stuff like that.
And, you know, but on the, on the other hand, I mean, people know no other media was really covering that. And so that’s an example of something that we were able to cover. That people found interesting, um, that sorta, uh, you know, helped establish us, although I will say, you know, while we’d like to think, Oh, okay.
They’re these big stories to kind of put you on the map. A lot of it is just sort of in journalism and digital media, it’s just day after day producing. What I like to think is quality content. It’s not like, Oh, we did this one story and are the number of subscribers tripled or something like that. It’s just, it’s still, I mean, it’s just steady con you know, it’s consistency really more than, than any one sort of flash in the pan story.
John E: think that’s a very key point is that it build the snowball slow and steady. And if you keep putting out good content and I’ve seen it when we were talking earlier, this is a very small podcast, obviously, but I see it if I put out through, you know, if I’m good about putting out one or two pieces of content every week, it, it just builds.
And every time I put out new content, Now I’m seeing at least twice as many downloads of other resources. Every time I put out a new one. So if I get 150 or 200 listens on a podcast, I typically see at least double that of old podcasts now, is that, are those the same listeners or are those existing listeners who they get the notification?
Cause they’re subscribed to it and they say, Oh, let me check out a couple of other things. I don’t know. But I know that if I keep putting out the content, it does grow the base. So I think that’s a really important point. Yeah,
Tony M: no, I mean it does sort of build on itself and I know, I like to tell our writers too, that’s, you know, that as great as we think any single story is that we’re not being judged on any single story, really.
I mean, we get. You know, you put out a story that people don’t like, and you get, you know, some, um, you know, some negative emails, you put out one people like you get some positive emails, but it’s like overall, I think we’re judged on, on the overall quality of our work. There are very few people who just come to us, read one article and choose to subscribe or people who have been with us for awhile.
And they read one article and they say, okay, I’m out of here. I don’t like these people. I mean, we’re really being judged on our whole body of work, I think, as opposed to, you know, one particular issue. So I don’t want to put too much pressure on,
John E: on people. And there may not be an answer to this, but as you mentioned, if you put out a piece of bad content that people don’t like, what is it that people don’t like, is it a puff piece or is it, or a fluff piece or, or what is, what is the characteristics of something that people generally don’t like?
Tony M: really interesting when you think about audiences, because some things that. People don’t like other people really enjoy. And so it’s this hard thing where, you know, if we have right now as of March 20, 21, you know, we have 7,400 people on our email list. And, you know, if we get five emails about something that’s, uh, you know, five, 10 emails, that’s a lot of emails in reaction to one thing.
So do we really want to change what we do based on a handful of people or those people speaking for hundreds and hundreds of people who don’t have you didn’t, weren’t inclined to, you know, email something in, um, I don’t know, but to answer your question, it’s really sort of all of the above, like we’ve done pieces where people wrote in and said, well, this one sounds kind of like a add for this business.
I don’t know why you did it. And so, you know, we don’t, we don’t really do a lot of, you know, we don’t do any sponsored content, you know, everything that all of our editorial content is because we thought it was interesting basically. So, you know, I’m sensitive to that you have some that sorta touch on political themes, and that can be a real, um, lightning rod, you know, um, from whichever direction.
So we try to avoid as much as we can, national politics. It’s like basically a local business newsletter. There’s no reason that we should have stuff that he is either heaping praise on, you know, Biden or Trump or vice versa. We can kind of keep that out mostly, but occasionally, you know, there’s gonna be some, you know, we’re putting out a whole bunch of content.
There’s gonna be some that sort of touches on political themes and that people really get riled up about that. I find, um, you know, so we had something, I forget what it was. Oh, we had, you know, I think we had a piece that was, it talked about the, um, there was a. There’s was at the Raptor center where they have all these birds of prey and that for Valentine’s day, they were doing some promotion where people could come in, donate money and name a rat after whoever they wanted to, you know, whether it’s like an ex-boyfriend or a, you know, a boss or something like that.
So that’s the end of the article says something like, you know, they say the Raptor center says they’ve had a lot of people. Who, um, who have had, um, you know, named the rats after politicians, they wouldn’t say who, but one name stands above the rest or something like that. That’s all it said. And we got several emails that were like, that’s really, you shouldn’t really do that.
So, you know, I don’t know. I thought it was sort of fun. Um, but anytime you, any politics is real, that’s a hard, um, you can, all you’re going to do is piss people off really. A lot of times,
John E: if you’re going to piss off
Tony M: half the people. So anyway, but it’s all kinds of, it’s all kinds of things. You know, people who disagree with somebody’s position on something and we don’t go completely down.
I mean, We try to go to as down the middle as we can, but we will have opinion in the air. We’ll let people express opinions on things. And some people disagree with those opinions and want, you know, want their opinion in there. So, you know, we try to be accommodating, but there’s all kinds of things.
People complain about all kinds of things and that’s okay. I mean, it’s all, it’s all right. A lot of times people think, Oh my gosh, I’m like, my feelings are hurt. Well, you know, it shows they care if they were writing in they’re engaged. So it’s actually not bad. I, I
John E: agree with that. I think engagement of any type is, is, is good.
That’s what you want. You want to discourse. And that means that people are going to disagree. Right. And I think that’s just fine. So I’d like to go back to your business model. You’re, you’re a paid subscription and you know, I like to think of this as like Netflix, I pay for access to content. Um, I can get all the content I want out of Netflix or not.
Is this, and there’s no, no ads. Is this a good comparison or does it break down for a reason that I’m not seeing or.
Tony M: I think that’s pretty close. I mean, you, you know, with us, the prop, the value proposition is, you know, we say, if you want to know sort of what’s going on in Charlotte, if you want, um, you know, news and information and insights that you’re not going to get anywhere else that’s relevant to you, uh, that’s delivered in a sort of clean, presentable way.
Um, then like anything else? I, you know, I, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say you should pay for that. Um, you know, the typical model in journalism is to be more advertising based model in which you’re building up your number of viewers, but your customers are really the advertisers. And so your interests, you know, as a business, your interests tend to lie with wherever your money is coming from.
You want to, you know, treat your, um, your customers. You want to, um, have a good relationship with your customers in that advertising model, the readers are not your customers. They’re sort of. I don’t want to say are people to be exploited, but you know, you’re selling to them either eyeballs, right? Either they’re paying you or you’re selling to them one or the other.
And so we were trying to do something a little different. Um, a lot of journalism is now moving in this direction and seeing the wisdom of going towards a membership or a subscription model, at least for part of their revenue. So I think it is sort of, I mean, I don’t want to say where the Netflix of local news or anything like that, but the model is similar and you’re seeing a lot of subscription businesses, I think, sort of making that same, um, you know, uh, taking that same approach.
John E: Absolutely. So you hinted at it. So do you think that there are journalistic implications of subscription versus versus ad based?
Tony M: I do. And I probably not everybody agrees with me on this, but I do think that if, if your interests are aligned with your customer’s interests, you can produce better journalism that we exist every day, too.
Service our subscribers, the people and potential subscribers and basically our readers. Right? So we don’t want to do anything that alienates the readers, although we’ll always alienate some readers, something we just mentioned, but, you know, we’re, we’re there to serve the interests of readers. We’re not there to serve the interests of advertisers.
Um, so I think if your interests are aligned with your customer’s interests, I think that’s a really good place to be because yeah, our, our only purpose in our content, it’s not to do kind of content that is friendly to advertisers or that advertisers aren’t going to find distasteful. Um, but it’s to really serve those readers.
You also get into a little bit of a conflict if you have huge advertisers. And this has gone on since probably the Dawn of time with media, but you know, if you have huge advertisers, um, you know, and then you have, um, A story that sort of touches on one of those advertisers. It’s a very delicate place to be.
Um, you know, uh, so we avoid most of that. Um, well,
John E: and that’s an interesting one because in today’s cancel culture. If, if target is a big advertiser for you and enough people, don’t like something that you say all they have to do is convince, target to drop you. And all of a sudden you’re canceled. Right.
Whereas if they they’d have to call every single subscriber and convince them that this is offensive and they don’t even know who they
Tony M: are, they don’t have the list. We’ve got to listen, you know? So yes, I think that’s right. I mean, it gives you a little bit more protection that, that basically our customer base is spread out among many different, um, you know, subscribers so that, you know, even if we do, like we were talking about earlier, if we do something and you know, some subscribers, don’t like, it.
If other subscribers like it, then, then it’s. Okay. And you were not really as much at the mercy of the, um, you know, the advertisers, which you saw a lot of this in, um, you know, after COVID hit where a lot of that advertising for a few months dried up and a lot of media were saying, gosh, all of our funding is drying up.
We don’t have any money. And they laid off journalists because they were very reliant on this advertising model in which you have a relatively few number of advertisers say giving you a lot of money. We’re not quite like that. Um, so I feel like it’s a better place to be. I feel like it’s more sustainable.
It’s more predictable. Um, so I really liked that model a lot in terms of the work that we can do and, you know, sort of where our allegiances lie.
John E: So are, do you see downsides to this subscription model or.
Tony M: Well, yeah, I mean, it’s hard, you know, it’s hard to get people to pay you money, right? I mean, if you look at, um, and as we talked about earlier, there’s a lot of competition for people’s time.
Um, you know, surveys show that most people do not want to pay for local news. I think it’s something like, you know, polls say something like 16% of people will pay for local news. So that’s, you know, um, that’s not compared to say the percentage of people who will pay for groceries. That’s pretty low, you know?
I mean, everyone’s going to pay for groceries and yes. I mean, we’re not like a necessity the way that, you know, groceries or medicine or, but yeah, it’s hard. I mean, it’s hard to get people to give you their email address. A lot of people don’t want to give you their email address. Cause they’re already, their inboxes are already full people who give you their email address.
You know, you’re giving them, and under our model, we give them a little bit for free and then everything else is pretty much, you have to be a paid subscriber. So, but a lot of people are fine with that. Um, With getting what they get for free. So it’s, you know, it’s, uh, it is a challenge in that sense that, um, you know, it’s not, um, you know, you, if the pool of people who is willing to pay for local journalism, that’s sort of business related in Charlotte, North Carolina, it’s not, it’s not hundreds millions of people.
John E: Facebook’s addressable market. No,
Tony M: it’s not. The flip side of that is, you know, you don’t really, because like we talked about earlier with the technology, the costs are so low, we’re not paying people to go throw a paper on people’s driveway. Um, you know, we don’t really have huge overhead costs.
We have two full-time people. Um, you know, your costs are very low and so you don’t really need, you know, a hundred thousand people subscribing paying to subscribe. You know, you, you need a fraction of that. So. You know, pluses and minuses, I guess
John E: absolutely. One thing I’m, I’m curious about if this applies for you and I, I probably know the answer, but in the Netflix world, they invest very heavily in creating their own content.
And I think the way that they justify that it isn’t just that your consumers benefit because they have content that they want to see now, but they can go back and look at that content at any given time. So I can go back. Five 10 years from now and watch Ozark. Do you, do you see people going back and looking at your older stuff a lot or is it only truly the new stuff?
Hence the term news. Yeah,
Tony M: we do get some of that. I mean, most of the people, and then we can see, and we, you know, we link back, you know, probably like in this podcast, if you had a good interview with someone that did, you know, uh, high intensity interval training, you know, you’d want to plug that podcast.
For example, if somehow we were to talk about that, um, and it would drive people to that podcast, you know, and I don’t know if you’ve done any recently on high intensity interval training or to ball all the time. You know, I’m not giving you a plug and saying, people might want to go look in the library and check out those if you’re interested in to bother or high intensity interval training, very subtle.
John E: thank
Tony M: you. But, um, you know, so we do refer back to, you know, to previous, um, articles and th there is some of that, but you know, the difference is. Sort of between, you know, like, uh, a podcast like this and what we’re producing is that what we are producing, it’s sort of perishable most of the, most of the, since we deal so heavily in news and times change and circumstances change it, it’s sort of the shelf life is typically not very long.
So we don’t see a lot of that. And one of the things that we’re going to be working on this year is to try and probably develop some content that is a little more, um, evergreen, you know, that, that is sort of more like along the lines of, you know, an interview that’s not going to, um, you know, be outdated and a week or a month.
And so, um, so that’s sort of, one of the things that we’re thinking of too is just to kind of. To help, um, you know, to help some of the discoverability. I mean, you see that in other media, you see that in, um, you know, I know we talked about Charlotte agenda, you know, by, by Axios of Charlotte. I mean, they have these lists, right?
Like the top 15 places to get street tacos. It’s a new street taco place opens, well, that’s the top 16 places to get street tacos and people, you know, and you look at it and they’ve got a ton of views because people always want to know, Oh, I want some street tacos and people are going back to that. So if you can create content like that and get people going back to it, there’s a value.
Um, I think in doing that in some of that evergreen content,
John E: that’s interesting. I didn’t even think about the fact that you could reuse that. Um, my, uh, company that I helped start called level. We own a research team. We call it level research. It came through an acquisition of a company called PayStream advisors and they have, they, they, they sell, um, basically they’ll go out and do research on a category of products and look at three vendors and the vendors actually fund it so that they can use.
That research has their own marketing material. And there are quite a few reports that they just updated every year and the buyers keep buying it because they want to see the updated version of it. That’s interesting that that the agenda can do that with those lists, because I feel like those lists are always so easy to wrap my head around it.
They feel a little click baity to me because I know how easy it is to just click on one. But, but my guess is that those are very engaging. When you can say these are the top 10 teams of all time or the top 15 places to get street tacos. It just makes it easy to wrap your head around it.
Tony M: You know, maybe we’re getting down in the weeds, but you know, there, they’re also SEO advantages of doing that.
You know, you were, if you were to Google best street tacos in Charlotte, I’m guessing that their list would be in that first page of results. And you go to that and you’re like, Oh, what is this? And I’m sure the general, what else have they got mom? What if I want to get some oysters? Or what if I want to get some, uh, you know, um, uh, You know, pork bonds or something like that, you know what I mean?
And then you, till you’ve discovered it, right. You stumbled into it. And so it’s a discovery tool, I think so. Cool.
John E: Well, now I want to talk a little bit about sub stack because you’ve mentioned it a few times. So can you just give a quick summary of, of what sub stack is, and then maybe talk about how, what your day looks like in terms of, or even when you originally set this up, what does it, what does it look like in this sub stack world?
And then maybe contrast that with how it might’ve worked again, the 10 or 15 years ago, like we talked about
Tony M: sure. I’ll try and answer those if I forget one of them, but so stack is a platform, um, you know, and that, that basically it that’s set up to deliver, uh, you know, E newsletters via email that backs up to, uh, a website basically on, on sub stack.
And so they started a few years ago. They’ve gotten some, um, you know, investment, uh, funding. Um, and this is just in the last few months I’ve received a whole bunch of attention, but they’ve been around for several years. And so what it, basically, what it does is it handles all the backend technology, you know, user sign up, uh, billing when it comes to that, they let you start up for free.
You can, anybody can just write for them. Uh, on their platform for free, uh, as long as you’re sending out free newsletters, once you start charging for newsletters, um, they take 10% of your revenue. Um, plus you know, their credit card fees that go to Stripe of about, I don’t know, two and a half or 3%, which is fairly standard.
Um, so it’s really so 10%
John E: isn’t bad. I mean, Apple takes 30% for, for distribution in the app store. Not that that’s a great model that people should emulate, but 10% seems like pretty reasonable,
Tony M: especially if you’re just starting out, I think, and you don’t really have all that many. Now, some of these bigger, um, people on sub stack, you know, that winds up being a lot of money to them.
And as we grow, that’s going to wind up being more money for us. And so at some point we’re probably getting ahead of ourselves here, but yeah, at some point you’d look at it and say, well, if I’m, you know, if I’m spinning a whole bunch of money on sub stack, I’d take that money and create my own thing for a lot cheaper and basically keep the difference.
Um, So at some point, maybe that’s, uh, you know, maybe, maybe we figure that out at some point, but anyway, so it’s a, it’s a platform that allows you to send, e-newsletters very easy to use. It’s kind of like a blog in the sense that you just go in, it has a platform you can type, you can do several formatting things, but it doesn’t let you get too wild on the formatting.
Um, you know, you can’t really, um, you know, you can’t embed for example, images on one side of the text, there, little things like that, they just introduced a feature where you can now select from among a few different fonts, but it doesn’t let you do all kinds of colors or anything like that. So it’s fairly standardized, but I think
John E: that’s the way people want to consume news.
I think it’s disgusting when I get on some of these sites and my ad blocking software says I’ve blocked 180 ads.
Tony M: No. And so they opt and they’re able to, and the reason that they do that is it makes it more deliverable, right? So they’re, they’re focused on making sure that that email gets through to the person you’re trying to send it to.
And that is a
John E: really hard thing to do by the way, for anybody who’s ever. Tried to send out mass emails. You can real quickly get on the wrong side of the spam police and you’re in trouble. You’re not getting, you’re not going to have deliverability and it’s not an easy fix. No, I
Tony M: don’t think there’s a perf.
Anybody who says that all of the emails are getting through from there, there is they’re lying to you because it’s always an issue of, it’s just a matter of how big of an issue it is. And so sometimes they try to optimize for that. Um, so that’s kind of how the platform, uh, works. And so they’ve been kind of building that out.
They’ve been adding features here and there. I mean, it is very much sort of off the shelf. There’s not a lot of customizability. Is that a word? Yep. Um, you know, you can’t really customize it that much, but that’s sort of on the other hand, that’s kind of the beauty of it is that it just, it just kinda works.
It’s very simple, straightforward, um, and you can integrate all kinds of different things. You can integrate ads with it. You can, you can put in a display ad just as an image. Um, but you know, you can put Google analytics on it. You can put a Facebook pixel for advertising on it. You can, there are a number of things you can do that are sort of a little more advanced.
Um, but for most people it’s just sort of, Hey, you can start writing today, put in the emails you want it to go to. And then, you know, there’s a signup page where it makes it all easy. So that’s kinda what it does. That’s sort of the basics. And, uh, you know, and I know particularly in the tech world and probably a lot of your listeners are familiar with sub stack as, um, you know, a lot of people are doing sort of, you know, tech industry analysis or political analysis, um, you know, those sorts of things.
John E: That that’s that’s awesome. And in the podcast space, um, there’s companies like Patrion who allow you to ask for money for contributions from people. And there are some pretty big podcasts that are funded completely through Patrion ads. I published mine on a piece of software called anchor, which makes it pretty easy to monetize through ads.
As long as you bring the audience, they’ll, they’ll bring you the ads and you just record them and decide if you want to put them on the front, roll, the mid roll or the back role, they have the CPCs, and then it’s just straight metrics. Spotify actually recently fairly in the last, I think 18 months bought anchor for over $300 million and I seem to sender cost.
So there’s a lot of investment in this space and it’s, it’s a big business. And more recently you’ve seen Spotify start to buy podcasts like the Joe Rogan experience for reportedly a hundred million dollars. Um, are there other big players in the newsletter space or is sub stack the main, the main game in town or others?
I, and I assume with their popularity, that others will be lying. Yeah.
Tony M: There are more and more, and this is really sort of interesting to see there’s this whole industry. Now that’s being set up around newsletters, you know, their newsletter consultants. There are people who have newsletters about newsletters, you know, podcasts about newsletters.
Um, but yes, there are, there are some competitors starting to come out. One’s called a ghost. Uh, it’s a little bit similar to there’s another one convert kit. I mean, there are any number of, um, I think competitors are at their sub stack has become one of the best known because a lot of journalists, a lot of well-known journalists have sort of jumped over to sub stack.
Um, and particularly in the last six months or so on the national level. So, you know, it’s getting a lot of attention, but there are other options. Uh, out there, but I think subs tax, probably one of the best known I incidentally had not heard of any of these other competitors before I started. So maybe that’s a blessing in disguise that I didn’t have to sort of spend months sort of agonizing, which way do I go?
What do I do? I sort of read about sub stack. I was like, yeah, that sounds pretty good. Want to check
John E: it out? That’s how I was with anchor. I, I, somebody recommended it. I did a little bit of research. I was like, I’m just going to go on this platform. If it doesn’t work for me, I’ll go on to something else.
And then Spotify bought them and I was, I was like, wow, this is much bigger business than I had assumed. If somebody like, like Spotify is jumping in, um, Yeah.
Tony M: In terms of subs tech, I know they also got a bunch of investment. I think it was from, was it Andreessen, Horowitz and not a big, uh, they’re
John E: the biggest, well, there’s, there’s three big ones, huge ones in, in, in Andreessen’s the youngest of the huge ones, but the Andreessen himself coined the term software is eating the world.
Anybody that they invest in is right.
Tony M: So they just did like, I think a year or so ago, it’s sort of given them a lot of street credit. Yeah,
John E: absolutely. That, I mean, that’s, that’s big time. That’s the absolute top of the shelf up there with Sequoia capital and, uh, some, some of the other, uh, other big boys.
That’s awesome. So I think so, so you started the ledger, you know, a couple of years ago. How did it grow during the first year? So pre COVID, you talked about the very beginning of it where you put it out to family and then it started to slow family and friends, and then it slowly starts to snowball. But how, how, how, what did growth look like over the first year or so?
Tony M: Yeah, so and so w really for the first year, It was a completely free newsletter for the first year. Cause I said, okay, I want this to actually grow. And I didn’t know how once it became a paid newsletter, how much it would grow. Um, so I’m like, okay, let’s, let’s keep it free for a while. Build up the, um, you know, build up the free subscriber list.
And so it was, it was pretty steady. I mean, at first newsletter that I sent in March of 2019, I think went to 12 people. And then, you know, I said, you know, I posted on LinkedIn and Twitter and my personal Facebook to check this out. I’m starting this. And so, you know, the, the first month sort of saw, I know maybe got to a couple hundred and then after that it was, it’s actually been surprisingly steady in terms of the number of, um, free, uh, readers that we’ve added.
It’s been, I think, around between. Uh, 250 and 350 a month typically. Um, and so we did that for a number, a number of months. I mean, it’s just me at that point. Um, you know, just putting it out and then saying, Hey, if you like it, please share it with friends, please forward it. Um, you know, uh, uh, had some partnerships with a few different places that was helpful, you know, I’m on the local NPR station every week talking about local business news.
So, you know, Oh, Tony Mysia with the Charlotte ledger here to talk about, um, you know, the big stories in Charlotte business this week, that kind of thing. So that that’s been helpful, you know, um, got, uh, made a partnership with this, um, woman who runs a private Facebook group, uh, in South Charlotte, uh, with something like 35,000 members on it.
So she let me post things there. Okay. Um, so it’s a number of different, different things, putting stuff out on Twitter. Um, you know, Charlotte, Twitter isn’t really that big. I don’t really know how helpful that’s been, but it’s, you know, every little bit kind of helps. I think so. So it was pretty steady growth for that first year.
And then a year in, I said, okay, well, we’re going to work. We haven’t had any revenue here for a year. So let’s
John E: let’s point out one year in is March of 2020. So yes,
Tony M: yes. March of 2020, this is late, really late February, early March. I said, okay, let’s put up, we’re gonna start going to paid. We’re going to have, um, pay, you know, posts that are available only to pain subscribers.
And that was the same sort of dynamic there that I saw a year earlier where, you know, you had this initial rush of, of people and I’d had people saying, let me know when you start charging, you know, love what you’re doing, that kind of thing. And now obviously most people didn’t, you know, like I said, the numbers of people who will actually pay is tends to be fairly small, but you know, we had an initial rush in March.
Uh, and then April, you know, this is when the world is starting to lock down, but so my first paid post was March 11th of 2020. And, you know, I think everything started shutting down. I think that night basically, well, that was the NBA and the NBA was that night. Yeah. And then two days later they closed the schools and
John E: talking about things announces
Tony M: COVID positive and it’s, you know, it was crazy.
But, um, so the timing was a little dicey, but it actually wound up being good because, and you see this in the rest of the. Media industry, that there was such a huge focus on local news and such a big demand for credible local information that as much as this was a national story, um, international story that it played out in ways that were very local.
So, you know, the things that were going on and, you know, Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, very different than what was going on in San Mateo County, California, very different than, you know, other, other places. So, um, so you really have a lot of people were really tuning into the importance of local news at that time.
So that was, I think, helpful to us. And so we kept just kept growing, um, you know, a pretty good clip and in that March and April, and then got into something a little more of a normal, uh, pattern, but still adding paid subscribers. So that’s been good. So,
John E: so did it. Slow down or speed up as a result of COVID or it pretty much stayed the S the, the growth stayed pretty much the same.
Tony M: It’s really hard to say because we kind of switched our business model right. As COVID started. So, um, I think it was helpful as it turned out. I mean, the number of total people signing up stayed, you know, consistent, or maybe it was a little bit better, um, even, but it’s, it’s hard. I don’t really have anything to compare it to because, you know, uh, the previous March, you know, we didn’t have a paid product.
It was just free. And we were just getting started. So it’s comparisons are kind of hard, but I think it was, I think it wound up, um, being, uh, you know, beneficial for us in that we were doing quality coverage and we, you know, we, um, we were finalists for a couple of awards for our COVID coverage, so it was, um, so that was kind of nice.
That’s awesome. I mean, I don’t know. I mean, you feel bad. It’s like, this is a horrible tragedy, but, but there they’re real, you know, interest in what’s going on locally. And I think people flocked to us because we were doing, you know, responsible, big picture. Here’s what it means. Here’s what it means to you.
Journalism delivered in a way that doesn’t have a bunch of pop-up ads or annoying things or focusing on things that are trivial.
John E: I agree. I mentioned there’s nothing more off-putting to me than trying to read a news article and having to turn my ad blocker off and then watching my whole computer slow down as it loads 150 different
Tony M: ads.
Yeah. It drives people crazy. I mean, you know, as, as much as it’s, it’s really interesting when you and I we’ve been talking somewhat about the content, somewhat about the tech, but it’s like, it’s my background’s in content. So, you know, but that’s really just kind of half the battle, just having good content, but it needs to be presented in a way that is people find it.
If not appealing, at least not annoying, you know? And I think that’s the problem with a lot of these legacy systems is that, you know, you read, uh, you know, you’d go on a website. And this you’re just bombarded with these, you know, pop-up ads and auto-play videos and all this stuff. And it’s like, you just want to read the thing.
And so that’s, it’s sort of ties it all together, but like w if you have a subscriber model, you can do that. Yeah. You know, you don’t have to. So, you know, sell three spots in the story about when the, you know, when the vaccine is showing up, you know, to all these advertisers and sort of disguise what the actual thing is.
It’s like the part of the appeal is we’re giving it to you. We’re not bombarding you with a bunch of annoying ads because you’re paying for it. You know, that’s what your part of what you’re paying for is not to be assaulted by all these ads. So I think that’s a good, good spot. I
John E: agree. What are KPIs or metrics do you look at and at what frequency is, is it as simple as just the number of paid and unpaid subscribers?
Or are you looking at the amount of time I spend on an article or on a part of an article? Can you talk a little bit about what you look at there?
Tony M: that’s a good, good question. And it’s, you know, and I don’t know if you see this in a lot of other industries too, but I just feel like a lot of times we have a lot of information and we have a lot of metrics, but I don’t, they don’t always tell you exactly what.
You want to know? Some
John E: of them are just vanity metrics, honestly.
Tony M: Yeah. It’s probably true. I mean, tricks on a newsletter are different than they are for a website because it’s, you can’t really measure it the same because obviously you’re sending something out by email. And so you know how to, you know, there’s not a, there’s not a website.
People are going to where you can see, Oh, I got a hit, you know, hit on this. Like we have, we have people ask us, well, how many unique visitors do you get a month? And I said, I don’t really know. You know, it’s not, that’s not really relevant to me because most of the people read it in their email client.
Right. So that means there are a number of things that we get and some stacked provide some adolescent analytics. Although some people complain that sub-sect doesn’t provide enough analytics. I’m, I’m fine with what they provide. I mean, the, you know, they’ll tell you, you know, the open rate. Uh, you know, of the emails that went out, they’ll tell you how many views that particular newsletter got.
And the views are a combination of email opens plus people who read it on, um, the website, you know, so if you’re, if you put it on Facebook and someone goes from Facebook to the website, you know, that gets Canada. And as a view, you know, if someone forwards that email to a friend and that friend opens it, that gets counted as an open.
So that’s in that number too. So, you know, you can kind of see, you can sometimes see some patterns there. We don’t like to sort of make it the be all end all. I think that’s been a real negative in journalism is where people are trying to get as many clicks and as many eyeballs on things as possible. So they write stories about, you know, sharks, you know, feeding frenzy on the outer banks or big foot sightings or whatever.
Cause they know that people click on those. Um, so w we don’t try to live and die by that. Um, we just, you know, So we sorta just kind of, like I said earlier, sort of use our gut on, on what to cover and, and there are a number of metrics, you know, we can see how many people, you know, how many people are signing up for our free newsletter every day.
We can see how many people are converting and, and pain for, you know, for the paid version of the newsletter. Um, you know, we can see what people are clicking on. Um, you know, and it’s fairly, you know, I don’t know how maybe tech people know this, but you know, the data that you get can, you can get a lot of data about what people are opening, what people are clicking on, you know, I could go in and I could see, for example, what exactly you spent, you know, which newsletters you opened, what you clicked on in those newsletters.
Um, I mean, I don’t, that’s not really helpful to me, so I don’t really do that, but. There is a, you know, there’s a privacy element there too. So we, you know, we, don’t
John E: in an eCommerce setting. It’s pretty common to look at the customer journey. So it’s okay. I went here and then I went here. I added something to my cart.
I got distracted and looked at this. I abandoned my cart and left. And that’s an outcome that you just can’t have as a retailer. But it sounds like that journey may not be as important. Although I would guess what you really want more than anything is a customer that reads more than some number of pieces of content over some period of time, because that’s how you’re going to reduce churn is if I’m, I don’t mind if I get six bad articles of Stackery delivered to my inbox that I don’t even read, it doesn’t bother me as long as every once in a while.
I get one that I feel compelled to Ford or to really wrap my mind around. And I imagine there’s something. Something similar, but I could see where it’s very different than an e-commerce setting, where they’re maniacs about every single branch that any given customer might’ve taken.
Tony M: Yeah. And some stack is just starting to put in some of these analytics, they just rolled out a tool last month, February of 2021, in which they let, let you see some of that, where they can basically assign each of your, um, newsletter subscribers, a score between one and five stars based on how much they open, how much they forward, how much they engage with it.
And so, you know, you can start doing, and then you can start targeting, you know, which is, um, which is a capability that, you know, most other, uh, email newsletter platforms, you know, would have, but where you can basically say, okay, um, give me all the five-star people who are on the free list. Um, you know, and they’ve been, uh, and have signed up more than a year ago, for example.
And so maybe, you know, do you send them. You know, uh, a special appeal or something like, Hey, we know you’ve been with us for a long time. We think you enjoy what we’re doing. Here’s a little more about us, you know, click here to subscribe kind of thing. You know, you can do that kind of thing. Um, so you’re starting to see a few of those tools coming out, which I think will be helpful.
You know, my background again is not really in data analytics, so it’s sort of learning some of that and trying to see, but yeah, on the other hand too, you can look and see, for example, um, you know, who hasn’t opened an email and in two months you gotta be a little careful with that because some people have, you know, um, you know, blockers or something where, you know, maybe they are reading it, but it’s just not registering because they have some tool that doesn’t count them as reading it.
I know that happens. So, you know, we’re getting more and more capabilities to do that, that sort of thing, and become a little more, um, Advanced, I guess. I mean, I, it’s funny. I think you probably don’t think of that as that advanced, I mean, it’s sort of a normal thing, but, um, I think of it as advanced, you know, cause right now you’re sort of sending them out and sort of seeing where the chips fall, but it’s like, we can be a little more strategic, I think on
John E: it.
Well, and, um, not to go way off topic, but you mentioned the big national newspapers, which I think everybody has converged on a very similar list, which is wall street journal, New York times and Washington post. And I, I think it’s instructive, I’m not a journalist I’m not particularly involved in, in, in ma in the media industry, but it seems to me that it’s no coincidence that when Jeff Bezos took over the Washington post and he took a little bit more, I suspect he took a little bit more of a data-driven approach to how they were going to.
Um, to do things it, and that was a failing, a failing newspaper, I think for all. I mean the, the, the business model was crashing around them. Their digital experience was horrible. I’m from the DC area. So I used to go on there just to read about the former Redskins now the football team. Right. But, but I noticed that the M that at some point after Bezos made the acquisition, the digital product got way better.
The actual Washington post mobile app is actually a good, I think, a fairly decent app and a fairly decent way to consume. And so I suspect. Again, this is the technologist in me saying, well, applying the technology and the data improved the product, but right. But I don’t know that you would say the same thing, that there was a moment where the New York times or the journal did that.
They just, I don’t know why those two are where they are. Maybe it was the long history that both, both of them had, but so, so maybe the tech isn’t as important as that.
Tony M: Well, I think they have teams. They all have teams that are just focused on the, on the tech and, um, on that customer, um, experience. And they can see, you know, they, they experiment with, okay, how, how many free articles are you going to get to read on the New York times every month?
And they, you know, kind of go back and forth and they tweak that based on numbers. And they’re, they’re very, I think, aware of, of those numbers now, again, I don’t think those numbers always tell you, um, everything and I don’t think you should always let the numbers just. Determined everything. But, um, but I think you do need to let the numbers help guide you.
And I think traditionally media, um, at least, you know, in th in cities like Charlotte haven’t necessarily always done that. Yeah, I
John E: can imagine. Um, so how do you think about growth? Is it maximize the Charlotte market and then grow to other markets? Or do you think you stick with Charlotte? Or how do you, how do you think about growth?
I mean, right now, obviously you can add, just keep adding subscribers and have lots of happy growth, right?
Tony M: Yeah. No, I mean, that’s, that’s a good question. And we think, we think a lot about growth and how do we grow? And, you know, I still think we, we have a lot of opportunity in Charlotte. Um, cause we are pretty new and not, I mean, relative to the population, not, not that many people know about us probably.
Um, but yeah, it’s, it’s tricky because, you know, if you start moving to other markets, th there’s, there’s also some limiting factors as far as, you know, Who are you getting it? It’s, it’s very a lot. It’s a lot of times, particularly with newsletters, it’s very, um, person dependent. You have to have sort of the right person in the right spot.
Um, so, you know, I don’t know, we’re not really looking at other cities or doing anything like that right now. We’re still kind of focused on, um, trying to build out, um, you know, what we have in Charlotte. And so there are a number of ways, you know, that we could do things we’re still seeing growth in terms of, um, Yeah, more paid subscribers, you know, uh, all the time.
Um, and then it’s like, okay, well, how do we, is there a way to accelerate that? Is there more we could be doing it right now? We’re four days a week. Do we, you know, do we increase that frequency? Do we, you know, look at other, um, you know, other products, other newsletters, you know, business, isn’t your fancy, if you don’t, you know, if you don’t really care about that, is there some other thing that we can put out that you would care about?
Um, you know, those are all sorts of obvious, uh, uh, questions. So, um, you know, or do we just try to make the product better or do we need to hire another reporter or another couple of reporters and just make it really good stuff? I mean, I don’t know. They’re all, all kinds of ways to do it. I mean, it’s not, I don’t know that it’s really, I don’t know.
I guess I would never say never, but it’s like. Okay, could you really scale it? Could you, I mean, could you really do something like this in multiple cities and, you know, share the overhead and,
John E: well, it’s finding another Tony in another city that isn’t going to go do it on their own. Right. Well,
Tony M: that’s the hard part, right.
Okay. I mean, I wouldn’t say not irreplaceable, but it’s like there, it’s hard to find people, you know, with who have, who are able to do the journalism and have a mind to the business side and the marketing side and you know, how do you do that? And I w I will say, you know, you asked earlier about what have been some of the surprises.
I think along the way, you know, I’ve gotten a lot of calls from, um, entrepreneurs who are kind of seeing opportunities in this space that have said, tell me about, you know, we’re we just talk for an hour just about, um, Here’s the business model. Here’s how it’s going. Here’s what we’ve learned that that are saying, okay, well, Hey, could I start something?
Yeah. Uh, could I take $300,000 and hire, you know, three reporters and a business side person and come out with a product and yeah, there are people thinking like that all over the country. Now, I think maybe in a way that weren’t doing that a few years ago, um, just I think because there, because of all these trends that we’ve been talking about about the, you know, advances in technology and just, you know, the decline of local journalism and the perception in a lot of cities that the, that the quality just isn’t isn’t there and that there’s a hunger for more original local news.
So I think you’re starting to see that. I mean, I’ve had a lot of those conversations in the last. Particularly gear. And, um, so I think you’re going to see more, more stuff cropping up. And it’s a really actually, you know, it’s an exciting time, I think in journalism and it’s oftentimes overshadowed by this whole sort of doom and gloom over the newspaper industry, but you’re seeing a lot of experimentation.
We’re seeing a lot of different models come up in a lot of different cities. People try new things and maybe it doesn’t replace, you know, the Metro newspapers of old, but then again, they were basically monopolies that got completely disrupted. Um, and so now I think we were in a period where there was a lot of decline, a lot of doom and gloom, but now you’re starting to see, I think some, um, exciting experiments sort of popping up.
And I think it’s, it’s going to be really exciting to see, I think in the next few years where all that goes, I
John E: agree. I mean, we saw it, um, in, in, in the recording industry, it was a lot of doom and gloom for a long time about Napster is going to kill the business model and. And there was a transition period.
And I, and I think that my understanding is the record labels are doing as well as they’ve ever done at this point. And I suspect that I suspect that technology in the long run will be a great thing for journalism. And I think it’s exactly these themes that you’re talking about, where all the other Tony’s that are out there in all of these cities who want to deliver good local coverage in an niche market or in a big broad market.
I think, uh, I think the more of those that can be encouraged and come up with ways where they can monetize things and create new business models. That’s just going to be a good thing for journalism. Oh
Tony M: yeah. Now we’re, we’re in a, uh, a group called the local independent online news lion and it’s, you know, several hundred, um, you know, purely digital local news.
Organizations. And so, you know, I see a whole bunch of this, but people try and all kinds of different things and they’re all focused on different areas. You know, you know, we’re focused on business, but there are some that focused on, you know, minority communities in Detroit or, um, you know, all kinds of all kinds of different things and try and offer all kinds of different models and, you know, newsletters and, you know, the combination of websites and newsletters and podcasts.
And, um, so it’s, it’s really been interesting to kind of see, um, the experimentation that’s going on out there. And it’s, I think that’s healthy. That’s a good thing. And, um, you know, we could, uh, encourage that and I hope we see more of it.
John E: Absolutely. So I noticed, um, From your LinkedIn profile, you’re a Duke undergrad and a master’s degree from chapel Hill.
Is that correct? Yes. So who do you root for when the teams play? Whoever’s winning spinner
Tony M: in the rough being a Dick fan? Um, yeah, we’re we’re um, my wife and I both went there and we were both Duke fans. So, um, although we have a daughter at chapel Hill, um, who my wife asked her this weekend said, Oh, so do you still feel any, um, you know, any loyalty at all toward Duke?
And she said, no. Uh, so she’s, you know, uh, so we got a tar heel in the family, so
John E: I never appreciated the rivalry between the two until I started traveling to Charlotte. And I went out on a. Tuesday or Wednesday night when the Duke chapel Hill game was on. And I mean, I knew it was an important rivalry and it was a national rivalry, but I think that the, the, just how important that rivalry is to some vans.
I didn’t really appreciate it until I moved down here.
Tony M: Oh yeah, no, I mean, there’s, I can imagine going out to a bar. I don’t know. I don’t like watching them bar anymore because I did that when I was younger and it’s too stressful and the tar heel fans everywhere, unfortunately. So, you know yeah. If you win, it’s great.
But, uh, I prefer to watch at home now. Usually I
John E: absolutely will look, Tony, this has been great. I thank you for joining me and I wish you continued success.
Tony M: Thanks. It’s been fun. I’ve enjoyed the conversation. Thanks a lot. All right. Take
John E: care. .