Here's why I'm not doing this anymore, and what I'll be doing next.
Welcome to the last edition of What Went Wrong? Like the title says, this newsletter is dead but I’ll probably start a new newsletter, or use this email list to update people about my work. Subscribe if you want to receive those updates.
All blogs end the same way: days then weeks then months of silence, followed by a dashed-out post that apologizes for not posting more and promises to establish a schedule and stick to it. Then that final silence as the blog ascends into that great blogroll in the sky.
Newsletters are blogs, and this is one of those apology posts, except I’m not going to lie about how I’ll post more in the future. What Went Wrong?, annoying punctuation and all, is dead, and I’m writing this mostly to officially put it out of its misery. I’m also writing this to let all the people who subscribed since the last post on (lol) July 22 that this is the only edition of What Went Wrong? you’ll get. On the bright side, this won’t be one of those newsletters you sign up for on a whim but don’t actually have time to read so you delete it every time it arrives in your already cluttered inbox. A newsletter that doesn’t actually publish is a gift of sorts. You’re welcome.
The other purpose of this post is to provide a bit of guidance for anyone who is thinking about starting a newsletter, sort of like a message scrawled near the top of a summit by a snowed-in and starving mountaineer informing those who follow of the treacherous and icy way ahead. And then you see the mountaineer’s skeleton and his half-frozen journal, which gets progressively less legible as it goes on until the last few pages are just inked-in black squiggles scratched deeply into the paper and you are like, “Uhhhh on second thought let’s head back to base camp.”
So here’s why I stopped doing What Went Wrong?:
My wife and I had our first child, which is great but obviously also time-consuming and I no longer had spare hours for this newsletter, especially because
This free newsletter isn’t making me any money, and my focus, especially since we now have a baby, has been on projects that pay. I’ve been doing a ton of work for Blue Tent, for instance, a new media venture that tries to give Democratic donors the information they need to make good decisions. Check that out here. I’ve been working on some other things that I may tell you all about someday too.
I never put up a paywall for reasons that are outlined in this old post about why newsletters fail. If you start a newsletter without a preexisting fan base, or at the very least a large and active Twitter following, building an audience on Substack (or Ghost, etc.) alone is very tricky. You basically need to churn out posts and hope a couple of them go viral on Twitter so you get a ton of more subscribers, then once you have a big enough free subscriber base you can turn on the paywall and some of them will start forking over that sweet Stripe-processed cash.
But the economics of this are pretty unfriendly. If you got 500 subscribers to pay you $5 a month (a level a lot of newsletters never achieve), you’d be making $2,500 a month, or oops actually $2,250 after Substack takes its cut. And you’re writing at a minimum a post a week, probably more than that. If you’re doing two posts a week, say eight a month, you’re actually only making $281.25 an article. That isn’t that bad, but then you consider that the burger place down the street from me pays $19 an hour. You really aren’t in “livable wage” territory from a Substack alone until you have thousands of paid subscribers. And if you’re using Substack to supplement income from freelancing or a day job, it’s a lot of work.
Finally, once you put up a paywall, you have the additional problem of a lot of your content now being hidden from public view, i.e. it can’t go viral and attract new subscribers. So you’re writing some posts for paid subscribers out of a sense of obligation to them, but you also have to keep on writing for free in order to grow. There are good reasons for a writer to start a newsletter, like it gives you a home for stories no one wants to pay you for and it lets you develop your voice and display to everyone (including assigning editors) what you can do. But it’s a grind to try to make it a legit income stream.
All of the above meant that this newsletter never really became what I wanted it to. In the beginning I wanted every post to be reported and/or deeply researched, and for a while, when I had more time to devote to this project, the posts were pretty in-depth. But since I was doing it for free, “write a new newsletter” gradually slipped to the bottom of my to-do pile. I did less reporting for the newsletter and treated it more like a place to put my thoughts about the stuff I was working on and reading, which largely meant a lot of opinion pieces about the Democratic Party.
I don’t really want to write these kinds of stories anymore. It’s not that I feel I don’t have anything to add to the conversation, it’s more that “the conversation” often seems to consist of a gaggle of pundits and Twitter addicts nodding in agreement with one another. Like, I think that Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema should stop being obstructionist and allow progressive legislation to pass. I think the US system of government is failing, but so slowly that most people won’t notice as it transforms into something else. I think we ought to do more about fighting and mitigating climate change, but it doesn’t seem like we will, at least at the federal government level. I know you guys know all that stuff. More to the point, I wouldn’t have much fun writing those stories, so why would I write them for free?
I’ll probably start a new newsletter again when I have a good idea for one. I’m going to assume that if you subscribed to What Went Wrong? you’d be interested in my future projects, so I’ll be using the same email list. If you don’t want to receive updates from me, feel free to unsubscribe.
Here are a few of my favorite newsletter posts, if anyone wants to dive into the archives:
I spoke to police officers about how hard it is to reform police departments. (This is one of the stories I wrote when I was doing a lot of reporting for the newsletter, and I’m proud of it for that reason.)
OK, bye for now.