A song to read by: “Every Party Has a Winner and a Loser,” by Erland Øye
What I’m reading: “Lincoln in the Bardo,” by George Saunders
For the last two weeks, every morning between Tuesday and Friday, I have woken up to an email from The Evergrey, the Seattle outpost of the newsletter network WhereBy.Us. In it, in bullet-pointed blurbs of fewer than 50 words, interim Seattle editor Grace Madigan skims through topics of note for the enlightened Seattleite.
Madigan mixes in a few political notes, such as voting guides and the recent news of waning police recruitment, but the material skews mostly arts and culture. A recent edition, for example, plugged the Emerald City’s newest park and hinted at a new handwashing effort for the homeless.
Readers in four other cities — Portland, Oregon; Orlando, Florida; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and Miami, Florida — wake up to similarly voiced newsletters, four days a week. Together, the five publications comprise the WhereBy.Us newsletter network, a loose confederacy of autonomously operated newsletters that share operational resources and a common leader, their CEO and cofounder Christopher Sopher.
A small team of editors and writers in each city, often just one or two people, is responsible for creating the content, which Sopher says gives each publication a terroir to its tone. Seattle is more civic, whereas Orlando and Miami lean into lifestyle, for example.
“Each of our cities, the vibe of the brand is different. They each have their own voice and tone guide,” said Sopher. “So each has its different mentality, but they're all unified under this idea of ‘Live like you live here.’”
While WhereBy.Us relies on carefully crafted tone guides and local flavor to color its outposts’ writing, 6AM City enjoys a more consistent tone by dent of its publications’ proximity to each other.
Launched in Greenville, South Carolina, by Ryan Heafy and Ryan Johnston in 2016, 6AM City mirrors the WhereBy.Us network in most of its macro aspects: both are newsletters, both are city-specific, and both promise readers a curated selection of cultural recommendations with a smattering of more substantial civic goings-on.
Unlike WhereBy.Us, the fleet of 6AM City offerings have spread like kudzu specifically throughout the Southeastern U.S. The newsletter network boasts outposts in seven cities: Greenville, South Carolina; Charleston, South Carolina; Columbia, South Carolina; Asheville, North Carolina; Raleigh, North Carolina; Lakeland, Florida; and Chattanooga, Tennessee.
This geographical proximity, coupled with the process-oriented mindset that Heafy brings from his days as a mechanical engineer and businessman, has led the two newsletter groups down divergent paths. Heafy and Johnston’s 6AM City is thickly staffed, geographically clustered, and largely apolitical. Sopher’s WhereBy.Us is lean, idiosyncratic, and spread across the country.
The two ensembles also command different audience sizes. 6AM City recently topped 275,000 total subscribers, while WhereBy.Us reaches 85,000 newsletter readers. According to their founders, 6AM City and WhereBy.Us plan to have generated $2.5 million and $1.5 million, respectively, in annual revenue this year.
However, while the narcissism of small differences would have us fixate on the discrepancies between the two businesses, both are engaged in essentially the same enterprise.
As local news continues to crumble, its dereliction has offered an opportunity to new media mavens. Heafy and Sopher have chosen different routes, but they have a similar goal: to expand, from city to city, throughout the country, building a network of hyper-local newsletters.
The rise of WhereBy.Us
Sopher launched the first iteration of WhereBy.Us, The New Tropic, in Miami, where he lives. He came from a human-centric design background, so before launching the publication, Sopher organized scores of user-research initiatives; the feedback suggested there was a need for a publication that cut through the cultural noise.
At the time, says Sopher, Miami was on the cusp of an urban renaissance, as the city began building around a central core and undertaking efforts to attract young professionals. He and his friends surveyed the local media landscape, found it wanting, and entered the fray themselves.
Within six months, says Sopher, The New Tropic was profitable. Soon after, his team acquired The Evergrey, which was started by Mónica Guzmán and Anika Anand in 2016. Four years later, WhereBy.Us brought Bridgeliner (Portland), Pulptown (Orlando), and The Incline (Pittsburgh) into the WhereBy.Us family.
Editorial operations are run by a skeleton team in each city, whose efforts are orchestrated by director of editorial and growth Rossilynne Culgan. In Seattle, where Grace Madigan is filling in for editor Caitlin Moran while she takes maternity leave, Madigan says she works alone, with occasional check-ins.
Every day, writers and editors throughout the WhereBy.Us network join in a Zoom call to exchange newsletter edits, which creates a cross-country camaraderie. Madigan, a recent journalism graduate of the University of Washington, relishes the opportunity to work in the industry, though the position does come with substantial responsibilities. The Evergrey reaches more than 15,000 readers every morning.
“As a young journalist, it's just been a really awesome opportunity to write about a city that I grew up in and love,” said Madigan. “It’s really hard to find any journalism jobs nowadays, so I consider myself pretty lucky to have gotten one that allows me to write about something I’m really passionate about.”
She recently penned one of her first original pieces for the newsletter, a profile of local Seattle musician Danny Denial, an article that aligns nicely with the newsletter’s emphasis on food, music, art, and cultural events.
Newsletters throughout the WhereBy.Us network mostly act as aggregators, summarizing in pithy blurbs news that has been broken elsewhere, but Sopher says the team wants to place more emphasis on creating original content like Madigan’s.
Given the constraints of their small staffs, however, which require young journalists like Madigan to perform a number of roles beyond the editorial, such a time investment could pose a challenge.
It’s 6AM City somewhere
If the WhereBy.Us network is the merry band of editorial pranksters, 6AM City is its meticulously organized, highly regimented opposite. Heafy and his cofounder Johnston met at a professional networking event, and after a few drinks got to spitballing.
Johnston was heir to one of the region’s largest print publications, Community Journals Publishing Company, and he was rightly worried about transitioning the property to the digital era.
Heafy had an extensive background in process management, and thought that their city had space for a new digital media player. Combining Johnston’s publishing connections with Heafy’s business acumen, 6AM City was born. It has since grown to seven total properties, which have come through a mix of acquisitions and launches.
Heafy is a big believer in the power of effective organization, and his talent for management has helped them expand 6AM City into a profitable newsletter network. By focusing on creating a product that worked, figuring out a way to replicate it without diluting its essence, and then reproducing the template in different cities, Heafy and his team grew the one-off publication into a regional powerhouse.
Although digital advertising rates in the publishing world are collapsing across the country, you wouldn’t know it from looking at 6AM City.
Heafy and Johnston were able to pre-sell almost $500,000 in ads before launching the flagship Greenville publication, and Heafy et al. are in the midst of yet another round of fundraising at the moment.
Whereas advertising in The Evergrey is relatively light, 6AM City newsletters are interwoven with a mix of native advertisements and partnerships. The network leverages its regional dominance to attract larger advertisers, while flexing its local depth to appeal to smaller clients. 6AM City also brings a data-oriented approach to both its content and advertising, A/B testing the same content in different markets to find its optimal verbiage and aesthetic.
This sharp business strategy, combined with 6AM City’s large team, has allowed it to flourish in the area. According to reporting from Digiday, after the newsletter network surpassed 250,000 subscribers, it has been able to court larger advertisers, with whom Heafy is striking multi-year deals for multiple-digit sums.
“We believe that we can get to a half a million subscribers by Q2 of 2021 pretty easily, which really then starts to set us apart,” said Heafy.
The problem with aggregators
Outside of small amounts of original reporting, both newsletter networks rely on user-generated content or the reporting of existing publications to fill out their templates. On its face, this brand of aggregation presents itself as an asset to publishers: The newsletters feature different publications’ content, which sends new readers to these publications.
However, once pulled, this thread almost inevitably finds its way to an all-too-familiar question: Are they a publisher or a platform? Although this debate most frequently concerns goliaths like Facebook and Google, any entity that inserts itself between publisher and reader will be subjected to the same line of scrutiny.
For instance, while these newsletters present themselves as boons to local publishers, the fount of pageviews and new subscribers, publications, by now, should be savvy enough to know that they should never rely on referral traffic. As soon as they rely on it, it can disappear, and then it’s the hard-working publications that are left in the lurch.
Ask any modern publisher, and they will say without question: They prefer the traffic they “own” to the traffic they’re “sent,” any day of the week. Now, sent traffic still trumps no traffic, so the newsletters’ merits are still substantial, but businesses like 6AM City and WhereBy.Us are by no means a source of unmitigated good for publishers.
Moreover, as is the case with all aggregators, the business model can, on occasion, provoke the ire of publishers. After all, the local sites still do the reporting, researching, writing, and publishing, while the newsletters simply round up their work, position it next to an advertisement, and take their cut.
This act of curation is a service, and readers are happy to have it. The act of “cutting through the noise” becomes more valuable with every new server-farm Amazon builds. But in terms of value-creation, aggregation offers little and borrows much.
This is why, in Australia, publications are beginning to flip the narrative on Facebook and Google. Where it was once believed that publications owe platforms for their traffic contributions, that train of thought has fallen out of fashion. Now, some are beginning to argue, it’s the platforms who derive their value from hosting the content of publications. Perhaps a similar logic might one day apply to newsletters?
Finally, the most ethically thorny component of the “platform or publisher” dilemma: What degree of responsibility, if any, do the platforms bear for the content they publish?
In the case of social media platforms, politicians have begun to posit that Facebook’s failure to censor misinformation is a fault it should be held liable for.
The same logic holds true for newsletters: At what point does curation become influence? By choosing to publish the right-leaning story over the left-leaning story, the aggregator affects its readers’ political consumption. By choosing to omit a news event from its round-up, the newsletter author prioritizes one issue over another.
Heafy, in explaining the appeal of 6AM City, cited its apolitical nature as a key source of appeal for readers. The newsletters provide culture, commentary, and history, but they steer clear of anything divisive. This is good for readers and for advertisers, says Heafy.
“We removed politics from the product. We removed crime and punishment from the product. And we’ve removed editorial bias from the product in its entirety,” said Heafy. “When you go politically slanted on a local level, it’s hard to make that sustainable, because you eliminate 50% of your audience.”
As a media product, this logic makes sense. But when you consider that these newsletters have cropped up because local news institutions have fallen apart, this kind of political power-washing can be worrisome.
Journalism, separated from politics, is no longer journalism. Neither Heafy nor Sopher ever claimed that they were trying to fill the void local news is leaving in its wake, but then who will?
A brave newsletter world
Both companies have made smart use of the newsletter format, which allows small players to reach readers without interference from algorithms. The siloed nature of the medium makes discovery hard, but it allows independent publishers to get off the ground.
They join the ranks of other publications I’ve profiled here, like Discourse Blog, which were born as newsletters but have the potential to grow into fully realized concepts. As Discourse has proven, a media company can be built on the backs of a slowly growing, passionate audience of fans. Every time another site successfully uses this model, they clear the path a little more cleanly for others to follow after.
And media companies mean jobs for writers and editors, new perspectives, more attention paid to cultural institutions, a more activated community. I will always take a fledgling publication with big dreams over nothing at all, and I imagine everyone employed at both publications would agree.
As Madigan noted, and to which anyone familiar with the industry can attest, journalism jobs are few and far between nowadays. Not to sound like a capitalist bootlicker, but we should take them when we can get them (within reason).
Speaking of capitalism, the newsletters also shine lights on businesses, artists, musicians, restaurants, and every other stripe of creator that adds vibrancy to a community. Now more than ever, it’s imperative to buy local, support independent business, and patronize the arts; both 6AM City and WhereBy.Us have done impressive work in keeping the focus on the institutions that breathe life into cities. The more culture writing there is, the better. Full stop.
And of course, as a fan of media innovation, I have high hopes for both networks. They have shown that advertising can bankroll an upstart publication, so long as the publications have the high engagement rates of newsletter readers to point to. The pivot to subscriptions has put reader-revenue on the tips of everyone’s tongue, but advertising has a role to play in the media wars to come, and 6AM City and WhereBy.Us are helping flesh it out.
So while these hyper-local newsletter networks might not be the solution to the disappearance of local journalism, they never said they were. Instead, 6AM City and WhereBy.Us are lean, experimental media organizations, protean in nature and quick to adapt. The media world is certainly benefited by their success.
Some good readin’
— The wonderful and very smart Terry Nguyễn wrote about a topic with which I have only a tiny, very small familiarity: Covid crushes. (Vox)
— “Without the college experience, a college education alone seems insufficient. Quietly, higher education was always an excuse to justify the college lifestyle." (The Atlantic)
— Why office workers didn’t unionize (Anne Helen Peterson)
— My favorite kind of writing: It starts with a mustache, and ends up with a sobering reflection on Black identity (The New York Times)
— A smart, smart, smart analysis of the indefensibility of prostitution under capitalism. (Medium)
Cover image: “Femme et oiseaux,” by Joan Miró