Walter Hickey is a senior data editor at Insider and the author of Numlock News, a daily newsletter explaining big numbers in the day’s most interesting news stories (and why they matter.) Walter has been writing newsletters since 2014, first as a data journalist at FiveThirtyEight. In 2018, he launched his own daily newsletter on Substack. He monetizes by offering an additional newsletter on Sundays.
In total, he’s sent over 1,500 weekday newsletters to an audience of tens of thousands of subscribers. Here, Walter shares how he developed a point of view for his newsletter and the strategies he uses to keep his audience engaged. His answers have been lightly edited and condensed.
What was your initial concept for Numlock News?
“When I was trying to conceptualize it, I wasn't thinking in the terms of newsletters that existed at the time. I was thinking in terms of, ‘What are existing media products that are successful?’
One of the few things still keeping ad dollars up is morning TV. People enjoy waking up with something familiar. They enjoy waking up with a specific voice. They enjoy things like Good Morning America. Those shows are broad, and there are a lot of different topics covered, but they have a voice.
It's very difficult to have a generalist newsletter. There's a reason that you see people sort themselves to topics a lot of the time. When I launched Numlock, I decided, ‘This is a newsletter that has to have a point of view.’
The point of view is that in any given news story, you're going to find (somewhere in paragraph nine or 10) that the editors told the reporter to go back and add a percentage or a big number into the story to back it up. The entire kind of crux of what I wanted to accomplish with Numlock was to highlight that data driven journalism.
And so I would say that lens through numbers is a point of view. Obviously the other part of this is that I make it fairly entertaining. It's funny, people enjoy reading it. It's got a nice vibe. It's not the New York Times, it's not the Associated Press.
I view Numlock as a supplemental thing. When I talk to readers, I am not the only daily morning newsletter they read and I am perfectly okay with that. I think that having it be a nerdier or funnier way of talking about news stories is a fun way to go about it.”
I think focusing on a format is always helpful for a writer. How does the structure of your newsletter impact your writing?
“Sonnets are written in a very specific format. Working within a format frees you up to think about other things—you don’t have to think about the format, it’s set. That can really help.
If you look at what I’m writing, I’m writing seven paragraphs per day and one interview per week. I can put as much effort into each paragraph as I want to or have time to. The interviews are always 15 minutes long. I have to get an interesting conversation out of someone who has expertise about something in 15 minutes. That makes it a fun challenge.
The advice that I give to people who are trying to define their newsletter format is this: Always do a little bit less than you think you should. You want the room and space to make each edition considerably better. I don’t allow myself to write more than one paragraph because once you break the format, you lose control of the product.
Constrictions are often the only way that good writing comes out.”
How did you think about promoting your newsletter when you were getting started?
“I had the good fortune to start with a non-zero audience. But from building the first newsletter at FiveThirtyEight, I understood that a lot of it is a grind. I knew it would be about deciding to do something and sticking with it.
But I experienced the same plateaus as everybody else. I had the same experiences where you write something and your numbers go down and it ruins your day.
Nevertheless, the thing that I’ve learned is to keep it on the longview. Listen: Plateaus mean that you’re not going up, but they also mean that you’re not going down. The nice thing about the newsletter business is that’s okay too. For me, I’ve been able to sustain growth, and I’ve been happy that it is slow and steady. This isn’t a get rich quick scheme, it's a long term audience built over time.
Sometimes somebody is going to write a nice thing about you and they have a substantial enough audience that a few people sign up, and that is very cool. There’s nothing you can do to make that happen other than to continue working on making a good product. I would say that if all you’re doing for growth is putting reps in and getting good things out, then you are genuinely working on growth. That’s easy to discount, but creating a product you’re proud of is really a lot of it.
I understand there are times you’ll want to focus on growth. For me, I realized that if I am trying to grow constantly, I will drive myself insane. Because a lot of the time I am not going to grow constantly.
That is just the nature of the beast. Sustained constant growth is not possible unless you have a considerable amount of venture funding that you are willing to burn and to rack up an inconsolable amount of debt that you will never repay.
As independent people who are looking for sustainable business models, sustained growth is really the target.”
How do you think about monetization and driving subscriptions?
“I pick a few weeks a year where I really step on the gas. Those weeks will encompass a lot of my annual growth, whether it's new subscribers or whether it's converting current subscribers to paid subscriptions. I always do a ‘back to school’ special in September and for the May anniversary of the newsletter. I'll put up a sale, I'll do a big push.
I looked at how NPR did it. They’re always kind of mentioning, ‘We are listener supported, and it would be great if you joined,’ but then two weeks a year they really lean on it. They say, ‘We really need your support, here’s how you can help.’ It’s a pledge week style approach.
That has been the most effective (at least for me mentally) way to approach it.”
Subscribe to Numlock News here.