Adam Stone is the publisher of Examiner Media, which includes a local newsletter covering the Hudson Valley. Stone was chosen as a recipient of the Substack Local grant in 2021. Here, he shares his experience and advice for succeeding in local news.
What is Examiner Media? How did you get started?
"In 2007, about half a dozen years into my career as a reporter, at age 29, I decided to start a free print newspaper, The Examiner, covering the town where I live and a neighboring community. At that time, I had been a freelance contributor for the Daily News, The New York Times, among others, following several years as a staff reporter at much smaller papers. I missed community newspaper reporting, prompting me to start my own venture.
I had no investors and no business partners and no loan. Our first payroll was financed by our first week of advertising revenue. For a couple hundred bucks I had printed out a mock-up of a newspaper and went around to the local bagel shops, pizzerias, and bookstores where I shopped. Those were the types of businesses that took out ads in our early editions.
Long story short, the company grew in a few years from publishing one newspaper covering two communities with a 2,000 paper print run that I helped distribute. to four newspapers covering dozens of communities across two counties and a 25,000-reader circulation. Along the way, after early reluctance, we developed our digital presence at theexaminernews.com and across social media, along with a free email newsletter that usually carries our top website headlines of the day.
Having survived the Great Recession early in our history, and the crumbling of the industry more broadly, I thought our toughest challenges were in the rearview mirror. But then COVID hit. As a publication almost entirely reliant on advertising revenue, the business shutdowns presented an existential threat to our ability to operate. I laid off more than half the staff, consolidated much of our content across editions and more broadly reorganized the way we did business. I also launched a fundraiser. Hundreds of readers donated a total of more than $30,000 to support professionally-reported, fact-checked local news in their backyards. The donations and the incredible notes people submitted with their donations provided an enormous morale boost during a difficult time. I also applied for and won local journalism grant money from Facebook and Google; in addition, we secured a PPP loan. Between all of those efforts, and with our leaner operation, Examiner Media was seemingly well enough situated for the long run. But something in the digital fundraising efforts felt like the future of local media to me. I started to learn a little bit more about reader revenue. I toyed with the idea of just adding a paywall to our website but that didn’t seem to carry the right horsepower alone.
We had partnered with the Local Media Association for the fundraiser and the sleek Give Butter digital platform seemed to play an important role in our ability to get the word out and offer consumers a user-friendly way to contribute. Then a couple months ago I heard about the Substack Local program. The opportunity was advertised as more geared toward individual writers, not a company, but I decided to apply for it on behalf of Examiner Media, on a lark, and then essentially forgot about it. In June I received word we were one of 12 winners from across the world. The winners spanned six continents, with only six U.S. winners, us included.
From there, with our cash advance winnings coming from Substack, we were off to the races, hiring new staff and trying to figure out the smartest way to use the Substack platform. We launched a few weeks ago with good success. Our plan is to reintroduce our publication on Substack late this summer or in the early fall. The rebrand will present our publication to our audience as a digital magazine. We’re finalizing a new name for the publication as we speak. In short, we'll offer the same content, but with clearer marketing. We already were/are a digital magazine, in essence, but that more apt, shorthand description didn't dawn on me until the past few days. Everyone understands the difference between a newspaper and a magazine article. The repackaging should go an incredibly long way in aligning our marketing with the substance of our work on Substack."
How has growth been since your Substack debut?
"We’ve picked up about 250 subscribers in our first couple weeks, including about 80 paid subscribers. The part I’m most encouraged by is how the new subscribers are trickling in every day. It wasn’t just a rush of excitement from a few people the first couple days. And I can sense a much larger market we haven’t even solicited yet."
What strategies have you used to grow your subscriber list?
"As an existing print and digital news publisher with a more than 13-year track record in the market, we were starting off with some advantages most people probably don’t have when debuting a newsletter. So, with the launch, we’ve been publicizing the newsletter heavily between columns and house ads and social posts across our platforms. Social media is always critical and because we already have a sizable following in the area on Twitter and Facebook, we were well positioned to get the word out.
Grassroots outreach to stakeholders in the community has also been part of the equation. One approach we haven’t used yet, but plan to utilize soon, is social media advertising, after we execute the rebrand. We had a solid amount of luck with that strategy when we faced our financial crisis at the start of COVID, and needed to promote the fundraiser. Monetizing the newsletter by charging for subscriptions is an exciting step for us because we’ve always been almost entirely reliant upon advertising revenue. It’s gratifying to have developed a new revenue stream, especially one more closely tied to direct reader support. We have a free subscription option but also a monthly paid tier and an annual payment option. There’s also an “Examiner Ambassador” tier for our most enthusiastic supporters. In essence, the Ambassador option gives fans the ability to donate over and above the annual subscription rate, with some modest perks mixed in."
What is the best writing advice you've ever been given?
"Story ideas come from a variety of sources. Whether it’s from a reporter’s notebook working the beat, a think piece suggested by an editor or a pitch from a PR person, there’s an endless flow of ideas. The hard part is narrowing down what ideas are worth pursuing, and how to prioritize and time publication.
Editing yourself is always a challenge. Reading the copy aloud helps me as the final step in the process. And then handing it off to a professional editor who isn’t as married to the words as I am and who isn’t too close to the story.
You build trust with the audience by consistently delivering informative, engaging, accurate content. And, just as important, owning up to mistakes loudly and clearly when you make them.
As a publisher, it’s important to hire journalists who value and provide consistency. I prize the marathon runner more than the sprinter. Some writers will go all in on the occasional piece they’re passionate about and then mail it in when they’re not as excited. I’d rather work with the contributor who provides clear, concise and thorough reports week in and week out.
The best writing advice I’ve ever been given is more of a specific, granular tip as opposed to a loftier piece of inspirational general wisdom. When writing, if you pick the perfect, most precise verb in every sentence, you’ll craft great sentences. So think in verbs, think in action, and the adjectives and the vivid description will come. In terms of reporting, it’s about always making that extra phone call. When you’re confident in the facts, you can write with authority. You want to avoid situations where you’re less than entirely certain about particulars and are as a result forced to “write around” the small, critical details. That goes for research too. Be sure of the facts and then hit the keyboard."