For once, let’s start with the good news: The free reader cull was a roaring success.
You may recall I announced on May 5 that I planned to willy-nilly trim my list of email recipients who don’t pay for a subscription to The Food Section. My rationale was that many readers weren’t treating their Friday dispatches as a free trial for potential supporters: They saw them as a gift that they’d keep on receiving forever.
As I suspected, plenty of people who had been meaning to pay for a subscription anted up to secure their spots on The Food Section’s email list. Granted, several of them were acquaintances who likely didn’t want to explain to my face why they weren’t keeping up with the newsletter, but a paid subscription is a paid subscription.
Check out what the scheme did for my protracted sales plateau:
What I hadn’t foreseen was the unprecedented strategy would attract so much attention that new readers started signing up for the free list in droves: Now that I’ve slashed 15 percent of nonpaying readers, there are 3,161 people on The Food Section’s email list, compared to 3,200 at the start of this initiative.
Which brings us back around to the lede I buried: The cull was timed for early May because I knew I owed you this message right about now. It’s become something of a Substack tradition for publishers to brief readers at the end of each year on their publication’s status. But because I grew up in a college town, I still think of the calendar closing when school lets out. Plus, tomorrow marks the one-year anniversary of my signing on with the Substack Local program.
In other words, I had hoped to tell you that the state of The Food Section was strong. I had hoped that I could say with confidence that The Food Section was on track to claim 680 paying subscribers—the magic number for sustainability—by September, when the Substack grant which underwrote this project runs out.
Unfortunately, that’s not the case.
As this graph shows, I’m projecting that I’ll top out around 550 paid subscriptions. (That said, I think there is a way to slightly improve upon that forecast, but I’ll need your help. More on that below.)
First, though, I want to briefly review The Food Section’s short history.
I’m not going to dwell on The Food Section’s reporting, since you’ve seen that for yourself: You already know that The Food Section is the source of stories such as an in-depth roundup of old-school Southern steakhouses that you’d never find in a daily paper, and an expose of a bar terrorizing its Gullah neighbors that would never appear in a magazine bound to placate advertisers.
Nor am I going to bore you by recounting the daily discouragements that are inseparable from small business (although if you ever want to chat about the challenges of finding an attorney without a conflict of interest to send an attribution-requesting note to The New York Times after the Gray Lady swipes one of your investigative reports, my cell number is all yours.)
Instead, let’s stick to the milestones.
Putting aside the number of paying subscribers, by other measures, it’s been a good year. In fact, the measure I like best when evaluating The Food Section’s accomplishments is the number of stories in the newsletter which have originated from a press release or other paid-for pitch: Zero.
When I say original and independent food journalism, I mean it. Since September, I have traveled thousands of miles across the South to meet with people who don’t exist in the digital world and rung up sources in cities as varied as Spencer, Tennessee; Texarkana, Arkansas; Morehead City, North Carolina; Vardaman, Mississippi, and Broxton, Georgia.
Whatever becomes of The Food Section—and it seems fairly certain at this point that it’s not morphing into the regional media organization I envisioned—that’s a proud achievement, made possible by subscription revenue.
Another measure of success that’s gratifying is The Food Section’s open rate, which is shorthand for “the percentage of people who viewed [a] post after receiving an email about it.” The calculations performed by Substack are complicated by various factors, including uncooperative mail servers and enthusiastic forwarding, but the thing to know is that Substack says 50 percent is a good stretch goal for most publishers.
Here are my open rates:
I can’t tell you how happy it makes me to know folks are reading what I’m writing. Leaving a newsroom can make you lonely, so it’s awfully nice to have your company.
There is no real science when it comes to Substack, but my interpretation of the above open rates is that there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with the product I’m selling. People who read it, like it. People who pay for it really like it. But there are billions of people out there who’ve never heard of The Food Section, including the 212 people who could redefine its future by buying a subscription.
Obviously, I don’t know these 212 people, or I would have already solicited them directly. My guess, though, is they’re people very much like you.
So, this is the ask I referenced earlier: If you’re a paying subscriber, would you take this short survey about your likes, dislikes, and media habits? The responses will be enormously helpful as I craft one last-ditch campaign to connect with prospective subscribers.
Of course, if surveys aren’t your thing, that doesn’t mean you can’t help to shore up The Food Section. I am enormously grateful to paying subscribers who have recently mentioned the newsletter on Twitter.
Or maybe there’s a way to help that I haven’t even considered. For instance, if someone has an idea of how I can get The Food Section’s printed quarterly into the hands of folks who don’t Substack as a rule, I’d love to hear all about it!
And if you need any inspiration, I have one last illustration to share. This is a word cloud of responses to The Food Section’s last survey, asking both paying and non-paying readers to describe the newsletter. Perhaps you’ll find something here that reminds you why you support this publication.
p.s. The Food Section will not publish on Memorial Day, May 30, but look for it in your inboxes this week as usual. Have a great holiday!
I explained my reasoning in still greater detail to readers who stood to be cut, but didn’t want to confuse paying subscribers or readers who signed up in the last six weeks by emailing them again about the cull. That overview of the expulsion is here.
Every free reader who emailed to say they had no intention of subscribing but loved the strategy was issued an automatic stay of execution; every free reader who emailed to say they wanted to subscribe but didn’t have the money was immediately comped.
Among the tactics I’ve learned don’t work are offering access to a one-on-one texting service; sponsoring programming on WUNC; syndicating posts in local newspapers; distributing discount codes at speaking engagements, such as SXSW and Philly Chef Conference, and pitching stories to in-house magazines at luxury retirement communities.
I'm new here. Just read the state of the food section piece, which is interesting. I have to wonder if your price point is too high. $99 is an number that makes me have to think and likely say no. How many $99 subscriptions can I justify?? The New Yorker isn't $99/yr. Etc Etc. What's a number that I'd pay without thinking?...$30? I'm sure that you've thought this all through and substack has algorithms...but I wonder if you could snag a lot of impulse buys with a lower number
Thanks! I'm surprised substack has no advice. Maybe you should experiment and see if a lower price for a limited time gooses the subscriptions...you wouldn't lose much and might gain a lot. You'd have to promote it of course. Looking forward to seeing your stuff (I'm new here)