Thanks for all the fish: Lessons from two years of Indie Publisher

Two years ago, Indiegraf CEO Erin Millar sent me an email asking me if I wanted to chat about an idea for a new newsletter. Indiegraf was quietly getting started behind the scenes, and she wanted to get the word out about her new plan to help build financially sustainable media outlets.

70 issues of Indie Publisher later, we’ve supported 58 independent publishers across North America. I got to see this happen from day one. (I was Indiegraf’s second employee — now there are 18 of us!)

I’m moving on from Indiegraf to focus on writing and teaching. But before I head out, I wanted to look back on some of what I’ve learned during the past two years.

Building organic connections

Since early 2020, we built an Indie Publisher newsletter audience that exceeds 1,000 subscribers with mostly organic marketing beyond word of mouth.

How did we do it? We started with a good product idea. Over the past few years, it’s become clear that more journalists want to make it on their own. But at the time we started Indie Publisher, there weren’t a ton of resources explaining how people could actually do it.

Our newsletter has always been focused on advice anyone can implement. Some of my favourite pieces include stories about small publishers who figured it out on their own as well as our how-to guides around essential topics, such as leading a revenue campaign.

One of the biggest success signals is that many of our active publisher partners started as Indie Publisher subscribers before they even considered participating in one of our programs.

What marketing teaches journalists

Before I joined Indiegraf, I had no idea what a lead generator was and barely knew anything about marketing funnels. For me, there was a hard line between marketing and journalism.

But learning how to use tools that originated from the marketing world have made me better at my job. All journalists want their work to find readers and make an impact. The promotion of that piece can make a huge difference in whether that happens.

I’m currently advising another journalism project. The other day on a call, I found myself talking about how we needed to think about lead generation enticement — clearly, something has rubbed off!

Feedback is love

Our CEO Erin Millar often says: Feedback is love. I’ve always taken this to mean that being honest and kind while giving constructive criticism can help us grow.

While I’ve always promoted my own work, I never worked as a “marketer” until this job. My learning curve was steep. But I didn’t mind — I took it as an opportunity to learn more and challenge myself in new ways. Every time I received feedback, it felt like I got a little better at what I do.

Had I not received that input from Erin and my colleagues, I don’t know if I’d be leaving Indiegraf with the skills I have today.

Find a good team

“Team work makes the dream work” is a cliche for a reason. At Indiegraf, we’re surrounded by people who are intensely passionate about growing startup media outlets. Most of us worked in journalism for stints, and even if we’re not writing or editing all the time, we care very much about where this industry is heading. It’s been a pleasure to not only work with these folks, but to share journalism stories and talk about our own dreams for the future.

Say hi!

It probably won’t be long before you see me in this newsletter again — I am a freelancer now! But if you’d like to say hi, please do. I’d love to hear from you again.

I pass over the editing of Indie Publisher to the capable hands of Joe Lanane, our publisher success manager, who will manage the newsletter until Indiegraf hires our next digital marketer. Is that you? You can apply here!

Five reasons why independent news outlets and local campus radio make powerful allies

Jeremy Klaszus, founder of The Sprawl, an independent news outlet serving Calgary, Alberta, strives to tell stories that “surprise and delight.”

So when he was asked to produce a podcast by CJSW 90.9 FM, Calgary’s only campus and community radio station, he jumped at the chance.

The half-hour radio show and podcast, The Sprawlcast, is now in its third year. Each week, Klaszus surfaces stories focused on a specific theme of interest to Calgarians, like the city’s geographic income segregationcommunity-building corner stores and what the city can learn from Vancouver’s quirky and famous Commercial Drive.

Here are some benefits to pairing up with campus radio to produce a show or podcast:

1. Get the goods

If you’ve ever considered producing a podcast, you’ll know you need a ton of gear. Klaszus says the decision to partner with CJSW was a no-brainer because of the resources that come with it. The station provides access to a professional studio, equipment, editing software, tech support, knowledgeable production staff and an audience of listeners.

Since Klaszus had some experience reporting for radio at CBC, he was able to get started relatively quickly.  

“For folks who are newer to audio, they do have staff to walk you through how to do it,” he explains. “And that’s huge. Because the alternative is, you’re in your basement with a microphone and whatever setup you can cobble together.”

2. Grow your audience

No matter who your target audience is, there’s an obvious benefit to gaining the ears of community and campus radio listeners. They can become future contributors or supporters. 

To this day, community radio remains a key information resource. For those who refuse to listen to podcasts or radio, Klaszus posts a transcript for each episode on The Sprawl’s website so the content is searchable and accessible. 

He says that while the precise number of listeners is hard to gauge with radio and podcasts, they get about 2,000 downloads each episode, a number in line with the outlet’s membership.

But another important measure of success is direct feedback.

3. Connect with your audience

Newsletters are a great tool for building relationships with readers and growing revenue, in part because readers appreciate hearing directly from a journalist. Podcasts have the same power.

In one recent episode, Klaszus interviews David Goa, a scholar of religion, on the importance of meeting and connecting with strangers. It’s an intimate, thoughtful conversation.

Klaszus says he specifically chooses stories well-suited to audio — and it shows. Each episode offers a thoughtful glimpse into issues Calgarians care about led by a compelling, approachable host.

“If they see that you’re committed to this thing and you’re putting in the effort and it’s not like a side project of an article or whatever, I think they’re more likely to give attention to it,” says Klaszus.

4. Bring your readers in

As a member-funded news outlet, The Sprawl does a great job of involving readers in the creation of new products. In 2018, they had a member drive to launch Sprawlcast.

If you’re thinking about a podcast or radio show, consider inviting readers to help you make it happen. It rallies your audience around a specific goal, helps raise awareness about the new product and gives you something to celebrate with your readers later.

5. Diversify your news products

Delivering journalism in new formats helps make new people aware of your work. It’s also a way to deepen your connection with your readers and supporters. 

As former Buzzfeed newsletter director and publisher of the Not a Newsletter Dan Oshinsky explains in an interview with The Fix, offering multiple products builds relationships. “When we ask them for the next step to support us or donate, they will really care about us and have a good relationship with us on a few different platforms.

“Those are the readers who are most likely to convert. So that’s where that comes in. It’s just an additional way to deepen engagement.”

But Klaszus says quality must stay top of mind. “The podcast space is so crowded, right? So if you’re going to go there, it has to be good. Is it quality stories that connect with people? If it’s not that, then little else will work.”

The Sprawlcast is just one way to collaborate with campus radio stations. You could also connect with the station’s programming director to find out if there’s already a news show, and offer up a short five minute segment. 

You could take inspiration from The Sprawl and make your show a limited time pop-up to test the waters before a more permanent launch.

If the station offers a newsletter, consider arranging a newsletter takeover or swap to grow your subscriber base.

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