He may call himself “just a guy writing a newsletter,” but The Palm Springs Post founder and editor-in-chief Mark Talkington has the California-based startup news outlet on a growth trajectory worthy of boasting.
When Mark first joined the Indiegraf network, he had about 1,500 engaged subscribers. In just two years, the hyperlocal, independent online news outlet has grown to 13,000 subscribers, with reader and sponsorship revenue that sustains more in-depth daily journalism on Palm Springs issues like homelessness and short-term vacation rentals.
So how did they do it? In the hopes of finding some best practices to share with other news entrepreneurs, Lauren Kaljur spoke to the Palm Springs Post and Indiegraf teams about the tactics (and the demographic luck) that have made this news product so successful.
1: Building a valuable daily news product
After initially producing the newsletter outside of his regular day job, Mark realized he was on to something and enlisted Indiegraf for support to launch a website and migrate from Substack.
“I stepped up and filled the gap of basic community news coverage centered around city hall, and people who missed that were very, very appreciative,” says Mark, whose history with Palm Springs goes back to his days as a reporter in the 1990s.
His readers showed how “appreciative” they were during a fall 2021 founding members campaign, which brought in a whopping $36,000 as part of the website launch. “It blew up from there,” he says.
On the heels of a website launch and steady growth in subscribers, The Post ran another fruitful reader revenue campaign in 2022. An engaged and growing readership helped support a new hire with reporter Kendall Balchan joining the team. The Post also expanded into newsletter sponsorship revenue. “The support was overwhelming to a degree that I haven’t seen it replicated anywhere else,” he says.
Mark credits the success in part to the gap the outlet fills. The local daily paper shrunk to “a ghost of its former self,” as he puts it, while the local TV stations focus primarily on crime. “We’re not in a news desert, there’s just a way to do it differently,” he says.
The Post’s “daily briefing” newsletter delivers original reporting in a quick, bullet-pointed format that allows readers an easy scan of what’s happening. For Indiegraf Publisher Guide Elizabeth Hambuchen, who works directly with The Palm Springs Post, a daily newsletter product ensures your news outlet is “top of mind” with your readers and potential sponsors.
“It’s not always feasible for every publisher to increase their frequency,” she acknowledges. “But The Post’s audience was so primed to support them because they talked to them every single day.”
Indiegraf’s Sponsorship Manager Ramona Wildeman, who supports The Palm Spring Post’s direct sales as part of Indie Ads, says the product’s 60 percent open rate speaks for itself. “It’s original reporting for Palm Springs, for the people of Palm Springs,” she says. “[Readers] say get it in the morning, they open it up and they scan it to find out what happened and what’s happening.”
2: Bringing personality to daily news
The hyperlocal, community focus of The Post also helps make the product highly relatable to its target audience. “What they do well is — not only are they in very frequent communication with their audience — they also take a personal approach,” explains Elizabeth. “People in their audience really seem to connect with Mark and [reporter] Kendall personally.” An authentic voice helps publishers stand out to their audience, among other benefits.
Mark says his visibility with readers was especially critical in the early months of The Post. “I built those relationships by being transparent and honest and personable,” he says. “I don’t think you see that with the executives at the TV stations or the corporate paper, right? They’re not at the fish fry. They’re not at the pancake breakfast,” he says. “This is my community. I live here and I love the people here.”
The Post is constantly finding new ways to inject personality into the newsletters — further boosting the outlet’s reader revenue success. A few weeks before Christmas, Indiegraf’s former Audience Atrategist Sam Hoisington suggested they place a banner with Mark and Kendall in cat and dog Christmas sweaters at the top of every newsletter. While it wasn’t a formal year-end campaign, this passive call for reader revenue brought in $5,000 by itself.
3: Learning how to ask for money
Over the years, The Palm Spring Post has also embraced effective reader revenue tactics. For example, The Post uses a live countdown timer in its campaign emails, which urges readers to contribute during the final 48 hours of the campaign. This extra reminder helped yield at least 50 financial responses out of the 300-plus contributions received during a 2022 campaign.
Daily editorial newsletters also remind readers of The Post’s value with testimonials at the top alongside a call to action to pitch in financially.
“We tell publishers all the time, don’t be afraid to ask and ask often,” says Elizabeth. “And something we’re especially trying to hammer home during campaign times is your audience is most primed to open your editorial newsletter.”
Elizabeth reminds publishers that even with a high open rate of 50 percent, most people are only receiving one out of every two newsletters you send out and likely fewer of your campaign newsletters.
4: Diversifying revenue
The Post brings about half of its gross revenue from its audience and half through a variety of sponsorships supported by Indie Ads.
Being open to sponsorship revenue is a huge start, Ramona Wildeman explains. “He went in with the expectation that this is what I’m doing and this is what needs to happen.”
“At the start, we did really rely on Mark’s connection with the community, and he still is actively involved, he still gives us more leads,” says Allison Mcllmoyl, Indiegraf’s Senior Manager of Development and Sponsorship.
With support from Mark, the Indiegraf team has sold out placements for the daily newsletter. With an aggressive sponsorship revenue goal set for this year, they’ve been finding creative ways to increase ad inventory slots in the daily newsletters.
“I think one of the other things that has helped Mark be successful is he’s open to a wide variety of advertising,” Allison adds, including programmatic ads, direct sale display ads, newsletter sponsorships and premium event listings.“So he’s not just relying on one type of sponsorship to fund things. And that’s allowed us to build better packages for some of our sponsors. And it’s also allowed us to appeal to a wider range of sponsors,” she adds.
5: Finding the right market
There’s a big caveat to the replicability of The Post’s success, and this lies in its unique demographic. Palm Springs has about 45,000 full time residents, which swells to about three times that during winter.
“The people who live here and the people who come here seasonally have money, they’re older and they are used to living in areas with some sophisticated media,” Mark explains. “They grew up in a time when there were multiple daily newspapers in the cities they lived in that all dropped on the porch morning, afternoon and evening.”
He compares the launch of Palm Springs Post to his new outlet, the Coachella Valley Reporter, where the uptick in subscribers and supporters has been much slower.
“If you can find a community like Palm Springs with a very engaged, active audience with a thirst for news and the disposable income to support it, then you can probably replicate this with Indiegraf’s help,” he says.