How To Transition From Layoff To Newsletter Publisher

Oct. 1, 2020

Craig Calcaterra wrote the HardballTalk baseball blog for 11 years. But in early August 2020, he was part of NBCUniversal’s company-wide layoffs. 

This, however, isn’t a story of woe. 

That’s because just two weeks after losing his job, Calcaterra was publishing again — this time for his new business venture — the Cup of Coffee newsletter on Substack.

A little over a month after that first email went out, Calcaterra likes the audience growth he’s seeing.

“I’m pretty damn confident that this will be my full-time job,” he said.

Calcaterra is not alone. You’ve heard plenty of stories recently about journalists who have either been laid off or who left their corporate media jobs to go solo via a newsletter.

The New York Times recently did a story on the exodus of national writers, like former The Verge star Casey Newton, who started his own Substack newsletter.

Industry analyst Simon Owens wrote about this trend of writers leaving national publications for Substack — on his own Substack newsletter:

(Owens also appeared on the Curated YouTube channel recently to discuss how he generates revenue and leads for stories via his own newsletter.)

That’s great for national writers. But you’re here because you love local news. So would this work at the local level? Can a local journalist make a living via Substack or another email platform?

Calcaterra believes it is possible.

“I think it might be better at a local level,” he said. “Look at a city like Cleveland. Basically it had a newspaper disappear. The level of local coverage in a lot of cities has gotten really bad. There are definitely 2,000 or 3,000 people who do care (about local news enough to pay for it).

“Sports is inherently a local thing,” he continued. “Baseball coverage is a localized thing. Aaron Gleeman (who covers the Minnesota Twins and has a successful podcast) made a mini empire based on 10,000 Twins fans.”

Yes, Virginia, newsletters are a viable business model.  Just ask the folks at 6AM City, which publishes its content not via a website, but inside newsletters.

And don’t look now, but Axios — yes, Axios — is getting into the local space with a newsletter model that could be very similar in structure to 6AM City. Depending on the structure, this could be a major threat to newspapers that are asleep at the wheel when it comes to capitalizing on the newsletter market potential in their own cities.

Scott Brodbeck has some thoughts about this on Twitter:

For Calcaterra and his baseball newsletter, he was able to capitalize on his national following to quickly establish his newsletter presence. He charges $6 a month or $65 for a year, with a premium tier if people are interested — and some have taken him up on that. 

Matt Brown is another sports journalist who turned a furlough/layoff into a newsletter business opportunity.

Brown has been creating his Extra Points college athletics newsletter since April 2019, and is now trying to make a full-time gig out of it after spending many years with SB Nation and Vox Media. 

After losing his job at SB Nation this past April, in the middle of a pandemic, Brown realized a few things. All of the media jobs he could find that fit his skill set were in New York or D.C. He lives in Chicago, and has a young family, so moving there wasn’t really an option. Luckily, he did have something in his back pocket, so to speak.

“Other than work at a deli counter, I could try to monetize this newsletter,” Brown said.

Brown is very open about the financial viability of his newsletter. In fact, he dedicates an edition of his newsletter every four months or so to this very topic as a way to make a personal connection with his audience. Here’s a sample of that from his latest temperature check on Sept. 15:

Brown’s paid subscription model is similar to Calcaterra’s setup — $7 a month or $70 for a full year. He also has a “deluxe membership” at $150 — which includes an Extra Points shirt and some stickers. (The shirts, BTW, are pretty sweet.)

There are several things Brown is trying in order to make his newsletter a profitable venture for the long haul.

First, he entered a partnership with The Intercollegiate website, which is also about college athletics. That site focuses on long-form journalism and open records requests. Extra Points provides a strong, four-day-a-week newsletter arm that the folks at The Intercollegiate couldn’t offer.

Second, Brown has been aggressively trying to sell subscription packages to university professors — especially those in undergraduate communications and journalism departments and sports management programs.

He’s signed deals with about six universities to provide a set number of subscriptions at a discount (of about 60 percent off) to use as supplemental classroom curriculum. Brown also offers to talk to classes via Zoom. Brown believes his newsletter can compete with sports business journals that have a much higher subscription price point.

“About 60 percent of my business are regular college sports nerds, and the other 40 percent increasingly are those who work in this business,” Brown said. “Athletic departments, commissioners and others who work with them and who want to move up.”

As for Brown’s future, he knows that reporting and writing four newsletters a week, recording podcasts, doing marketing and promotion, growing subscriptions and also managing home life during a pandemic is tough to manage.

“If you are someone who has other responsibilities in your life, it is hard to grow this into a full time job,” he said. “I’m working more hours at this than I did at Vox. But I’m happier. It is mine. It’s what I want to do.”

Calcaterra thinks there may be a saturation point for newsletters, but he also believes that, if the audience is there, the business model can work.

“If you can get 2,000 subscribers on a Substack, you’re doing better than almost any media person can do at a regular job,” he said. “If you’re launching CBS All Access, or Peacock, you need millions of people.”

He said it is all about the value proposition. 

“The No. 1 thing is do you bring something to the table that people can’t get elsewhere,” Calcaterra added. “Will people follow you, or is your readership because of where you work?  If it’s the latter, you might have problems.”