Going Paid: How Craig Morgan launched and grew AZ Coyotes Insider

We interviewed Craig Morgan to share his insights on launching a paid newsletter. Craig is a sports writer who previously wrote for The Athletic before starting AZ Coyotes Insider, where he writes exclusively about the ice hockey team Arizona Coyotes.  

This transcript has been lightly edited for readability. You can watch the full interview in the video below.

Takeaways

  • Define your audience. Before going paid, consider who your readers are and whether there’s a market for what you want to write.

  • Get to know your readers. Take some time to get their feedback. For example, you can send out a survey to gain a better understanding of what they like to read.

  • Make your best content free. The readers behind your paywall are likely already dedicated fans, but your free content needs to be strong, too, to bring in more readers.

  • Go deeper. If you’re a journalist who’s writing an independent newsletter, you have the opportunity to write in-depth coverage and analyses instead of churning out quick stories. This can help set you apart from other journalists.


Why I decided to go fully independent

I started my publication after a round of layoffs at The Athletic, where I had been working. Arizona's a very challenging sports media market. It has always been that way. I've been here for 25 years and, whether it was newspapers or online sites that I was working for, readership was always challenging in this market for a variety of reasons.

The teams haven't had much success over their history. It's a transplant market, so a lot of people tend to root for their old teams, rather than jumping on board for the Arizona teams. There are challenging demographics here. And I think if you talk to anyone, ESPN, CBS, Fox, they've all had the same challenges in this market. So when I looked around to see what was still available, where I could do what I wanted, and that would still cover the NHL and the Coyotes, the options were just so limited.

One of the newspapers that I used to write for here actually had gone under. And The Arizona Republic has taken a part-time basis in covering the Coyotes. They don't treat it as a full-time beat. Financially, it really isn't a situation that would've worked for me. And then the other local sites just weren't options either.

So, honestly, I was at a point when The Athletic had all the layoffs where I was thinking, "Okay, is this the end? Am I through with sports journalism?” And I had a friend who was actually a VC guy in New York say, "Hey, give Substack a try. You have to check it out." So I figured, "Why not? I'll give this a shot before I bail on sports journalism" – this industry that’s been trying to kick me out for the last 20 years.

It was amazing to see the response that I got from the Coyotes audience that I had here already in Arizona. I had to charge a certain rate to make it work for me. And a lot of people jumped on board in spite of the fact that we were in the midst of a pause in the season for COVID. I launched in July and in the entire time that I've been [writing this newsletter], the Coyotes have played nine games.

So it was a major challenge to try and get followers. And yet here I am: I've already achieved what I consider sustainability at this point.

How I grew my subscriber list

I used Twitter to get the word out that I was launching this venture. I have almost 18,000 followers on Twitter. Most of them are there to follow me for the Coyotes. I have covered other sports in the past, but I think by and large, people know me for my Coyotes coverage. So that's how I announced it initially. I got a lot of email addresses through there, and that's how I started.

When I first launched, I did a survey. I wanted to know what people would be looking for in my coverage. I'd been at The Athletic for two years and it was a dream job. It was amazing to be a part of that team, but again, some of the financial difficulties that they encountered with COVID, and then this market in particular, led to what it led to. We lost eight of 10 people at The Athletic Arizona.

But when I launched this [newsletter], I figured I was going to have the same access to the Coyotes. In fact, I had gotten that ensured by the people at the Coyotes before I ever started the website.

I understood that this could be more of a community even than The Athletic because it was just me. I could be far more responsive, far more agile in terms of what my readers wanted.

I wanted to ask people what they liked about my coverage at The Athletic, and what else they thought I could do. I just wanted to get a sense of what this community could be. I really understood from the start that this could be more of a community even than The Athletic because it was just me. I could be far more responsive, far more agile in terms of what my readers wanted. So that was a great launching point to get their feedback and help craft the site based on their feedback.

How I announced my paid launch 

I felt scared to death going into [my launch]. I had no idea that it was going to succeed. And I launched one week before training camps began. When the NHL paused in March, there was some uncertainty whether they were even going to complete the season or the postseason. They decided to just go right into the playoffs and they held a two-week training camp right before the playoffs.

I launched a week before that, and all of my content was free for that full week to give people an idea of what I was going to do, but I told them all along, once training camp started out, it was all going to go behind a paywall, and we'll see where it goes from there.

By that point, I really understood what readers wanted, both from working at The Athletic for two years and then from the survey that I had put out. People really wanted more in-depth coverage.

People really wanted more in-depth coverage. You can get a game story or quick news stories just about anywhere.

You can get a game story or quick news stories just about anywhere. But what I did for two years at The Athletic was give them in-depth analysis, in-depth features where I just went multiple layers deeper than journalism allows a lot of people to do in this day and age based on finances, based on staffing, based on time constraints. I tried to roll out these deeper features and analysis to start with, and people responded to it.

How I decided what to make free vs. paid 

I wasn't sure how to handle that decision actually. I had a really good talk with Hamish [a cofounder of Substack] about it. He said some things to me that were counterintuitive, such as: "Make your best stuff free, because the people that are already behind your paywall are true believers. They're the people that are there already. They're going to follow you no matter what you do, but you want to bring in more people."

So one of the things that I started doing on Sundays, I call it The Big Read, which is not a terribly creative title for a story, but it's a really in-depth piece that I'll do. And I always make that free. That has been a good way to pull people in. I've actually started covering Arizona state's hockey team as well. It’s this Division 1 men's program that's out in the middle of nowhere, and I've gotten some good feedback from that as well.

It's a longform read. I'll dive into a variety of topics. For instance, with ASU hockey, they don't play in a conference, unlike most of the college hockey teams. So when COVID hit, all of the conferences decided to play within their own conference and not play out of conference games. And that left ASU out in the cold.

So ASU did this crazy thing where they decided to play their entire season on the road in the Big 10. They're literally staying on the road for 36 days for the first half of their season. They'll come home for two weeks and then they'll go back and play 16 more games, probably 40 some days on the road.

I dove into the logistics of having an entire season on the road, what that meant from a safety standpoint, from the equipment, the gear that they have to haul around with them, lodging, transportation, and did a deep dive on that. And that was well received.

Behind the paywall, I have more of the play-by-play, granular coverage. I'll do Notebooks, which is a bunch of quick-hit notes. I have something called Neutral Zone that I do frequently. Some of my features on the Coyotes or ASU will be behind the paywall and then I'll have more news stories, breaking news, things like that behind the paywall. But I do throw some of that stuff out for free as well.

For instance, the Coyote's captain, Oliver Ekman-Larsson – they tried to trade him this off-season and it was a very contentious situation. When I finally got a hold of him, I was the first to interview him, and I decided I should make that free so that everybody could see what he had to say.

Reflections on going paid

I cover this really specific niche, which is Arizona Coyotes, the ice hockey team based in Phoenix. Sounds like a terrible model, doesn't it?

Going independent has given me more freedom. I'm not answering to anyone else. I don't have an editor. I don't have anyone overseeing what I do. It's up to me. And part of that, there's a responsibility there.

Going independent has given me more freedom. I'm not answering to anyone else. I don't have an editor. I don't have anyone overseeing what I do. It's up to me.

Yesterday when I was writing my last Sunday read, there were a couple of times where I was like, "My God, I've been spending so much time on this story. Do I really want to go this extra mile?" And then I thought, "Of course I do. I have to. I owe this to my readers." So I do think it's given me a lot of freedom to really pursue whatever I want to pursue, whatever ideas and whatever direction I want to go with those. But I also think it create an incredible responsibility to my readers, because they're literally coming just for me. There's nothing else that they're here for. So I had better deliver.


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