Going Paid: How Christopher Curtis launched and grew The Rover

We invited Christopher Curtis, author of The Rover, to share his insights on launching a paid newsletter. Christopher does in-depth, investigative journalism on The Rover, whether he’s writing about homeless camps under Montreal’s overpasses or policies affecting immigrant communities.

In this interview, Christopher shares his experience quitting his full-time job as a journalist, how he uses social media to interact with his audience, and advice for launching a paid newsletter. 

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

Takeaways

  • Try other forms of media – besides words – to connect with your readers. For example, Christopher recorded video stunts to celebrate hitting specific milestones in his subscriber numbers.

  • Ask others to endorse your newsletter. For your paid launch, it’s helpful to ask people to share your newsletter and why they find it valuable.

  • Keep in touch with your readers. If you want to build a community around your work, set aside time every day to answer messages from readers.


How I decided to leave my full-time job as a journalist

[This decision] was difficult because The Montreal Gazette is where I became the writer and the journalist that I am, and I had actually just won a Canadian Association of Journalism award. The work that won that award felt like it was so long ago. Since that work, there had been layoffs, or buyouts, and people left and weren't replaced. You see the newsroom thinning, and you tell yourself that the work that you love and the work that makes you a special journalist is going to be increasingly difficult to do.

And so if I'm not doing that work, then I'm really just average. I'm not really bringing anything to the job or to the city that some other person couldn't bring. So I started talking with a guy who runs a news website called Ricochet, and we started talking about, in a dream world, what would the job that I want be, and how would we fund that? He told me about Substack, and I looked into it and I thought, "Yeah, I can do this, but it's going to require a lot of planning. We're going to need to launch it in such a way that there's a pop, and we can get a big surge of paying subscribers from that pop.”

My paid launch experience

I was terrified [about launching]. I wanted to write a relatively concise and clear statement about why I was leaving the newspaper, what Substack was, and what my mission was going forward. I wanted to write something that said, “I'm hopeful for the future. I'm going to keep doing this until you drag me away, because I love this work and this work can be good, it can be helpful. It can give people hope, it can help give a voice to people who feel marginalized. Why don't you join me on this adventure?”

That's the pitch that I gave people, and I thought it was pretty positive. And I'm lucky, I already have a bit of a profile in Montreal, so I was able to, before launching the piece, send it to a few colleagues. One colleague gets The French Daily, one of the big French daily newspapers here. So they did a story that went live the day of the launch. I work on a radio show for a national broadcaster in French. And I had asked them to consider doing something about it, and they did. I got a 15-20 minute interview on one of the flagship programs, explaining why I was doing what I was doing.

I tapped into the audience they already have on Twitter, which is relatively big for an Anglophone in a French speaking city. We made sure that the radio interview, the article in the French newspaper, and the opinion piece, the mission statement were all launched on the same day. And it went a little bit nuts. We had some targets that we wanted to hit, in terms of how this could be sustainable. And we exceeded those targets pretty early on.

How I used videos to personalize my story

We've done a couple of stunts here and there to incentivize people. You have a one day sale, and if we reach a certain amount of subscribers, one of the things was that I'll jump in the lake. And it was cold as hell and I did it.

Our goal is 25 subscribers – we got 60 new subscribers that day. We're probably going to come up with another stunt before Christmas, and hopefully get ourselves up to 700-800 subscribers. It's been so rewarding, and I have used this to fund a lot of journalism that I'm crazy about.

I've been living a good chunk of the time in this mining town in Northern Quebec. When I'm down here, I'm doing work with the homeless communities and I'm doing this stuff that I don't think I otherwise would have had as much time to do. And it's just been crazy. A lot of people are reaching out to me asking how they can do it, or they're just interested in the project because it's different.

I think that the beauty of social media – as rough as it can be sometimes, and as mean as it could be as a space – I think it allows people to understand, to connect with you as a person. I'm pretty upfront about what I think my flaws are. And I'm pretty upfront about my limitations.

I think what I would say is just go for it. Have a fun, clever, self-deprecating video. Do a stunt. I mean, I think my next one is something like, I'm going to say that I'll jump over the lake on a motorcycle. The point is to have people feel like they have this connection to you, so people will reach out.

I want people to feel like it's interactive, and they have a say in this project, because I look at the people who subscribe as my partners.

I like to put some time aside every day to answer [messages from readers], and then the videos are a way of setting a goal. If you hit a certain amount of subscriptions, then I'll do this crazy thing. I would've done it anyways, had there just been 10 or 15 new subscriptions. But I just want people to feel like it's interactive, and they have a say in this project, because I look at the people who subscribe as my partners. And I want them to know that, first of all, I appreciate their money, but also that we're all part of this adventure together.

A part of that is documenting the weirdness of it all. So I learned a little bit of video editing and I invested in Final Cut Pro, and I try to use it every now and again to bring the stories to life, to give them something that the written word doesn't necessarily have to capture some cool images, and hopefully to get a laugh.

Building a relationship with readers

I've always been pretty interactive with readers, even at the Gazette. Even if somebody emails me and tells me to go to hell, I want to know, "Well, why are you so mad? Is there something I can learn from this?"

So I do like to write back when somebody takes the time out of their day to say they like something. Of course I want them to know that I hear that and I appreciate it. And when somebody takes their time out of their day to tell me they don't like something, I want them to know that I heard that, and that I'm going to think about it. The second one is not always easy to accept that you might've made a mistake, or you might not be very good at a certain thing, but with the interactivity of the launch, I want people to feel like they have a stake in this.

What I've realized, which I think a lot of us forget sometimes, is that people live vicariously through you.

What I realized in doing the job for as long – well, I've only been a journalist for 10 years, but in those 10 years, what I've realized, which I think a lot of us forget sometimes, is that people live vicariously through you.

You go to a place where there was an industrial accident in Quebec seven years ago, where 47 people were killed in an explosion, and you try to make sense of it so that they don't have to. You decide, "Okay, what is it out of this experience that I want them to know, and that I want to share with them so that they can walk away having learned something, and having experienced something?"

I try to remember again and again and again, that a lot of the things that we [as journalists] see and do, whether it's having access to a politician, or a prime minister, or a president, or a mayor, or whatever – we take a lot of that for granted. There's this really weird world that we get to be a fly on the wall for, and there's a lot of value in taking someone with you.

A lot of what I write is, in a way, like a reaction when you go to a party or you meet with your family, and you get a lot of the same questions, like, "Well, what's this like? What's this person like? What is it like to be at one of these press conferences? Why do they ask so many tough questions?"

You try to explain it to people in a fun way, and you try to explain it in a way that is like, "Look, this is not magic. I'm just doing a job and this is what the job's like, and it can be a real pain sometimes, but I love it and I can't believe they pay me to do this.”

Reflections on my paid launch

It's a relatively small media market. Montreal is the second biggest city in Canada, but it's mostly a French speaking city. And oddly enough, actually, a big chunk of my audience is Francophone, and they'll read stuff that I write in English. Maybe having had an anchor in the English world would have been better, but it's competitive and very much like a boys’ club in the English world. So I don’t think there’s anything I could have done differently.

When I worked with Ricochet and this guy, Ethan Cox, we had a strategy of not only lining up interviews, but reaching out to influencers or just prominent journalists or politicians that we really believe in, or former politicians, and having them endorse the project. Explaining it to them and having them share, and not only share what I'm doing in their circles, but being able to use a picture of this person and a quote, like, "Hey, you should check this guy out, and here's why I want you to."

As I was preparing the launch, I was doing full-time work at The Montreal Gazette, and everyone's busy living their lives. So I think given the budget we had, which was essentially $0, and given the time we had, which was essentially, whenever I'm not working, here's what I'm going to spend my time on, given all of our limitations, I think we had a really organized launch.

I know if I was a more organized person, then maybe I could have done it better. But I also know that because I'm so scattered and a little bit crazy, that that probably helped as well. It was the sort of spontaneous, kind of Gonzo feel that it had to it.

How I decided on my launch price

It was a compromise. I wanted it to be a little bit cheaper, and Ethan wanted it to be a little bit more expensive. We settled on $12 because it's not $15. I think you can get a lot of content for $12 a month if you're on Netflix, or whatever the streaming services are.

The pitch that we made to people is: you're going to get a newsletter. It's going to be a very good piece of writing, it's going to be entertaining. It'll link you to the work that I've done, as well, but you're not only like, yes, the $12 pays for this newsletter, it pays for access to me. If you want to write, I'll get back to you as fast as I can. We'll do a Zoom call, we're going to have a barbecue once the COVID restrictions are down, and invite everyone.

The $12 is this newsletter, but it's also this journalism. And so the newsletter will link to a major piece of journalism I've done. Usually it's at the end. The newsletter is a column, or the newsletter is, “This week I wrote a pretend play that took place in Rudolph Giuliani's mind.” And you try and make it funny and weird, and something no one's ever seen before, because I've read a lot of newsletters that just feel like a list.

[I] try and make it funny and weird, and something no one's ever seen before, because I've read a lot of newsletters that just feel like a list.

I want somebody to tell me a story. I've shared a lot about my grandfather passing and the final days of his life. And what I learned from that, or just the schizophrenic experience of watching TV news during the election, is that at the end it is always like, "Okay, well, you've read this far. Here's the big piece of journalism we did this week. Thank you for your money, because really, you're paying for a newsletter, but you're sponsoring a new kind of journalism."

In this case, it's journalism that deals with marginalized communities that don't necessarily get a lot of press, and that don't necessarily get a lot of good press. So really, you're selling them on that. You're selling them on, “Yeah, you're getting a product, but you're also investing in the greater good, I hope.”

Taking a leap of faith

We only have so much time on this planet. But the big thing is that I was bitter for a really long time at The Gazette. I thought, "I'm really good." And I know that everybody gets along and they're great bosses, but there are all these restrictions. I'm not making great journalism right now because of all these restrictions.

The final motivating factor for me was, okay, no more excuses. Let's take all of these excuses away. I've saved up a little bit of money. I'm going to take this leap, and I think that if I take it honestly, in good faith, and if I take it from a loving and a positive place about us together being able to make a difference and do some good things, then I think people will support me in that jump. I will jump in midair, a soft landing will be created.

And if I was wrong, the very worst thing that happens is that I maybe have to do a bit of work that I don't love, but I know that I'll find a way to squirm my way back into journalism and storytelling, and all that stuff.

That's never going to go away, that's always going to be a part of who I am. So I think people would say “You're brave,” which I initially took to mean that I'm stupid, which I get. But I think that if you take that leap for the right reasons, and if you take it and if you're all in, and I'm all in. There's no more all in than I. I'm about to move to the country to get a much better price on my rent, and to live with a relative who needs help. I'm all in, and in a professional setting, I've never been happier.

There was a time where I was thinking, "What's my exit plan for journalism? What's my next thing?" I don't really think like that anymore.

So it's good. I don't make the same money that I did at The Gazette, but I picked up extra contract work here and there and I'm happier than I've ever been. And I'm just more connected to the work than I've ever been in my life. There was a time where I was thinking, "What's my exit plan for journalism? What's my next thing?" I don't really think like that anymore.


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