I Was Wrong

November 24, 2016

I’m just going to come out and admit it: I was wrong about Donald Trump. I had dismissed him as a non-serious bloviator who would never become president of the United States. I completely missed how his rhetoric appealed to voters. I underestimated how much voters were tired of Hillary Clinton. I misunderstood how much pain voters were still in from the economy.

I missed how much Trump’s message resonated with voters. But I’m still suspicious of him. My gut feeling, which rarely steers me wrong, tells me that he doesn’t believe in or understand the rule of law. That he doesn’t understand the value of or support the idea of organized dissent. That he doesn’t understand the role of the press in democracy. And I also believe he is incapable of separating the personal from the professional.

That last point is most troubling, since I think we can expect him to be goaded to action, to take rash action when pushed by someone who knows where his buttons are. It could be a senator, a major corporate leader, or most likely a foreign power. And when he responds, he’ll connect the insult to his personality to a national insult. The national will careen into action to defend President Trump against the slight, and the world stage will roil.

I was wrong about why people would vote for Donald Trump. Those people deserve to have their demands answered. But I don’t think I am wrong about Donald Trump.

I’m Not Worried About This Election, And You Shouldn’t Be Either

October 30, 2016


This last week I heard from a few friends and family about their genuine stress and fears about the upcoming presidential election. Their choices, they feel, are so bad that no matter which candidate gets elected, our country will go to hell in a handbasket within a few months.

While there is certainly reason to be concerned about the state of our nation, I don’t think we’ll wake up to a nation in crisis on November 9. Although we have big things to worry about, they are much more boring and insidious than the Hillary Clinton vs. Donald Trump match up.

But first, why I’m not worried:

  1. Trump isn’t going to win. Maybe he’s your go-to candidate because Clinton is so bad, that’s fine. I won’t argue with you why a President Donald Trump would terrible for the nation (starting with Newt Gingrich, Chris Christie, Rudy Giuliani and Stephen Bannon) but we can be sure voters will both not turn out for Trump and also show up for Clinton. How come? We’re a centrist nation, and we’ve never once made a radical choice for president. No matter how many emails Clinton might have hidden, Trump’s misogyny is a bridge too far for America.
  2. Clinton is a centrist and more reasonable than you think. Her record contains barely a single radical act, and since she finished law school, she’s become increasingly conservative and consensus-seeking. If anything, Clinton might be faulted for not getting to the front of changing public opinion fast enough (e.g. voting for Iraq invasion, hesitating to support LGBT marriage). In my past political career I worked for and with some of her top leaders, and I know them to consensual centrists too. Like follows like.
  3. The anger fomented by this campaign season won’t last. Resistance/protest movements need focal points to last. Most of the angry people we see at Trump rallies are fueled by being at a rally and the conflicting stakes of an upcoming election. As soon as the campaign finishes, we’ll experience a gradual decline of political news, with a brief perk again around Inauguration Day, but a complete disappearance by next summer. Yes, the issues of economic stagnation will still be present (especially for poorer whites), but President Hillary Clinton will likely throw herself into addressing this problem immediately. She and her team are smart enough to know that unless they do some real work to solve the economic problem, Democrats will lose 2018 and she’ll likely lose reelection in 2020.
  4. We’ve been through much worse than this and managed to come out stronger.There is no question, our nation is under trial today. Our national and global economy has shifted, our ability to communicate and know more about each other has increased exponentially and the rights of previously suppressed peoples (women, minorities, immigrants) have risen enough that they are now taking their rightful places at the table. This is a lot to digest in such a short period of time and change always causes disruption and unease. But we’ve experienced similar, if not greater disruptions before, and came out OK. The labor and progressive movement at the turn of the last century saw huge riots and the national guard shooting down hundreds at a time. So did the civil rights/anti-war movements of the 1950’s and 60’s. The Depression saw massive migrations and shanty towns and the Civil War sent hundreds of thousands into a meat grinder of death. America got better and stronger each time. This election is paltry in comparison.

So, we’ll survive this election season just fine. Yet, we have much bigger, long-term problems with the potential to do serious harm to our nation.

  1. The culture of compromise in politics is dying.Unless you live in a hole, you know what I’m talking about. The genuine willingness to give-in and provide the other side enough rope to either hang themselves or climb the mountain is creating a death of a thousand cuts for our country. Yes, we’ll lose some sacred cows, but maybe we’ll gain some solutions.
  2. We increasingly see government as an impediment, rather than an opportunity to serve. Even if you’re a conservative believer in small government, you can still recognize that a government servant can better your world. Whether it’s as a public school teacher, an urban planner or a state’s attorney, government employees help build better communities and country every day. As a one-time federal employee, I found my work tremendously rewarding and was buoyed by working with so many other dedicated public servants (even as we all negotiated around deadwood bureaucrats). Until we return to believing government servants can be helpers, we’ll be holding ourselves back from greatness.
  3. There is a widening chasm between haves and have-nots. Much of Trump’s support comes from a growing number of white have-nots. But have-nots come in all colors with consistent themes: Lack of education opportunities, lack of access or transportation to good jobs and poor health care. 22% of all American children live in poverty while we have a record number of millionaires. Whether the solution is increased government handouts or more volunteer efforts, we’re far from doing or thinking enough about these problems.

So, regardless if you’ve voted already or you have yet to vote, take a deep breath and don’t worry about what will happen November 9. Instead, roll up your sleeves and commit yourself to fixing the deeper, cultural issues we struggle with.

Medium’s Memberships and Subscriptions Don’t Make The Grade

April 6, 2016

medium.com logo

Earlier this week Medium announced “New custom tools for publishers“, a list heavy on ways to more easily share your content for free with a global audience. As content is increasingly forced down the Long Tail, I have little confidence this will be useful for 98% of publishers. Mostly, Medium is fleecing inexperienced publishers with expensive tools that aren’t up to snuff.

Their most interesting new tool: A beta of members-only content. From their promo page:

we’re launching a membership program that allows readers to contribute a fixed amount every month toward their favorite publications on Medium. Publishers will be able to set a membership price and “lock” certain stories, creating exclusive premium content that only paying members receive. In time, we’ll continue to work with publishers to develop an even more diverse suite of reader-support products.

I’m not sure why they keep calling it “members” because it’s really about subscriptions, the red-headed step-child of content revenue for the last decade (gimme more clicks!). Today for the vast majority of publishers, producers of niche content, subscriptions are the best option to actually make money.

The pricing system Medium has in mind is egregious. For the first 500 members acquired publishers only pay processing fees (2.9% would be the usual, but Medium doesn’t say how much they charge) but after that first 500 members, publishers pay an additional fee ranging from 20 to 60-cents per member each month. That’s a big service fee, considering that racking up your first 500 subscribers is probably the hardest thing to do for most publishers, after that, you’ve probably got kind some of marketing plan in mind or you know how to find your subscribers. So, when you should be getting to a glide path to profitability, Medium’s system is making it harder.

Medium also doesn’t provide details on how the memberships are managed, if you can uncharge them, make changes to how much you charge, create multiple membership levels, trials or free months. As I’ve learned managing Aldertrack, these are all critical components to running a serious subscription-based publication.

There are dozens of membership-tools for web publications, ranging from very good to mind-boggling bad. Many of the good ones are inexpensive, and there are lots of great ones you can use in conjunction with WordPress templates. As I detailed here, we launched the earliest paid version of Aldertrack for less than $200. I have some HTML knowledge, but I’m no hacker. Anyone with a bit of time and commitment should be able to do what we did. Over time, we’ve gotten better and smarter – and if your product quality is high, customers will be patient with a low-rent website. Just talk to Matt Drudge and Craig Newmark.

Judging by the tools Medium released this week, I’d say they’re less serious about helping growing publishers than they are by drawing eyeballs to their platform.

Advice For Starting Out That You Never Asked For

April 1, 2016


I must have attained enough gray hair in order to seem like someone who knows something, because in the last few months I’ve been asked for advice by more than a few people preparing for or starting out their careers. There are specific things you might want to know about working in politics or journalism, but the most important things to internalize are the most general.

So, here goes:

  1. Where you start is not where you’ll finish up. When starting your career, the world can seem overwhelming: You can do practically anything! (Hard to imagine now, but I really thought hard about a military career during my late teens.) But it’s important to keep in mind that what you start out to do, is not what you will end up doing, and there will likely a few changes in the middle. Take a breath, and realize that whatever you choose to do with your life, you can change it later. Actor Ken Jeong? Used to be a practicing M.D.
  2. Pick something you care about, and do that as hard as you can. As you move forward, the most important thing you’ll find about everyone is how much they care about what they do. Regardless of how small it may be, if you care deeply about your work, and are able to find value and meaning in it, you will get better at it, your life will be more fulfilling and you’ll enjoy the world more. If that’s childcare, making shoes or psychiatry, then that’s what you need to do. Find a way to do it with all of your might.
  3. Try to work with the most talented people you can find. Don’t waste time with people who aren’t trying to do their best. Every experience you have in life is a trade off from another, different experience. When you choose experiences with talented, smart people, you gain their skills and gradually become one of them.
  4. Read everything. Question your assumptions and conclusions. Part of the path to becoming great at whatever you care about is by building your own understanding of how the world works. Often times, unrelated things you experience become foundations for bigger ideas later on. Steve Jobs’ experience with calligraphy in college helped him understand the power of design later at Apple. Hours after work sitting on the floor of my first job’s copy room, reading back issues of the very expensive policy magazine National Journal eventually led to my earliest ideas for Aldertrack. Seemed like wasted time then. Twenty years later, it seems critical.
  5. You will make mistakes. Some of them big. They will fade with time and become learning experiences. I am the king of big mistakes. Most involve others and should not be put into print. But fortunately life is long, and even in our digital age where the internet remembers everything, it is possible to move forward and become a better you. The key is to admit your error, think hard about why it happened, and then move on. Oh, and try not to do it again.
  6. Don’t buy expensive furniture. This sounds funny, but as soon as I bought furniture I cared about, I started thinking about moving costs, and became less and less interested in moving for a job or new opportunity. It’s true: A really nice couch can really keep you from doing great things. Delay decorating your apartment as long as you can.
  7. You may really love your significant other, but your relationship should not keep you from opportunity. I’m going to get in trouble for saying this, but I really believe this: In college I had two friends who dated and were inseparable. It was clear they would get married. But then they did something really interesting: One of them got a three-month fellowship on the other end of the country. Then after that was done, another one moved across the country for a long-sought job while the other stayed in the job of their dreams. This went on for a few years. In the midst of it they got married, but still spent many months apart. Eventually, after about eight years of this, they managed to end up in the same city with great jobs and start a family. They are immensely well-rounded and have a very domestic life. And have the opportunity of being together for 40 more years. Isn’t that great? Whatever pull you feel from your significant other now, if it can’t handle a few months apart, your relationship has bigger problems than you know.
  8. Avoid debt by not spending rather than seeking bigger paychecks. Debt keeps you from taking chances. Seeking high paying jobs keeps you from taking chances. Live simply (see #6) and you’ll be ready to take advantage of opportunity.
  9. You will settle down eventually. But don’t be in a hurry. Much like #7, don’t press yourself to be a fully settled grown up. We all feel like that’s the end game, and that’s what we’re supposed to do. But really, being a grown up is more about being happy with your choices than getting to a certain milestone. Ask yourself these things: Are you doing interesting work? Do you like the area where you live? Are you spending time with good, interesting people? If the answer is yes to all three, then you are living a grown up life most would envy.
  10. You will never feel like you “made it”. As a corollary to #1 and #9, there is no real end game except death itself. If you manage to create a life around being inquisitive and interested in the world around you, you will constantly be finding new things to capture your attention. Give up on “settling” things, and instead focus on enjoying the moments of discovery. There is so much to love in our world, no matter where you look.

Our Responsibility

March 11, 2016


People close to me know that I recoil from the word Journalism. I prefer to talk about “news” or the “news business”. To me, journalism is overloaded with misty-eyed retroverts who want to imagine it’s still the 1990’s and people read your stories because they need to eat their vegetables.

News is a better word, in my opinion. It’s less biased and more broad. It conveys becoming informed, whether on Tom Hanks’ new hairstyle, Frank Ocean’s latest croon or Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley’s best gaffes; you are gaining something you didn’t have before.

And in my mind, there is plenty of room for just about every kind of news you can imagine. In today’s long-tail media environment, thousands of publications ply their wares so that we consumers get to pick. From TMZ to Breitbart to Modern Tire Dealer, we get to choose how we want to be informed.

My friends also know that I am relatively laissez faire when it comes to the actions of my contemporaries in the media world. Maybe it’s because I worked in politics for 15 years, but my expectations of others is relatively low, so I’m seldom surprised, even if I am sometimes disappointed.

But my laissez faire attitude has been challenged by the latest leadership moves at Tribune Publishing. While the changes don’t surprise me, the reality is hard to digest for those who care about the Fourth Estate.

As much as I want to slough off the possibility of a news organization in trouble, the fact remains: It matters to my community, my city. Sometimes, great news organizations have the potential to change the world with their reporting. But mostly, they keep us from sliding backwards. In the moments when civic evils are revealed, Journalism becomes the appropriate word. I want to see more news become Journalism.

I’m the publisher and owner of Aldertrack, a growing local news publication that aims to produce high quality, detailed reporting on our local government. So, to some extent, the Chicago Tribune and its sister publication, Chicago Magazine, are competitors. But the news world is small. Competition among political reporters is both sharp and collegial. When a rival reporter breaks a cutting story, I am simultaneously irked that someone else did it, yet appreciative of the work.

A competitor’s great reporting may pull them ahead of me for now, but ultimately it lifts us all, encouraging my team to strive to be better, to beat the other guys to the scoop next time.

The reports from Tribune Tower have riveted Chicago’s news community: Is great reporting in danger there?

The question makes my responsibility clear as Aldertrack’s publisher: Serve our community with success. Sponsor more great reporting. Build a thriving business.

Subscribe here.

The Other Legacy of Gapers Block

December 21, 2015
Gapers Block on the left (founders Naz Hamdid in black and Andrew Huff in purple) and Chicagoist on the right (the author in orange and Chicagoist Prime editor Rachelle Bowden in black).

Gapers Block on the left (founders Naz Hamdid in black and Andrew Huff in purple) and Chicagoist on the right (the author in orange and Chicagoist Prime editor Rachelle Bowden in black).

When I first met Andrew Huff, I half thought of him as “the enemy”. An incredibly stupid idea, I know, but it’s true.

In the summer of 2004 a small group of Chicagoist writers had gathered at Wicker Park’s Handlebar, for an evening of cheap beer and planning how we’d run our nascent blog. As we schemed in the back patio, at one point our editor Rachelle Bowden stopped the conversation, pointed and said, “Hey, I think that’s Andrew Huff. From Gapers Block!”

The rest of us tried to casually look over–maybe leer a bit–and check out “the competitor” team. There sat Andrew with his trademark pompadour and sideburns, accompanied by a small-sized group of Gapers writers, also drinking cheap beer and scheming, so it seemed.

Back in the pre-social media days, blog links were how you found out what was cool and trendy. And in Chicago, Chicagoist and Gapers Block were it. We knew it was true because ABC7 had done a profile on us.

Eventually someone from one or the other group sauntered over to the other and we began to talk. Cautiously, but in a friendly manner. We were “competitors” after all. We took goofy pictures to commemorate the momentous occasion.

A typically awesome GB party poster by Phones X. Jones.

A typically awesome GB party poster by Phineas X. Jones.

For professional reasons I stopped writing for Chicagoist after a couple years, but also got to know some of the other Gapers Block writers. At some point I was invited to a Gapers party–they were constantly having them it seemed, and usually with cool invites.

I met Andrew for real. He invited me to write. So I did. And then we talked some more and became friends.

The weaving of a friendship is always more complicated than can be explained in words, of course. And our connection had a number of waypoints along the way, including an experimental ad network I managed, his support of my hyperlocal news site, some foundation-funded training weekends and the Chicago Media Softball League he was commissioner for.

Through it all though, was the presence of Gapers Block. Andrew was Gapers, and Gapers was Andrew.

He knew this of course, he has said as much to me during our many conversations about GB, in a half-lament, half-pride kind of way. I could sympathize, because I felt the same way about Center Square Journal, my neighborhood news site. The weight of it all. Knowing that people counted on you to tell you something they didn’t know. That there probably wasn’t anyone else in the world who cared nearly as much as you. If you stopped caring, who else would?

While Gapers Block, founded in 2003, was one of the first local “news and culture blogs” in the country, there are actually many like it, although each one is somewhat different. I helped found an organization, The Local Independent Online News Publishers (LION) in 2012, of which Gapers Block was a charter member.

The vast majority of these sites are either run by one person, or largely driven by a single personality. They are true mom & pop businesses that express the interests, care and integrity of the founder down to the last detail. Not surprisingly, in the last two years, a number of the earliest sites have winked out, as the founders grew tired of the grind, went broke or just lost the fire. New ones have sprung up too, but those too are mostly driven by one person.

I don’t think I’m speaking out of school to say that overcoming this “one-personality” problem is something Andrew struggled with. Indeed, it was something most of the LION members I knew struggled with. I did with Center Square Journal, and it was one of the reasons I shut it down in 2013.

The Struggle: On the one hand, local readers love your site and brand. On the other hand, they’re just not willing to pony up money to pay for it, and your local take on things doesn’t really extend beyond the region you’re in. You make enough money to keep the enterprise going, but not really enough to expand to a full staff. And how would you grow, anyway?

One group has been successful. Chicagoist, and later SFist, Shanghaist and more grew out of Gothamist in New York City, creating the Gothamist Network. Each city’s site has its own local take and flavor, but from what I saw from the inside as the network grew is that it was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of opportunity, taking hold of an audience and gaining brand equity before social media became predominant.

To become sustainable–and that’s a tricky word since twelve years of operation for Gapers Block could be argued by some as sustainable–you need to either create a huge national audience that brings in lots of ad revenue, or a local audience that’s willing to pay a great deal for your work up front.

This may seem elementary, but it was hardly the case in 2003, when Gapers launched. In fact, the I don’t think Andrew and I discussed the idea together until a couple years ago–and boy we talked about a lot of stuff.

In the last twelve years, the business of media has changed radically multiple times. And through it all, Andrew and Gapers Block has adapted and been open about those adaptations.

While most talk about Gapers’ closing has focused on its immense cultural contribution, I’d like to thank Andrew for helping me and so many others puzzle out the very difficult business challenges. Thank you for that lasting contribution.

Into The Breech

November 30, 2015

Some personal news: Starting today I am a full-time employee of Aldertrack. I’ve tied off my various consulting gigs and committed myself completely to making this wonderful company grow.

Although it’s had previous incarnations, Aldertrack’s current form has existed for about six months now, and I’m more excited than ever about its potential and future. I don’t think I’ve ever worked on a project like this–where customers are so uniformly positive what they’re buying. That spirit makes the job fun and every day fulfilling.

We produce high-quality political reporting for Chicago and Illinois with email newsletter-only reports that mostly focus on Chicago City Council and Cook County Board, but with a bit of Illinois stuff in there too. It’s an answer to the increased commoditization of political news, some of which Matt Taibbi talks about here:

We in the media have spent decades turning the news into a consumer business that’s basically indistinguishable from selling cheeseburgers or video games. You want bigger margins, you just cram the product full of more fat and sugar and violence and wait for your obese, over-stimulated customer to come waddling forth.

The old Edward R. Murrow, eat-your-broccoli version of the news was banished long ago. Once such whiny purists were driven from editorial posts and the ad people over the last four or five decades got invited in, things changed. Then it was nothing but murders, bombs, and panda births, delivered to thickening couch potatoes in ever briefer blasts of forty, thirty, twenty seconds.

We’ve been able to identify a growing market for our product, where I’ll be focusing my time in the coming months.

My partners Jimm Dispensa and Ramsin Canon are a big part of what makes Aldertrack so great. I never imagined I’d encounter one, let alone two people who are so different intellectually and personality-wise from me, yet we all seem to compliment each other so well. Every time we talk, I feel like something great is about to happen.

I should also tip my hat to the two other full-time employees at Aldertrack, Claudia Morell and A.D. Quig, two brilliant reporters who have been crazy enough to jump into this thing with us. It’s going to get better and funner.

If you want to see what we’re up to, sign up for our our free weekday email here, or get our weekly updated tip sheet on all 177 Illinois legislative races, the Illinois Racing Form, for just $15.

Then you can see where all my writing has been going for the last six months.

Trump’s No Candidate

July 2, 2015

For the last two weeks Americans have been treated to a series of bigoted, classist and plain stupid bloviations from Donald Trump. Either calculated to attract attention or just the ravings of a deranged mind, every American should be able to agree: There’s no way Donald Trump will even come close to the Presidency, let alone a minor cabinet position or ambassadorship.

American media: Stop calling Donald Trump a “presidential candidate.” He’s used the system for personal benefit before and even a cursory glance behind the curtain reveals him to be a Potemkin candidate with no significant supporters or campaign machinery. He is using media attention for some secondary purpose that does not serve the common good and only reveals news people covering him to be slavish scribes rather than thinking reporters.

If your need for clicks means you can’t stop covering Trump, at least call him “presidential pretender” or “attention junkie.” Call him for what he is.


Local Media’s Problem Is That Readers Don’t Care

June 9, 2015

My buddy Scott Smith says in a recent post “Chicago media is getting rid of what it needs the most” that it’s the civic responsibility of local media organizations to provide local news. His title is correct, but the underlying premise of his post, that it’s a civic responsibility, is wrong. Readers deserve what they’ll pay for. And right now most readers don’t want local political coverage and in depth news.

After lamenting the loss of more local news coverage in Chicago, he quotes a recent Knight Foundation report, which bears repeating:

“The report highlights that young adults care about their cities and have many concerns that local government can address, but these potential voters lack the information, habits, and social cues that would prompt them to engage and participate in local elections,” said David Mermin, partner at Lake Research Partners.

The report suggests there’s a cyclical effect: Millennials don’t care about local elections because there’s less quality local news. Lower turnout tells news orgs they should produce less local news.

Without saying it, Scott leans on an old saw: “If only someone would provide good local news, people would care.” It’s a popular trope among reporters.

If only that was the case. Great news does not mean great audiences or great revenue, something I’ve learned the hard way, and two more of my hyperlocal friends learned recently.

The news world is undergoing a tremendous transition to an hourglass shape, where there is  opportunity for publications that serve advertising to massive audiences or small publications that are paid subscriptions for niche audiences. Everything in the middle, like metro dailies, will end up losing their shirts. Other industries have endured this change and many have written about it. I wrote about it in 2009. Matthew Ingram wrote about it last week.

Because of the rapidly changing environment, local media’s first responsibility (even public radio) isn’t to provide local news. It is to survive. Most everyone in news has no idea what’s coming next and financial success today is a surprise and delight in this business, unlike ye olden days when it was formulaic. Those were the days when we talk about civic responsibility.

If readers want local news, they’ll pay for it. David Boraks discovered that the hard way. I’ve learned that with Aldertrack. Less than 1% of our free email subscribers are paid subscribers to our paid service. We’re not surprised by that fact, it was always part of the plan. We always expected to serve a niche audience. And that’s the kind of plan local news will need to survive.

Aldertrack Lessons Learned, Part 3

April 11, 2015

Holy crap! We have a functioning company! With revenue!

That’s the first thought that comes to mind whenever I stop to think for even a moment about what’s happened to our little hobby project. We’ve created a living, breathing organization, with paid employees, a culture of its own and a truly differentiated product.

Even though we started work on Aldertrack just six months ago and made the decision to become a paid, year-round product just three months ago, Aldertrack was far from an overnight success. It was years of learning and failures that led us to where we are today.

Most important, there were many who helped us along the way. Readers, journalists, political operatives and politicians who knew us from long ago and people who took a flyer on helping us learn, build an audience, gain sources, find advertisers and much more.

People who made a difference:
Anabel Abarca, Jim Allen, Brian Bernadoni, Niala Boodhoo, Justin Breen, Sarah Calder, Will Caskey, Ken Davis, Pat Doerr, Bruce DuMont, Katelynd Duncan, Derek Eder, Mike Flannery, Greg Goldner, Eric Herman, Mike Houlihan, Ben Joravsky, Jake Kaplan, Justin Kaufman, Joanna Klonsky, Michelle Kucera, Kitty Kurth, Kevin Lampe, Fred Lebed, Paul Lisnek, Terri Lydon, Carol Marin, Dan Miller, Rich Means, Jordan Muck, Avy Myers, Mike Noonan, Tom Ogorzalek, Dan O’Neil, David Ormsby, Cindy Paulauskas, Mike Reever, John Rowley, Tracy Schmidt, Jaimey Sexton, Che “Rhymefest” Smith, Scott Smith, Tom Swiss, Anne Szkatulski, Sean Tenner…and many more who shall remain nameless because they probably prefer it that way.

And on to the lessons!

  1. Sales calls matter. As we got closer to Election Day my sales call time fell off the schedule, but when I was making calls to ask people to subscribe, it made a world of difference. Plenty of people said no, but enough said yes that we’re able to pay our employees. A few people actually said they wouldn’t have subscribed unless we’d asked.
  2. For niche content, it’s all about information, not graphic attractiveness. Neither our website nor email look very good. But we’ve yet to hear someone complain. But when we don’t cover something people think we should have covered…plenty of complaints.
  3. There is such a thing as too much information. Especially when we got close to the General and Runoff Election Days, the amount of information we could gather and the reporting we could do was staggering. And we wanted to cover every last thing, all of us working well into the night. Some of our email reports went well over 8,000 words with close to 100 links and a dozen different stories – all written in one day by five people. It was obscene. Looking at our clickthroughs, I’m not sure our readers really wanted all that. Maybe it was important as a kind of tour de force so show how bad ass we really are, but our subscribers probably didn’t want or need as much detail as we provided.
  4. Presenting well on TV and radio is task all of its own.

    One amazing experience for me was that in the course of the runoff I went on a dozen different TV and radio shows. In particular I had one weekly in-studio radio show and one TV show I did every day for a week. They were exhausting. Before every show I wrote extensive notes and even practiced how I would speak. For TV I spent time thinking about how to dress, stand and sit. I listened or watched every show, made notes about how I sounded or looked and then tried to do better the next time. TV in particular is hard: Knowing which camera to look at, where to look when you aren’t speaking and being able to speak quickly and change topics in a short period of time is a big challenge. I have a whole new level of respect for people who do TV and radio. Looking halfway human while speaking on a topic (even one you know a lot about!) consistently is hard, hard, hard.

  5. A professional PR person really can help. In February I was reconnected with a D.C. acquaintance, Michelle Kucera, who volunteered to help us put together our first Election Night party. Michelle, who was Tipper Gore’s communication’s director at one time, makes everything seem easy. Our first party went without a hitch, and Michelle made sure plenty of people knew great things about Aldertrack.  We threw our second party without her, largely because she had other paying things to do instead, and boy did we notice the difference. Someday when we’re really ready to grow, we’ll engage her to help with much more than event planning.
  6. Say yes to every media opportunity, no matter how small. Reporters and producers constantly struggle to fill their shows or news holes. When you show up and do a great job, they remember you and ask you back. Also, sometimes, when you’re at a TV or radio station, you run into people you’d like to know or talk to. There’s a certain magic at those places, where people become willing to say yes to all kinds of things. And of course, when you’re on TV, radio or in the newspaper, it validates you in a big way.
  7. Throwing a party is hard work, but pays off in all kinds of little ways.

    Gathering our readers, sponsors and subscribers in one place creates another kind of magic. “Hey! I like this! And so do you!” These people all want to know one another. And it’s fun. After our first party people would stop us and say, “What a great party! When’s the next one?” That is a great kind of goodwill.

  8. Tweet, and treat it like a totally separate medium. Our whole team tweeted from @aldertrack We’d tweet pictures, observations and pieces of news we discovered. Sometimes we’d discuss on Slack whether or not to push things out on Twitter, but mostly we put as many small news bits out as possible.

    Plenty of people retweeted our stuff and twitter became a whole new outlet–and path of discovery for us. Our audience is still only about 2,700 people, but everyone in political media follows us, as do many politicians. It only binds everyone closer.

  9. Take people out for lunch and coffee. When you’re in the thick of things, it’s tempting to constantly work, get to the point, be direct. But the best relationships, conversations and ideas come from slow, longer discussions. When you meet people interesting, ask them out for a sandwich or coffee. You’ll never regret the results.
  10. It’s wonderful to know your audience. While we have a few thousand email subscribers, our power readers number in the hundreds. We’ve managed to meet most of them and they tell us all the time what they like and don’t like about Aldertrack. It enables us to not only get better, but have the confidence that we’re doing something great­–and have more fun as a result.
  11. Slack, Slack, Slack. I know I mentioned this before, but more than any other, this tool has emerged as a game changer for our team. Everyone is reachable, everything is searchable, and it feels so intimate. Slack has, in many ways, made us into a more tight-knit team than we would have been otherwise.
  12. When you make a mistake, own up to it as fast, as publicly, as directly as possible. Occasionally we made some mistakes in reporting. As a reporter, making a mistake is doubly bad because not only are people getting the wrong information from you, but you may have unintentionally besmirched someone’s reputation. Own up to it fast–Twitter was the fastest way for us–and then make sure everyone knows you made a mistake along with the correct information. We’d print “Correction” or “Clarification” at the top of our email the next day with a one or two sentence explanation. Generally, people forgave us and everyone lived to work another day.
  13. Do great work consistently. Other people who do great work will find you. Aldertrack’s two amazing and talented reporters, A.D. Quig and Claudia Morell, found us. Tom Ogorzalek, who made great maps for us, emailed us out of the blue. We have a dozen of these kinds of stories. Because we love what we do and work hard at it, other great people want to be a part of it. And knowing whether something is “great” is totally intangible, you only know it when you just know.