Story 29

It’s no coincidence, it’s a calling

Hey, I’m Alex, the human behind this issue of Upstairs. I’m a journalist by trade and a worrier by default, which is not ideal for building any startup, let alone a local media one. But when a chance came my way, I had to make the best of it.

Exactly one year ago, as I’m writing this, I got a call from my boss. He told me the pandemic had drained the advertising budgets our publication relied upon, and I might want to start looking for a new job.

It wasn’t really a surprise. Journalism is a profoundly rewarding vocation but a very tough business. The brunt of ever-diminishing revenues is often borne by the reporters themselves, with many of them leaving the profession because they can’t support their families.

I remember speaking to an Uber driver who was himself the manager of a small fleet of Priuses. He casually told me his drivers earn more in a week than I did in a month as newsletter editor for one of Romania’s leading independent media companies.

A first-time founder with limited resources

At 35 years old, with no clear path ahead, I was at a crossroad in my life. I could soldier on as a journalist, trying to scrape a living with freelance writing gigs, or I could overhaul my career entirely and get trained as a software tester or radiology technician or drive an Uber to make ends meet.

In the following months, I applied to reporting jobs I knew I wasn’t suited for, from news agency editing jobs to a senior correspondent position at Radio Free Europe. None worked out in the end, so I kept on praying for a door to open.

At the same time, as I saw local newsletters pop up worldwide, I started thinking about launching one in my hometown. But I didn’t have the bandwidth nor the resources to go for it.

Then, someday in April, I saw an announcement about Substack giving away one million dollars to writers interested in building a local publication. However qualified I may or may not have been, I will never consider this providential coincidence to be anything short of a miracle.

As it turns out, I was selected as one of the twelve winners of the Substack Local competition. Over the course of the year, starting in July 2021, Substack would make a low five-figure investment to help me build a viable newsletter-first local publication based on a paid subscription model.

This opportunity has been a blessing, but, as it happens, the initial euphoria of getting seed funding has long subsided and gave way to the dizziness of trying to hit several moving targets at once.

As a first-time founder with limited resources, I literally can’t afford to delegate anything except some editorial responsibilities. Besides interviewing and on-field reporting for the weekly newsletter, I also have to figure out product development, lead generation, and monetization.

With business models in local media being a wicked problem, the goal is not 10x growth but mere sustainability, reaching a minimum viable audience before burning through the investment from Substack.

By our estimates, that means having at least 5.000 subscribers by the summer of 2022, with at least 5% of them willing to support us with a subscription of 5 euros per month or 30 euros per year. Right now, we’re at 860 free subscribers and just starting with paid subscriptions, so it’s a tough road ahead.

It’s too early to share any profound insights about startup life, but here are two things I try to keep in mind, which might be relevant to anyone struggling in their work life.

Whatever you do, don’t get sidetracked

It’s tempting to play with different formats/channels, whether podcasts, long-form, or TikTok. Remember Clubhouse? But choosing what not to do is as important as deciding what to do.

As Wolfgang Blau, one of the most insightful thinkers in the media space puts it:

The most underappreciated resource in publishing and the media industry is not money. There’s no shortage of money really, it is focus.

Wolfgang Blau

What should you focus on, then? As any VC would tell you, what matters most is genuinely listening and empathizing with customers, prototyping and iterating relentlessly until you understand how to serve their needs best.

Here’s how we try to do that. Every new subscriber gets an automatic email from me, written in a conversational tone, with a straightforward question: who or what do you think more people should know about? This is the start of a feedback loop as well as a resource for story subjects.

We also encourage subscribers to reply to each newsletter edition with ideas/suggestions, and we send out a survey every three months to check if the feedback validates our intuitions about the content, format, and personality of the newsletter.

Our venture is based on the assumption that local news is boring and depressing, saturated with political scandals, COVID, and car-crash updates that leave readers feeling hopeless about the world around them.

Apart from keeping up with the news, we believe readers also expect to be educated and inspired by high-quality journalism, and that need is underserved.

We’re looking to balance the weekly local briefing with in-depth, long-form features that shine a light on the people and organizations that are actively improving their corner of the world, whether it’s a group of activists fighting to preserve the local forest from clear-cutting or a chef who puts his heart and soul in building a different kind of restaurant.

As idealistic as it may sound, the aim is to prove that all is not lost, that there are still plenty of people who sacrifice their time and energy for the greater good when so many others are wasting them fighting on Facebook.

We believe this type of solution journalism is viable even on a local level because that’s where the value lies for any media product – at the intersection of being valuable and delightful. Striving to deliver that value to our readers is my obsessive focus, and just about anything that doesn’t facilitate it is a distraction.

Be patient with yourself

Building a newsletter-first local media startup from scratch has been a humbling experience, forcing me to grow as a human being and also showing me how limited I am.

When you work in a bigger organization, you have the privilege to choose the kind of work you excel at. As a solo founder, there’s nowhere to hide. You have to do a bit of everything, from product, strategy, marketing, and writing each edition of the newsletter.

At my former workplace, I fancied myself a strategic thinker who could see patterns that others don’t, who would excel at steering a newsroom in the right direction if only given the opportunity and the resources.

But with a small team like ours, the strategy doesn’t account for much if there’s no one to execute it.

I also need to be an operator, and, being slightly introverted, I’m struggling at aspects of the job that require heavy social interaction, from networking at meetups to the kind of reporting that involves immersing yourself in other people’s lives.

As journalist-turned-entrepreneur, I fear that I’ll end up mediocre at both. This low-key anxiety of failing is always at the back of my head. When I feel it overriding, I draw on what Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner called “being intellectually patient with oneself”:

In reality, those who are truly patient endure their existential tensions, take them on, and accept the pain they cause… Those who are patient are patient with their impatience; serenely, they let go of the final “agreement” between who they are and what they aspire to become. They do not know where this serenity, in which they let themselves be, comes from… Those who are patient are serene and therefore free.

Karl Rahner

I’d love to say that I’ve mastered this, but mostly I’m preaching to myself here.

I’m as distracted and impatient as anyone, but I do know this: if your work involves any creative pursuit, it will inevitably reflect your values, your fears, your struggles.

For me, the investment from Substack has been a life-changing gift and a challenge to be a good steward of the talents I have been given, financially and creatively.

Not a day goes by that I do not contemplate whether I’m doing enough to meet my self-imposed goals or what will happen if I miss them. But as the old King James Bible puts it: sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.

By focusing on what matters most and cultivating a state of serene patience with our limitations, we give ourselves a chance to flourish in our life and work.

Growth comes from understanding how limited we are,

Contributors of this story: Alex Enășescu wrote this gem, Oana Filip provided feedback and edited it, Andrei Ungurianu put it all together, George Olaru designed it, Răzvan Onofrei was in charge with the development.

A question from Alex, the author of this story:
How do you deal with the tension between who you are now and aspire to become?

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