In this week’s episode we hear from founder of local newsletter network 6AM City Ryan Heafy. He tells us why the network is very close to having a million subscribers across its 24 daily newsletters, about his unconventional route into media – he used to fix Black Hawk helicopters – and how it helped 6AM launch in 16 cities in a year (spoiler: it’s all about operations and scale). If you care about the nuts and bolts of hyper-local newsletter economics this is the interview for you.

In the news roundup the team discuss the bizarre saga of Hollywood Unlocked’s “exclusive” on the death of HRM Queen Elizabeth II (and what that means for online disinformation), Global’s push for European radio pre-eminence, and why LinkedIn is launching its own podcast network.

The full transcript will be live here shortly but for now, here are some highlights:

Ryan’s background

I have a pretty unique background. I started in the Fortune 500 world as a mechanical engineer, Sikorsky Aircraft with Blackhawk helicopters and supply chain quality system – a little non-traditional path to getting to media.

Through some conversations, exploring how to be a better part of my community and meeting my business partner, Ryan Johnston, whose family owned a print media company, we said, “Hey, how can we create a local media platform that really helps to better connect with our community?”

The origins of 6AM City

6AM started in July 2016 as a newsletter-first product. We deliver at six o’clock every morning, all the local need-to-know news and events in the cities we serve.

We eliminate politics, crime and punishment. We’re designed to be kind of like a marketing engine for the cities, curating the best of what’s going on there about how you can become a better, more engaged and involved citizen, whether that means telling you quickly how you can join, boards, nonprofits, participate in charity events, or where to go have a cocktail on a patio in downtown.

It’s more of that lifestyle approach. And then passively educating our readers through the product on how they can best experience their city.

Why they avoid hard news

Investigative journalism is not our area of expertise. So by allowing others who excel in that area to take that on, and by staying away from the homicides and car accidents and that kind of thing, it allows us a larger total addressable market.

We now have Democrats and Republicans, both sides of the political spectrum, in the product. They can’t necessarily even discern where our team lies so we actually measure our staff on how neutral they can be in the content creation. And that keeps us with a larger addressable market, and allows us to open up people’s eyes more effectively on how to be better citizens, and the communities that they live.

Developing a growth strategy

Greenville, South Carolina was our first city and it took us almost two years to go from zero to 50,000 subscribers.

Today, we’ve really honed our craft; we put more funding and resources into growing our audience faster, we’ve identified channels to help expedite that. So in some of our new cities, we might be three months old and at 50,000 subscribers.

We’re seeing a significant increase in audience development and all of our markets – more markets faster, growing audiences faster, revenue on day one. It used to take us six months to get business and now we’re generating revenue on day zero.

Launching in new cities

One of the challenges I think that a lot of legacy media has is that it doesn’t have that playbook together and the operational efficiency around launching. With my engineering mind and going back to our early days, we built literally a playbook from day one on exactly how we scale the business. We have it set up now so we can launch in any city within 60 days.

If we decide that we’re going, we turn on several different pre-launch content strategies, audience development strategies, and the hiring of the staff. We can get staff onboarded and trained now in two weeks editorially, as if they’d been there for two years.

Key story:

Hollywood Unlocked’s insistence on their scoop that Queen Elizabeth II had died provided some much-needed levity this week. But it highlights the glaring lack of process in reporting for sites like these.

  • An LA celebrity site posted a very strange story on Tuesday that said the Queen had died. “Sources close to the Royal Kingdom notified us exclusively that Queen Elizabeth has passed away,” they wrote.
  • CEO Jason Lee doubled down for a few days saying he was never wrong and had ‘receipts’.
  • Why did they do it? “Because we break stories,” said Lee.
  • Buzzfeed reported that there might have been a misunderstanding related to the death of Queens of the Stone Age member Mark Lanegan, who actually died unexpectedly on Tuesday at the age of 57.
  • Hollywood Unlocked finally issued the strangest retraction ever on Friday, explaining why it was everyone else’s fault.
  • The idea of a ‘legitimate’ media outlet getting something like this so wrong was pretty funny, but there is a serious side to it. When real journalists get something wrong they admit it, apologise and move on. The time it took for the retraction and apology suggested this is all about the clicks and making stuff up about the death of an elderly lady for page views is pathetic.
  • But also – the news business is desperately trying to repair a dented reputation and this kind of willful misreporting just does more damage. In a week when the world is being flooded with misinformation about a real war, made-up shit from some fame jockey celebrity CEO is a travesty.

News in brief:

  • Mark Sweney has written a very good potted history of Global for the Guardian, explaining why the owner of LBC (London’s Biggest Coversation!) is poaching talent from the BBC – and what its ambitions are. It’s an in-depth look at how owner Ashley Tabor-King sparked a British radio revolution, striking the first of a series of deals totalling more than £600m that would ultimately create Europe’s biggest commercially funded group. It’s also, as you might expect from that last sentence, a look at how money can buy you influence and a media channel.
  • Related to our guest this week – Press Gazette is reporting that Reach is creating 12 new jobs as part of a plan to launch local email newsletters. The regional news group will get financial and technical backing from Google’s Email Innovation Lab for the project. Cities set to get daily newsletters include Bristol, Liverpool, Manchester and Nottingham. They are saying page views from newsletters increased by 127% from 22.2 million in January 2021 to 52.8 million in December. 
  • LinkedIn is launching its own podcast network, according to Axios. The network will include original podcasts from LinkedIn’s news team, and will start with a slate of 12 shows called “LinkedIn Presents” featuring programming from ‘career influencers’ and industry execs. This is part of a set of tools being released to people including newsletters and live events directly from profiles.

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