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The Food Section
Hello! Who are you and what newsletter did you start?
Hi! I’m Hanna Raskin, a food journalist and restaurant critic based in Charleston, South Carolina. I launched The Food Section on Sept. 15, 2021 with the support of a Substack Local grant, which persuaded me to give up my longtime job at The Post and Courier and cover food and drink across the American South.
My goal from the start was to take the kind of original and independent food journalism upon which my readers in Charleston relied and deliver it to eaters across the region.
How did you launch it and what did you do to get the first 100 subscribers?
I quit my job on July 4, 2021 and embarked on a three-week train trip across my new coverage area, hosting meet-and-greets in the biggest cities I visited. The whistlestop tour served multiple purposes: It allowed me to get to know my new beat, to survey potential readers about what they’d like to see in the newsletter, and to build up excitement for the launch via Instagram.
Assuming you mean paid subscribers here. I crossed the three-digit mark on Sept. 17, 2021, two days after launch, with 137 paying subscribers. Not counting my immediate family, most of those subscribers were fellow food journalists and other professional contacts: I served as president of the Association of Food Journalists, so my network’s pretty robust.
What does your process for creating the content look like?
“Creating the content” is the most dystopian phrase I’ve heard today. But I haven’t had lunch yet.
I practice old-school journalism, which means I leave my desk, go to where the story’s unfolding–which could be an isolated mountain town in Arkansas or a South Carolina island with no bridge to the mainland–and talk to the people at the center of it. Then I return to The Food Section’s newsroom (aka my home office) for follow-up reporting and fact checking. Once I write a first draft, I send it to my editor, who always finds ways I can make a story better.
And when all that’s done, I do it again. I publish a longform piece every Monday, along with a set of shorter columns on Wednesdays.
As I keep reminding folks on my email list who haven’t yet paid for a subscription, none of the above is cheap. But I think it’s well worth it to cover Southern food culture objectively and comprehensively.
What tools are you using to create, send, and grow the newsletter?
Since Substack offered me grant money to get started on its platform, that’s where the newsletter lives for now–which means I’m pretty much stuck with the tools available in that ecosystem. I’d love to implement a referral program, for instance, but that’s not an option yet.
What have you tried to monetize the newsletter and how well did it work?
My entire revenue strategy pivots on the paywall. In part, that’s because Substack restricted its grant recipients to subscription proceeds, but it’s also because it’s hard to square advertising with my newsletter’s ethical principles, at least while I’m still a one-person operation.
I’ve experimented with a few side products: I publish a print edition of the newsletter each quarter, and offer branded merch. But those sales represent a fraction of my overall revenue.
Because rigorous journalism costs money, and because I believe The Food Section’s community is stronger when readers are invested in it, I’m adamant about not giving anything away.
To that end, earlier this year, I announced a plan to randomly cull 10 percent of the emails on my free list. That was by far the most successful thing I’ve done since launch, at least from a revenue standpoint: My paid subscriptions surged as a result.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain subscribers?
The Substack recommendations function is great for accumulating non-paying readers, but lots of those folks are vegans in New Zealand who have no intention of paying for an exit-by-exit eating guide to Interstate 95. The only way to attract and retain paying subscribers is to publish top-notch reporting that readers can’t find anywhere else, and to charge for it.
In terms of getting word out about the newsletter, I’ve had no luck with paid ads on public radio or charitable collaborations with pet rescue programs (even though reader surveys show my paying subscribers are inordinately likely to give time or money to animal shelters. Beats me why.) I’ve had limited success with story reprints in legacy publications, such as Smithsonian Magazine online and alt-weeklies in North Carolina. And appearing on lists of awards finalists has helped some: The newsletter is now up for awards given by the International Association of Culinary Professionals, the Online News Association, and the LION Publishers.
But nothing is better than Twitter for alerting potential readers to the newsletter and its work.
How are you doing today and what are your plans for the future?
I’m just short of the paid subscriber goal I hoped to reach by Sept. 15, 2022, when my Substack grant expires. I needed 680 paying subscribers to make the newsletter fully sustainable, and I’m at 578. There are 4,153 unpaid readers on my free list, but again, my analysis of the data shows that people either pay in the first 48 hours or never convert, so that stat is pretty meaningless to me.
Also from the stats department: My open rate averages about 75 percent, but it helps that the folks on the receiving end are paying for what I send. When I email the free list, my average open rate is closer to 60 percent.
In any case, I’m sticking with it. My big plan for the next year is to monthly publish one reported story from a freelance contributor, which should broaden The Food Section’s scope and perspective. I’m also seeking sponsors in conjunction with that effort, which is exciting (read: challenging.) The first story in that series will appear in September.
What’s one piece of advice you’d like to share with someone who wants to get started or is just starting out?
Newslettering can get very lonely. It’s important to cultivate a network of independent creators: I’m really glad I enrolled in the Entrepreneurial Journalism Creators Program at CUNY’s Newmark School of Journalism, conducted entirely online.