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I answer your questions about journalism and Substack
Tell us something we don’t know about journalism.
A lot of stories don’t get written! This is more true of investigative journalism than beat journalism. When you’re on a regular beat, you know ahead of time what’s going to be news — a press conference, a school board meeting, a legislative hearing, etc. But when you do investigative journalism, you can do a lot of reporting and digging around that never results in a story. It might be because a source misled you, exaggerated, or misunderstood what was happening. Sometimes, there’s definitely a story there, but you just can’t get enough corroboration to publish. This happened on a piece I was working on earlier this year. I spent a few weeks interviewing sources, but not enough of them were willing to go on the record for me to be comfortable publishing. This is one of the more frustrating things about the current lightning fast news cycle and the demand for a constant stream of content. Good investigative journalism requires the patience — your own and that of your employer — to follow up leads that may not ultimately pan out.
How do you find stories?
This is something that’s changed over the years. When I first got started in journalism, I’d look for stories by looking through legal databases, or reading local news to find stories in which I thought there might be more going on than what had been reported. For example, I had (and still have) a Google alert for terms like “drug raid” and “wrong house.” Local coverage tends to be pretty deferential to police, so I’d then look through those stories for red flags. Did the police find any drugs? Did they find what they expected to find? Did the suspect have a prior record? Did they claim the police got the wrong home? This is actually how I found the story that started my career. I’d been researching drug raids and found a front-page New York Times story by longtime crime reporter Fox Butterfield about a drug raid in Mississippi in which a cop had been shot and killed. Butterfield included the raid as part of a larger story about how the drug trade was wrecking parts of the rural south, and the police account of the raid fit that narrative. But when I read his account of the raid, it didn’t make sense. The man who was raided, Cory Maye, had no prior record. He had only a single joint in the house. Why would he knowingly kill a cop? So I called Maye’s attorney, and then the court clerk. I got copies of the search warrants. And the story unfolded from there.
These days, most of my stories come from leads and tips people send me. So it’s mostly about figuring out which leads are worth following up. I’ve found that tips from public defenders almost always check out. They see a lot of shit, and they typically don’t reach out to a journalist unless they’ve seen something really bad. Tips from friends or family members are iffier. It’s not that they never check out, but friends and relatives obviously have an interest in advocating for their loved one, and that can color their version of what happened.
Sometimes someone will lead you to a story unintentionally. I was just talking about this at a conference last week — call it the “fish don’t know that it’s wet” problem. I’ve written several stories in recent years that came about during a casual conversation in which someone who works in the criminal justice system just casually mentioned some routine thing that happens in their job that to an outsider like me immediately registered as absolutely bonkers. They didn’t know it was bonkers, because it happens all the time. It might be something like police officers regularly serving on grand juries. Or judges merely signing their name to a prosecution brief and issuing that brief as their ruling, with the exact same page numbers, headings, and typos. Or prosecutors paying eyewitnesses and never disclosing those payments to the defense.
So far, you haven’t paywalled any of your posts. Do you plan to do so?
I had originally planned to paywall some stuff, or at least give subscribers a preview for a few days. But shortly after I launched, I had a call with the folks at Substack, and they recommended just keeping everything available for free, at least for now. Their feeling was that my paid subscribers aren’t in it for exclusive content, they’re in it because they support and believe in the work I do. That made sense to me (or at least I’d really like it to be true!). So far, that’s proven to be correct.
You’ve had the Substack up for about a year now. How’s it going?
So far —pretty good!
I do miss the platform and prestige of working for a major journalism institution. At the Post, my work got instant amplification, and sources were quick to return my calls. I’m also someone who benefits from having four or five sets of eyes look at my work before it’s published.
But working for yourself has lots of advantages, too. I can take the time go get a story right. I can take the space to get a story right. I publish when I want to, and I don’t need to wait for approval before taking on a new project.
So far, my brilliant wife has helped me edit long pieces. I know some of my posts do occasionally come with some typos. Sorry! And those are my fault, not hers! I do still plan to hire a regular editor. But I need to get my subscriber revenue up a bit before I can take that on.
As for all of that, within the first few months of launching, I had enough paid subscribers to recoup about 80 precent of my Washington Post salary. That was extremely gratifying. Things did slow down after that, though — as expected. Between unsubscribes and new subscriptions, I was averaging a net gain of 5-10 new subscriptions each month.
I have hit a few snags over the last couple weeks. My one-year anniversary was October 1, so that’s when all the annual subscriptions renewed. I expected to receive about 60-70 percent of my annual income last week. The first snag was that the big infusion of cash apparently set off some red flags at Stripe, the company that processes payments for Substack. So Stripe sent me a strange email asking me to prove that I have enough cash on hand to handle inventory and fulfill customer orders.
That’s a difficult thing to prove when you don’t have any inventory, and you have no orders to fill. When I told Stripe this, they told me that aver an internal evaluation, they determined that my “business” is an “elevated risk,” and therefore they’d be keeping a portion of my revenue in reserve. That’s absurd, of course. I have no overhead, no staff, no inventory. I just write stuff, and people pay me because they support my work. There’s no risk!
Thankfully, Substack intervened, persuaded Stripe to remove that designation, and the funds were released. So gratitude to the Substack crew for taking quick action.
The other snag I didn’t expect was credit card issues. When the annual renewals came up, I lost about 10 percent of my subscribers because of expired cards, canceled cards, or cards that were declined for various other reasons. These aren’t people who wanted to unsubscribe, but once a card is declined after a few tries, it appears that they’re automatically unsubscribed.
All of that said, it’s been a great experience overall. I’m really proud of the work I’ve done here over the last year. Not to be too cryptic, but I also received an email over the weekend about a really gratifying development in one of the stories I’ve covered here. I’ll share the details as soon as I’m able.
Have a question for me? Email me and I’ll answer it in the next Reader Mail post.