Raleigh Convergence ramps up memberships 2 years after launching local newsletter


By Joe LananeLMA Contributor

Newsletters continue to gain popularity among publishers and readers alike, although very few local news outlets adopt an email-first approach like Raleigh Convergence.

Launched in spring 2019, Raleigh Convergence delivers to local residential inboxes each Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. Much of the hyperlocal content helps Raleigh residents join the community engagement process rather than report on final outcomes.

“After working in journalism for what felt like a long time, there were things about the industry and how people connected with news that I wanted to improve,” said Editor/Publisher Sarah Day Owen Wiskirchen, who spent 10-plus years mostly as an editor before starting Raleigh Convergence. “I wanted to build something different that served the community.”

Wiskirchen

Owen Wiskirchen has gained thousands of subscribers in two years, leveraging that audience to start a membership program in mid-January. After converting only 2% of subscribers into paid signups so far, Owen Wiskirchen is increasing the stakes by setting an organizational goal of converting 10% of subscribers into members. She’s hoping fresh initiatives and her empathetic approach to community-level coverage will help draw readers who want to to support the newsletter.

A reader-centered approach

In a late March message to readers, Owen Wiskirchen announced pending changes to the Raleigh Convergence main product, including newsletter design changes and new weekly content series that focuses on locally grown ideas. She followed up a few days later by announcing a new initiative dubbed Converging Topics, a bimonthly focus on a single subject of local importance or interest.

Climate change is the first Converging Topic that Raleigh-area residents will tackle. Here is the every-other-month process:

  • Introduce local issue/theme
  • Seek reader feedback and questions on the topic
  • Help readers better understand local data and actionable information
  • Host curated conversations about the topic

“The whole point is not for Raleigh Convergence to be a newsletter/events company but for us to have a mission of helping people become more engaged, informed residents,” she said. “This is a way to dive deeper and have the community really drive that conversation.”

The idea was sparked by a series of reader surveys and 1-on-1 Zoom interviews conducted by Owen Wiskirchen, who targeted longtime subscribers and frequent Raleigh Convergence readers as part of the process. Through that feedback, she confirmed the passion that local readers have for the newsletter format (as long as the stories aren’t too long).

“Newsletter subscribers find a lot of value in a digestible, consumable newsletter that serves as an overview but is also useful in that you can still learn more,” she said. “A lot of them felt they knew me better because I land in their inbox and I had gained their trust — something that legacy news organizations always talked about having issues with.”

She also learned her most-passionate readers would be receptive to podcasts, but they are turned off by so-called “exclusive” offers, so she created a week-in-review audio series for paid supporters. The private podcast feed is delivered to members of all four tiers, which range from $5 to $25 monthly as well as a one-time “Publisher’s Club Founding Member” level for anyone who contributes $500.

“So that way we’re not siphoning off content for free readers,” Owen Wiskirchen said. “That’s how I thread the line of wanting to keep content and local journalism free all while adding a premium layer.”

Other revenue streams

Before shifting to a membership strategy, Raleigh Convergence received a Facebook Journalism Project grant, which Owen Wiskirchen used to launch the New Neighbor Project, a newcomers guide to Raleigh. She also launched a live storytelling series, Converging Stories, which sustained through the pandemic with virtual events. Additional events are scheduled in 2021.

In addition, Owen Wiskirchen runs her own consulting firm, Minerva Media Co., helping small business clients better tell their stories. Minerva Media also hosts workshops and webinars about event hosting, content strategy and social media best practices.

After reinvesting most of the money made back into the operation, the savings is starting to pay off.

“Now we have a contract employee who is helping launch corporate memberships,” she said. “Freelancers also help with content on a strategic basis, and they aren’t necessarily traditional journalists.”

That includes photographers or journalists who don’t have “traditional” newspaper backgrounds, which resulted in bylines more reflective of the Raleigh area community and working with more creators of color.

“We really want [our] community to see themselves reflected in the content creators we work with,” she said.