#005 - Data journalist Walt Hickey's 3 commandments: write every day, deliver via email, charge

Listen to episode 5 of The Substack Podcast now

It’s hard to get 20,000 people to sign up for your email list, but Walt Hickey has done it with his daily newsletter Numlock, which tells the news by numbers. When I asked him how, he kept coming back to three big ideas:

1. Write every day

“If you want to get good at something, you have to do it every day.” It’s easy to nod along in agreement, but Walt takes this principle to the extreme. For example, he doesn’t like doing articles that require long research periods because he wants to be able to write (and publish) one new thing every day.

2. Deliver via email

You don’t really own the relationship with your Twitter followers or Facebook fans. The platforms do. Every time you tweet, a tiny portion of your followers might see it. Email, however, is a direct ticket to someone’s routine. No single company has a big enough monopoly on email to be able to exert too much a controlling influence on it. It’s the most stable place to build a business for the long term.

3. Charge

Becoming an independent writer has a chicken-and-egg problem: until your writing can pay the bills, you can’t focus on it full-time, but if you’re not focused on it full-time, it’s hard to get to the point where it can pay your bills. Ads don’t work unless you’re at a giant scale, and even then it creates a distraction that pulls your attention away from serving your audience and towards serving the advertisers. It might work for a big media company with an ad sales department, but it’s tough to make it work as an independent writer. That’s why Walt recommends charging your readers for full access your writing.

I had a great time talking to Walt. It was an especially exciting day, because it was the day he launched paid subscriptions for his newsletter on Substack.

I hope you enjoy listening to it!


Listen to episode 5 of The Substack Podcast now