Five Questions With Local Newsletter Author Nick Bastone
I love me a good newsletter, especially one that lets us all keep up with local news in a succinct and actionable way. So when The SF Minute started, I was really excited and it’s been a fun collection of serious and not-so-serious SF stories, links and weekend events calendars. I recently had the chance to ask Five Questions of Nick Bastone, its founder and main author. Here they are!
Hunter Walk: Ok, I read SF Minute every weekday. While the title itself is pretty descriptive on its own, how do you explain the newsletter to people and how’d it get started?
Nick Bastone: Of course. And first off, thanks so much for having me here!
The SF Minute is a San Francisco-based newsletter that highlights the top local stories of the day. Basically, every Monday through Friday, I read through all the local publications and summarize the news that I think is the most interesting and important. The result is an email that takes (get this!) only a minute or two to read.
I started The SF Minute earlier this year sort of for selfish reasons. I wanted to learn more about what was happening in San Francisco and (although we have some good publications here) I wasn’t satisfied with any particular product that brought the news together in a simple way. So, I thought I’d give it a try.
HW: You started your career at Square and Faire, before becoming a tech reporter. Why’d you leave tech reporting (for now)?!? Tech reporters with actual startup company experience are exactly what we need!!!
NB: Good question!
Having worked in tech, I do think it helped me as a reporter in some ways, like having good instincts on which stories to chase and being comfortable talking with sources from the start. But business experience wasn’t everything. At The Information, for instance, I covered Google and a huge part of that beat was reporting on all the antitrust cases the company faced. Working my tech jobs — which were mostly in sales and operations — didn’t necessarily prepare me to report antitrust law or know which DC lobbying groups I should be talking to.
As with most jobs, I think a big key to being a good reporter is tied to passion and grit and being willing to go the “extra mile” (as cheesy as that sounds). And personally, as the pandemic wore on, I found myself becoming less interested in what was happening inside Google and more interested in what was happening outside my window (aka San Francisco).
Also, fun fact, between working at Square and Faire I actually helped start a local publication on the Peninsula called The Six Fifty. It was my first “real” reporting gig, and ever since, I’ve been fascinated by the local news industry and have had the itch to get back in.
HW: My wife and I both moved out here in the mid 90s so we have a few decades of SF under our respective belts, and I gotta say, it *is* pretty depressing at the moment due to the city’s ongoing struggle with what it wants to be and political impotence. How do you think about where SF Minute fits into the zeitgeist — it seems like you are interested in moving people to action in small community-oriented ways, like the trash cleanup efforts.
NB: Early on with the newsletter, I took a pretty firm stance on the trash situation in San Francisco and was comfortable saying, “This place is a mess. We need to clean it up!” I figured if anyone was upset with me advocating for cleaner sidewalks, I’m okay with that.
But trash cleanup is sort of the one thing I’m outspoken about. Other topics I really try to play it neutral, present both sides, and stick to the facts, like any good reporter should. It’s so easy in local news to inject your opinion because you actually live here and you’re encountering the same issues that you’re writing about. But again, I really think it’s best that I stay out of it.
That said, a big part of why I started The SF Minute was to inspire positive change across the city. I don’t necessarily know what that change will be or who it will come from, but my thesis is that if I can present the news in an easy, interesting way and get more people to actually learn about what’s happening here, good things will follow.
HW: In building your readership and business, what’s one thing that’s been more difficult than you expected?
NB: It’s strange. Early on I was worried that people wouldn’t actually like the newsletter or they wouldn’t find it useful. But almost from the beginning, it resonated with people, and (since your readers will understand this, I’ll just say it) I think the “product-market fit” has been there from the start. I’ve had so many people go out of their way to tell me they “love” The SF Minute, and that’s the coolest feeling.
But even while creating something people love, user growth has been slower than I expected. In my head, I thought, “No problem, in a year I’ll have 20,000 subscribers.” And that’s just not the case. My email list right now is just shy of 3,000.
Part of that is starting from scratch. I had zero subscribers at the beginning of 2021, and I don’t necessarily have a huge Twitter following or online presence to drive a ton of growth. And I think part of it is also tied to not taking huge swings on the editorial side. I haven’t really broken that major story that then becomes the talk of the town. I’ve mostly been sticking to my news-roundup approach and growing steadily every week. It just takes time, like a lot of other creative ideas or businesses out there. And I have to constantly remind myself to be patient.
HW: Are there examples of “SF Minute” in other cities that you were inspired by or sought to emulate? Any 2022 plans to share?
NB: Newsletters are hot across the media landscape and local news is no different. Earlier this year, Axios threw its hat into the local news market and took the newsletter approach. There’s another company called 6 AM City that started publishing newsletters for second and third-tier cities in the southeast (think Raleigh, Asheville, and Nashville), and after raising $5 million recently, they’ve been expanding fast across the country. There’s also Andrew Wilkinson’s team up in Canada called OMG that has its own family of local newsletters.
Each company has its own style and voice, but the idea is the same. Again, I think it comes down to simplicity. It’s hard to get people to dedicate a lot of their time to reading local news, so it’s helpful to start with something that feels manageable (and enjoyable!), like a newsletter.
As for me, I’ll see in 2022 if I can turn The SF Minute into an actual business that’s somewhat sustainable. My wife has been supporting me on this journey, but I’ll need to pitch in financially at some point. That might take the form of advertisements on the newsletter or introducing a paid membership model, or both.
But I’m hopeful. Another thesis I had when I started the newsletter was that while a lot of people were leaving San Francisco during the pandemic, the people who stayed had a sense of loyalty about it. They wanted to learn more about what was happening in the city and why that was the case. I still believe that’s true, and I think The SF Minute is in a really good spot to help serve those people who want to make San Francisco their home.
Thanks Nick! Hope everyone signs up for The SF Minute, a free weekday newsletter about SF.