Parker Molloy on surviving — and thriving — as an independent journalist
Obsession can be a good thing!
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Hello friends! Welcome to another installment in our series, “8 Questions With …”!
This week we’re chatting with independent journalist Parker Molloy. Parker is a Chicago-based media critic, cultural commentator, and author of newsletter The Present Age, in which she write on communication, media, culture, and politics in a time of hyperconnectedness. I’ve been following her for years and have always found her perspective on the media — and working in the media — fascinating and insightful, so I wanted to learn more about her thought process for covering the media and actually thriving while in it. You can follow her on Twitter here and Instagram here.
ALSO: Tonight at 5 p.m. Eastern time, Parker is joining me for a panel all about launching and growing newsletters! Want to launch one but aren’t sure where to start? Or maybe you’ve launched one but are having trouble growing it? This is the panel for you. Register to join us here: How to start and grow a newsletter.
1. I love your newsletter, The Present Age! Where did you get the idea for it, and can you tell me a little about how you got it off the ground?
Thank you! So, the general idea for the project — I wasn’t sure at the time whether it would be a blog, book, podcast, newsletter, or something else entirely — started taking form in summer 2020. The pandemic was raging, the presidential campaigns were, uh ... also raging, and my take on the world at the time was basically, “Well, this all sucks.”
Remember all those commercials that would be like, “In these unprecedented times …” or put on some sort of emphasis on how “we’re all in this together”? I thought that maybe I could riff on that a little, thinking about how if “we’re all in this together,” we’re sure as hell not acting like it. Plus, the “this” that we were all supposedly together in was not exactly the same. A multimillionaire celebrity spending the early covid months cooped up in a 20,000-square-foot mansion is different from my experience of being stuck in a 1,200-square-foot apartment or that of others who had to be frontline workers, risking it all in those days when we didn’t really even know that much about the virus. These slogans came off less as the inspirational lines companies presented them as, and instead, to me, at least, seemed more like cynical cash-grabs. Like “We’re all in this together. America Runs on Dunkin. Please don’t ask us whether or not employees get sick leave during the pandemic.”
The other notion, that we were living in “unprecedented times,” was more interesting to me, and it’s what guided me in the idea for The Present Age. There are so many lessons to be taken from the past if you want to look for them. During the fall of 2020, I started digging through old newspaper archives to see what parallels were out there from past pandemics. The 1918 flu pandemic was an obvious example, and I found a bunch of old newspaper clippings from the time with headlines like “Flu Hurts Thanksgiving,” about public officials urging people to be careful about holiday gatherings, or “Flu Cops Are Given Orders; Policemen Must Wear Flu Masks,” about the reluctance of police officers to cover their faces. Those were both very 2020-2021 stories if you swap out “flu” with “covid.” The more time went on, the more I realized that we were living in totally normal times — or at least as normal as they’ve ever been.
And that’s when I started thinking about Søren Kierkegaard, whose 1846 pamphlet, “The Present Age: On the Death of Rebellion,” could have just as easily been written in 1918 or 1995 or 2020. Kierkegaard worried a lot about the role of mass media in society. “A revolutionary age is an age of action; ours is the age of advertisement and publicity. Nothing ever happens, but there is immediate publicity about it.” I could go on and on about this, but the idea for my project was to create something that illustrated an understanding of society as being both tied to the present moment and rooted in history. Same as it ever was, essentially.
So that bounced around a bit in my head for a few months. After the presidential election, I was looking forward to taking some time to just unwind after 2.5 years of non-stop work monitoring and writing about political media at Media Matters for America, a progressive media watchdog organization. And then the usually calm post-election period was, well, anything but. Lawsuits, Rudy Giuliani standing on stage looking like he was leaking gravy from his hair, “the Kraken,” QAnon, the Jan. 6 insurrection, and a bunch of other things I’m probably forgetting — having to wade through the way the press covered all of that, especially in the world of right-wing media, took a major toll on my mental and physical health. So I started thinking about how I could turn The Present Age into something real.
My options boiled down to starting something at Patreon, Twitter’s Revue, Facebook’s then-unnamed newsletter tool, or Substack. I ruled Twitter and Facebook out because both of those companies have a big tendency to acquire products only to shut them down rather abruptly (R.I.P. Vine!), and I’ve just never liked the way Patreon looks as a writing platform. That left me with Substack, which, while I had a lot of hang-ups about it (I detailed those on the first post of my newsletter), it made the most sense to me, especially given that platform’s rapid growth at the time.
I quit my job at Media Matters and launched The Present Age on June 7, 2021.
2. Writing a regular newsletter is a ton of effort. What is your process like for generating ideas and keeping a regular cadence?
Oh man, you’re not kidding. I’m definitely doing more work writing this newsletter than I was at Media Matters. I think part of it is that the focus at my old job was somewhat narrow: Pay attention to what’s happening in the world of right-wing media, analyze it, and offer my own insights on it. In starting my own newsletter, I didn’t have, well … any of those constraints. This is both a gift and a curse, to be sure.
I try to break my work down to three parts, which represent the three posts I aim for each week (on occasion I’ll only send two and sometimes I’ll send four in a week). The first is to find something newsy, something people are discussing on Twitter or making headlines in the news that week. I try to make this the most researched (and usually longest) piece of the week.
The second is an interview with someone I find interesting. I usually release those as both podcasts and transcripts on Wednesdays, though I put new episodes of those on hold until the new year.
And then the third piece for the week is usually a relatively short post that ties the first two together.
I think the week of Oct. 11 is a great example of this. On the 11th, I wrote something about the controversial Dave Chappelle Netflix special that had social media on fire for a few days at that point. The big criticism being leveled out there was that some people thought Chappelle’s set was transphobic, and others would roll their eyes and defend him on the grounds that he was speaking unspeakable truths. My slightly more nuanced than average take on the topic seemed to resonate with people on both sides of that issue, which was a relief as I’d prepared for the internet to throw virtual tomatoes at me over it.
Two days later, I published an interview I did with singer/songwriter Nick Lutsko about his music, the attention he’s gotten on Twitter with some of his more comedic songs, and trying to find the line between Nick Lutsko the character (extremely sweaty on camera, has a backstory involving a cast of characters I can’t even begin to start listing, makes jokes) and Nick Lutsko the musician. Was one more authentic than the other? Which one was the “real” him? Are we who we appear to be on the internet? Those sorts of questions. I’m such a huge fan of his work, and that was one of my favorite interviews (up there with the interview I did with Joe Galbo, the man behind the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission’s wonderfully bizarre social media accounts).
And then two days after that, I wrote an essay about my fascination with technology, mixed reality, identity, and a really weird Fox show called “Alter Ego.” The thread between the three is this sort of philosophical “What does it mean to be?” question. Each of the three pieces stand on their own, but together they (hopefully) create a coherent series that others can riff off of either for their own work or just … life, generally. Different weeks mean different questions to think about, and thankfully, there’s no shortage of topics to take on.
3. The question everyone always wants to know about newsletters is: Can you make real money from them? Can they be a reliable source of income?
I’ll just give you my numbers. So, currently, here’s what’s up:
I currently have around 7,800 subscribers. 870 of them are paying subscribers. The little tool inside my Substack account tells me that’s roughly $57,000 per year. Once you subtract out the fees Substack takes (10%, so $5,700), that gets me a little more than $51,000. But that’s an annualized rate as of right now. Had you asked me this question in September, the annualized rate would have been at around $20,000 before fees and taxes and whatnot.
When I started this, my goal was to have 10,000 total subscribers and 1,000 paid subscribers by the end of the year. I missed those self-imposed goals by a lot. And that’s fine. It was all kind of a guess to begin with. My next ambitious goal is to try to get 1,500 paying subscribers by the time I hit the 1 year anniversary of the newsletter. That … also seems like something I’m going to miss, but I’m doing the best I can. 1,500 paying subscribers at the current rate would net me anywhere between $75,000 and $80,000 before taxes and other out-of-pocket expenses like health insurance.
Another thing that I literally just started doing the other week (but haven’t promoted at all) is the ability to “Super Follow” my posts on Twitter. I have a much larger audience on Twitter (somewhere around 247,000 followers), so I wanted to create some sort of Twitter-specific version of the newsletter. I’m still trying to think of fun, different ways to use it, but for the moment, what I’m doing is taking the full articles I send out in the newsletter and condensing them down into Twitter threads (set so that only Super Follows can see them/interact with them). Instead of $6 per month that I charge for the paid version of the newsletter, the Twitter Super Follow subscription is $2.99 per month. Personally, I feel like the newsletter is the much better option and reading experience, but I figured that it wouldn’t hurt to create the Super Follow option for anyone who either doesn’t want to subscribe to the newsletter (I understand that some people just don’t like getting emails, which is totally fair) or just happens to prefer Twitter to emails and blog posts. I don’t recommend becoming a paid subscriber to both, though, because you’d essentially just be buying the same thing (two different versions of the same thing, at least) twice.
4. You focus a lot on writing about the media. How did you develop that as a sort of “beat”? And would you recommend independent journalists have a “beat,” or not?
I’ve been something of a news junkie since I was 7 years old. I used to wake up, go downstairs, turn on the TV, and watch all of the local news broadcasts. Yes, all of them. On a given day I’d catch whatever the local NBC station had on at 6am, click over to ABC at 6:30, watch CBS at 7, Fox at 7:30. Whenever my parents would come downstairs, I’d just rattle off a totally incomprehensible jumble of stories and numbers that I didn’t even understand. It’d be like, “Traffic on the Edens is 17 minutes from such and such street to whatever boulevard, Greg Maddux threw a shutout for the Cubs on 92 pitches, it’s going to be 67 degrees with a low of 50 and partly cloudy, and next week starts the Taste of Chicago!” My poor bleary-eyed parents … They were eventually like, “We need to talk about you getting up and watching so much TV,” and from then on I was supposed to stay in my room until at least 7am.
I was … a lot.
But this made working for Media Matters such a great fit for me. I never stopped caring about the news, the press, media, generally. Newspapers, TV, internet, radio, I absorbed it all. And a lot of the time, I’d share my opinions online. Getting offered a job to basically do what I’d been doing for my entire life for free was perfect. I think part of my obsession with media has to do with its power. Speaking generally (as simplifying things as “the press” or “the media” as though they’re singular entities rather than just a description of the intersection of technology and communication around current events), I’m fascinated by the decision-making processes that go into determining which stories get heard and which ones get buried. These decisions affect every aspect of our lives.
I guess this is a really long way of saying that I think if you’re going to have a “beat” as an independent writer or journalist, it helps if it’s something you’re really passionate about. Some of the most successful Substacks I see are centered around extremely niche topics. What I’ve tried to do is to start broad and narrow my focus a bit more with time, learning from my audience and understanding what matters to me. The great thing about being independent is that you can chart your own course. If you care about knitting or making tiny model ships in bottles or Minor League Baseball or any other just-barely-outside-the-mainstream(-at-least-when-it-comes-to-journalism) topic, there’s no reason not to give it a shot. Maybe an audience exists for what you want to do. Maybe it doesn’t. There’s only one way to find out.
5. Writing as an occupation has been continually devalued over the past few decades, particularly for freelancers and independent journalists, and sometimes rates can feel like a race to the bottom. How do you set value for your work, and what advice would you give to someone thinking through how to value theirs?
If there’s one mistake I made when I was first trying to make it as a freelance writer (back around 2013 or so), it was just having absolutely no clue how much money to ask for. There’d be places that would offer “exposure,” or other places that would throw you like $25 or $50 per piece. That was the worst. I think you’re absolutely right in saying that it feels like a race to the bottom. One one hand, the existence of so many media outlets in all their various forms (websites, newspapers, local and cable TV, podcasts, YouTube channels, etc.) has made it easier than ever to get your foot in the door. And for those same exact reasons, once your foot is in the door, it’s harder than ever to actually make a living doing this.
Honestly, I think the most important thing writers can do when starting out is to just develop strong relationships with other writers and especially with editors. It’s through that, and through some of the online resources you can find out there, that you can get a feel for what different outlets pay. It’s also important to think about how much something would have to pay for it to be worth it for you ahead of time. Is the article you’re pitching a major investigative piece that’s going to eat up a bunch of your time and resources and end up being thousands of words long? Is it a quick 600 word blog post you can write in an afternoon? These are two entirely different beasts. So develop those relationships with other writers, ask around about what various outlets pay for the type of piece you’re planning to write, and if it’s worth it to you at that rate, give it a go.
6. What are the different types of writing/freelance work you do, and what portion of your income do they each make up? (E.g., X% news writing, Y% consulting, Z% copywriting, etc.)
My three main sources of income are the newsletter, freelance articles at other outlets, and speaking (cough, cough, click here to get in touch with my speaking agent, cough, cough). This year was kind of weird in the sense that a lot of places still weren’t having in-person speaking events (and I would be very, very reluctant to accept an offer even if they were because — gestures around at pandemic), and I didn’t put too much energy into pitching other outlets on stories, instead putting my focus on trying to grow the newsletter.
Ideally, I think it’d be great to make 50% of my income through the newsletter, 25% through freelance blog posts (mostly quick-hit opinion pieces), and 25% speaking.
Right now, though, it’s probably more like 80% newsletter, 10% freelancing, and 10% speaking (I’ve made a few thousand dollars doing a couple paid speeches to virtual conferences, which has actually been kind of nice because they get me at somewhat of a discount and I don’t have to travel; win-win for everyone). My freelancing is fairly limited at the moment, mostly just taking on projects editors reach out to me about.
7. Being independent/freelance is a tough business. What advice would you give to someone who is newly independent or at the start of their freelance career?
Try not to get discouraged and don’t take rejection personally. You’re going to get rejections. You’re going to send a lot of emails that don’t even get a response. You can’t take it personally or it’ll drive you mad. I say that as someone who absolutely has gotten discouraged and has taken rejections personally. It’s easier said than done, but if you want to succeed, it’s something you need to work on.
Oh, and keep a spreadsheet of the pitches you send out. Not only will this be important when it comes to actually making sure you get paid, but it can help you keep track of what different editors at different outlets are looking for.
8. Last, for you personally: What’s one or two things you wish you had known at the start of your career?
Don’t sell your personal story to any media outlet for a few hundred dollars. This is probably more of a 2013 problem than a 2021 or 2022 problem, but it remains true. Every once in a while, I think about those old xoJane “It Happened to Me” posts where someone would put their actual name next to headlines like “It Happened to Me: I Farted in My Tattoo Artist’s Face While Getting My First Tattoo” or “It Happened to Me: I Walked 10 Blocks with a Used Menstrual Pad Stuck to My Shoulder” or, well, you get the idea. While I’m glad I never put anything on the internet that embarrassing, there are definitely instances where I wish I would have just said “No thanks.”
Any last words?
I’d really appreciate it if you’d all subscribe to my newsletter. Yeah? Good? Good.
Oh, a few other things …
• I am now offering one-on-one coaching and personal pitch reviews! Coaching sessions can include anything you need help with: writing and/or editing coaching, story development, story editing, social strategy, and anything else. And pitch reviews are exactly what you’d think: Let’s review a pitch of yours together! Book a timeslot for either session here.
• Friend of FWT Kaitlyn Arford last week rounded up basically a million work opportunities in this thread:
• For paid subscribers: There are very few concrete, unbreakable rules in pitching. However … I wrote about the only four mandatory components that need to be in every pitch, regardless of the story. Read them all here.
If you’re not yet a paid subscriber, click here to see options for subscribing to get access to past paid-only posts, including the full archive of recorded Zoom panels; a round up of what a bunch of publications pay freelance writers; the dos and don’ts of writing the perfect pitch; and much more. (Subscribers also get a discount to every paid workshop, plus free access to any paid panel.)
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Okay bye ily!