Exit Interview Mailbag, Part II: Reporting, Newslettering, and...Running for Office?

Welcome to Part II of the Signal Problems Exit Interview Mailbag. Today we’ll focus on non-transit stuff such as the newsletter itself, journalism in general, questions about me, etc. Part I, which was about transit stuff, can be found here.

The next and final edition of Signal Problems will be a sendoff column. Annual paid subscribers will receive a pro-rated refund as of that date.

Now, to your questions.

I'm interested in the business model of an email subscription service like yours and how you were able (or not) to make it profitable? Your good reporting attracted loyal readers and I'm curious what your open rate was on your newsletter? Why did you decide to fold the newsletter and go the full-time journalist-for-a-publication instead of putting all your eggs in the basket of the newsletter you built from scratch? Was it a business decision? Something else? -Sam Steinberger

I understandably got a lot of questions about my decision to shut down the newsletter and take a full-time job, especially for a site where I won’t be covering the subway very often.

The only specific metric I’ll give about the newsletter is the open rate: about 60 percent. I did not make a full-time wage from the newsletter. It’s possible I could have gotten close to one by the end of the year, but I had my doubts, and this obviously didn’t include health insurance.

I still needed to supplement my income with sponsored content work (which I did for the entirety of my time reporting on the subway to make end’s meet). Even before I tried to balance the newsletter with a full-time job, I was regularly pulling 6.5 day weeks between my newsletter/freelance duties and my sponcon work. It’s nice to be your own boss, but it’s not as nice if you’re always both yourself and your own boss. I missed just being myself. I was having fun but also risking burnout.

That being said, the biggest reason I took the job at Jalopnik is because I wanted it. I’ll have more resources to do bigger, more expansive reporting than I could on my own about topics that interest me (here’s an example). Moreover, I enjoy working in diverse editorial environments. Editors make me a much better journalist and writer, something I didn’t have with the newsletter. And I prefer—demand, even—to work with people with very different backgrounds and perspectives. I know it makes my work better, and I hope I can help make theirs better, too.

I suspect in the months to come readers who keep following my work will see quite clearly why I made this decision if they don’t already.

What do you think it takes to have a strong reporting apparatus covering public transit? Reporters' interest and knowledge? Institutional and/or public support? Something else? -Ian Thistle

At the Village Voice, I had an incredibly supportive editor in Neil deMause who embraced my hunger to get into the weeds. As I explained on the Second Ave Sagas podcast, when I told Neil I might have had a story about signal timers, his first question was “what the heck are those?” but his second question was “how much time do you need?” And when I asked for more money so I could focus on this story alone for a couple months—enough to cover about half my rent during the time I worked on the story—he got it for me.

I have a whole notebook filled with stories I wanted to pursue but needed time and money to do. It became increasingly clear to me the local freelance news landscape provided neither, especially with the Voice gone.

With the newsletter, I was very much intentionally trying to do something different than other local transit reporters were. No paper in town would dedicate as much space to MTA history/minutiae as I did, which admittedly has a limited audience. But passionate and loyal readerships, even limited ones, are tremendously undervalued in today’s media landscape largely obsessed with scale.

One of the great tragedies of local reporting in this city is how little hard-core investigative reporting power is directed at the MTA. After close to a year investigating the authority, the New York Times came away with three transformative articles on the agency that completely shifted the public conversation, including Brian Rosenthal’s tour de force on subway construction costs. Every single editor and reporter in the city knows—I hope—there’s fertile ground left on that front. I suspect some combination of budgetary pressures, the need for investigative powers elsewhere in the Trump era, and concern about the clickability of the fruits of that labor combine to largely make such a proposal a non-starter.

But I believe we’re the worse for it. The MTA is the state’s largest authority, employs more than 70,000 people, and spends more than $16 billion a year in operating costs (not to mention the billions spent annually on capital expenditures). There are 19 states with smaller budgets than that. And yet, most newsrooms don’t even have one dedicated MTA reporter. Transit reporters have to split their time between the MTA, roads, bikes, taxis, for-hire vehicles, and so on.

What would it take for a local news organization to dedicate a reporter full-time to the MTA, or sic an investigative team on the agency for more than a one-time special assignment in the wake of a crisis? I can’t say. I don’t work for those places. But I hope someone does it before the next crisis.

Aside from the institutional support required to pay for such reporting, there is something else that is required, something fundamental that reporters and editors alike must share. The best summation of this I have found is from Adam Hochschild’s recent book on the foreigners who went to fight in and cover the Spanish Civil War.

It is listed in the index under “journalism, herd behavior of reporters”:

The news a correspondent reports under such circumstances is greatly influenced by what others are reporting. Every journalist on assignment has had the experience of receiving anxious messages from the home office saying that a rival newspaper or network has reported this or that, and why haven’t we heard anything about it from you? These days such queries come by email or text message; back then they came by telegram. And wherever journalists keep a close eye on what their colleagues are reporting, an Authorized Version of events tends to develop. It takes an usually independent, contrarian spirit to see things differently.

I instantly recognized this as a trap into which I have fallen many times. Hochschild doesn’t condemn reporters for succumbing to this herd mentality, but merely observes it is the natural course of things (no coincidence two of the most thorough debunkings of the “overcrowding” myth of delays came from an editor at my new employer who was a few years ahead of the curve and an investigative team at the New York Times, neither of whom regularly cover the MTA). Adhering to orthodoxy is the path of least resistance for what is ultimately a risk-averse industry.

It’s not just a war zone phenomenon. A colleague of mine once used the term “false hustle” to describe reporters who constantly dash between press conferences organized by politicians or activist groups about which they will surely issue press releases later. When I had the luxury of choosing what I covered, this became my rule of thumb: am I going to cover something because I expect to learn? Or because it’s false hustle?

To be fair, I rarely had that luxury. Nor do other reporters who have constant content demands to satiate. Again, it’s not anyone’s fault. It’s systemic. It’s the new natural course of things.

For my part, the easiest assignments I ever got, and the easiest money I made on the beat, was to write a slightly different version of the same story everyone else was writing. In fact, I don’t know how I could have paid the bills without those stories. But I don’t for a second believe they produced anything of lasting value. Add up all the time I spent on those stories and the money outlets paid for them and I probably could have crossed one or two items off that ideas list.

I do not pretend to know very much about how to be a good journalist, and almost everything I do know is advice someone else has graciously imparted. But the lesson from my time reporting on the MTA I will hold closest is that I will never differentiate myself, or indeed produce anything of value, by following everyone else’s lead. The best reporting is done by asking questions no one else is asking, talking to the people nobody else is talking to, going where nobody else is heading. And that doesn’t happen by following the pack.

How surprised are you at the great reception to Signal Problems from riders, transportation officials and public officials, and what have you learned about the riders of New York City's transit system in the course of your work? -Shaul Picker

I distinctly remember launching Signal Problems with the very concrete goal of getting 1,000 subscribers and solid open rates. I thought, if I was asked to speak to a group and several hundred people showed up, I’d be thrilled, so a similar goal for the newsletter seemed right to me. I am now at many, many multiples of that, with an open rate that has remained consistently high since the first edition. And that was without spending a single cent on marketing, advertising, or really putting any thought into promotion at all. The growth came entirely from you all sharing it with others. I never dared contemplate it would become this.

I created something that people of many walks of life valued, from the very tippie top of the MTA hierarchy to the rank and file, from transit enthusiasts to regular riders who don’t know what the IRT or BMT are. It’s something about which I am still surprised, but immensely proud of. I will think fondly of Signal Problems for the rest of my life.

About the riders themselves, I hesitate to generalize. Subway riders truly do represent an accurate cross-section of New Yorkers in general, a statistic few other American transportation systems can boast. This chart from a City Comptroller report has always stuck with me, both in terms of what it says about subway ridership relative to the city at large, and also what it says about bus ridership, which does not represent the city as a whole:

Readers of Signal Problems, I suspect, are exceptional in their desire to know more about how the transit system works, but I must admit I don’t think many New Yorkers share that sentiment. A lot of times when I went out to do interviews on subway platforms or bus stops for articles, people bitched and moaned about the state of transportation, but almost took pleasure in their degree of ignorance about who runs it or why it often falls short of expectations.

Getting them to that next place, a place of knowledge about why things are the way they are and how to make them better, can be a challenge. It’s perfectly understandable, but our convoluted governance structure makes it hard to get people invested. As Yonah Freemark pointed out in our Q&A, a lot of people still think the mayor controls the subways.

One of my favorite Simpsons lines is when Homer tells Lisa, “the whole reason we have elected officials is so we don’t have to think all the time.” Indeed, there are a lot of Homer Simpsons out there. Most people don’t want to think about transit, how it works, how it doesn’t, and how to fix it. Or, more precisely, they don’t have the time and energy to invest in all that, considering how little they can do personally to improve it.

The whole reason we have elected officials is so we can vote them out if they’re doing a shitty job and replace them with someone who will probably do an equally shitty job but in a slightly different way. Because the MTA’s governance structure is so convoluted, people don’t even know who to vote out. So people complain but otherwise pretty much go on with their lives, chalking it up to one more thing they can’t do anything about.

Does your knowledge of the transit beat ever give you a redpill effect? I mean I hate that term for obvious reasons, yet when I’m out in the world I’m surprised by how many people who are affected by transit on a daily basis can’t be bothered to understand why. How did covering transit change the way you discussed it with people on your immediate social circle? -Jason Stahl

I definitely view cities differently now than I did prior to working on this beat. I notice different things: buses stuck in traffic, poorly-designed bike lanes, intersections where pedestrians spill into the street because there isn’t enough space on the sidewalk, large splotches of unused concrete that could be repurposed. The city, every city, is a different place for me than it was two years ago.

As far as discussing transit with my immediate social circle, I didn’t conscientiously change anything, but as with most things my work seeped into our conversations. Some began to use me as a personal subway concierge. But most did that polite friend thing where they let me rant while they zoned out. On that note, Mrs. Signal Problems deserves the highest Signal Problems honor, the Dog in a Bag Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Putting Up With My Rants.

I’m wondering if you could recommend any good books on the history of the subways, and transit in general in New York. Thanks! -Will Flemer

Here’s an incomplete list of books (and one website) I found invaluable covering NYC transportation:

Specifically NYC:

  • 722 Miles, by Clifton Hood: Probably the best primer on the history of the subway’s construction up through municipal control in the 1950s.

  • NYCsubway.org is not a book but it’s as thorough a resource on the subway as there is.

  • The Power Broker, by Robert Caro: Read the whole thing. Yes, the whole thing. Several times.

  • Fear City, Kim Phillips-Fein: Not exclusively about transportation but you’ll learn a lot about the boom-and-bust cycle of NYC funding and the city’s history in general, which I think is important. Transportation doesn’t operate in isolation.

  • City of Dreams, Tyler Anbinder: Not really about transportation either, but you can’t understand New York without understanding its immigrants, and no book does a better job of that.

  • Politics Across the Hudson, Philip Blotch: the story of the Tappan Zee Bridge repair/replacement efforts. A lot of familiar names/faces/concepts to readers of this newsletter, and an absurdist study into Why We Can’t Have Nice Things.

Books in which you’ll learn about NYC as well as other places:

  • Downtown, Robert Fogelson: densely packed with insight into the trends that shaped the American downtown in the late 19th/early 20th Century.

  • White Flight, Kevin Kruse: This book is about Atlanta, specifically, but it is about America, generally, and you probably cannot understand public transportation in this country without grappling with this subject.

  • Trains, Buses, People, Christof Spieler: More of a reference material but packed with invaluable facts about the country’s transit systems that I find myself using constantly.

What do you like most about the MTA? What's the MTA best at? (No sarcasm allowed) -Jon Weinstein

The former MTA communications director’s dream comes true: he finally gets to make me write something positive about the MTA.

The MTA is an exemplary organization when it comes to disaster response. Few transit agencies in the world can mobilize and restore critical service as quickly and effectively as the MTA has done, whether it’s for 9/11, Sandy, etc. In the event of an unexpected external crisis, I have maximum faith the MTA will handle it about as well as humanly possible.

Also the MTA Arts & Design program rules.

Do you have any thoughts about running for local office? -Irene Bunnell

This is the only question I got that made me laugh out loud.

Campaigning would drive me insane. I hate asking people for money. I am far too grumpy and pessimistic to be a politician. Constituents or journalists would ask me “What are you going to do about [Incredibly Complex Issue X]?” and I would answer, “Honestly, it doesn’t matter who you vote for, none of us can do anything about that, it’s a gross systemic issue there isn’t nearly enough political will to address…” and on and on I would go and I would receive zero votes.

Will the body of historical SP content still be available online? -Max Zinner

Yes, for the time being it will live at substack.signalproblems.com/archive (same place it has always been). I’ve also removed the paywall from all the paid editions, so everything I’ve ever published is now free to read. I have everything backed up as well, and if it ever changes location I will do my best to get the word out.

What will you miss most about Signal Problems? -DJ Bagley

Random strangers emailing me pictures of dogs in bags.

Speaking of, stay tuned for a special parting gift next week…