‘Closing the chapter’: A conversation with Sarah Day Owen Wiskirchen of Raleigh Convergence

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By Eric Frederick, NC Local Newsletter Editor

Sarah Day Owen WiskirchenRaleigh Convergence was born of Sarah Day Owen Wiskirchen’s curiosity about how people navigate their lives. It’s ending this week with a reluctant but necessary decision about navigating her own.

A Florida native, Owen Wiskirchen came to the Triangle in late 2018 with her husband and baby son from California, where she had been an editor and social media leader with the USA TODAY network. She also packed a vision born years earlier when she was editor of a magazine aimed at readers 25 to 34 in Des Moines, Iowa. She often pondered what people needed to manage their lives better — and what that would look like if it were built from the ground up, without any legacy-media baggage.

In April 2019, she launched Raleigh Convergence — a hyperlocal, newsletter-first media company providing news and information that was meant to be relevant to daily lives, connective, representative, participatory, healthy and actionable. She chose the newsletter platform, she told me, because it’s “a way to start and end a news experience with prioritization, versus the infinite scroll of social media or 24/7 news cycle.” It soon grew to three editions a week.

As editor and publisher, she saw the newsletter as the hub of her endeavor, with a website and other offerings — including a portal and ambassador program for area newcomers called The New Neighbor Project and a platform for community storytellers called Converging Stories — as spokes, all optimized to meet readers’ needs.

Indeed, Raleigh Convergence was exemplary in its reader-informed approach. Owen Wiskirchen knew from Google Analytics and survey feedback, she said, that most of her readers were ages 25-44, many of them parents — so she “tried to publish content that would be relevant for busy people with caregiving responsibilities.” 

Her revenue stream was diverse — subscriptions, advertising, ticketed events, grant money, even a crowdfunding campaign for COVID coverage. She got other means of support as a member of LION Publishers. By any standard, there were many successes.

But then, circumstance. She had envisioned events as a key part of Raleigh Convergence’s connection with the community, and as important revenue producers — but the pandemic happened. As a mom, she had to work in the margins of other, bigger responsibilities. And with a daughter joining the family last December, “the math doesn’t work anymore for me,” she told me.

Her last newsletter will be Thursday, and her last new content will be posted Friday.

I had the privilege of a frank and sometimes bittersweet chat with Owen Wiskirchen this week. Here it is, lightly edited for length, flow and clarity:

What were you doing before Raleigh Convergence?

My career up to this point was legacy media, and I worked pretty intrapreneurially for a long time — I experimented early with augmented reality and virtual reality, trained more than five newsrooms on new skills for journalism, and led a cross-departmental team on a human-centered design project

I was just trying to learn as many skills as I possibly could. I wanted to feel really prepared for this, knowing that this is the direction that I wanted to go.

When I moved here (in 2018), I was working remotely for USA Today. I’d only been here about six months when I launched Raleigh Convergence, so I was still discovering a lot about Raleigh … But I’d been watching Raleigh and the Raleigh news scene for a while before I got here.

Why Raleigh?

Part of it was, I got tired of moving around. My job had taken me from Augusta, Georgia, to Des Moines, Iowa, and then to Palm Springs, California, and I was tired of moving, and I wanted to be someplace where I thought something like this would be successful. But it was also something where I wanted to be long-term with my family. … When we visited here, it was very clear to me: This is it.

You talked about wanting to do this for a long time. What inspired that desire?

I started thinking about it when I was the editor of a magazine in Des Moines (dmJuice.com) that was focused on people ages 25 to 34. So it was really thinking specifically about: How do people in this age group navigate life? And also it was, when I started there, a very print-centric publication — and with my team, we transformed it to be a digital and social vertical. And I thought, OK, people are really gravitating toward this specific brand, but they’re not reading the daily newspaper (the Register). I mean, there are some people who have a news habit who are in their 20s and 30s, who are always going to be newspaper subscribers. But just not seeing that next generation of news readers, and not seeing them gravitate toward the newspaper like I would have liked for them to, started me thinking about creating something that would be really resonant, and really relevant. And then I started thinking: If I really started something from scratch, without all of the challenges of maintaining a legacy product, what would that look like? What types of characteristics could it have that would be healthier for the reader, healthier for the workers? So when I started Raleigh Convergence and developed the mission statement and the values, I wanted it to be something that was forward thinking and would be a healthier type of modern local media.

Talk about the characteristics that make news healthier.

I think, especially working in social media for a while, I got used to looking for ways to get people to click on something, and clickbait always felt a little uncomfortable for me. I do think there is an ethical way to entice clicking on a story by delivering what is promised in the headline, but I question if reader-centered products should require a click to know what is going on. 

As I started going a little bit further down that road, I was like, “OK, how can I make this something that feels ethically right? How can I get people to click because this is something that is going to be valuable for their lives, but it’s not tricking them in any way?”

But then when I thought about taking that a step further, and developing these different types of values, I was thinking about how to make a news organization that was with people and for a community. In some ways Raleigh Convergence has been a cheerleader for the people who live here, and a cheerleader for the community, without being a cheerleader for any specific type of institution. It sort of comes from a place where we all want the community to be better — but how can the community be better for everyone, not just for some people? … It’s a way of saying, we are all in this community together, but (community is) something that has to be worked on. It doesn’t assume an adversarial tone, but it was always meant to inspire action. So even showing people where surveys were, or explaining different processes, was all with the idea that the more people have input, and the more people can say what they want in their community, and the more it sort of demystifies that process, the better it will be, because it will be more reflective. 

In a lot of ways that’s oversimplifying things. But … I’ve tried to be as thoughtful as possible about making things that have been very jargony, and very wonky, much more accessible — especially on a hyperlocal, civic level. I purposely looked to highlight things that were actionable versus news that just said what happened, which can make people feel helpless to change their community. People have a lot of power to change their community, but at times civic engagement is unintentionally or purposely opaque. 

Was the community’s engagement with that vision what you had hoped for?

In many ways it was. I did surveys pretty regularly and did user interviews. And a lot of times what I would find is that — and I’m looking at my Post-It notes right now, because I still have them up — there would be very few people who were necessarily news junkies. Even the most engaged Raleigh Convergence readers — you would think that somebody who’s opening a newsletter regularly would be a news junkie — but a lot of times, besides social media, or somebody who got their news from Trevor Noah, which was a real example, this was pretty much the only news that they got, especially on a hyperlocal level. I think in the ecosystem here, a lot of the news is focused on being Triangle-wide. So I think that, especially for areas like Knightdale, there wasn’t a whole lot of coverage happening in those smaller communities otherwise. 

So I think that the engagement, to some extent, was what I hoped for it to be. I’ve never really been that active on Twitter, for example, because I think that is where the news junkies are. I wanted to be active with Raleigh Convergence on Instagram, because that’s where people who don’t have a news habit are. Along the way, of course, there were a lot of people who already did have a news habit, and were really engaged in the civic process. But there were a lot more people who became more engaged because of Raleigh Convergence, and I think that’s one of the areas where it was successful.

Aside from that, what are you most proud of?

It never got to the large audience that I hoped it would, but for people who were Raleigh Convergence newsletter subscribers especially — they were very engaged. And I think that especially during the pandemic, where everything felt difficult to navigate, I think that through Raleigh Convergence I was able to deliver hyperlocal, very actionable types of content that wasn’t as navigable in other news organizations. Like the weekly COVID numbers — people said that was one of the most helpful things because it presented them in a way where you could check in and you knew where things were going, versus presenting numbers as a static thing. So I think that utility piece, I’m probably the most proud of, because (Raleigh Convergence) has very much been within the life of the pandemic … At the very beginning of 2020, I would have said that I was ramping up for a much different type of news publication.

How much did COVID actually change the journey?

I had always imagined that this would be a newsletter and events media company. I think that events are the most underutilized journalism delivery and engagement opportunity. And so, at the beginning of 2020 I actually said, “2020 is gonna be the year of events” — and that obviously did not happen. I had just found out at the beginning of 2020 that I had gotten a grant from Facebook for a newcomer series (The New Neighbor Project), and that had a heavy events component. I was imagining scavenger hunts and trivia nights — and those ended up being socially distanced and virtual — and meetups with people who were newcomers. And then I had started the storytellers series, and the very first one was in February, and then most of them ended up being virtual … I’ve done a lot of events, starting with the magazine in Des Moines, and a lot of different events in Palm Springs from an energy and water summit to a storytellers series that I started there as well. So I think that If COVID hadn’t happened, that would have been a way that I would have bootstrapped community engagement and community reach. And that just isn’t something you can do as easily with virtual events. 

Anything you’ve learned that you wish you’d known three years ago?

I would launch differently … At the time, I thought I would start with a minimum viable product. Because I think up to that point, the darling of journalism entrepreneurial thought was the Lean Canvas, and starting from there. (But) people get really excited about a big launch. A month and a half after I left my job, I just started with a newsletter and started building from there. And I tested a lot along the way, and I got a lot of feedback. But I probably would have pursued funding to explore (the concept), and then I would have launched after getting some more support. I think it is more difficult to bootstrap something that is general than it is to bootstrap something that is specific. And I also don’t know if you can build a super large audience, unless you have an audience or unless you have the funds to build an audience.

Who or what helped you most?

Definitely, my husband. I just don’t think that you can start anything like this without a supportive partner. … He never told me what I needed to do, but he created the space for me to figure things out on my own …

(But) two kids is a lot different from having one kid. As I had mentioned in the column that I wrote, the math doesn’t work anymore for me. I think it was also in the margins of my life that I was able to add in extra time. You know, it’s not really an option to get up early (and work) if you are already up early with a baby. And I think for a lot of entrepreneurs, you kind of realize where those limits are. 

Regrets?

Man… I really just feel like there are a million different things that I could have tried, but it was always a question of prioritization. I’ve had a lot of people who have said, “Well, if you just do this one thing, then it’ll work out.” And it’s always just been a question of prioritizing what I thought was going to be the most effective way to tackle growing the business next, and I just ran out of runway, and out of time. 

But I don’t have any regrets because I know that I tried my best, and that’s really all you can do. I think journalism tends to be a really risk-averse, experimentation-averse industry, unfortunately. And I thought about a year ago what the worst possible thing could be, and I thought at the time that it was failing — that it was having to close this down — and so I made my peace with that a long time ago. 

But the worst possible thing is actually breaking trust with community. And I think I realized that it was time to end things when I was to that point where I wanted to make sure that I could do right by members, by advertising clients, making sure that everything was covered. And so even though I kind of think — “Oh, should I have just kept going until I really ran out of money?” — that’s not really the responsible way to do it. So yeah, I don’t have any regrets.

What’s next?

That’s a good question. This is, for me … it’s almost like taking a secondary leap. Because it’s the first time that I haven’t had something just lined up, right off the bat, that I’ve gone to. So I’m not really sure. I know I want to be a part of figuring out a sustainable future for journalism. And I’m expecting that, you know, much like this business, and much like prior positions in my career where I wouldn’t have imagined what I would be doing in that next job, I expect I just won’t know necessarily what it is, and I won’t be able to anticipate it. But yeah, I just want to be a part of the solution. It’s just going to be in a different way than I set out to.

Anything else you’d like to say?

Oh, man. I think I have wanted to be really honest about ending things, because we only hear stories of launches and massive, terrible implosions. In 2019 — this was before Substack was a big thing, before LION was the group that it is now — it was just a very different climate. So I think there are going to be more people who launch things that will just sort of fizzle out. 

I felt very strongly about showing up on every “publish” date, and didn’t miss one for three years. But I would say that there are going to be more in-between media organizations that start and sort of fizzle out, and if I need to be the first person who’s failing publicly, or really just closing the chapter in a way that makes sense, that there are other people who feel like … if that is the worst thing that can happen, they too can take that leap.