Covering California

Mike McPhate Quit The New York Times to get Stuck in Your Spam Folder Every Morning, and He Loves It

By Alexander Coates

It was Wednesday, Nov. 29, and tied to the tail of an amused chuckle came Mike McPhate’s state of the state — “I don’t think that’s true here,” McPhate asserted, “I think most Californians really do think of themselves as Californians. Even though it’s a huge state, you identify with the state as a whole. That has a lot to do with, I think, being proud of our role in the nation as an innovative place, and being proud of the landscape … of how beautiful California is.”

McPhate is a Californian by birth and by trade. A navy brat raised in San Juan Capistrano and now residing in Los Osos, he spent 14 months curating and collating the Golden State’s goings-on for the New York Times under the banner “California Today.” “The New York Times was an amazing place, it’s an amazing institution,” opined McPhate but, “Newsletters at old-guard media companies have been seen traditionally as vehicles for driving subscriptions to the main news product or promoting their own internal content. I feel that to do a successful newsletter you need that independence, where you’re not beholden to push anyone’s content.”

And so, he left.

“I split about three weeks ago to start this new thing.” It’s a lot like the old thing, but it hasn’t been easy. McPhate and editor Andrew Zahler pressed send on the inaugural edition of their new email newsletter “The Golden Stater” on Monday, Nov. 27 and were almost immediately served with a cease and desist letter. “It’s extremely disheartening,” admits McPhate. An entity, whose identity McPhate has chosen not to reveal, has staked claim to the Golden Stater vein.

“I really like the name. I don’t want to change it and I feel backed into a corner,” McPhate explained, “but I’m trying to be realistic about it and the smartest path is just to change the name. Ideally, we’ll come up with something we like even better.” Discussions with three separate trademark attorneys have convinced McPhate that, though the claimant’s case appeared weak, the cost of engaging in legal action is prohibitive for he and Zahler’s fledgling endeavor.

UPDATE – As of Monday Dec. 11, McPhate and Zahler’s newsletter is produced under the name “California Sun.”

Such an immediate hurdle was an object lesson in why the “lot of journalists [who] secretly fantasize about doing this kind of thing,” confine the aspiration to fantasy. “It’s painful, but it’s good that it’s happening now instead of later on,” rationalizes McPhate. “I don’t think anyone’s attached to the name in any meaningful way … I don’t think it’s going to affect reader loyalty.”

And he’s probably — hopefully — right.

Mike McPhate has some grand and utopian ideas about what the newsletter can be and what it can achieve. “It’s hard to wrap your arms around the cacophony of news out there. I think a lot of people just feel overwhelmed. That’s the problem I’m trying to fix with this newsletter,” McPhate explains, “there’s a demand for trusted guides to … the stuff out there that’s flying by them on their computer screens.” And admirably, McPhate is trying to make his readers’ lives better, rather than merely more convenient.

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“I want to give you the important stuff, but I want to delight you as much as I can,” says McPhate, the smile is audible in his voice, “I always try to include a handful of items in the news that I think are just delightful or inspiring.”

Inherent in McPhate’s words are an indictment of the glut of information so eagerly, and often ignorantly, ingested by modern consumers, and a sincere concern for others’ well-being. The raw news-scape is a geography fraught with ulterior motives, grown fat on fluff and frightening spectacle, and McPhate positions himself squarely within it to condense and curate for Californians the information of importance to their communities.

“It’s exhausting,” confides McPhate, everyday, “the major newspapers in all the major cities … I look at probably 40 news sites, which are focusing on news throughout the state, then I’m also looking at trending news … reddit … CrowdTangle … Twitter … social media … everybody else’s newsletters … It’s an arduous process.”

The swathe cut by McPhate’s foraging is wide but, “I’m just one person,” affirms McPhate and, “I only go for established news outlets, and if I do grab something from somewhere I’ve never heard of then I will do some vetting to make sure its legit. But I do tend to stick to places which have that capital of reliability built up over time because it’s the only way you can really know if they’re reliable or not.”

“It’s gotta be current. It’s gotta be proximate. It’s gotta be surprising or delightful. It needs to affect people,” emphasizes McPhate. “I have one original item in the newsletter everyday … what I don’t want to do is write the twelfth take on the same story. Part of the reason I have no objection to aggregating is that I just don’t think readers care all that much that this or that thing was written by me. They’re perfectly happy to get it from The Mercury News or the Los Angeles Times or some other place, and if they’ve done a competent job — and they always do — why not just link to them?”

But, says McPhate, ideally “you should be able to read the newsletter without clicking on anything and get a pretty good gist. I’m relying on the time-tested strategies of writing good copy that are employed across journalism. Succinct, engaging, short copy.”

McPhate envisions the newsletter as more than just an aggregator though, and the thousands who have already signed up to receive The Golden Stater are a bolster to his confidence and ambition. “The working vision I have for it would be to do additional regional versions of the newsletter. There’s no reason why you couldn’t do a really fantastic San Diego version of what I’m doing now, or one that’s focused on the far north or on Fresno. There’s definitely an opportunity to do something like that, whether it’s me or somebody else, I feel like it’s something that somebody should be doing.”

The email newsletter may do for written journalism what podcasts are doing for the medium of radio. “There’s kind of a natural marriage between newsletters and podcasts,” offers McPhate, and with “half as many journalists here in California as there were fifteen years ago” newsletters like McPhate and Zahler’s may be part of a catalyst for a reinvigoration of the field.

If, that is, they can make some money at it. “I’m not good on that question,” shies McPhate, “I’m trying to get smart people to tell me what the business model should look like, but I’m picking up on a few themes.”

Subscription. Advertisement. Donation. “You can ask people to pay a little bit, which I’m not averse to. I could potentially, if I get a big enough audience and people have come to rely on it and value it and are loyal to it, see them being comfortable chipping in ten bucks a year and that would make it profitable,” offers McPhate optimistically. “Other people are relying on ads. I’m not sure how I feel about that,” and for McPhate even the words feel a little cumbersome, “It’s a lot more work doing the sales and obviously people don’t like seeing ads in their newsletter, so it’d be nice to not have to do that. Then there’s the donation model, which I’m interested in as well. So, [news organizations] like Voice of San Diego, and Voice of OC and this place What The Fuck Just Happened Today? are relying on donations.”

Profitability isn’t the only constraint on the medium. File size limitations, load times for users with poor connections, and automated clipping by email clients collude with the short attention spans, demanding schedules and shifting interests of readers to create a formidable challenge to success. Assuming, of course, McPhate manages to make it to the inbox, “I think my newsletter is hitting a lot of people’s spam folders, I keep hearing that.” And I could hear the disappointment and frustration in his voice when I informed him that that morning’s newsletter had indeed required resurrecting from my spam folder. But that’s mostly a short-lived problem as people tend to go looking for something they’ve asked for.

McPhate’s marketing for the newsletter has been grassroots thus far, “It’s been limited to asking friends and family to promote it, posting it on Twitter, posting it on Facebook, posting it on LinkedIn. I am concerned that I’m not getting exposed to a broader audience. My hope is to, after doing it for a few weeks, try and do some more aggressive marketing — probably on Facebook, because everyone is on Facebook. Other than that, I’m going to be asking my readers to share the newsletter as much as possible.”

Despite the warm reception from friends, family, colleagues — and total strangers — McPhate exudes the telling fragility of a man who’s taken a leap of faith and is still falling. “I would just like more people to know that it exists,” says McPhate. “I want to make people’s lives easier, better.” If you give it a try, you might find it does just that.

At the top – Photo courtesy of Mike McPhate.

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