I have some good news and some bad news. The good news is: I’m starting a new adventure! The bad news is: You’re… not exactly coming along. And just to rip off the band-aid, I’ll be suspending production of Fording the River Styx immediately.
And yes, I feel particularly bad for the group of people who just subscribed over the weekend. I hardly knew ye, dear readers!
But because I’m me, and I love transparency, and no one has ever known Zack Ford to back away from a detailed explainer, let me tell you about what’s happening in my life before we part! Or if you’d rather skip the prose and jump down to the showtune that sums up some of my feelings, I guess you can do that.
The New Job
Starting next week, I’ll be assuming the position of press secretary for a wonderful organization called Alliance for Justice. If you’ve never heard of AFJ, I’ll hopefully be helping to change that! AFJ primarily advocates around the courts, such as vetting judicial nominees, and with Trump’s massive cadre of new appointees, the work is as important as ever. It also provides resources to help other organizations be better advocates for what they believe in. So I’ll still get to push for the progressive values I personally believe in, like LGBTQ equality and reproductive freedom.
Still, the job will be a very big departure from the reporting I’ve been doing for the past decade. As a journalist, your job is to advocate for your own voice, and your career is dependent upon convincing people to read your own writing. But now I’ll be speaking on behalf of an organization, trying to get other journalists to write about its crucial work. This is going to be a big adjustment for me, and it comes with a whole bunch of new and exciting challenges to take on.
“So wait, you’re really just giving up on your writing?” you might ask. I’m not “giving up,” but yes, I’m setting it aside for now.
Following my values
For the past decade, all I’ve done is write. I began my LGBTQ coverage on my own personal blog while I was still in grad school and then job searching during the 2009 recession. Then I worked for ThinkProgress for eight and a half years until it shut down earlier this month, producing over 5,000 bylines. Many of those posts were very short quick hits, but others weren’t. Who knows how many millions of words I’ve written over that course? And this newsletter has been icing on the cake.
But one of the big motivators for that writing was that I could focus on what I thought was most important. While the final death spiral of ThinkProgress was unpleasant, I was also already disappointed by another change in my work. In February, ThinkProgress decided to take me off the LGBTQ beat — through which I’d cultivated both expertise and reputation — and reassign me to covering the White House. Now don’t get me wrong, the Trump administration is an important topic, and I took seriously my responsibility to help people understand what was playing out — to the praise of my editors. But it wasn’t what I wanted to be doing, and it was far more toxic an experience to boot.
The Trump beat is a very crowded space. It’s all anyone is covering, it seems. And while I may be effective at covering topics in a way to help readers better understand them, I brought no original expertise to the beat. Not only was I pulled away from a topic that has already lost a lot of important coverage, but I was placed on a new topic where there was much less room to make an impact. It felt wholly unrewarding. In fact, that’s why I started this LGBTQ newsletter while I was still at ThinkProgress.
It’s also why, when I started job searching, I told myself that what was most important to me was the difference I can make through my work. It’s not enough just to write; I have to believe in what I’m working toward. And that’s why I pursued jobs like the one I’m taking at AFJ that aligned with the change I want to make in the world, even if it’s through a different form of work.
That’s a thread you can easily see through my strange career journey. From my initial plans to be a music teacher, to my pursuit of social justice education at the university level, to my decade as a political journalist, and now to communications work for an advocacy organization, I’ve always been driven by wanting to make a difference through helping people better understand the world around them. This is a big change, but it’s one that makes sense to me.
About this newsletter
As I deliberated over whether I was willing to step away from my writing for this next adventure, it felt as though I was trying to reconcile an addiction. The fact that such a metaphor even occurred to me made me realize that I’m due for a break.
Writing full-time is such a hustle, especially given how little appreciation it feels like there is for progressive journalism these days. It’s non-stop, but simultaneously ephemeral, and it can very difficult to measure your worth. No matter how many people tell you they value what you’ve written, it still feels like your primary motivation is your own belief in the impact of the stories you pursue. You can never stop marketing yourself. It’s incredibly draining — and that’s how it feels when you’re writing for a reputable site with a guaranteed salary! I have so many peers in queer media who do brilliant work and manage to keep it up through a freelancing hustle. But that’s just not a path I want to go down.
I even explored the extent to which I could turn this newsletter into a profitable venture. I’ve had friends and colleagues alike tell me they think this newsletter has been some of their favorite content I’ve ever generated, which was incredibly encouraging to hear. Plus, I certainly know people who have ambitious and successful newsletter plans of their own.
But it just wasn’t in the cards, and I want to go ahead and show you why. So many people have been so supportive of what I’ve been doing with Fording the River Styx, but while subscription growth has been steady, it just hasn’t come anywhere close to enough that it would be feasible to turn it into a paid model.
(Look at that nice bump when I was laid off the first weekend in September! Y’all are so kind!)
Imagine if all of the current 600-or-so current subscribers agreed to pay $50/year to receive all of the features of this newsletter. That’s still not enough for me to live on in Washington, DC; in fact, it’s far less than what I was even making as an entry-level reporter at ThinkProgress eight years ago — and that comparison doesn’t even factor in benefits, let alone Substack’s cut. Moreover, the reality is that only a fraction of folks would actually agree to pay, so I’d need to triple, quadruple, or quintuple my audience just to make that small amount.
That would mean to survive I’d also have to freelance on top of producing the newsletter as I was already doing. I would literally be working all of the time just to stay afloat. And I have to be honest, even during the past few weeks of funemployment (which should be relaxing), I was even already feeling a bit burnt out some nights putting this newsletter together. I’m glad I’ve had something to work on and keep me engaged, but it was yet another sign that it’s time for a break from writing.
Let me be clear, however, that while this newsletter audience may not have been large enough for me to make a living, it was a quality audience. Daily open rates for Fording the River Styx have consistently been 45-50%, which is double that of national rates and very impressive for any daily newsletter. A lot of the folks who subscribed are movers and shakers in the LGBTQ movement, and it’s amazing to think I might have been helping enhance the work you were doing. Many of you engaged directly, shared posts, promoted the newsletter, and more. It’s meant a lot to me, and I have zero regrets about taking this journey with you.
Thinking about all of that actually helped me decide to pursue this new opportunity. I’ve always thought that I was supposed to be driven to reach the widest audience possible to make the biggest impact on the world. But I don’t think that’s necessarily always true. It’s not about my reach or my ego, but about whether I can help others make a difference in the world too. I feel pretty great about the impact I’ve made, and I really appreciate everyone who has helped support me at every step along the way. Now I can try a new way of making that difference.
If you scrolled down this far, you get rewarded with a showtune. [title of show] is an obscure little self-referential musical about people writing the musical that they’re in, and they have a lovely song in which they declare, “I’d rather be nine people’s favorite thing than a hundred people’s ninth favorite thing.” It sums up how I feel about the career I’ve had so far, and, in particular, the short but exciting journey with this newsletter.
So what now?
So, I’m ending the newsletter today and enjoying the rest of my last week of funemployment before starting the new gig.
But Fording the River Styx won’t entirely disappear. You can still go back and read everything, including my bonus “dive” editions. In fact, I hope you will! Next week is when the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the LGBTQ employment cases, and my explainers will hopefully help you process everything you hear:
The list will continue to exist, so if in the future an opportunity presents itself, I could pick things back up here, or at least use it occasionally. So please don’t unsubscribe or anything!
In fact, I’ll end on an optimistic note. Even though I’m telling you this is the last issue, why not subscribe if you haven’t already? That way you won’t miss my next issue, if and when there ever is one!
I’ll still be active on Twitter and probably tweeting about LGBTQ news, so make sure you follow me there.
I’m so excited about the work I’ll be doing with AFJ, not to mention the ways I’ll be able to learn and grow from this new role. I’m likewise so grateful to everyone who’s been following this little passion project the past few months. Please keep in touch!
And until next time, stay platinum!