There’s a new political publication in town led by a couple of veteran reporters.
The Arizona Agenda is co-founded by two Arizona Capitol Times alumni, Hank Stephenson and Rachel Leingang, and within its first week already broke a thrilling story about the Arizona audit focusing on a woman whose life fell to ruins after recanting conspiracy theories she once pushed. Arizona Agenda is an online newsletter published on Substack, a platform that helps writers turn subscribers into paying customers.
The two prominent award-winning local journalists sat down with Capitol Times to discuss their new venture, why people should read it and what they hope to gain from it overall.
Stephenson and Leingang have a great rapport and balance out each other’s strengths. He called her the most “forceful editor” he’s ever worked with, and she wore it with a badge of honor knowing it to be true.
“I’m extremely demanding. I do get that a lot,” she said with a smirk.
It took many ideas before settling on the name “Arizona Agenda.” Leingang credited Stephenson for coming up with the name. He said he looked through every “a” word in the dictionary before it came together – after they had vetoed roughly 500 other ideas.
What they are doing took guts and was a huge risk, they both admit, but said it was worth jumping into it together.
Where do you think local news is lacking and how can you capitalize on that?
RL: I don’t want to say local news is necessarily lacking. I think just in general, the size of newsrooms plays a strong role in what’s reported and it often means that the things that are reported – especially on politics – are surface level or highly speculative, and they focus more on the political futures of the people who are putting forth policies or winners and losers. We want to go deeper than that and we have more time than others do … I don’t think this is a purposeful lacking on the part of any local journalists, more just this continues to contract because of giant corporations that care more about a bottom line than a local community.
What made you look at one another and think: “This is the person I want to get into business with?”
HS: I probably wouldn’t have done this with anyone else because Rachel is a workhorse. She has a good eye for things, which is often hard to find in journalism – somebody who can see the actually interesting points in a bigger story. And Rachel can work with me. I’m not an easy person to work with. I don’t know who else could put up with me, so that was a big part of it.
RL: We haven’t worked together in probably, what like five years? But even when we weren’t working together, we would often send each other drafts of stories or be like “Oh … did you see this?” We kind of think the same way about big picture stories and our tones kind of go together pretty well, even though the things that Hank likes, I don’t necessarily like, but I get why he wants to do them, and vice versa.
HS: Yeah, the interesting thing is, actually, we’re very different in a lot of ways and very similar in a lot of ways. We’ve been trying to marry those two things, like what I like to do, which is the insider, kind of bizarre world of insider Arizona politics, and what Rachel likes, which is, why does any of this matter to a normal person?
How many names do you think each of you came up with before you eventually landed on Arizona Agenda?
HS: I bet we went through 500.
RL: Hundreds, yeah. Some of them were good. Some of them made absolutely no sense. A lot of them sounded like high school newspapers. Like the name Cactus Chronicle doesn’t make sense if you’re going to do a snarky political newsletter.
What has been most challenging transitioning from the corporate journalism world to being your own bosses?
RL: I’m just terrified. All the time. About everything. Like, even the fact that it’s like going well scares … me. There’s no comfort in what we’re doing now because it’s totally different. There are not people who’ve done it before. There are not peers that you can rely on in your newsroom, because it’s just us and the idea that you rise and fall on your own merit, and solely your merit, is just a lot to deal with mentally.
So how are you dealing with it?
RL: Oh, not well. … Fortunately, this has just been a crazy amount of work for so long that whenever I do start to think about it, I just start working on something else.
HS: I don’t know … taxes. Business. I still don’t understand that stuff. But I mean, I guess not knowing what I’m supposed to do with my day. I for a long time have lived by a schedule and now I just have the freedom to do everything. And that’s a little overwhelming.
How has the fundraising aspect been so far?
HS: We have no real metrics by which to gauge success. But according to the Substack people, we are doing really well. And I think, better than I would have expected, and I’m sure that there’s kind of an initial flurry of interest and then it will slow down, but the initial flurry was much better than I would have guessed.
What does the Venn diagram look like with people who are funding you and people who’ve been funding the Arizona audit?
RL: They may not have liked our week one audit story very much. There might be a sliver in the middle there, but it’s not like the Venn diagram’s a circle.
HS: And you know what, that’s fine. I’ve given up on trying to please those people. They’re not engaging in good faith. I think a lot of people have just gone too far off the deep end, and if it offends them to hear that, we’re not the publication for them.
RL: We haven’t pulled our punches there and we don’t intend to. … The one thing I will say is, when we look at our subscribers, it’s actually a really good mix politically. More than we thought it would be. So, in that sense, it seems like it’s reaching different groups for different reasons.
For people who still may not know what the Arizona Agenda is, what are you hoping to accomplish with it and why should they read your Substack?
RL: I think people will learn a lot about what’s going on now and then also a broader idea of why it matters. And they’ll have a damn good time reading it. It’s enjoyable to read. It’s not dense. It’s not overly technical. We’ve tried really hard to make it sound like how people talk. There are jokes … mostly mine because I’m way funnier. And ideally, it gives them enough information that they can then get involved in their political process. I want you to learn how things work. Because if you know how things work and why they matter, then you (care).
HS: I can barely read newspapers at this point. I read them because I have to, but it’s not an enjoyable process and I would like this to be enjoyable. I want people to want to read this, not to read this because they need to be up on the information.