Discover more from The Storm Skiing Journal and Podcast
Four Lessons From Four Years of 'The Storm'
Independent ski media is not an oxymoron
The Storm Skiing Journal and Podcast is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and to support my work, please consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Four years ago today, I launched The Storm Skiing Journal and Podcast. Oct. 13 has always been a significant date for me. Thirty years ago, after months of rejection from McDonald’s and Subway and K-Mart, I landed my first job, bagging groceries at the Meijer superstore in Midland, Michigan. I earned $4.35 an hour. I drove to work in a 1983 Ford Ranger. I was a junior in high school.
Work has always been an important source of worth for me, no matter how menial the job. And I’ve had a lot of jobs since 1993: five years at Meijer, nine years waiting tables, four years as a high-school English teacher, five years working at the NBA headquarters in New York, four years writing press releases for an advertising PR company. There was some overlap in there. For most of the past 20 years, I’ve had two jobs at once. I still do.
This one is different. I work for myself, and I work for my paid subscribers. The Storm is incredibly gratifying. It is also incredibly enlightening. I’ve learned a lot about myself and a lot about skiing and a lot about business over the past four years. Each Oct. 13, I’ve written a post commemorating this anniversary (waxing on Twain in 2020, going national in 2021, shouting out my influences in 2022). This year’s anniversary post is a bit more grounded. The ski world is evolving rapidly, and The Storm is evolving to meet that world. But I am also operating, I’ve come to realize, in a landscape grounded by a few foundational truths, which help guide where I steer this ship. Among them:
1) Ski media does not have to be in thrall to its subjects.
I lost a sponsor earlier this year when I refused to back off criticism of a ski area that asked me to change a fact to suit their narrative. That ski area happened to sponsor my sponsor and many other ski-related entities. My choice, as I saw it, was to censor myself and compromise The Storm’s integrity, or part ways with the sponsor. There was no choice. The sponsor is gone.
I do not, and will not, write through a filter that prioritizes clubby bonhomie over the truth. The truth is the only thing that matters. That, I’m assuming, is what you’re here for.
This is not always easy to do, particularly as I’ve developed relationships with the people and places that I cover. I’ve gotten to know Chip Seamans and the team at Windham well, and critically analyzing the mountain’s recent PR missteps was a wrenching experience. Same with my series of stories detailing the feud between Ski Cooper and Indy Pass. But I wrote them anyway, and what I realized was…
2) Ski areas can handle criticism better than their skiers can.
Most ski area operators understand that I have a job to do. The basic deal is that they give me some level of access, and I give them an opportunity to respond to any material criticism. They may not like what I write, but they understand that it was the result of a process in search of the truth.
The average skier is not necessarily in possession of such faculties. For many of them, their local is a big part of their identity, and they take even the smallest critique as a personal affront. I’ve never understood this sort of place-based honor code. People say vile things to me all the time about the only two places I’ve ever lived: the Midwest and New York City. “Nice to visit, wouldn’t want to live there.” I just don’t care. I don’t like everything about these places either. Only an idiot would.
3) I can make a living doing this.
There is little mystery as to why the vast majority of ski journalism is simplistic, poorly researched, pandering, and about as engrossing as the directions on the back of a paint can – there are not a lot of great jobs in the field of ski writing. The best working writers, like Jason Blevins at The Colorado Sun and Shaun Sutner at The Worcester Telegram & Gazette, tend to be part of larger institutions grounded in basic journalistic principles. Much – perhaps most – of the ski writing from ski-specific publications operates on a sort of pay-to-play model, which isn’t any better than advertising.
Substack, which The Storm is built on, has created a model that frees writers from advertisers’ demands. This is the subscription model that I use. Ninety percent of my revenue comes from subscriptions. Sure, I have sponsors, and I value them highly, but they are a bonus. And they don’t get any say in the content (see above).
Even though I chose Substack as my publication platform explicitly because of their tech and their paid model, I waited a long time to turn on paid subscriptions. When I finally did, two-and-a-half years in, I was amazed at how well the transition went. And continues to go. My conversion rate – the number of free subscribers who opt into the paid tier – is well above Substack’s average. My one-year subscriber retention rate is 91 percent – also well above average. The Storm started as an experiment, evolved into a side-hustle, and has become a second full-time job.
As of today, that’s where I am. But, to borrow a baseball metaphor, I’m only in the second inning here. The number of paid subscribers grows daily. In response, I continue to create more value for them:
Introducing Pass Notes, a monthly breakdown of America’s best pass deals exclusively for paid subscribers (the inaugural September version was free)
Starting last month, paid subscribers receive podcasts seven full days before free subscribers - that timeline will probably lengthen further in coming months. I dropped a podcast with Northstar GM Amy Ohran this morning. It will hit free subscribers’ inboxes next Friday, Oct. 20.
Full articles. What you see at the top tends to be about 20 percent of any given Storm Skiing Journal article. While that’s a nice overview of whatever I’m writing about that day, the real meat lies below.
The ability to comment on articles
The more readers and listeners opt into the paid model, the more the gap between the free and paid versions will grow. Each Storm email is the result of 10 to 20 hours of work. For those of you who have invested in this product, I thank you, humbly and sincerely.
Each year, The Storm gets better, with more stories built on sourced journalism, more podcasts, more thorough context (via charts and the like), and more in-depth explorations of the decisions that drive our lift-served skiing experience. My motivation for constant improvement is those paid subscribers, who are collectively helping to shape the future of ski journalism through their support of this enterprise.
4) I have no interest in running a ski area.
Prior to launching The Storm, I didn’t understand why every ski area in the country didn’t open on Halloween and close on Memorial Day. Four years later, I can’t believe there’s a single functioning ski area on planet Earth. It takes a particular combination of grit, patience, inventiveness, dedication, and people skills to manage something as temperamental and complicated as a ski area.
It’s absurd. The notion of a ski area, I mean. It’s like imagine if you were a farmer with goats and pigs and cows and horses and chickens and dogs and cats, and instead of doing farm stuff with them like making milk and riding them and turning them into bacon, you decided to train them as a traveling Shakespeare troupe re-enacting King Lear. Does that sound impossible? Yes, but it sounds easier than running a ski area.
We were all born with a particular combination of skills and traits, and we can all learn new and challenging things. But that doesn’t mean that we should try to do every possible thing. I once daydreamed about owning a wild, under-groomed ski area like Mount Bohemia, locked into the wild hinterlands. Now I know better. I don’t have the necessary skillset, and I never will. I’m much better suited to make sense of the vast world of ski areas from the outside. Which is why, four years in, I continue to do exactly that.
The Storm publishes year-round, and guarantees 100 articles per year. This is article 86/100 in 2023, and number 472 since launching on Oct. 13, 2019. Want to send feedback? Reply to this email and I will answer (unless you sound insane, or, more likely, I just get busy). You can also email email@example.com.