Reflections on self-publishing [2021]: Year Two, Geneva Health Files

Dear Readers,

Reflections are a luxury in a frenzied news cycle. But it is a necessity for any media entrepreneur.

In the midst of our annual break, we bring you some lessons we learned in running Geneva Health Files. We believe this has relevance not only for media entrepreneurship but also for the role of the media in global health.

The act of self-publishing is fairly radical. Geneva Health Files was born in 2020 to meet the demand for comprehensive, inter-disciplinary reporting on global health from Geneva. Buoyed by the response, we took a step further in 2021 and went paid in March this year confident that our voice and expertise was valuable enough that readers would pay for it. Our initial assumptions have largely held true and we have met the industry standard of converting 15% of our readers into paying subscribers.

While this is still far from the sustainability mark, we are deeply appreciative of our readers to help us reach this milestone. Beyond the numbers, our work has undoubtedly made a difference. We have gained reader trust and credibility within a short period of time.

Along the way, we have learned much about communication, promotions and pricing. (Here’s our lessons from the first year of self-publishing.)

Apart from the nuts and bolts of the operations, what has been striking is how political this business is. I guess I had under-appreciated the intrinsic political nature of self-publishing on anything, but more so on global health especially in the middle of a pandemic.

What the last (nearly) two years have shown me is that global health reporting can be a landmine and there is no way of pussyfooting around it. This has implications for self-publishers. It means nearly every story which is published is a fairly major and conscious decision. And over a period of time, a lattice of your editorial decisions begin to emerge in your body of work. It reflects the choices we make, and the stories we write and those we do not pursue. It has been a valuable experience in making these decisions sometimes by intuition, mostly shaped by inherent news impulses, but always with the readers’ needs in mind.

Our repeated communication with, and surveys for readers have also shown that while we cater to a wide readership even within this somewhat niche community, some of our readers hold strong opinions on both form and content. We are lucky to be serving such an engaged readership. Our readers include diplomats, policymakers, activists, academics, scholars, students and the private sector. This reader base is globally dispersed.

Feedback from readers has set me thinking on the quality and the quantity of what we publish. What is beginning to emerge from these early reflections is we need to tinker with our publications strategy and that means reducing the frequency of our publications while focusing on enhancing quality. We are currently a bi-weekly newsletter with curated and original content on Tuesdays and Fridays respectively. Soon we will decide on what should be the frequency going forward.

When Geneva Health Files was just an idea, struggling to find expression much before the pandemic, my goal was to do deliberate, slow, in-depth global health journalism framed outside of the trappings of a regular news cycle. The pandemic, of course does not leave you that option because the governance of global health is being threatened to be redrawn with every passing day, and as reporters we simply have to be chronicling these deep changes even if at record speed.

But now that the pandemic is a normalized reality, it is time to go back to that original vision, to really probe under-reported matters in global health and to tell them effectively. I hope that will be the path for us in the coming months.  

I find it annoyingly cute and flattering at the same time, when some readers write to us, finding weaknesses (mostly minor grammatical issues) in our articles while comparing them to articles published by multi-army editorial newsrooms such as the New York Times or the Financial Times. (We cannot afford copy-editors at this point.)

That we are a one-person newsroom is not an excuse. We understand that. And hence, our renewed commitment to improving and ensuring the quality of our writing and reporting.   

fellow Substack writer has helpful advice on “enlarging the readers’ pool of faith” by “looking professional”. I take that seriously. 

However, the idea is not only simply to write and report better, but to elevate the craft of writing a long read to the next level. We hope that this newsletter should not only be well-reported and well-written but also move the needle on the accountability in global health – our intended mission.

My take-away from 2021 is do less and do better – this is also keeping in mind our long-term sustainability and to maintain our momentum.

We hope Geneva Health Files will thrive in 2022 and beyond. I not only want this to be a successful experiment in media entrepreneurship, but also for it to become a critical media actor in its own right influencing and contributing to the field of global health.

We are not shy about the potential of this initiative going by the early indications of what it has already achieved over these past two years. Policymakers find our reporting essential and illuminating and experts find our analyses helpful in tracking and deciphering developments in Global Health Geneva.

Notwithstanding the goals we have set for ourselves, we are also acutely aware of the physical and financial limits of a tiny newsroom. We want to do few things, but do them the best.

Thank you for your engagement. Our greetings to you for 2022.

Write to us with your thoughts.


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The Geneva Health Files newsroom: Image credit: Priti Patnaik

Here are some reflections in brief:

Take a position supported by your own research and reasoning. (But be prepared to face the consequences.)

Pace yourself.

Quality is more important than quantity.

Take risks – you may live to tell the tale.

If something can go wrong, it will. Beware.

Hire help.

Pick the right team.

Readers are paying attention.

Effort counts, irrespective of recognition.

Effort shows!

Be humble, always.

Speak better.

Write better.

Be genuine.

Speak your mind (almost always).

Step aside, let other voices be heard.

Be patient with morons, it pays sometimes.

Kill your darlings and not just in your text – constantly attack your assumptions.

Go ahead and state your position – without fear or favor. People will respect you for this – even if they disagree with you.  

Extra research doesn’t mean great writing.

Promote, promote, promote.

Get accident insurance!  

Work-life balance is non-negotiable.

If you did not see our top twenty reads from this year, have a look!  

Consider becoming readers who pay for useful content, so that you can also access our rich archives. If you are a subscriber already, consider gifting a subscription of Geneva Health Files to your colleagues and friends in global health!

This reader-driven initiative must survive. We are fully dependent on subscriptions to bolster this self-funded journalistic initiative. You can also contribute or make a donation here.

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