Entrepreneur: Walter Hickey

Biz: Numlock News

Tilt: Below-the-radar news

Scene: Newsletter, You Are What You Watch: How Movies and TV Affect Everything (book), X (24K), book club

Snack Bites: 

  • Five years ago, the full-time editor at Insider News launched a separate content project, Numlock News on Substack.
  • Walter offers free and paid versions, giving the latter access to a bonus newsletter and commenting.
  • He continues to work at his traditional content job but continues to publish the weekday newsletter and managed to release a book this year.
  • Among his advice for newsletter creators is to pick a format and stick with it, as constrictions can produce great writing.

Why We Stan: Walter is a strong believer in a point of view and consistently delivers his content every weekday. Not only does he have a great content tilt, but he tells it in a delightful, funny, snarky way.

The Story of Walter Hickey

Numbers perplex many, and they delight others.

Walter Hickey embraced both audiences when he launched Numlock as a daily newsletter designed to explain the numbers behind the day’s most interesting news stories.

Since its 2018 debut, Numlock has evolved into a morning newsletter that’s a “smart, funny, statty” rundown of non-headline news “with just the right amount of fun and snark.”

As Walter explains on his site, “Other people cover U.S. politics to death, and you can get that elsewhere, so this newsletter focuses on the bigger stories going on in the background you’re missing.”

He curates about seven stories in each issue, crediting and linking to the original author and article. 

The newsletter has no ads or sponsors. “I didn’t get into this business to sell mattresses, so I’m not going to,” he writes.

But Walter does offer paid subscriptions – over 1K belong to that group. They receive a Sunday bonus edition and access to commenting on Numlock’s Substack platform.

In an interview with Newsletter Crew, Walter explains the origin: “When I was trying to conceptualize it, I wasn’t thinking in the terms of newsletters that existed at the time. I was thinking in terms of, ‘What are existing media products that are successful?’”

He continues, “It’s very difficult to have a generalist newsletter. There’s a reason that you see people sort themselves to topics a lot of the time. When I launched Numlock, I decided, ‘This is a newsletter that has to have a point of view.’

@WaltHickey researched successful existing media products before he launched #Numlock newsletter five years ago. #ContentEntrepreneur Click To Tweet

As advocates for content entrepreneurs to have a content tilt, we couldn’t agree more with Walter.

He also offers other great advice around format and revenue that he shares in the Newsletter Crew interview: 

  • “Always do a little bit less (in your newsletter) than you think you should. You want the room and space to make each edition considerably better. I don’t allow myself to write more than one paragraph because once you break the format, you lose control of the product. Constrictions are often the only way that good writing comes out.”
  • “I pick a few weeks a year where I really step on the gas. Those weeks will encompass a lot of my annual growth, whether it’s new subscribers or whether it’s converting current subscribers to paid subscriptions. I always do a ‘back to school’ special in September and for the May anniversary of the newsletter. I’ll put up a sale, I’ll do a big push.  “I looked at how NPR did it. They’re always kind of mentioning, ‘We are listener-supported, and it would be great if you joined,’ but then two weeks a year they really lean on it. They say, ‘We really need your support, here’s how you can help.’ It’s a pledge week style approach.” 

But Numlock is far from Walter’s only content work. Last month, he launched his book, You Are What You Watch: How Movies and TV Affect Everything.

Numlock newsletter goes big on subscription sales promotions only a few times a year ala @NPR style, says @WaltHickey via @NewsletterCrew. #CreatorEconomy Click To Tweet

Here’s an excerpt of the description: “Employing a mix of research, deep reporting, and 100 data visualizations, Hickey presents the true power of entertainment and culture. From the decrease in shark populations after Jaws to the increase in women and girls taking up archery following The Hunger Games, You Are What You Watch proves its points not just with research and argument but hard data. Did you know, for example, that crime statistics prove that violent movies actually lead to less real-world violence? And that the international rise of anime and Manga helped lift the Japanese economy out of the doldrums in the 1980s? Or that British and American intelligence agencies actually got ideas from the James Bond movies?”

While a dedicated content entrepreneur, Walter has a full-time job, too. He’s the deputy editor for data and analysis at Insider News. In 2022, he was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize for its graphic illustration reporting on the plight of the Uyghur community in China.

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About the author

Ann regularly combines words and strategy for B2B, B2C, and nonprofits, continuing to live up to her high school nickname, Editor Ann. An IABC Communicator of the Year and founder of G Force Communication, Ann coaches and trains professionals in all things content. Connect with her on LinkedIn and Twitter.