The State of the Hole (and Stickers!)
The North Carolina Rabbit Hole is two years old. You all have made it what it is. Here's where we're going next.
Here’s what happened last night: I was trying to type up something about how this here newsletter is now two years old, and I got stuck. So, instead of writing about the Rabbit Hole’s birthday, I ended up doing some more research on a very old North Carolina story that I’ve been trying to nail down for more than 15 years. I’m not going to go into detail—if I had enough to publish it I would have published it by now—but I’ve exhausted almost every avenue to confirm it. I’ve sent dozens of emails, made a lot of phone calls, looked through reel after reel of microfilm, made several Freedom of Information Act requests, and requested an inter-library loan for a rare book that’s written entirely in another language. I’ve tried to confirm dates, timelines, and memories. I’ve been working on this for so long that two of my primary sources have died.
Every year or so, I’ll jump back into my notes, take a fresh look at everything, and make another run at it. So last night, instead of writing today’s newsletter, I noodled around in a old Google Doc, looked through property records, scanned old census forms and newspaper clippings, and found a person who I’ve been trying to find for more than a decade. I have some phone calls to make soon, but I made some genuine progress.
Such is the nature of obsession. For 15 years, I’ve been unable to let this story go.
I think, in some way, that’s what this newsletter is about: My inability to let certain things go. If I had been able to fully move on from journalism, I wouldn’t be writing here. If I could stop fixating on questions that genuinely interest me, there wouldn’t be a Rabbit Hole. Instead, I feel the need to figure stuff out. To get some sort of answer. Then I can move on to the next thing.
In that way, writing this newsletter has been theraputic. That wasn’t the goal. In fact, the Rabbit Hole started two years ago Saturday without much of a plan at all. At the time, I really just wanted to have a place of my own where I could write about the stuff that interested me. It just so happens that I’m really interested in North Carolina. So are you.
You All Seem To Like This!
At least, that’s what your comments, your emails, and the raw analytics tell me. Two years ago, 58 people signed up to get the first edition of this newsletter. Today’s edition is going out to more than 4,000. The number of free subscribers to the Rabbit Hole has more than doubled over the last year. And, over the last year, about 1 in 20 of you have decided to financially support this newsletter by becoming a paid subscriber. More on that in a bit.
In year one, I wrote a lot about the things that were rattling around in my head. In year two, I’ve been digging into the things that are rattling around in yours. Reader Brian Gracely flagged a picture of Steven Spielberg wearing a North Carolina Highway Patrol hat, and after a lot of sleuthing (and a lot of help), I figured out how he got it. Many people wondered why legendary skateboarder Tony Hawk was at a coffeeshop in Lincolnton on a Friday morning. I got the answer, which was then confirmed by Tony Hawk himself. Many others wondered how a woman from Asheville was able to get a valid North Carolina license plate that said “FART,” and how a guy was able to trick a woman from Florida into thinking that Gastonia was a majestic alpine paradise. Jason Zengerle asked me if I could figure out why a prominent member of the world’s biggest K-pop band was wearing a t-shirt that only real old school UNC alums would recognize (SPOILER: It wasn’t actually the same shirt, but still). Jenn Moxley asked me why a 50-foot-long Sphinx was for sale in Morganton, and not only did I find out, I was also able to create this immensely satisfying GIF of said Sphinx getting its head ripped off by a forklift.
In other instances, a lot of you have said something along the lines of “Hey, did you know that (person doing something charmingly weird or bizarrely viral) is from North Carolina?” That, friends, is how I learned about world cheese-chasing champion Abby Lampe was a NC State grad, how I discovered that viral TikTok clogger Zeb Ross (THE LEGEND) was from Haywood County, and how I became acquainted with a man from East Bend, North Carolina who went on Jeopardy! and listed his occupation as “stay-at-home uncle.”
About that last one. Lawrence “Uncle Skip” Long has become a loyal and devoted Rabbit Hole subscriber. He’s also a member of the Bunker Dogs improv group in Winston-Salem, so I asked him if he might create a video to recap the year that was. I strongly encourage you to watch to the very end:
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Besides getting to hang out with Uncle Skip from time-to-time, the Rabbit Hole has given me other opportunities. I have a regular guest appearance every Thursday afternoon at 4 on 99.9 The Fan in Raleigh (Thanks Joe and Joe!). I’ve delivered keynote addresses to the North Carolina Property Mappers Association and the North Carolina Local User Group. UNC’s School of Government invited me to speak at a stop on their Tar Heel Bus Tour. I appeared on The Weather Channel and on WFAE radio in Charlotte to talk about the homes on the Outer Banks that collapsed into the ocean. And (maybe I’m burying the lede here), I’m going to be teaching a magazine writing class as an adjunct professor at Wake Forest University! (Many thanks to Phoebe Zerwick for the opportunity, and to Barry Yeoman for giving me a crash course in how to crash his college course next semester). I have a few other things in the works as well, and I’m grateful for all of them.
How Do I Do This?
If there’s any question I get more than “What the F is up with (North Carolina-related thing)?” it’s this: How do you do this? Well, I do it by trying not to do too much of it, honestly. For one thing, I am very serious about being mentally and physically present for my wife and kids. I also love my full-time communications job at Wake Forest University, where I get to highlight the work of my immensely smart and talented colleagues and, occasionally, hang out with Cornel West and Michael Schur. And, you know, I want to go back to a hobby that isn’t solving North Carolina-related mysteries, like whether Richard Petty signed a live duck at the state fair in 1991.
About a year ago, I tried to do too much. For the weeks leading up to the moment when I asked people if they’d financially support the Rabbit Hole, my stomach was tied up in knots. It felt deeply unnatural for me to ask for money. I talked to a lot of people to figure out if I was doing the right thing. I agonized over it. Writing a newsletter as a hobby is one thing. Opening yourself up to the public and asking them to decide whether the thing you’re doing has value? That’s another.
Finally, I just did it. On the first day, 49 people signed up for paid subscriptions. I almost cried.
As more paid subscribers came in, I tried as hard as I could to make good on the promises I’d made to them; namely, that they’d get an extra post a week just for them, and that I’d play a game where they could get some sort of custom meme. After four months, though, I realized that I was in over my head. Every available moment that wasn’t tied to work or family went toward reporting, gathering, and writing. I thought, honestly, that writing less might make the writing I did more entertaining, more thoughtful (ha!), and more fun. So, I asked the people who were paying me if that’d be okay with just one newsletter a week, and they said yes. As dumb as this newsletter can be at times, I’m serious when it comes to the people whose money keeps this newsletter rolling along. I know I say “thank you” a lot, but I really can’t say it enough. Thank you. Thank you! THANK YOU.
It’s worth being transparent about I mean exactly when I say that paid subscriptions keep the the Rabbit Hole going. I’ve been a writer, reporter, producer, and journalist for 20+ years now, and I’ve always had a full-time job. I started freelancing around the edges of those jobs about 13 years ago. At first, I did it just to see if I could, but over time, those freelance writing assignments from places like Charlotte magazine, SB Nation, CBS Sports, Politico, and Our State became a side hustle. It was usually fun and gratifying, but always hard work and often exhausting. At some point, I decided that being a professional writer meant there had to be some financial compensation involved, especially after my wife and I started a family. When I started the Rabbit Hole, I figured it might grow into something. But after a year of writing it for free, I knew I had to get serious about it as a business or let it go and, maybe, give freelancing a try again. I love writing and reporting, but the process of pitching and shopping stories around wasn’t something I was looking forward to. After all, I’m not sure how to convince an editor to let me write a 2,000 word missive about Drunktown Guy.
Once paid subscriptions started to come in, my calculus started to change. Writing stuff for this newsletter made me happier than I’d ever been as a freelancer. There was now a direct financial incentive to do it and do it well. Plus, the economics actually worked out. An ad-supported model would probably require me to go out and get more pageviews and readers than might be possible for a newsletter about North Carolina ephemera that occasionally opines about killer pregnancy-detecting frogs and state-owned Little Mermaid snow globes. But a reader-supported model works. Substack, the platform I use, takes a 10-percent cut (and the credit card processor also skims about 3-4% off of each transaction). But Substack makes the business and growth side much easier, which allows me to focus a lot more on the writing side of things. I still take a freelance assignment from time to time. But outside of work, my creative energy is focused here. It’s the easiest decision I’ve made in a while, and I have you all to thank.
So if you pay, what do you get?
For one thing, you get a first look at stories that I get done early. I put out a free edition of the Rabbit Hole every Thursday, but occasionally paid subscribers get them on Tuesday and Wednesday. You also help fund actual reporting, like CAPITAL-J JOURNALISM about North Carolina’s lack of speed trap towns, deep dives into class-action lawsuits again Texas Pete (more to come soon!), and a trip to North Wilkesboro to write about the race that brought NASCAR back to town after a quarter-century. Maybe you get the satisfaction of helping support something that’s unlike anything else you can read here in this state.
I do want to offer you something else. A few months ago, I had some Rabbit Hole stickers printed up. If you’re a new or existing paid subscriber, email me your address, and I’ll mail you one along with a SUPER SECRET NOTE. I know. It’s a sticker. You’ll probably get more bang for your buck by ordering Girl Scout cookies. But I wanted to offer you a small token of my appreciation for what you’re doing for me. A big part of the joy of doing this is getting to meet new people and discover new things. Mailing you an actual, physical newsletter along with a sticker is the least I can do for you.
That’s all. Thank you all for coming here and helping this newsletter stumble like a drunken giraffe into its third year of existence. I still have work to do. Phone calls to make. Fifteen-year-old mysteries to solve (I hope). But rest assured, no matter how stupid or inconsequential the story is, as long as it’s about North Carolina, you’ll read it here first.
I can’t wait drive around with that sticker on my truck looking for that occasional approving nod.
I can’t wait to find out what you’ve been working on for 15 years!