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Diving Into A New Big Project

A new platform, a new model, a new way.

On the New Silk Road website
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ASTORIA, New York- I’ve woken up these past two mornings and virtually ran over to my laptop to begin work. I was excited, focused — having fun. I felt like I was building something, that the product of my effort today would lead to something bigger and better tomorrow; like I wasn’t doing a job but doing “my work.”

But then it oddly struck me that I haven’t felt this way in a long time. This was how I felt in the early days of Vagabond Journey and during my first couple of years at Forbes, when it all felt like some kind of competitive game rather than a job — I would strategize, step in the ring, and throw punches, celebrating as I chalked up points on some kind of proverbial scoreboard. It gave me that particular feeling of accomplishment that is ultimately the driving passion behind the work that comes to define a person. I’m not sure if I know a better feeling.

Anyway, all of this was about the fact that I’ve started a new project that will soon become what I do full-time. I talked a little about it yesterday. Basically, it’s a newsletter / site that will dive deep into the Silk Road — sort of a combination of what I’ve been doing over the past five years on Forbes and Vagabond Journey heightened to the tenth power. I will plunge deeper that what I can for big media and obtain a degree of professionalism that doesn’t really fly on a personal travel blog.

I generally have access to the full gamut of people building the new hubs of the Silk Road — from the CEOs and officials down to the manual laborers. I can get into the restricted areas and I can hang out in bars with the locals. I have time to make friends and cultivate the relationships. Basically, I’m a traveler disguised as a journalist … and I sometimes get the impression that I’ve chosen this profession just to enhance the travel experience.

This is the new newsletter / website:


I’m still building it. I should have a few new stories out today. All stories are currently free, but as time goes on we will operate on a free / paid subscription hybrid platform. The goal is to get 800 paying subscribers — basically, the much-coveted “1,000 true fans” — and that will provide me the means to travel up and down the Silk Road documenting what’s happening in perpetuity.

It’s a direct-to-audience business model that cuts out the middlemen of editors and publishing brands, removes the need to cater to advertisers, limits the editorial power of search engines, and substantially reduces the ability of governments to exert influence over the content. It’s just me, the Silk Road, and anyone who wants to read — all earnings are paid direct and go back into the project.

Getting my head around this new model is taking some time. I basically need to throw away everything I know about running a website. I no longer need to censor myself for the search engines, I no longer need to concern myself with links, and all of the Big G’s rules and ever-vacilating policies suddenly no longer apply. I also have no need to worry about a publication’s particular biases, editors’ personal chauvinisms, and not shocking the audience with a different point of view that they haven’t been conditioned for.

It’s a freeing experience — a freeing experience that’s made writing fun again.

I’m very happy to report that we’ve received our first three paying subscribers yesterday. This is going to work. Only 797 more to go.


Thank you.

Walk Slow,



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Filed under: Journalism, New Silk Road

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3723 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

8 comments… add one

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  • Trevor April 8, 2020, 1:07 pm

    Hey greetings from Kenya.
    This is quite a cool concept. You obviously have enough fans……. was just reading about SUBSTACK. So you dont have to worry about SEO any more?
    Still working on that post. Been some changes here in my situation, which gave me an idea to try something and document it…. a week long project.. but also need to re work what i already wrote about and also the expiring visa issue has been resolved, which i can document too….

    Wish i could be as productive as you. Too many distractions i guess.


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    • Wade Shepard April 9, 2020, 12:35 pm

      Not really. While search traffic will help bring in new subscribers it’s not the focus of a publication like this. Ideally, most newsletters will eventually be for paying subscribers, which would create kind of a “club” of people excited about the topic and willing to part with a buck a week for it. So I will mostly be working for the audience rather than the search engines or advertisers. It’s a completely different way of doing things from how I’ve always done it. The free posts will mostly be feature stories that have news value, and they will basically serve as a hook to bring more subscribers into the community. Interaction with readers is one of the best parts of this, so having a platform where that’s the focus seems like a welcomed change from what I was doing in big media.

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  • Rob April 8, 2020, 9:30 pm

    Go for it! It’s hard to find an unattached journalist today, I’d like to help.
    Tanstaafl! 796 left.

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    • Wade Shepard April 9, 2020, 12:28 pm

      Thank you! Very, very, very much appreciated. Only 794 more to go!

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  • Jack April 11, 2020, 8:36 pm

    I think it’s a great idea. It’s simple and it’s doable. Your information is quality and it’s actionable. People in that line will be willing to pay for it.

    And worrying about search engines and ad revenue have been a lousy way to try to earn money for close to a decade now. This recession is going to make it even more difficult.

    Another idea to enhance it: Sell custom reports and articles. If a single client wants a special report on a specific area then you can sell them that special exclusive story/report. While those would few in number, each one is very lucrative.

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    • Wade Shepard April 12, 2020, 8:11 pm

      Hello Jack,

      Thank you. It seems as if it has a good chance of succeeding — I just have to put the time into promotion, which I have a tendency of not being too active at. So I have to adapt my strategies in more ways than one.

      Yeah, it’s getting rough for sites that depend on ad revenue. It’s all going downhill and I don’t believe the upcoming generation even knows what a search engine is. Sites are going to have to charge subscriptions to try to survive and this great thing called the World Wide Web is going to break apart in a a zillion little walled gardens. We’re pretty much already there. It’s kind of sad, really.

      Good idea. I will take them if they come along — those types of clients think nothing of tossing $10 grand towards things like this. Lots of work though.

      Feel free to come over to the new site from time to time. You’re totally welcome there!

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  • James April 12, 2020, 4:16 am

    Congrats on the new project, I’ve subscribed! I look forward to seeing you back in your natural habitat of roaming around Central Asia.

    I’m impressed with the Substack platform, and I will be doing my own project there soon. I have already been following several Asia news sites that use this platform, as they seem to have been the early adopters. Looking at sites like Sinocism (with over 50,000 subscribers) you can see how this is a game changer for journalists. It will also kill off the need for a traditional email services like mailchimp, and my friends who use substack say it has far superior deliverability. This could be a new era for self publishers.

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    • Wade Shepard April 12, 2020, 8:30 pm

      Hello James,

      Thanks for subscribing! Very much appreciated. Yes, Substack is interesting. I usually don’t like things like that but it’s incredibly straight forward and sticks to the point of what we’re trying to do: communicate a message, share a story. It’s kind of made me have to start thinking about things in reverse. I’ve always imagined a newsletter as being an appendage of a website, but they twisted things the other way around: a newsletter with a site attached. They cut out all the crap of running a website: all I have to do is show up and write something. That’s how it should be.

      I guess I’m also coming to terms with the age that we now live in. Gone are the days of the World Wide Web being this messed up, ugly, unique, diverse, unpredictable kind of thing full of different styles and cultures and have accepted that we now live in the world of walled gardens, where different style sites and independent systems are an annoyance. Having the Substack platform helps me deliver my content, having their payment system helps me get paid I hate to admit it but this gives me a far better chance of success than if I did it alone.

      But, at the end of the day, it’s all about the content. Who cares if it’s in the framework of an established platform or built from scratch?

      Thanks again for the support!

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