With the exception of the presidential election, its aftermath, and the many stories about coverage thereof that grew out of it, there have been few stories about the media that have gotten as much attention in recent months as the growth of Substack, the online newsletter platform.
What is Substack? Founded in 2017, it’s a platform that makes it easy for writers to create, launch and monetize their work through email newsletters. Throughout the year 2020, a long list of well-known journalists, including Andrew Sullivan, Glenn Greenwald, Matt Taibbi, Matt Yglesias and Hunter Harris, have either resigned from mainstream media outlets or partially stepped away from them, in order to set up shop at Substack.
The platform lets journalists set up a way to get their work to subscribers while offering various subscription schemes. It also allows the writers to escape whatever strictures were in place at their previous places of employment, whether it was disagreement with editorial oversight, ideological differences with coworkers, or dissatisfaction with their pay.
Some of the journalists involved have said that they’re earning incomes in the six figures, much more than they were making at their previous outlets. Substack takes a 10 percent fee and the writers get the rest. There is no advertising involved in the equation.
According to observers, the Substack phenomenon has some benefits and problems. After years of struggle to discover a new and viable business model for Internet-era journalism, Substack appears to have emerged as exactly that. Others have likened it to the heyday of the blog phenomenon of the early 2000s, which was later essentially made redundant by the rise of social media. Indeed, many of the big stars of Substack, like Sullivan, Greenwald and Yglesias, were previously known for their blogs.
And like blogs, there are popular Substacks covering all sorts of topics, including politics of all ideologies, sports, fashion, pop culture and more. And at a time when overzealous ad technology has made much of the Internet effectively unreadable, Substack’s clean design is very refreshing.
The minuses, however, include that many of the stars of Substack were people who were well-known previously, and while some stars have emerged in the Substack ecosystem, it’s tougher for organic audience growth to happen, as it was in the heyday of the blog era. A writer can move to Substack and get a big payday, provided they were a big name and had a large audience already.
“The most successful people on Substack are those who have already been well-served by existing media power structures. Most are white and male; several are conservative,” the Columbia Journalism Review said in an overview. The editors of another site told Columbia Journalism Review that the Substack platform doesn’t allow for much discovery through Internet searches, nor do creators get much access to audience data.
Also, for those who joined Substack to get away from editors and collaborators… no longer have the benefit of editing or collaboration.
Substack isn’t for everyone, but it’s certainly a significant media phenomenon, which allows writers to get their words in front of readers.
Stephen Silver, a technology writer for the National Interest, is a journalist, essayist and film critic, who is also a contributor to Philly Voice, Philadelphia Weekly, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Living Life Fearless, Backstage magazine, Broad Street Review and Splice Today. The co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle, Stephen lives in suburban Philadelphia with his wife and two sons. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenSilver.