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Is Substack the future of media?

Elon Musk’s ruin of Twitter has been a boon for the newsletter platform, which is reshaping the market for the written word.

By Harry Lambert

Is Substack the future of media? It’s a question the industry has been asking itself for at least two years – long enough for some to start declaring that the “Substack boom” of 2020 is already over. In reality the new economy created by the platform just keeps getting bigger. Two years ago, fewer than 300,000 readers paid for a subscription on Substack. Now, 1.5 million do. The Substack boom is more likely to be in its infancy than at its end, for a simple reason: it may provide the best answers to some of the perennial problems of journalism.

One is the publisher’s problem: how do you distribute pieces to readers and get paid for doing so? Another is the journalist’s: how do you build an audience over time? Without a reliable readership, every piece you publish is a fresh peril: it may go viral or be entirely unread. The search for a personal audience has in recent years led journalists, often fruitlessly, to Twitter, where their followers are seldom inclined to be shepherded off the network towards any actual journalism, let alone to pay for it. Elon Musk’s chaotic management of the platform has exposed how poorly it serves many journalists and writers.

[See also: Is Robbie Gibb out of control at the BBC?]

But Substack – which primarily hosts paid newsletters, sending them to a list of subscribers – goes some way to solving both problems. By creating a way for writers to retain readers, and for publishers to get paid without having to print on paper or rely on advertisers or expensive means of distribution, it is reshaping the market for the written word. It may prove to be more disruptive to the media than Twitter.

In December 2022 Bari Weiss – a columnist who left the New York Times in 2020 over what she saw as the newspaper’s ideological capture – rebranded her two-year-old Substack, Common Sense, as The Free Press: a bid to create her own newspaper in newsletter form. Weiss’s Twitter following recently doubled, after Musk gifted her part of the “Twitter Files”, his leak of internal documents on company policies and past moderation decisions. More significantly, the leak drove readers to The Free Press, which now has 280,000 free subscribers, of whom at least 10 per cent pay an annual subscription of $80-$96, bringing in perhaps around $2.5m.

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A lot of money is being made on Substack by a handful of stars. The platform’s most successful writer – the historian Heather Cox Richardson, who writes the daily Letter from an American email – has, according to Substack, “hundreds of thousands” of paid subscribers. At $50-$60 a year each, this will be earning Richardson a minimum of $5m annually – and possibly much more than that.

Other high-profile Substack writers include Matt Taibbi, Glenn Greenwald, Matthew Yglesias and Andrew Sullivan – all, like Weiss, previously employed, or given a platform, by major media outlets. Sullivan is making more than $1.1m; Yglesias is bringing in over $1m and, judging by his subscribers, Greenwald will be too; Taibbi is earning more than Weiss. The only UK-based publication to crack Substack’s paid political leaderboard is Dominic Cummings’, which is likely to be earning the former No 10 strategist at least £100,000.

Yet Substack itself is still a minnow. It is reported to have made all of $9m in revenue in 2021, though it raised $65m in funding in March 2021 at a $650m valuation (it abandoned plans to raise more funding in 2022 after financial markets soured). The company – launched in the US in 2017 by the former journalist Hamish McKenzie, the developer Jairaj Sethi and the tech CEO Chris Best – takes 10 per cent of revenue raised by writers or creators (Substack also hosts podcasts and video). But while its user base is relatively small, its cultural impact is already significant. “Substack is providing an alternative, more thoughtful place to write,” says Farrah Storr, a former editor of Elle magazine who is now Substack’s UK head of writer partnerships.

The ad-driven incentives of digital media in the 2010s, says Storr, changed journalism for the worse, as outlets sacrificed their sensibilities, and often their standards, in the pursuit of traffic. Substack rewards a different approach and lets journalists be paid directly for their work. Twitter, in contrast, is oddly disempowering. In a bid to showcase the platform’s liveliness, Musk recently introduced view counts for individual tweets. All this did was reveal how much its algorithm hollows out people’s audience: your tweets will typically reach only a fraction of your followers.

To get a sense of Substack’s possibilities, and limits, I recently spoke to a dozen UK-based writers who, like me, have joined the platform – including five (Sam Freedman, Anton Howes, Ed West, Helen Lewis and Ian Leslie) who have built up over 10,000 free subscribers.

Freedman, who launched a joint Substack with his father (and regular New Statesman contributor), Lawrence, in January last year, now has 23,000 people on his list. “I enjoy it more than anything else I do,” he tells me. “You are constantly building on your ideas, and building up a group of readers who understand your world-view.” He cites a recent 3,000-word, graph-laden piece on Brexit and public opinion. “Not many outlets are going to run that, and it could have ended up being 1,000 words, or it could have been 5,000, but I didn’t have to decide.”

The historian and New Statesman contributor Adam Tooze has more than 75,000 free subscribers to his newsletter, Chartbook, which he runs alongside his writing for more traditional media. He sees Substack as his “public workshop”, while a column is a “stylised public lecture”. “In the classic op-ed, the word limit is everything,” Tooze explains: newspapers and magazines need a column to work in isolation. A newsletter, in contrast, “lives off intertextuality: it acknowledges its sources, and it is often a meta reading list”.

Freedman and Tooze both have thousands of paying subscribers (a fact that is publicly available on Substack). The platform states that 5-10 per cent of a writer’s free subscribers tend to convert to paying readers. Freedman tells me he has had strong take-up for his newsletter, which charges £3.50 a month, the lowest possible rate. “People want to pay for it, because it’s a relationship. It’s going to a specific person.” (Freedman himself pays for five other newsletters.)

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Eleanor Halls, music editor at the Telegraph who also writes the pop-culture newsletter PassTheAux, explains the appeal of a highly engaged readership: “Your audience are there because they are either highly interested in what you write about, or what you, specifically, think.” She notes that this translates to a measure of success with every email; typically, 40 to 60 per cent of Substack newsletters are opened, a high rate. The journalist Ian Leslie, who writes The Ruffian newsletter, agrees: “They are here for you, and therefore the more ‘you’ it is, the better.”

Substack offers “a greater armoury of expression” than print, adds Leslie. Alongside words, you can post links, videos, tweets, images, graphs; the format can be made to fit your argument. Helen Lewis, a writer at the Atlantic and former New Statesman deputy editor, writes a newsletter alongside her staff role. “Substack has really brought back the blog,” she says. Newsletters are thriving, she thinks, because like podcasts they convey a more direct sense of a writer’s voice.

But Substack is also more than another blogging platform. Its crucial innovation, and advantage over a publishing site such as Medium, is the way it allows writers to build a returning audience, reaching them over email.

Is Substack a threat to Twitter? Lewis thinks so, because “it gives writers a lot of what they wanted” from tweeting, namely a direct connection with readers. Subscribers have “chosen to invest directly in me as a writer”, says Jonn Elledge, whose newsletter has almost 5,000 readers. Compared to Twitter, he finds Substack “a lot less mean-spirited”.

Substack is no nirvana. Several UK writers who left posts at established media firms tell me they still supplement their income with books and other writing; the platform alone does not yet support them.

There are other means of reaching readers directly. Newsletter-first media companies are being built by former print editors, most notably Graydon Carter, the former editor of Vanity Fair. Carter recently raised a second round of $17m for his newsletter title Air Mail; it launched in 2019 and already has over 220,000 paying and trial subscribers.

Carter’s departure from Vanity Fair after 25 years as editor may have signalled the end of the magazine era and the birth of the newsletter age. Air Mail exhibits many of the mannerisms of a print magazine and, as Carter has said, his job as editor has not changed; it is just the means of delivery that are different.

Meanwhile, new publications are being built on Substack. Editor Joshi Herrmann’s bid to deliver local news in newsletter form is bringing in around £250,000 a year for his nascent company The Mill in Manchester and other outlets based in Liverpool and Sheffield. Byline Times’s political editor Adam Bienkov has inspired his employer to launch on the platform.

“I think we are where the US was 18 months ago, and we are going to get some big names coming over to Substack,” says Sam Freedman. While the bigger social media platforms have tried to nullify its threat, Twitter and Facebook have both wound down their rival efforts to host newsletters. Instagram has introduced a payment model, in which users can charge each other for access to exclusive content – something Musk could adopt to prop up collapsing revenues at Twitter. In December, he expressed interest in buying Substack and integrating it into Twitter.

The big platforms will need to act. High-profile users on Twitter, Instagram and YouTube are increasingly asking themselves a question provoked by Substack’s precedent: why have I spent years building an audience over which I have no ownership, and for which I am not paid? A stampede to Substack may be about to begin.

This article was originally published on 9 January 2023.

[See also: Twitter’s double standards under Elon Musk]

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This article appears in the 11 Jan 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Burning down the House of Windsor