An imploding mediascape has driven independent journalists to publish their work in newsletters like Substack. But a la carte news is not a sustainable model for anyone.
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Spreadsheets are not my natural habitat. I do letters, not figures. But like a polar bear swinging from the trees or an orca flip-flopping across the Sahara, I recently spent several days immersed in a sea of Google Sheets cells running numbers on the sustainability of subscription-funded newsletters, the new frontier of publishing for independent journalists and writers.
I’m hardly the only one trying to figure out how or whether to run a journalism business in the Year of Our Subscription Fatigue 2023. Others have been doing different versions of the same calculations, at various scales. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, for example, has run numbers on how the newspaper could go from 60,000 to 500,000 digital subscribers in 2.5 years. Exciting! Garbage Day has run numbers on how Facebook news views have plummeted after the platform deprioritized mainstream U.S. news links. Disheartening! The Texas Tribune, the ur-model for nonprofit newsrooms, has run numbers and, for the first time, laid off its entire copy desk and a whole host of reporters covering policing and corruption as a result. Awful!
Precarity has become the default mode for media workers, with industry jobs disappearing faster than ever. There’s a reason more and more newsrooms are unionizing; folks lucky enough to work on staff these days are being pushed to produce more content with fewer resources and diminishing job security. Attacks on the free press are proliferating across the country, and journalists, especially those from marginalized backgrounds or who cover extremism, have been threatened with increasing frequency (and even vilified in the right-wing press). It’s no wonder we’re seeking out self-run publishing opportunities amid a media landscape in tremendous upheaval.
And newslettering seems especially attractive following the death of Twitter, which has sent folks like me, who once built sizable followings on the platform, scrambling for ways to reach our now-scattered communities. Substack is perhaps the best-known among the new crop of newsletter hosts, but there’s also Buttondown, Ghost and Beehiiv in addition to old(er) services like Medium, MailChimp, and Squarespace, “creator” funding sites like Ko-Fi and Patreon, and internet-geriatric blogging sites like WordPress. Practically all of them would have us believe not just that newslettering is the future of journalism, but that the prospect of getting paid real money for everything from our stray thoughts to deeply researched independent reporting is available to all, and just a few clicks away.
But there’s a price we all pay for the a-la-carte-ification of news and commentary, and it’s more than the sum total of our many and various $5 monthly subscriptions. Journalism—good journalism for sure, but even run-of-the-mill stuff—is costly and time-consuming. Hours spent covering everything from Congress to city council meetings, shelling out for court documents, and renting cars and hotel rooms to meet sources all add up quickly. There are a few writers who have big-enough followings and/or a solid-enough savings cushion to strike out on their own and succeed from the jump, but many of us are looking at putting in full-time work for a tenth-of-the-time pay (if that). Some platforms, notably Substack, offer attractive advances and editorial support, but usually to a tier of higher-profile journalists who could already succeed without it. It’s an enormous gamble for the average reporter to bet on making anything resembling a living by cheerily squeezing subscribers for a few dollars at a time.
As a result, the indie newsletter model as it exists today predominantly supports three kinds of work: commentary, aggregation, and right-wing outrage. It’s not impossible to produce traditional or even activist and advocacy reporting on a newsletter platform, but anybody with access to a calculator is going to figure out pretty quickly that if you’re only netting $50 per post, most folks, however talented and experienced they may be, can’t afford to put in 20 hours of work every time. I’m not dunking on commentary and aggregation—it’s the approach I chose for my own newsletter—but the form necessitates the existence of an ever-replenishing repository of reporting to comment on and aggregate, and often ends up rewarding the proliferation and production of fascist fuckery that gins up hits and fodder for commentators and aggregators.
At the same time, fewer reporters than ever—whether independent, freelance, or staff and salaried folks—are able to produce the kinds of well-researched, deeply sourced investigations into growing encroachments on human and civil rights that are necessary to an informed public and healthy democracy. And, though it pains me to admit this, even the most talented writers and reporters generally benefit from some amount of editorial collaboration and support, a non-starter when you’re scraping for subscriptions. (A good editor, for example, steered this very column away from an inside-baseball rumination on the nitty-gritty of paid newslettering into what I hope is a broader, more thoughtful take on the state of the industry overall.) Add to this the very real possibility that the hardest-hitting reporting will need the kinds of legal defenses that have historically been provided by publications; it’s only a matter of time before an indie newsletterer goes all the way under after pissing off the wrong Peter Thiel wannabe (or maybe even the actual Peter Thiel).
Newslettering—what we used to just call regular-old blogging, but delivered directly to readers’ inboxes— is at present an unsustainable system made even more complicated by the fact that the current leading platform for indie- and paid-newsletter publishing, Substack, outright privileges fringe, white-supremacist, transphobic, and otherwise right-wing content -creators as its most remunerative writer base. It’s not a bad business model as such. They’ve certainly identified a productive way to avail themselves of the outrage ouroboros: Fund right-wing haranguing, and then make it easy and free for justice-minded writers to link to and complain about the same—and then to recruit their subscribers to support their incisive and thoughtful takes. It’s not so different from the way social media works overall, and no surprise that Substack is increasingly modeling itself as a stand-alone social media platform as much or more than as a newsletter publisher.
Substack’s competitors haven’t yet moved quite as far in that particular direction as has the industry leader, but they don’t make setting up shop nearly as light a lift. Substack takes a flat 10 percent of all paid subscriptions in exchange for no up-front hosting fees and out-of-the-box web publishing. Some alternatives, like Ghost, are prohibitively pricey for folks who are coming into the newsletter game with more than a few hundred subscribers, and Ghost takes a better-than-base-level understanding of website design to get properly set up (and also itself brags about hosting the odious right-wing pub Quillette). There’s Beehiiv and Buttondown, which also charge up-front hosting fees, but they make migration away from Substack somewhat easier for regular users, and old-school platforms like WordPress, which are just now getting into the newsletter game (and make newsletter migration a real grind—ask me how I know).
For folks who are looking to do anything beyond publishing their stray thoughts on the internet—hello, blogging, the year 1999 would like a word!—there aren’t any really great options. The social-media feel of Substack, whose algorithm makes it a particularly cozy place to find and follow your favorite and new-favorite writers, also mostly rewards writers who are best situated to network with those who already have the most followers. Less explicitly network-based platforms don’t offer easy ways to find folks like those whose work you already appreciate, but may feel better overall for users who dislike Substack’s feigned, highly conservative apoliticism. “Creator”-focused platforms like Ko-Fi and Patreon, and marketing outfits like ConvertKit and Squarespace, are generally better-suited for folks who make visual art or tangible goods.
As ever, late-stage capitalism screws us all in the end, and hyperindividualistic hustle-culture is a poor rejoinder to systemic struggles. A smart and motivated writer—or “content creator,” whatever we’re calling ourselves these days—can probably make any of these platforms pay off, or at least break even. It’s not really about which platform we attach ourselves to, because the problem we’re trying to address both for ourselves and our communities is so much bigger than we could ever solve on our own.
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