The Media

What Substack Is Really Doing to the Media

The company is targeting one of news organizations’ weak points.

A guillotine with the Substack logo looms over a rolled up newspaper.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus and Substack.

This week, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg granted a rare, live, hourlong interview to a tech journalist, where he revealed the company’s plans for a slew of new audio products. Normally, such a scoopy, wide-ranging interview would be a coup for the media company that landed it. But in this case, there was no traditional media company: The interviewer was Casey Newton, who writes a Substack newsletter called Platformer, and the setting was a new Discord server that Newton and seven other independent writers have created called Sidechannel. A thousand people—paying subscribers to at least one of the newsletters—tuned in.

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It was the latest milestone in Substack’s ascendance as a platform for high-profile journalism. The company’s rise, punctuated by a venture capital round that valued it at $650 million, has been fueled by an influx of well-known commentators formerly employed by major media outlets such as the New York Times, Vox, and BuzzFeed. Some are lured by the editorial freedom, others by the cash on offer, which for top writers can hit seven figures. Several outlets have lost their biggest names to Substack (though not always unhappily); Slate and New York recently lost their star advice columnists.

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In his interview with Newton, Zuckerberg framed Substack, along with audio and podcast platforms, as part of a bright future in which individual creators thrive unencumbered by traditional media gatekeepers. Substack’s biggest investors, the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, feel the same way: They’re banking on a future for journalists that doesn’t leave much space for editors, copy editors, fact-checkers, or even much of a business side. Mostly just writers, a technology platform, and a whole lot of revenue to split.

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It’s worth stipulating that such a future remains speculative. Substack today has somewhere north of 500,000 paid subscribers, which represents a meteoric growth rate but is still just a fraction of, say, the New York Times’ 7.5 million. On the long list of threats to the future of news, the rise of newsletters is probably not near the top. If you’re hearing what feels like a lot about Substack these days, it’s because journalists are obsessed with news about the news, especially when it involves boatloads of money. (For example, Matt Yglesias’ reported annual subscription revenue is $860,000 for his first year on the platform—although he’s making less than half of that because he took a $250,000 advance from Substack, and for now is keeping only a small cut of the subscription money.)

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Still, the trend line is striking enough that publishers are already shifting strategies and personnel in response to Substack’s breakout year. The Times announced last week that celebrated Styles editor Choire Sicha will shift to a new project overseeing newsletters. My former employer, Medium, last month offered buyouts to its entire editorial staff to refocus on “supporting independent voices” on its blogging platform.

Let’s imagine, then, that the tide of writers going independent were to continue unabated. What would that mean, exactly, for the media institutions they leave behind—and for journalism writ large?

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A key to understanding Substack’s impact on the news is to recognize that the kind of journalism that tends to thrive there—so far, at least for the most part—is not actually news. It’s commentary and analysis, aimed at the chattering classes.

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Leading newsletters such as Heather Cox Richardson’s Letter From an American, Roxane Gay’s the Audacity, and Scott Alexander’s Astral Codex Ten are wildly diverse in their perspectives and subject matter. But one thing they have in common is that they’ve never covered a city council meeting or rushed out to a crime scene to get the scoop. “I haven’t seen one of these independent Substacks that comes close to replicating what most news organizations spend most of their resources doing,” said Bill Grueskin, a professor at Columbia Journalism School and former senior editor at Bloomberg and the Wall Street Journal.

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That’s not to say Substack writers can’t do original reporting. Judd Legum’s Popular Information newsletter is fundamentally investigative and has broken important stories. Newton’s Platformer gets big tech scoops, and former White House correspondent Hunter Walker announced his move to Substack last week with an intention to break political news there. Substack also recently announced a $1 million initiative to fund local journalists.

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Still, the site’s leaderboards are populated mostly with writers who are better known for theorizing, contextualizing, and opining than working the phones or scouring public records. And that makes sense: News is about discovering and distributing timely information to the public at large, and can be slow and costly to produce. Paid newsletters are about consistently appealing to the interests of a loyal, niche audience, which can be accomplished relatively quickly by a single writer drawing on the original reporting of others.

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At first glance, then, Substack’s success would seem to mostly threaten digital media outlets built on commentary and analysis, rather than news-gathering—outlets not unlike the one you’re reading now. (This is also true of Medium, which is probably Substack’s largest direct competitor. And, full disclosure, Substack has approached me about potentially writing there, though I have yet to speak with anyone at the company or seriously consider it.) Who wins those battles matters to the people and entities involved, of course, but probably not to the future of the republic.

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Yet just because Substack seems unlikely to produce a lot of news doesn’t mean that traditional news organizations are safe. To understand how it could alter the economics of, say, the Washington Post or the Minneapolis Star Tribune, you have to understand the cross-subsidies at the heart of the newspaper business.

Historically, news organizations employed teams of workaday reporters to suss out what’s going on in some domain of public interest and present that to a wide audience. It’s that work that justified their privileged status in the Bill of Rights, their access to the halls of government, their righteous self-image as guardians of democracy. But newsrooms also understood that dry accountings of the quotidian affairs of the statehouse or lengthy series on workplace safety violations at a local employer weren’t enough on their own to draw in a mass audience. To sell papers, to drive ratings, to attract splashy advertisers, they needed other stuff too: sports scores, sensational crime stories, weepy human-interest features, spicy op-eds, stock quotes, crosswords, weather reports, classified ads.

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They also needed personalities: regular columnists whose household names and distinctive voices or perspectives would keep readers coming back, and would become bound up in readers’ minds with the publication’s identity. You could get the day’s news from lots of places, but you could only read Herb Caen in the Chronicle, Maureen Dowd in the Times, and Leonard Pitts in the Herald. (Syndication complicated that picture a bit, but you get the idea.)

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Over two decades, online media has chipped away at almost all of those selling points. You could get your sports on ESPN.com, crime stories on the Mail Online, stock quotes and weather reports on your phone, classified ads on Craigslist, and spicy op-eds … hell, pretty much anywhere. This process has come to be known among media analysts as “unbundling,” andalong with the migration of advertising from print to online and behind the walls of Google and Facebookit’s been brutal for the giants of old media.

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But there remained one big draw that was, until recently, still bundled: the personalities. It’s also one that became more important as the internet collapsed newspapers’ geographic monopolies and put them in competition with magazines and blogs. As a result, they became pivotal to the media’s online subscription strategy, which is one of the few strategies that’s still working—for now. The Times’ digital success has been built partly on a major expansion of its opinion section; magazines such as the Atlantic and Mother Jones have relied on their best-known columnists to support their originally reported features and investigations.

It’s those personalities that Substack is going after and poaching. By definition, the people thriving on Substack are the very sort whose work gets readers to pull out their credit cards and subscribe. The threat it poses to news, then, is best understood as an economic one. And that leaves media companies with two choices: find ways to compete with Substack or rethink what it is that they offer that Substack can’t or won’t.

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Grueskin believes the trend of star journalists going independent is likely to continue, because Twitter has allowed them to build personal brands that transcend those of their employers. As for the impact on news outlets, he said, “Anytime a talented person leaves your news organization, especially somebody who has authority on a beat or in a certain area, you’re going to take a bit of a hit. If your Iran person leaves, you can’t just take somebody else and say, ‘Go cover Iran.’ ” But opinion writers may be more fungible, he added. “Honestly, there are a lot of people out there who do good opinion writing. If anything, the supply exceeds the demand.”

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Ultimately, then, the challenge for news organizations will be less about how to fill the opinion pages, and more about how to sell subscriptions when their best-known writers are constantly tempted to strike out on their own. The current math of Substack revenue makes it more lucrative for those big names to serve a small audience of direct subscribers than to draw a salary from a news organization. But it doesn’t seem to serve less-established authors as well, so far.

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Media companies could respond by paying their best-known writers more—but that, too, would undermine the cross-subsidy to their news operations, and might cause internal friction to boot. The better option might be to hold firm on top salaries and instead tout the value of their editing, newsroom diversity and camaraderie, institutional backing, and wide audience. If that leads to higher churn among columnists, and makes it harder for the New York Times to maintain longtime readers of Tom Friedman and David Brooks, it might not be the worst thing. “I’ve long argued for a constitutional amendment to impose term limits on op-ed writers,” Grueskin joked (I think). To the extent they take subscribers with them, the Times will have to win them back by marketing its original reporting, its accountability journalism, and the diverse information diet it offers readers for a single price.

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The biggest barrier to Substack might be the sheer quantity of individual newsletter subscriptions that readers are willing to pay for. Already there’s a running Twitter joke that someone should get together a bunch of Substack writers, give them editors, and bundle their newsletters together for one price. (“Congratulations, you’ve invented a newspaper!”) A recent arrival from the Times—the opinion writer Charlie Warzel—was the target of a Glenn Greenwald sneer because he signed up merely “hundreds” of subscribers in his first week, rather than thousands. (Warzel, for his part, said he’s in it for love not money.)

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The heyday of blogs offers some precedent: It spawned independents such as Andrew Sullivan, Brian Stelter, and Arianna Huffington who were eventually reabsorbed into big media companies (or in Huffington’s case, became a big media company). If Sidechannel represents Substack’s future, then maybe there will be room for news there after all, as the big-name pundits in a writer collective cross-subsidize junior reporters.

But if Substack keeps booming, the best response for news organizations might be to embrace more diverse perspectives in their op-ed pages, viewing them more as a platform for outside experts than a home for familiar columnists—and to refocus their pitch to readers around the one thing that can never be unbundled from the news: the news itself.

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