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Tired Of The Social Media Rat Race, Journalists Move To Writing Substack Newsletters

San Francisco-based Hamish McKenzie, Chris Best and Jairaj Sethi are the co-founders of the email newsletter platform Substack, which has seen its active writers more than double since the start of the pandemic.
San Francisco-based Hamish McKenzie, Chris Best and Jairaj Sethi are the co-founders of the email newsletter platform Substack, which has seen its active writers more than double since the start of the pandemic.

As a tech journalist for the website The Verge, Casey Newton established himself as something of a Silicon Valley institution. Known for a mix of original reporting and gimlet-eyed analysis, his writing has become essential reading for those who want to better understand the industry.

This fall, he quit his steady job at The Verge to start an email newsletter with Substack, a San Francisco-based startup.

"All of a sudden this thing comes along where it's like, imagine never having to ask your boss for a raise again. All you have to do is do good work and attract customers," Newton said. "That just seems like a really fun game to play."

Substack provided Newton a website and slick email tools. It offered him the added perks of a health-care subsidy and access to a legal defense fund. Newton does his own marketing.

"All I have to do is find a few thousand people who will pay me $10 a month or $100 a year and I'll have one of the best jobs in journalism," Newton said.

Newton joins legions of other journalists who have ditched staff gigs at established publications like Rolling Stone, The New Republic, New York Magazine, BuzzFeed and Vox to join what has been dubbed the "Substackerati."

Substack co-founder Chris Best said journalists are flocking to the platform after becoming exhausted by the constant pressure of landing the next viral hit on Facebook or Twitter.

"The platforms we're spending all our time on incentivize that stuff and make that stuff easy and give it fuel," he said. "The way to fix that is to have a better business model where that's not true."

Social media 'breaks everything,' says Substack co-founder

Email newsletters are far from new. The format's resurgence has been documented in past years. But Best said Substack is different for two reasons: It has developed a way for independent writers to make money — that is, as long as they convert readers into paid subscribers. And, unlike some of its competitors, Substack emphasizes the freedom it gives writers, letting them own their content and their subscription lists, so they can leave the platform at any time and take their subscribers with them.

In exchange, Substack pockets a 10% cut of a writer's earnings from subscriptions. Credit-card processor Stripe takes another 3%. But the rest of what readers pay goes directly to the writer.

Best used to work at the messaging app Kik, which is where he met Jairaj Sethi and Hamish McKenzie. Together they founded Substack.

"You're subscribing directly to a writer," Best said. "And we're providing the plumbing that makes that happen."

Substack's rise has been helped along by more than the proverbial plumbing pipes. Investors including Andreessen Horowitz and Y Combinator are making big bets that the company's email-newsletter model will take flight, in part by placing inboxes above algorithm-driven news feeds.

"Craigslist killed the classifieds. Facebook and Google took over the advertising industry. And we now live in a world where social media has kind of grabbed all of our attention. And we're stuck in this mode where everybody is sort of chasing engagement," Best said. "That sort of breaks everything."

His message hit home for Helena Fitzgerald, a New York freelance writer. She says her primary source of income now comes from writing her Substack newsletter "Griefbacon," which offers a mix of paid-for and free posts, a common Substack strategy.

"The one-sentence pitch I have for it is that it's like long, weird essays about love," she said.

Her writing can be strange and messy, she said, and not as timely as it would have to be to grab attention on social media.

"It's something you can't really pitch to a site that's looking to get a lot of clicks through an algorithm," Fitzgerald said.

Recently she wrote an essay about her love for sitcom pizza deliveries. That might not have risen to the top of a Facebook news feed, but it resonated with her readers. And while she'd like to be able to afford an editor eventually, for now, without any bosses, anything goes.

"But that's part of what's appealing to me about Substack," she said. "I can write things that I'm just throwing at the wall and see how people react to it."

Passing fad or durable business model?

Call it a perfect storm: Combine frustration with social media algorithms, people hunkered down in the pandemic staring at their screens, and a media industry hammered by the economic downturn. By one estimate, nearly 30,000 media jobs have been cut in 2020.

Enter Substack. Even though it was founded in 2017, it reached new heights this year. The number of active writers doubled between March and June, and it has continued to grow rapidly since then, according to the company.

Substack now has more than 250,000 paying subscribers. Taken together, its top 10 publishers rake in some $7 million annually.

Influential voices on the right and left, historians, even an anonymous bankruptcy expert have found success on Substack. Yet paychecks aren't guaranteed.

"The Substack model works really well for some people who already have prestige and a following. And it doesn't work that well for everybody else,"said New York University Journalism Professor Meredith Broussard.

It's too soon to tell whether Substack will last, or be another Internet fad, eventually tapering off into obscurity.

"We've seen the enthusiasm before. We've seen this hype cycle before," she said. "If this is the time it happens, then I'm here for it. And if it's not the time that it happens, there's gonna be another thing around the corner."

Some have suspicions about a venture capital-backed tech startup attempting to reinvent the news industry. While that is understandable to Newton — formerly of The Verge, now of Substack — he said providing a way for more journalism to happen in the world is a good thing. Perhaps, he said, cynicism should be set aside to give this one a chance.

"I'm not somebody who thinks that Substack is going to save journalism," he said. "But do I think it can create a lot of sustainable journalism jobs? I do."

With time, according to tech experts, Substack will likely be pulled into the "content moderation wars," forced to confront what is allowed and what isn't on their sites — the same thorny issues Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other platforms have faced for months.

Like the dominant social networks, Substack considers itself a hands-off, neutral platform. Yet it recruits new writers with cash offers, provides legal support and distributes content both online and in email inboxes. When asked if the company could now or ever be considered a media company, co-founder Best had a quick response: "Certainly not."

Broussard of NYU said one major challenge for Substack will be preserving civility on its platform while also maintaining breakneck growth.

"Substack is new and shiny now," she said. "But it's going to have a problem with becoming a cacophony once it passes a certain point in popularity."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bobby Allyn is a business reporter at NPR based in San Francisco. He covers technology and how Silicon Valley's largest companies are transforming how we live and reshaping society.