This year has felt like one endless breaking news cycle. Despite ample fodder for reporting, media and journalism have been devastated by the pandemic. Between March and July, more than 11,000 newsroom jobs disappeared and 37,000 media workers have faced pay cuts, layoffs, or furloughs.
The pandemic has been much kinder to newsletter and open-source content platforms like Substack, Patreon, Mailchimp’s Tinyletter, and Medium, which have all grown their subscribers, users, staff, and social media followings during the pandemic.
The number of people with Substack listed as their employer on LinkedIn has grown 500% since March. Meanwhile, Medium’s LinkedIn listings are up 86%, while Patreon’s grew 25% and Mailchimp’s rose 15%. These bumps reflect both an increase in users, as well as staff, since writers who publish on these platforms aren’t technically employees but often list them as employers online. By an official count, Substack has doubled its active writers since the start of the pandemic, reports NPR.
These trends aren’t unrelated. Platforms like Substack have become a more flexible and potentially, more lucrative alternative publisher for writers and journalists. The “Substackerati” is a nickname for the growing list of renowned reporters and Twitter-famous commentators who’ve ditched jobs at prestigious outlets to start paid newsletters with the San Francisco start-up. Rolling Stone writer Matt Taibbi took his investigative political reporting to Substack full time in April. In August. Anne Helen Peterson left her position as a senior culture writer at Buzzfeed to found her Substack “Culture Study.” A month later, tech reporter Casey Newton exited The Verge to write his Substack, “Platformer.” Vulture’s Hunter Harris, New York Magazine’s Andrew Sullivan, The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald all followed. Memoirist and former Vice columnist Cat Marnell and sportswriters Jeff Gluck and Derek Bodner have set up shop on Patreon.
“[Substack] is a lifeboat for people off the wreck of Old Media — or New Media, for that matter,” Richard Rushfield, a former Vanity Fair reporter who now writes a Substack about Hollywood called The Ankler, told the New York Times.
How email lists, did the former mainstay of churches and community soccer leagues become heralded as the future of media? What could be making writers leave the trophy that is a full-time writing job and willingly go independent?
Even though the pandemic accelerated the trend, it didn’t start it. Writers have been questioning their stability and upward mobility at magazines and newspapers — and if they’d exist at all in the future — for years. Between 2004 and 2019, nearly half of all newspaper jobs in America were eliminated, as hedge funds bought up media outlets, then often shrank their staffs and budgets. Now, the pandemic has erased more staff jobs, eroded their stability, and lowered their pay.
“The staff positions at BuzzFeed during the pandemic felt very precarious,” Peterson told Study Hall. “If you’re not the New York Times, if you’re not a legacy publication and are still reliant on an advertising model of funding and also reliant on Facebook, what are the limits of this sort of articles you can write, the ambitions you can have?”
This sounds unlikely, but one lure of striking out on your own as a writer is the promise of a sustainable paycheck. Substack’s business model takes a 10% cut of all subscriptions on top of the transaction processing fees writers have to pay to Stripe. As of July, around 100,000 people paid for at least one newsletter. So far, this has proved a sustainable model both for Substack and their writers. Peterson has roughly 23,000 subscribers, around 2,000 of which are paid. She charges $5 a month, which, after Substack’s fee, equals an annual salary of over $100,000 — over $30,000 more than the average salary for a senior writer in New York. The top 12 Substack writers earn an average of over $160,000. However, it’s not a get-rich-quick scheme. The Financial Times estimated that Substack’s profits are as imbalanced as Spotify’s, where 43,000 artists account for 90% of all streams.
Patreon also takes 10% of creators’ subscriber revenue, collected by users who charge for creative writing, visual art, comedy, podcasts, journalism, gaming livestreams, fashion tutorials, educational materials, and much more. TinyLetter, a traditional newsletter service, doesn’t allow users to charge for subscriptions — parent company MailChimp does, but it’s service is intended more for businesses than writers. On Medium, an online publishing platform where anyone can post writing (and which recently launched a newsletter function), authors earn money through the site’s “Partner Program,” bringing in cash based on how much time paying members spend reading their articles. A new Substack competitor, Ghost, is hoping to lure subscribers with a flat monthly fee starting at $29, but a 0% fee on transactions. Another rival, Lede, which recently poached leftist blog Defector, promises a more robust set of tools and frames itself as a product to help start-ups grow into full-fledged publications.
For some writers, the decision to leave traditional media is more about editorial freedom than a bigger paycheck. Writers don’t have to pray at the altar of traffic stats or SEO when readers have opted to receive articles in their inbox. Newsletter platforms have also become a home for ideological renegades. Glenn Greenwald, who co-founded Intercept, ditched his own outlet after claiming he was being censored by editors, who refused to let him publish a report on Hunter Biden. The most popular Substack is The Dispatch, a conservative newsletter run by alums of The National Review and The Weekly Standard. It brings in nearly $2 million a year from nearly 100,000 subscribers, 18,000 of which are paid. Andrew Sullivan took up residence on the platform after he was pushed out of New York Magazine for refusing to recant an article that argued for the link between race and IQ score.
Substack has become the platform of choice for writers and journalists — and increasingly, the most popular newsletter platform in general. Though it’s younger than competitors, founded in 2017, it has grown rapidly. Substack’s Twitter following increased 244% so far in 2020, compared to Patreon’s 26% bump and Tinyletter’s 1.6% increase. Medium has seen 1.3% growth of its Twitter followers this year.
The future of newsletters isn’t predestined. Earlier this year, rumors spread that Twitter was considering acquiring Substack, to turn the platform into a kind of “Twitter premium.” Substack co-founder Hamish McKenzie promptly shut them down. Others have also predicted that products like Substack are merely a stepping stone towards a wave of niche, subscription-based, writer-led independent outlets like Discourse, which was founded on Substack, but now operates independently, with support from Lede. Laid-off employees from Deadspin founded a sports and politics blog, Defector this summer on a similar model. Newsletters are winning today, but what will be built to last from the wreckage of traditional media remains to be seen.
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