The Tenuous Promise of the Substack Dream

Substack CEO Chris Best tells me that while he’s not out to kill what’s left of big media, the ad-free newsletter model has advantages over what traditional journalism has become—a chase for clicks where “most people’s media diets get determined by social media,” he says. “And so we end up in this world where the things that everybody reads are not the things that you would choose to put into your mind if you were sitting back and making that decision thoughtfully.” If you are paying $100 a year to follow a single writer, you’d surely be more thoughtful about it!
That’s the price of Platformer, Casey Newton’s new Substack. He started it after writing a similar newsletter for his employer Vox, for two years. He saw other journalists take the leap, including Emily Atkin, who writes a popular newsletter about climate change. Plus, during the pandemic everyone is working from home anyway. “I felt like if it works, it could just be mine,” he tells me. “And I wouldn’t have to worry about what might happen to Vox Media in 10 years.” He says he sees newsletters as something he’ll be doing for his whole career. And if he draws a relatively modest paying audience, he can match his previous salary. “I only need to have 3,000 subscribers to have the best job in journalism,” he says.Can paid newsletters scale to be an important part of journalism, as Substack hopes? Newton is right that only a few thousand readers can get him a star salary—even after Substack’s 10 percent fee, 3,000 readers at $100 a year would put him in the top tier of industry pay, and if he gets to five or six thousand readers, he’s definitely well into the penthouse region of journalistic paychecks. But getting those readers is hard, especially if the Substack model proves successful and hundreds of other writers are tempting readers to pay for their unique and glorious content. How many can people afford? Even in these nascent days, there’s a term for the problem:“subscription fatigue.” Substack’s Best says that having that problem would mean that the model is working, but he admits that it might affect his company’s growth. “How much people are going to want to spend on stuff is obviously not unlimited,” he admits. One thing is certain—to keep readers coming back, these newsletter writers must keep delivering tangible value. Otherwise they might wonder why they are paying more than half the standard subscription price of the New York Times for the musings of a single writer.
I suspect that in the long run, star writers like Newton or the former Rolling Stone scribe Matt Taibbi, another Substack luminary, will eventually rejoin bigger publications, just as orbiting objects in space are inevitably sucked in by Earth’s gravity. Among other things, it’s simply more fun to communicate with potentially millions of readers as opposed to a few thousand paying customers. And when Covid fades, there will be newsroom culture once more, with all its exhilirating intrigues and distractions.
Nonetheless, the Substack model has a future. It is perfect for enterprising reporters—ambitious newcomers, disgruntled mid-termers, and post-buyout veterans—to pick an unfilled niche that serves the obsessions or business needs of small groups of people with some cash to spend. Think of it as edge journalism: covering the hell out of beats that traditional publications haven’t even thought of, or if they did, wouldn’t assign a full-time reporter to obsessively research. Even this isn’t new; as a college student, Brian Stelter, for instance, got his start in media with his blog, TVNewser, which ventured deep into the weeds of an industry that loved to read gossip about itself. If he were doing it today, Stelter undoubtedly would have done it via Substack. I see a lot of absolute beginners pursuing that course in the years ahead. And some of them, like Stelter, who is now a CNN star, will be plucked up by bigger venues.