The Substackerati

Did a newsletter company create a more equitable media system—or replicate the flaws of the old one?

The first week of March, Patrice Peck, a freelance journalist living in New York, started sanitizing everything. She went to Nitehawk, a dine-in movie theater, and brought Clorox to wipe down the little table by her seat, her drinking glass, the utensils. In those early days, she felt like she was the only one obsessing over the coronavirus. As the pandemic spread, she started exchanging updates with a friend via text message and calling her grandmother in Jamaica to discuss the situation there. Peck anticipated that Black people would be hit the hardest, and that this aspect of the story would not receive enough coverage. “It was just very obvious to me,” she said.

By April, shelter-in-place orders were in effect. Peck—who is thirty-three and stylish, lately with cat-eye glasses and short hair—was holed up in her apartment. She and her partner set up to work side by side, their laptops perched on the kitchen island; Peck scoured the internet for news as Black people in America began dying from covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, at twice the rate of whites. “I wanted to write something that would be valuable to readers and informative and empowering, particularly to Black audiences,” she said. So she did what so many other independent journalists were doing—she started a Substack.

Substack, established in 2017 by three tech-and-media guys—Chris Best, Hamish McKenzie, and Jairaj Sethi—is a newsletter platform that allows writers and other creative types to distribute their work at tiered subscription rates. Newsletters go back at least as far as the Middle Ages, but these days, with full-time jobs at stable media companies evaporating—between the 2008 recession and 2019, newsroom employment dropped by 23 percent—Substack offers an appealing alternative. And, for many, it’s a viable source of income. In three years, Substack’s newsletters—covering almost every conceivable topic, from Australian Aboriginal rights to bread recipes to local Tennessee politics—have drawn more than two hundred fifty thousand paid subscribers. The top newsletter authors can earn six figures, an unheard-of amount for freelance journalists. Emily Atkin, who runs Heated, on the climate crisis, told me that her gross annual income surpassed $200,000—and among paid-readership Substacks, she’s ranked fifteenth. “I literally opened my first savings account,” she said.

Peck had been mulling the idea of starting a newsletter for a while. She began thinking seriously about Substack when she saw Beauty IRL, a newsletter by Darian Harvin. Like Peck, Harvin is a freelancer—it was “really a matter of time” until she was laid off from one media job or another, she figured—and she was using Substack as a place for surplus ideas. “I take some of my pitches and just write them for my newsletter,” Harvin said. “Publications are only paying me three hundred dollars per piece, so I thought, What would happen if I took some of them and grew my audience?” Her efforts were getting noticed; eventually, Substack gave her a $3,000 stipend and a $25,000 advance (in the latter arrangement, Substack takes 50 percent of her subscription fees until the advance is paid off, but if she doesn’t reach that number, Harvin won’t owe Substack the rest).

Peck settled on a name for her project: Coronavirus News for Black Folks. She’d produce it a few times a week, with a reading list of recommended articles and original interviews with Black essential workers, accompanied by images she’d commission from Black illustrators. At least at the start, she decided, her newsletter would be free—she wanted her writing to be accessible, especially as Black people were suffering disproportionately from the pandemic-induced economic downturn. Her first installments were about Black men afraid of being racially profiled for wearing masks and coronavirus conspiracies circulating online; the tone was direct and conversational. (“As Belcalis Marlenis Almánzar famously said about covid-19, ‘Sh*t is getting real,’ ” Peck wrote in an early dispatch.) After a couple weeks, Adriana Lacy, another Black journalist, interviewed Peck for her own Substack—The Intersection, focused on journalism, technology, and innovation—and Nieman Lab picked it up. A month into developing her newsletter, Peck had nine hundred seventy-eight subscribers. Not long after, that number rose to two thousand.

Peck quickly recognized the possibilities of Substack: a wandering journalist, disenchanted by an industry that was never all that equitable to begin with and is now in financial free fall, could, perhaps, claim control of her work. As more people signed up for Coronavirus News for Black Folks, Peck imagined all the ways it might grow, and wondered whether it could become a full-time job. “In an ideal world, I’m the editor in chief or editor at large of the newsletter; I’m using it to allow other journalists who like to cover these communities to have a place to write,” she mused. “And I’m able to compensate them during a time when there are so many layoffs.”

Patrice Peck When she started Coronavirus News for Black Folks, Peck was the sole producer of an ambitious project.

Substack started the same way many media ventures do—with a personal essay. In 2017, Best, a programmer from a Vancouver suburb who cofounded a messaging app called Kik, had taken some time off work and, finding himself an avid reader, began thinking about writing something himself. He drafted a piece bemoaning how the journalism industry’s failing business models incentivized clicks, retweets, and likes over incisive prose. At the time, the media apocalypse was in full force—the limits of digital media were apparent (that year, Mic and Vice instituted mass layoffs after bowing to Facebook in an ill-fated “pivot to video”) and legacy media was bleeding (Condé Nast faced perennial ad revenue loss; a desperate Tribune Publishing changed its name to Tronc). “Now we’re in this world where social media feeds optimize for engagement, because that’s how they make money, and just as kind of an unintentional collateral damage they end up amplifying all the things that drive us crazy,” Best argued. “It’s bad for us as readers and bad for society.” Best sent a first draft to McKenzie, with whom he’d worked at Kik.

“He was like, ‘First of all, you’re a bad writer and you shouldn’t do this,’ ” Best recalled. In McKenzie’s telling, he gently informed Best that he thought he was stating the obvious: everyone in media already understood what the problems were; what was missing was a solution. Before working in technology, McKenzie had grown up in a small town on the South Island of New Zealand and attended journalism school with the hope of becoming a foreign correspondent. He spent four years in Hong Kong, where he ended up writing mostly about indie music and drinking dens. Later, he worked as a reporter for PandoDaily, a tech news site, then transitioned into writing for companies—first Tesla, then Kik. McKenzie encouraged Best to think about more than a diagnosis. Through the spring of 2017, the two sent emails back and forth, had video calls, and brainstormed in Google Docs about what models might better serve journalism. Subscriptions, they decided, seemed the most promising—but not in the form of journals or magazines. “Paid newsletters” felt more familiar, personal, trustworthy—and more monetizable.

They had good reason to think it could work. Best and McKenzie were both fans of Stratechery, the newsletter by Ben Thompson, a former employee of Apple and Microsoft based in Taipei, who since 2014 had been writing about tech full-time, charging readers directly. “This guy was writing this newsletter from his bedroom in Taiwan and, as far as we know, making like a million dollars a year,” Best said. (An exaggeration, perhaps, but Thompson was earning a solid living.) They wondered why his approach, which took advantage of the internet’s strengths—a global distribution network, easy payment systems—hadn’t been replicated more widely. The Skimm and Axios had built companies around monetizing newsletters, but it wasn’t an idea widely embraced by individual journalists.

The guys devised a system of taking a 10 percent cut from subscriptions (Stripe, the credit card service that processed the fees, would take 2.9 percent, plus thirty cents per transaction), which they felt tied them to the writers. They reached out to Sethi, a developer they knew from Kik, to build out the technology. Their tagline was “We literally only make money when the writers do.” Substack’s mission, announced upon the company’s official debut, sounded more grandiose: “When it has reached maturity, the subscription-based news industry could well be much larger than the newspaper business ever was, much like the ride-hailing industry in San Francisco is bigger than the taxi industry was before Lyft and Uber,” the founders wrote. “Democratizing this subscription-based future will enable more writers to earn more money by writing about what truly matters. It puts the media’s destiny into the right hands.”

To get the future started, they recruited some contributors. The first was Bill Bishop, someone McKenzie knew from his time in Hong Kong. Bishop already ran a popular free newsletter, Sinocism, analyzing China-related news, and was thinking about going behind a paywall. He agreed to move his subscriber base—thirty thousand readers—to Substack. On launch day, in October 2017, he turned his newsletter into a six-figure business. (Bishop also became an angel investor in Substack.)

In the winter of 2018, the founders successfully applied for seed funding from Y Combinator, a company that helps startups get off the ground. By the summer of 2019, they announced that they had raised $15.3 million in Series A funding, with Andreessen Horowitz, the venture capital firm, as the lead backer. “Substack can solve the structural issues between publishers/writers and readers in a way that aligns the incentives between all of them,” Andrew Chen, a general partner at Andreessen Horowitz, wrote at the time. “This is the moment the next generation of media is being built.” Chen joined Substack’s board; they signed a lease on an office in San Francisco. As more people signed up to join the Substackerati, the company garnered praise from journalists. “Substack represents a radically different alternative, in which the ‘media company’ is a service and the journalists are in charge,” Ben Smith wrote in the New York Times. A Taste Media piece, anointing newsletters as the future of food coverage, argued that Substack is “allowing voices to be heard—through simple and free publishing tools—but it also allows creators to flip the switch for monetization.” Last year, BuzzFeed’s Alex Kantrowitz wrote that “paid email newsletters can bring in real money for writers with small, dedicated subscriber bases”; this year, Kantrowitz announced that he was leaving BuzzFeed to start a Substack.

Including McKenzie, who is thirty-nine; Best, thirty-three; and Sethi, thirty-one, the team now comprises seventeen people. Since the pandemic started, they’ve let the lease on their headquarters lapse. Recently, McKenzie and Best met with me over Zoom from their respective makeshift home setups. Both wore soft-gray T-shirts, the kind that represent the day-to-night look of media company founders everywhere; Best was working on a beard. Their lives had changed a lot since the spring—not just because of the coronavirus, they explained; each of them had newborns. (“Chris and I have dueling babies; they arrived within ten days of each other,” McKenzie said.) It was also the case that the pandemic had boosted their company’s growth—in the first three months, as hundreds of journalists lost their jobs, the number of active writers on Substack doubled and revenue increased by 60 percent. In the same week in July, Substack was covered in the New York Times and the Washington Post. McKenzie told me, “There’s been a huge ‘Oh, everyone’s paying attention to Substack now’ kind of feeling.”

They continued to approach potential contributors. When I asked what, exactly, they thought made someone a promising Substack writer, Best turned to McKenzie and asked, in a jokey hush, “Do we keep the Baschez score a secret?” McKenzie laughed. They have a system, created by a former employee named Nathan Baschez, that measures a Twitter user’s engagement level—retweets, likes, replies—among their followers. This person is then assigned a score on a logarithmic scale of fire emojis. Four fire emojis is very good—Substack material. Best and McKenzie will reach out and suggest that the person try a newsletter. The four-fire-emoji method turned up Heather Cox Richardson, a history professor at Boston College, whose Substack, Letters from an American—political with a historical eye—is now the second-top-paid. (The most popular newsletter on Substack is The Dispatch, a conservative publication founded by Jonah Goldberg, Steve Hayes, and Toby Stock.) “We called it giving them ‘the religion,’ because it wasn’t about Let’s type into this box and make money because people will pay you,” McKenzie said, of recruits. “It was like, We think there’s going to be a cultural shift here.” Lately, it seemed like everyone was a convert.

A wandering journalist, disenchanted by an industry that was never all that equitable and is now in free fall, could, perhaps, claim control of her work.

 

Because newsletter creators retain control of their email list, archives, and intellectual property, Substack’s main selling point is independence—from bosses, from ad-dependent corporate media models, from the whims of tech monopolies like Google and Facebook. The founders don’t claim that Substack will “save” media—a promise that’s bound to disappoint—but they argue that their model is a core part of a better, more worker-centric and reader-friendly future for journalism. All of that was attractive to Peck, who had decided in 2019 to leave a staff job at BuzzFeed, where she had been a beauty writer covering race, identity, diversity, and intersectional representation for underrepresented audiences. She’d had a bad experience there; after a round of layoffs, she was shuffled into a content-farm role; her new manager was unsupportive. She felt like the media industry offered her few alternatives (“Where can we go, as Black journalists?” she wondered aloud), so she quit her job to figure out what might come next. Ultimately, she decided to work only for herself.

That, of course, has its downsides. A hallmark of freelance life is isolation. Peck soon found that the labor of producing a newsletter can be grueling. Because Coronavirus News for Black Folks includes outside links, it requires lots of time-intensive reading—more than three days’ worth, if she doesn’t cram. The editing, compiling, and writing requires discipline; sometimes she stays up all night to finish. Then there’s production and the rest. Peck gradually slowed her pace, sending out installments a few times per month. “I’m creating graphics on Instagram to promote it, tweeting it, doing everything,” she said. “It’s a one-woman show. That gets exhausting. I don’t put it out as frequently as I’d like to.”

Complicating work was life during a pandemic: in the middle of the spring, Peck began living part-time in Los Angeles, where her partner had gotten a job. Without vacation days, she kept on filing new dispatches—about the pandemic’s effect in the Caribbean, about a pharmacist living paycheck to paycheck and receiving a “pitiful excuse” for hazard pay. She kept accumulating subscribers. But she realized how the intensity of her efforts, and the fact that the newsletter fell entirely on her shoulders, could lead quickly to burnout.

Writing is often considered an individualistic enterprise, but journalism is a collective endeavor. And that is the paradox of Substack: it’s a way out of a newsroom—and the racism or harassment or vulture-venture capitalism one encountered there—but it’s all the way out, on one’s own. “Holy shit, I work anywhere from fifty to sixty hours a week,” Atkin, of Heated, told me. “It’s a lot.” Harvin, the Beauty IRL writer, said she missed the infrastructure—legal and editorial—of a traditional outlet. “I just know how valuable it is to have a second ear to bounce ideas off of, someone to challenge you,” she said. “I’m very not big into writing in a vacuum, and I think that is the thing I miss the most.” Kelsey McKinney, a journalist whose literary Substack, Written Out, has accounted for about a third of her income during the pandemic, doesn’t do any reporting for her newsletter because of the lack of legal and editorial backing. Investigative journalism seems particularly difficult as a solo enterprise on Substack, which doesn’t reward slowly developed, uncertain projects that come out sporadically.

Substack has taken a few steps to address these concerns. Using its venture funding, the company has offered financial assistance to some newsletter writers—from small, no-strings-attached cash grants to $25,000 advances and $100,000 fellowships. In July, it introduced the Substack Defender program, through which writers with paid subscriptions could apply for third-party legal support. In the announcement, the founders promised more to come: “We will make a large investment in a services program that includes initiatives related to healthcare, personal finance, editing, distribution, design, and coworking spaces.” What all that entails, exactly, McKenzie told me they’re still figuring out; for now, they’ve started a pilot program to connect writers with editors and healthcare. “The solution to helping support a healthy ecosystem for writers and journalists is not a beautiful CMS or the blockchain or any other gimmicky thing,” he said. “It’s the entire support structure.” A few newsletters, finding the corporate help insufficient, created their own iterations of newsrooms that use Substack mainly as a platform to publish (The Dispatch, for instance).

“Substack is not the sort of thing that is going to create a sustainable next phase, but it can open the door to things that we don’t have doors for yet,” Nathan Schneider, a media studies professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, told me. To the extent that Substack fixes something in the journalism industry, it might be compared to GoFundMe—a survival mechanism whose resources are unevenly, arbitrarily distributed, laying bare systemic problems without directly tackling them. “GoFundMe can help us see things we’re not seeing and put money where it would not go,” Schneider said. “Of course, we don’t want a GoFundMe society.”

In my conversations with Substack writers, most told me that their newsletters didn’t amount to full-time work; they still had to hold on to other gigs. Peck earns her income primarily from one-off freelance pieces and speaking opportunities; she’s only been able to take a break from regular employment thanks to the support of her partner. Some writers use their Substacks to promote other projects they’ve been working on. A few consider it a place to get weird (see: Ellie Shechet’s Horrible Lists, with entries like “How to give up on your dream of moving home to become an herb farmer in 11 easy steps”). J.P. Brammer, who moved his popular advice column ¡Hola Papi! from one magazine to another before arriving at Substack, called it his “retirement home from queer media.” When he’s not writing his newsletter, he’s finishing up a memoir. He appreciates Substack for what it is. “If there wasn’t a flood, you wouldn’t need to build a dam,” he said. “You wouldn’t be like, ‘Oh, I love this dam.’ It’s sort of something you have to do to get by.”

Illustration by Olivia Fields. Click to enlarge.

 

If you visit Substack’s website, you’ll see leaderboards of the top twenty-five paid and free newsletters; the writers’ names are accompanied by their little circular avatars. The intention is declarative—you, too, can make it on Substack. But as you peruse the lists, something becomes clear: the most successful people on Substack are those who have already been well-served by existing media power structures. Most are white and male; several are conservative. Matt Taibbi, Andrew Sullivan, and most recently, Glenn Greenwald—who offer similar screeds about the dangers of cancel culture and the left—all land in the top ten. (Greenwald’s arrival bumped the like-minded Yascha Mounk to eleventh position; soon, Matthew Yglesias signed up for Substack, too.)

None of that is so surprising—it’s hard to earn four-fire-emoji status without having already built up a reputation within established institutions. And, as this year’s anti-racist activism has made all the more visible, those institutions are built from prejudiced systems, which form working environments that are often unsustainable for people who are nonwhite or non-elite. “I think one of the reasons why we often see that the top-twenty-five board at Substack is mostly white authors is because that’s an extension of the type of audience and recognition they get for their work on other platforms,” Harvin said.

Peck was not among those recruited to join Substack. It was only when she started to get publicity that McKenzie tweeted about her project. She’s never appeared on Substack’s homepage, nor has she heard from any of the founders directly. “I think Substack should make it easier to discover newsletters on their platform,” she told me. The way the top-twenty-five lists are organized, she believes, is “to the detriment of Black journalists.” (McKenzie told me that Substack will soon revamp its leaderboards, highlighting top revenue earners in different categories.)

In general, will Substack replicate the patterns of marginalization found across the media industry, or will it help people locked out of the dominant media sphere to flourish? To a large extent, the answer depends on whether or not Substack’s founders believe they’re in the publishing business. When we spoke, they were adamant that Substack is a platform, not a media company—a familiar refrain of Silicon Valley media ventures. “We’re not hiring writers, and we’re not publishing editorial,” McKenzie said. “We’re enabling writers and enabling editorial.” He told me that the leaderboards, which were originally conceived to show writers what kind of “quality work” was being done on Substack, were organized by audience and revenue metrics, with “no thumb on the scale” from the company. When I asked about their views on content moderation, the founders said that, because readers opt in to newsletters—unlike Facebook, there’s no algorithm-based feed—they have relatively less responsibility to get involved.

It’s a bit of a brain twister: Substack, eager to attract customers over Mailchimp or WordPress, has begun to look like it’s reverse engineering a media company. But all the while, its founders insist that they simply provide a platform. By not acknowledging the ways in which they are actively encouraging (and discouraging) certain people to use Substack, and the ways they benefit monetarily from doing so, they obscure their role as publishers. As Study Hall’s Allegra Hobbs put it over the summer, “It seems the creators of Substack, in their zeal to become the future of media, are trying to have it both ways—to keep an appropriate editorial distance while also actively supporting writers beyond merely providing a space to publish.”

In addition, like many media companies, Substack is dependent on large amounts of venture capital. Time and again, journalists have seen venture capitalists barge in on their newsrooms with claims that they’ll solve the industry’s problems, only to end up losing their jobs or being forced to churn out clickbait. (In the case of Substack, The Atlantic’s Kaitlyn Tiffany has argued that tech bros are monetizing an existing form of media—newsletters—that had long been used, especially by women, to foster communities that were “non-remunerative” and “artistically strange.”) Substack’s founders are open about the fact that media and VC money typically don’t mix well; McKenzie told me that journalists who are VC-skeptical feel “burned for good reasons.” But he said there was a difference between companies like BuzzFeed and Vox Media taking hundreds of millions in venture capital “on a big unproven bet that that can scale to a massive return” and Substack, which he calls “a platform that has a stable, transparent, and simple business model that is proven to work.” When I asked if Substack’s investors were looking for large returns, Best replied, “We have expectations for growth for ourselves that are at least as high as our investors’.”

Even if you accept that premise, there remains a broader question—one that the industry at large will have to answer—as to whether venture capitalism, driven by the pursuit of high returns on big-bet investments, is, at its core, antithetical to the project of journalism. (The reasons Peck made her newsletter free run at odds with the goals of investors.) I asked Substack’s founders about the sentiment, popular among the venture capitalist class, that reporters are too powerful and need to be curbed. “Our business is a little bound up with Andreessen Horowitz, and our business is a lot bound up with writers,” McKenzie said. “We don’t look to control or influence the thought of either of those groups. We don’t own the attitudes of every Substack writer, and we don’t own the attitudes of our investors.”

It was a nonideological, noneditorial stance—one that he’d taken in conversation with me before. But often, adherence to neutrality only enforces existing power structures. In these moments, Substack’s founders veer into unsettling corporate-tech-dude-speak, papering over the fact that a “nonideological” vision is, of course, ideology just the same. When Sullivan joined Substack, over the summer, he put the company’s positioning to the test: infamous for publishing excerpts from The Bell Curve, a book that promotes bigoted race “science,” Sullivan would now produce the Weekly Dish, a political newsletter. (Substack’s content guidelines draw a line at hate speech.) Sullivan’s Substack quickly rose to become the fifth-most-read among paid subscriptions—he claimed that his income had risen from less than $200,000 at New York magazine to $500,000. When I asked the founders if they thought his presence might discourage other writers from joining, they gave me a pat reply. “We’re not a media company,” Best said. “If somebody joins the company and expects us to have an editorial position and be rigorously enforcing some ideological line, this is probably not the company they wanted to join in the first place.”

“We called it giving them the religion,” a Substack founder said.

 

In a broken industry, even a little agency can start to feel like control. But that won’t necessarily translate into the large-scale transformation that Substack’s founders pitch. If “be your own boss” is a nice slogan in the abstract, it ignores the fact that power dynamics always exist, even where they’re not formalized. As time went on, Peck came up against the limits of what she could do alone. “It’s great I don’t have to go to anybody for approving stories or things I want to cover,” she said. “But I think it’s always beneficial having other professional journalists to work with and bounce ideas off of and get feedback from.” In August, to help with global coverage, she brought on a contributing editor; for any original reporting he does, she pays out of pocket. She wants to keep the newsletter free, though to keep herself going, she’s considering adding an option for subscribers to pay.

Ideally, however, her future wouldn’t involve Substack at all, Peck told me; if Coronavirus News for Black Folks were picked up by a major outlet, say, she’d have the staff and resources to build it out properly. That’s an unlikely scenario, she knows—for the same reasons that she was driven out of the mainstream media industry to begin with. “I got into journalism because I wanted to write stories about and for the Black community,” she said. “There’s not a lot of places where you can do that and get paid a decent amount and have benefits. It varies, but I don’t think a lot of Black journalists have a ton of options outside of creating their own things for themselves.” What she has now is a harbor. “Substack has some of the materials for free to help us to build our own thing,” she continued. “We need so much more, but we’re going to work with what we have.”

As more journalists embark on independent careers, the need for support infrastructure, beyond Substack, will become increasingly urgent. Labor organizing, the traditional method for making an industry more equitable, will have to adapt to the new conditions, especially as more and more industries embrace the independent-contractor model. Accountability is harder when the company you work for refuses to acknowledge what field it’s operating in. Yet people like Peck are still workers, even if they lack a boss.

“It’s sort of something you have to do to get by,” a Substack writer said.

In September, Discourse Blog, a newsletter on the politics and culture of the left run by a group of journalists who used to work at a now-discontinued site called Splinter (I used to write for it, too), decided they would leave Substack for a competitor called Lede. It was the third time in six months that Discourse, which launched on WordPress, had changed platforms—perhaps an indication of some of the difficulties of creating ambitious projects independently, even as a team. When they made the announcement, the writers at Discourse said that, at Substack, they were limited in their ability to grow. One of the co-owners noted that it was hard to attract readers through internet search alone; they wanted to track audience data. In essence, they sought, as much as possible, to steer their own destiny.

The guys at Substack aren’t sweating the loss, at least for now. Ultimately, they will be judged not by their creative output, but by how much money they can return for those who have invested in their company. The platform is new, but the metrics are not; financial concerns trump all others. When I asked Best and McKenzie about their plans post-pandemic (should that time ever come), they told me that they don’t foresee any changes to their fundamentals. “We did not build Substack to be successful only during disaster times,” McKenzie said. In a recent column, Ben Smith, of the Times, reported that Twitter has discussed acquiring Substack, though McKenzie quickly tweeted, “This is not going to happen.”

They’re still scouting writers. “Do you have a Substack?” Best asked me, at one point. “Always be closing, Chris,” McKenzie said, with a grin. I smiled and gave a noncommittal answer. As a freelancer, it seemed more likely than not that one day I would start a Substack, or something similar. What choice did I have?

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Clio Chang is a freelance reporter based in Brooklyn. She writes about politics, culture, media, and more.

TOP IMAGE: Olivia Fields