By Hamish McKenzie
In 2010, at 29 years old, I came to the US as a freelance journalist. My previous job had been as a writer for an entertainment magazine in Hong Kong, and I had no connections here. That first year, living in Austin, Texas, I scrapped for stories about cartel murders, human relationships, and, um, the World Beard and Moustache Championships. I sent them to magazines and newspapers in Hong Kong and New Zealand. For extra income on the side, I wrote entries for ad agencies that were submitting their work for awards. At the end of the year, I tallied my pre-tax earnings and found I had made $35,000.
That amount seemed small to some of my friends. Despite two advanced degrees and six years of journalism experience, I earned a lot less than peers who had gone into other careers. But I was so proud of myself. I didn’t care about getting rich. I cared only about earning enough money to keep doing work that I felt was meaningful – in ways big and small. A phone call I received a few years earlier during an internship for a New Zealand newspaper had stuck in my mind. I had written an article about a group of World War II veterans who were raising funds for a memorial trip to Crete, where some of their friends were laid to rest. It was a short piece buried in the middle of the paper, and I had thought little of it. But after it was published, a daughter of one of the veterans called to thank me, profusely, because the article meant so much to those men. I would go on to write much bigger stories in my career, but I was forever in search of the feeling I had on that call. My storytelling had made a positive difference in someone’s life. It was the best kind of pay a journalist could hope for.
Were I starting as a freelancer in a similar position today, I don’t think I could scrape together $35,000 in a year – even with corporate side gigs. An industry that once sustained so many writing careers is now in a freefall accelerated by the pandemic. I have been watching in dismay as news organizations of all sizes from around the world have been laying off journalists and slashing freelance budgets. My friends are losing their livelihoods. Writers I have respected for years are getting desperate. These people aren’t just in despair over losing their jobs; they’re scared that the very profession might disappear. Will being a journalist ever be financially viable again? Most of them have never sought riches; they just hope to earn enough money to cover the bills so they can do the work they believe is important. To many, that’s starting to look impossible.
One of the most painful aspects of this situation is that journalism itself isn’t broken. People want and need trusted storytelling more than ever, and there are many capable journalists ready to do the work. But the business model that supports journalism is broken, with devastating repercussions. In recent weeks, we’ve seen mass layoffs at The Economist, Condé Nast, Quartz, BuzzFeed, Vice, and Protocol, to name a few. There will be thousands more. These losses come on top of years of retrenchment and consolidation, including the sales of once-vaunted and now-distressed publications to legacy-burnishing billionaires, and the bankruptcies and mergers of giant newspaper groups such as McClatchy, Gannett, and GateHouse — a crushing blow to local news in particular.
Some in the news business hope that Facebook and Google, under the right pressure from regulators, will send them rescue money. But no matter how much money can be squeezed out of the tech giants, it will never be enough to fix the broken parts of the support system that once sustained the free press. Instead, to find a way forward, those who care about the future of news need to play a different game – one that puts writers in control of their own destiny.
This is one of the key reasons we started Substack. We’re attempting to build an alternative media economy that gives journalists autonomy. If you don’t rely on ads for your revenue, you don’t have to be a pawn in the attention economy – which means you don’t have to compete with Facebook and Google. If you’re not playing the ads game, you can stop chasing clicks and instead focus on quality. If you control the relationship with your audience, you don’t have to rely on outside parties to favor you with traffic. And if you own a mailing list, no-one can cut you off from your readers.
In recent years, there has been a lot of talk about what might come along to “save” the news business from the ravages of the internet. But I think that’s the wrong framing. It’s better to ask: How can we use the internet to reinvent the entire business? We’ve defaulted to ads as the dominant business model for so long that we’ve failed to fully explore other options. I don’t accept that an ad-supported model is the best possible way to unleash humanity’s ability to produce and disseminate trustworthy storytelling. I don’t believe that we’ve seen the full potential of how good the news business can be. And yes, now we are in a crisis. But that crisis is an opportunity for reinvention. It’s a chance to build a new system where writers are well compensated and communities are well served. The internet might have helped get us into this mess, but it can also get us out.
The internet makes distribution frictionless and free – what used to take hours in trucks now takes milliseconds on the web. It makes a writer’s potential audience global instead of local. And it makes it easy to get paid. With a tool like Substack, you don’t need a complicated setup to manage the flow of information and money. When you don’t have to worry about a tech stack, design, back-office admin, or advertisers, you can spend all your time and energy on the most important thing: the journalism itself.
With the subscription model, the numbers don’t have to be huge to produce meaningful revenue. If you can persuade a couple thousand people to pay you $5 a month, you’ll make $100,000 a year. It’s not easy – it takes time, dedication, and care – but it’s more doable than ever. In 2007, when I was hired as a reporter for a new trade magazine in Hong Kong, the assumption was that magazines like that took three years to become profitable. With the Substack model, the time to profitability can be reduced to months or even days, since you don’t need to staff up, build a sales operation, or stand up the technological infrastructure.
Look at what Polina Marinova, formerly of Fortune, is doing with The Profile, where she focuses on deep-dives on fascinating people; or what Tony Mecia, formerly of the Weekly Standard, is doing with business news publication the Charlotte Ledger; or how Richard Rushfield, a former editor of HitFix, is covering the business of Hollywood with The Ankler. Matt Taibbi left Rolling Stone and is using Substack to put a spotlight on corruption in politics. Matt Elliott is covering Toronto’s City Hall. Judd Legum is exposing miscreant corporate giants with Popular Information.
These journalists are doing the work they find most meaningful, having an impact, and making good money along the way. Emily Atkin, formerly of the New Republic, launched her climate change publication Heated in late 2019. A few months later, she is doing better by all measures than in any of her previous journalism jobs. “I was so scared when I left the New Republic that I would have to fight so hard to make my work have an impact because I lacked this institutional support,” Emily told an audience of writers in New York earlier this year, adding later: “I can’t believe how wrong I was.”
“I’ve never seen the type of impact that I’ve had in a 10-year reporting career than what I’ve had with such a smaller news audience, and that’s because these are passionate people. These are people who are there because of you, and they’re invested in you, and they take what you do and they yell about it.”
Even though Emily is just getting started with Heated, it’s already working out financially, she said. Her income is comfortably in six figures. “I make more money now than I had at any salaried journalism job.”
Today, Substack publications are like islands on their own, with little communication between each. But over time, we aim to build Substack into a network, where writers can support each other and readers can find millions of deeply satisfying media experiences. As the network grows, there’ll be opportunity for cooperation, community, and innovation. We’re already starting to see people work together to take advantage of new opportunities with Substack. The writers who used to staff Gizmodo Media Group’s Splinter have started a new project called Discourse Blog. The Weekly Standard’s former editor-in-chief, Steve Hayes, teamed up with Jonah Goldberg and David French from the National Review to create The Dispatch, which crossed $1 million in revenue in a matter of weeks. A team of basketball writers who love the Golden State Warriors left SB Nation and created Let’s Go Warriors. Dan Shipper and Nathan Baschez have jury-rigged a bundle for their business-strategy publications, Divinations and Superorganizers.
I’m wary of selling false hope to journalists who have been burned many times over by grand promises from technology companies. It is true that this new model won’t immediately work for everyone. But there are early signs that we are witnessing the emergence of a new media economy. The top writers on Substack are making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, and there’s a rapidly growing middle class, with writers and podcasters netting incomes that range from pocket money to high five figures. There are now well over 100,000 paying subscribers to Substack publications. We are learning from the activity in these early days and building resources and programs — such as fellowships, workshops, and grants — to help as many people as possible succeed.
As I reflect on my career as a journalist, I feel compelled to do everything in my power to help. I can’t guarantee success to just anyone who starts on Substack, but I can guarantee our support. If you’ve been affected by this crisis and are interested in exploring what’s possible on Substack, please get in touch (firstname.lastname@example.org). Our team is focused on taking one-on-one coaching and development calls to talk about editorial strategies, how to think about launching paid subscriptions, and offering best practices for getting started. But we also know that the best guides are other writers on Substack who are succeeding with the model. Below is a list of Susbtack writers who have volunteered to offer advice. Fill in this form and we’ll set you up on a call.
I believe that we’ll get through this together, and one day we will look back at this time not as the end of days, but as the start of a transition that transformed journalism for the better.
Thank you to everyone who has supported Substack, and Substack writers, so far. There’s so much more to come.
Substack writers who have volunteered to offer advice calls
- Polina Marinova, The Profile (formerly of Fortune)
- Emily Atkin, Heated (formerly of The New Republic)
- Lindsay Gibbs, Power Plays (formerly of ThinkProgress)
- Ryan O’Hanlon, No Grass in the Clouds (formerly of The Ringer)
- Edith Zimmerman, Drawing Links (founding editor of The Hairpin)
- Matt Taibbi, Reporting by Matt Taibbi (formerly of Rolling Stone)
- Issac Saul, Tangle (formerly of A Plus, Huffington Post)
- Luke O’Neil, Welcome to Hell World (work in Esquire, The Guardian, Boston Globe)
- Walter Hickey, Numlock (Insider, formerly of FiveThirtyEight)
- Steve Hayes, The Dispatch (former editor-in-chief of The Weekly Standard)
- Jonah Goldberg, The Dispatch (formerly of National Review)
- Paula Forbes, Stained Page News (formerly of Eater, Epicurious)
- Anna Codrea-Rado, The Professional Freelancer (work in the New York Times, The Guardian, BBC)
- Judd Legum, Popular Information (formerly editor-in-chief of ThinkProgress)
- Azeem Azhar, Exponential View (formerly of The Economist; early-stage investor)
- Bill Bishop, Sinocism (former columnist for New York Times’s Dealbook; co-founder of MarketWatch)
- Tony Mecia, Charlotte Ledger (formerly of The Weekly Standard)
- Richard Rushfield, The Ankler (formerly of Vanity Fair, former editor-in-chief of HitFix)
- Henry Abbott, TrueHoop (formerly of ESPN)
- Tom Ziller, Good Morning It’s Basketball (formerly of SB Nation)
- Joe Posnanski, Joe Blogs (formerly of Sports Illustrated)
To schedule a call, please complete this form.
(Want to add your name to this list? Email email@example.com with “Volunteer” in the subject line.)
Hamish is co-founder and COO of Substack.
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