Jul 21, 2020 - Economy

How services like Substack are re-bundling the unbundled newsroom

Illustration of hand cursor holding a newspaper roll

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

A number of writers and journalists have recently flocked to services like Substack to publish their own newsletters under the banner of independence, even as those services
and writers themselves are increasingly recreating various benefits of working in a traditional newsroom.

Driving the news: Last week, Substack announced it will provide legal help to some its authors of paid newsletters, including pre-publication review and defense against threats.

  • “Sometimes, powerful people think that if you’re an independent writer they can shut you up with a legal threat… so we wanted to take away that disadvantage of being independent,” Substack co-founder and CEO Chris Best tells Axios.
  • The company also hopes to find ways to help its newsletter writers with other business needs like "healthcare, personal finance, editing, distribution, design, and coworking spaces."

The big picture: While much of the initial rush to newsletters in the last few years has been fueled by individuals seeking to be be their own boss or as a rejection of working for a media company (and following its myriad rules), there’s a growing recognition that newsrooms do offer some important benefits.

The “Everything Bundle,” founded by Divinations author Nathan Baschez and Superorganizers writer Dan Shipper, is a recent example of authors finding benefits in joining forces.

  • After a few months of working on their respective newsletters largely on their own, the two friends decided to join forces to give readers a discount if they sign up for both products. They tell Axios the plan brought them more new subscribers during the first week than any before that.
  • “We don’t feel like we’re inventing anything new, we just re-discovered what a lot of writers figured out a long time ago,” says Shipper. “We’ve just found in our own experience that writing this together has made it both more fun and made the quality of our work higher.”
  • Since then, they’ve turned their partnership into a company, adding a couple of employees to their team as well as a couple of outside collaborators whose newsletters are now part of the bundle. (They’ve also raised a small amount of outside financing, Axios has learned, though they declined to comment on the funding.)
  • There are also more formal media outfits using Substack’s service, such as “right-of-center” news outlet The Dispatch.

Bachez and Shipper are also part of “Type House,” an informal group of business newsletter writers who provide each other with help, feedback and encouragement — much like colleagues in a newsroom.

  • “It's pretty cool to be part of a community that's figuring this all out together,” says Alex Kantrowitz, a former BuzzFeed reporter who now writes his own tech newsletter. “It definitely reminds me of a newsroom Slack — in a good way.”
  • Formed initially as a group chat in mobile app Telegram, the group now includes about 40 writers who author newsletters including Fintech Today, The Profile, The Margins, Trapital, and 2PM (not all use Substack).
  • “Type House” is also a nod to “Hype House,” one of the collectives (and physical houses) of young social media stars cropping up in Los Angeles, driven by the belief that collaboration and motivating each other can benefit their individual careers.

Yes, but: These benefits come with some trade-offs, whether they’re dictated by the underlying platforms like Substack or by the companies built atop the service.

  • Even Substack has a content policy, which prohibits calls for “violence, exclusion, or segregation based on protected classes," though it maintains it's merely a platform. It declined to comment last month when Protocol asked what it would do if President Trump joined its service.
  • The company also has complete discretion over which authors and for what purposes it will provide legal resources. It tells Axios that for now it will focus on defending writers against “the most flagrant abuses.”
  • YouTube stars over the years have learned the limits of being independent creators, such as when the company removed Logan Paul from its preferred ad program after he published a video showing the body of an apparent suicide victim in Japan’s Aokigahara forest. Last month, it suspended monetization from star Shane Dawson's channels after old content resurfaced that the company now says violate its guidelines.

The bottom line: Writers who spoke to Axios said the trade-offs seem worth it.

  • “It comes down to this: I own the email list and the Stripe account (with subscribers' billing information), that's what matters at the end of the day,” Kantrowitz tells Axios.
Go deeper