3. Pandemic spurs writers to go it alone via email
A slew of high-profile journalists have recently announced they are leaving newsrooms to launch their own independent brands, mostly via email newsletters, Axios' Sara Fischer reports.
Context: Many of those writers, working with new technology companies like Substack, TinyLetter, Lede or Ghost, have made the transition amid the pandemic, which strained the finances of traditional newsrooms and publications and sent most journalists to work from home.
"I think many people in the journalism world saw how quickly their business fortunes can change during COVID and decided they would rather run their own business as opposed to be dependent on another businesses' ebbs and flows," says Alex Kantrowitz, former Buzzfeed reporter turned author of the Big Technology newsletter on Substack.
Driving the news: Several prominent businesses and technology or political journalists have left their news companies to launch their own newsletters, including:
- Kantrowitz, Casey Newton (formerly of The Verge), Josh Constine (formerly of TechCrunch), Andrew Sullivan (formerly of New York Magazine), Emily Atkin (formerly of the New Republic), and Matt Taibbi (formerly of Rolling Stone).
- They join a wider cohort of journalists and pundits operating independent newsletters, including Ben Thompson (Stratechery), Anne Helen Petersen (Culture Study) and Bill Bishop (Sinocism).
By the numbers: Substack today has more than 250,000 paying subscribers across its network, and its top 10 publishers bring in $7 million collectively in annualized revenue, according to co-founder Hamish McKenzie.
Of note: The majority of these independent writers are white men working in topic areas like technology, business or politics where they can blend punditry and analysis with some original reporting.
- The independent model doesn't work as well for journalists who cover topics that require in-depth reporting, technical support or legal resources.
- Giving up a regular salary and health insurance is harder for those who lack savings.
It can take writers months to develop large and loyal enough audiences to make a decent living — but once they do, the payoff can be substantial.
- "Building an audience is probably the trickiest part for most folks. Especially getting your first thousand subscribers," says Judd Legum, author of the "Popular Information" newsletter and formerly the editor-in-chief of ThinkProgress.
- Substack has been trying in recent months to provide writers with more institutional support, including advance payment and legal support.
How it works: Most newsletters charge subscribers $60 to $100 annually, meaning they can assemble a personal income without building a huge list. Substack typically takes a 10% cut.
- "A paid newsletter provides the right incentives for writers because it's not about gaming the Google algorithm or the Facebook algorithm," says Legum. "You actually have to provide something that a reader finds valuable enough to pull out their credit card."
The big picture: The independent model recalls the early days of blogging, with authors free to write in their own voice on topics they have expertise in, but absent newsroom support and editing.
Our thought bubble: For tech, email is ancient, but for media, there's nothing like knowing how to directly reach your audience.