Substack announced Monday that there are more than one million paid subscriptions to publications on its platform—or, as the company put it, “a million reasons to believe this opportunity is larger than anyone guessed.” According to NiemanLab, Substack now has twice as many subscriptions as it claimed to have 10 months ago and four times that of December 2020. “These are subscriptions that didn’t exist before—they’re not being siphoned off from traditional media outlets or redistributed from other platforms,” Substack wrote in a post. “They represent a rush of new money into the media ecosystem, the vast majority of it going directly to writers.”
The newsletter platform, which boasts high-profile writers like Glenn Greenwald, Matt Taibbi, Bari Weiss, and Matt Yglesias, touted the accomplishment as affirmation that “people are willing to pay for writers they trust” and “new types of publications serving previously ignored communities can succeed.” The top 10 newsletters collectively make more than $20 million a year, co-founder Hamish McKenzie noted. Nieman points out that one million subscriptions doesn’t mean one million subscribers. “Paying subscribers make up a fraction—about 5 to 10%—of Substack’s total readership,” the outlet reports, with more than 500,000 people “out of millions of active readers” paying for at least one Substack.
Nearly a year ago, my colleague Joe Pompeo wrote that “for all of Substack’s visionary tough talk, it’s hard to imagine a mass exodus—a voluntary one, at least—from major media organizations,” given that “a steady paycheck is still a steady paycheck, and it still counts for something to tell a source you’re calling from a publication like the New York Times, the Atlantic, or Politico.” While journalists at big media companies certainly haven’t rushed the exits, there’s been plenty of industry churn since then. Charlie Warzel, for one, jumped from the Times to Substack to the Atlantic, which is among the legacy media outlets that have launched paid newsletter programs in response to the Substack boom. In a recent post announcing he’d be leaving Substack, Warzel said he’d amassed over 1,400 paid subscribers over seven months on the platform and conceded the move was less lucrative than he hoped. Taking his newsletter to the Atlantic, he noted he’ll be able “to collaborate inside an organization again while also having my own little scratchpad where I can do my thing.”
Such an option, Axios’s Sara Fischer and Nicholas Johnston write, was far and few between at mainstream platforms prior to the somewhat recent exodus to Substack, a trend whose “threat to newsrooms was overblown” but which “has finally pushed newsrooms to create programs that give writers more pay, autonomy and flexibility.” In the face of a changing digital media landscape, legacy publishers appear resilient: The Times earlier this year rolled out a handful of subscriber-only newsletters, some of which are written by non-Times employees; the paid newsletter platform Forbes debuted in January allows writers to split subscription revenue for their newsletters 50/50 with the publisher; the Atlantic’s newsletter program, which counts Molly Jong-Fast and Nicole Chung among its nine writers, will offer contractors “the ability to make additional money if they hit certain subscriber goals,” according to Vox; and The Information just unveiled a newsletter network.
As traditional publishers adapt to the newsletter trend, new players are apparently taking note of the emerging hybrid options that have drawn journalists such as Warzel back to the newsroom. “The newsletter boom will birth new platforms catering to creators looking for a happy middle ground between newsroom support and independence,” Fischer and Johnston write, citing fledgling companies Lede and Workweek as recent examples.
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