Journalism’s future or passion project? Breaking down the world of Substack

Journalists and other experts have flocked — or been pushed — to a platform that gives them more editorial and creative freedom.

Journalism’s future or passion project? Breaking down the world of Substack

Well-known journalists who have either quit, been laid off or felt pushed out of big media jobs have found a new home: Substack, the online platform for subscription-based email newsletters.

These scribes include Andrew Sullivan, who left New York magazine in July, arguing new owner Vox Media “put the moral clarity of some self-appointed saints before the goal of objectivity in reporting.” On Substack, the columnist has resurrected the political blog The Dish, which he penned from 2000 to 2015. He describes this new iteration, The Weekly Dish, as a “three-part column” with “short posts or features.” It also includes a reader forum and podcast.

After resigning as senior correspondent at Vox in November, Matthew Yglesias launched Slow Boring. He explained: “There was an inherent tension between my status as a cofounder of the site and my desire to be a fiercely independent and at times contentious voice.”

Are PR pros following these bylines to their unfiltered newsletters on behalf of clients? The short answer is yes, but the more complicated one is that Substack has a lot of opportunity and potential, but there are also drawbacks as it evolves.

The re-rise of the email newsletter

To be clear, PR firms already pitch clients to a range of e-newsletters. MSL has found success integrating them into an earned media strategy when focusing “on data-led stories,” says Alan Danzis, SVP of media strategy in the U.S. “Reporters and producers are inundated with surveys, especially this time of year and especially tied to the pandemic.”

“The format and tendency for stories within the newsletter to be shorter than full-length web stories make it easier for a writer to simply write a few lines on an interesting survey nugget,” he explains. “Email newsletters are increasingly the best place for securing that coverage.”

Media relations professionals are also noticing that newly launched email newsletters do not lack for influence. MSL has seen traditional earned media coverage spike after a prominent newsletter placement. 

“One client’s survey mentioned in [tech newsletter] Axios Login was later cited in a Fox Business write up a few weeks later,” notes Danzis. “We’re at a point where coverage in a top-tier newsletter can lend credibility to a [mainstream media] pitch.” 

However, PR pros define top-tier newsletters as, at least for now, largely the domain of mainstream media. In addition to Axios, agency executives say they mostly pitch Politico’s Playbook, which covers the words of politics and Capitol Hill, and the marketing-focused Wall Street Journal CMO Today. 

There are benefits to Substack other than a publishing platform. It supports writers with programs like Defender, which provides legal support, and Bridge, which matches emerging voices with established writers. Yet those on Substack, including scientists, explainers and public intellectuals, are largely producing the content alone.  

That’s a plus for the journalist seeking editorial freedom and a space for their own commentary, notes Samantha Wolf, SVP and group manager in Ketchum’s media specialty, but “it can be concerning from a media relations perspective.” With no editor, fact checker or other colleagues, she says “there aren’t the editorial checks and balances of a newsroom.” 

Yet while Wolf has not targeted a pitch specifically to earn coverage on Substack, she thinks the platform has great potential, buoyed by big-name adopters. Both Sullivan and Yglesias, she notes, have strong reputations for journalistic rigor and boast impressive subscriber numbers that make them an easy sell to include in a media relations plan.

At the end of August, Sullivan tweeted that The Weekly Dish had hit 75,000 subscribers, who have the option of paying $5 a month, $50 a year or an amount of their choosing for the content. Subscribers can choose to pay nothing, but only get limited access. He also tweeted that a recent post had reached 420,000 views.

Yet while a well-known columnist like Sullivan can leverage his social media accounts to amplify content — he has more than 210,000 Twitter followers — most journalists don’t have anywhere near the readership numbers on their own of the brands that employed them. 

“One of the challenges is the disparateness of the newsletters and the large number of reporters trying to do their own thing. It is something that we’re going to have to figure out,” notes Wolf.  

One thing Wolf is watching: will journalists join together to launch a newsletter, combining their respective followings and expertise into the venture. 

Journalists on Substack are thinking about it, like Brian Morrissey, former president and editor-in-chief at Digiday Media, who launched his newsletter The Rebooting about the reinvention of the media and other industries in September. His newsletter is free and has about 3,500 subscribers.

Morrissey said he didn’t launch The Rebooting as a standalone business. “I am enjoying being solo right now, but the successful solo Substack phenomena I think will be niche,” he says. “Where there may be opportunity is something in-between – a micro-media platform with a few like-minded people.” 

He adds that they could share the workload of producing richer content – like podcasts and webinars – and delve into areas like sponsorship that would be difficult for one person. 

“You need support for audience discovery, because what happens is, you see amazing growth and then suddenly hit a wall,” Morrissey says. “Substack also needs to provide tools to help people grow their audience and monetize beyond subscriptions.” 

A Substack representative could not be reached for comment. 

Audience growth

Substack, which takes a slice of paid subscriptions, is beta-testing a reader app, called Substack Inbox, which is expected to curate posts from different newsletters based on subscriber criteria. 

The idea is welcomed by the likes of arts journalist Steve Smith, who joined the platform after he was laid off by National Sawdust, where he was director of publications. In April, he relaunched Night After Night, an old blog he used to write. It features news, recordings and interviews from the world of contemporary classical music and experiential music. 

Smith continues to freelance for The New York Times and pulls together music listings for The New Yorker, noting his newsletter doesn’t come close to paying the bills. He has about 250 paying subscribers and 1,200 in all. 

One thing missing from Substack, he says, is a feeling of community and social sharing. 

“When I was blogging, it felt like we were all interdependent and boosting each other’s signal, but so far this feels very isolated and siloed,” Smith tells PRWeek. “But if Substack builds an aggregator where everything can be in one place and scanned like a newspaper? Then everything is new again.”

For now, he sees Night After Night as a passion project. Still, it fills a void as mainstream media have slashed arts coverage. He is even being pitched specifically for the newsletter, and welcomes it. A pitch, for instance, resulted in Smith posting a video of a recording session from jazz artist Carla Bey on his newsletter. 

“If I can deliver something that no one else does, that is great and so I always appreciate a knowledgeable PR person,” he says. 

Christopher Elliott, who writes about travel and consumer advocacy, is looking to build relationships with PR pros. His newsletter, Elliott Confidential, launched on Substack in November, and has grown to 27,000 subscribers, a combination of paid and free. It is published three times a week. 

He sends out a “leads” newsletter to pros who have signed up, alerting them to the stories he is working on. 

“This is everything that blogging was 20 years ago, before it got neutered by SEO and affiliate links,” Elloitt says. “I think this is journalism’s future.” 

Todd Ringler, U.S. MD for media at Edelman, says the sweet spot for PR professionals is journalists who are on Substack but also write for mainstream media outlets either as a freelancer or staffer. 

“There are some reporters and editors wearing dual hats, who work with established and big brand media, and also put content on Substack,” says Ringler. “That makes it interesting to me as a media strategist, because there may be an angle to a story that doesn’t meet the editorial tone of one of their publication’s approach, but can explore on a place like Substack.” 

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