Written by Media

Substack Journalism

Earlier today, the actor Johnny Depp lost a libel action against News Group Newspapers and the journalist Dan Wootton.

I’ll leave others to get into the detail of the case. But I follow a handful of folk in “British legal Twitter” and there were a few interesting summaries and thoughts on what the outcome meant beyond the obvious.

Joshua Rozenberg is a name familiar to many as a long time legal correspondent for the BBC and later newspapers including the Daily Telegraph. Rozenberg still presents Law in Action for BBC Radio 4. He’s part of that legal community on Twitter and so it was interesting to see this Tweet earlier.

Joshua Rozenberg has a Substack.

Substack is essentially a platform that allows you to publish your thoughts in the format of an email newsletter, and importantly, allows you to monetise that newsletter should you want to.

There have obviously been blogging platforms for many years, and then along came trendier versions like Medium, which also allow a level of monetisation. Substack takes things in the direction of email newsletters, a format that seems to have been having something of a renaissance in the last few years – despite email being such an old-school technology. Crucially, it allows you to monetise your newsletters.

And there has been lots of excitement around the platform. A number of big name journalists and writers have transitioned away from larger publications to the go-it-alone Substack model. For example, the political commentator Andrew Sullivan jumped from NY Magazine to Substack a few months ago. Journalist Glenn Greenwald has had a falling out with his previous employer, The Information, and has naturally gone to Substack.

Perhaps of more relevance to readers of this blog, Casey Newton, late of The Verge, has transitioned his Interface newsletter into Platformer; he’s gone independent.

Some writers put everything behind a paywall, while others might publish some editions free, while subscribers get additional newsletters. The model is really up to them.

And for the right kind of person, the model seems to be good. If you can get 1,000 people paying $5 a month for your specialism, then that could easily be a full time job, Substack’s fees notwithstanding.

Of course, getting 1,000 or even 100 people to pay you money isn’t trivial. You’re probably going to have to be really good at what you do. And there are many risks that come with this kind of living. Hanging on to subscribers, particularly during tough times, migth not be simple. And cancelling a Substack subscription is straightforward. You’re also going to need to somehow tell people about what you’re doing if you want to grow your readership.

I suspect that, big names aside, it takes months if not years to build a subscriber base to the level that it becomes completely self-sustaining.

And then of course, you’re probably going to be left without some of the protection you get from a larger news organisation (in the case of journalism anyway). Are you absolutely certain you’ve not libelled anyone? Do you have any kind of editor to help improve what you’ve written or tell you that you haven’t quite made your case? What happens if you get ill? Either from a medical insurance perspective (if you’re American) or just from a publishing/subscriber perspective if you stop publishing for an extended period?

I should note that Substack is piloting its own legal support program, so some of these issues will get solved.

From what I understand, many use Substack as a supplemental source of income. It’s another side hustle.

The longer term question for me is subscription fatigue. As more writers and journalists jump into this space, is there room for them all to breathe?

While it only takes a relatively modest number of people reaching into their pockets to become in some way viable, that is getting very crowded.

I’ve said on plenty of previous occasions that I’m something of a news junkie. I have paid subscriptions to two UK news organisations, and two American ones. Beyond that, I also pay for a digital sports journal too. All of those offer me a vast range of editorial every day, let alone every week.

I’ve pointed out previously that wanting me to subscribe to additional news sources at this point is a massive hurdle. And the same is true of new writers going to this model. If you’re my absolute favourite writer then maybe I’ll pay. Or perhaps you cover a niche area so well that I can’t get that information any other way. But otherwise, I’m not so sure…

In the streaming TV world, there are lots of questions about how many services any one household is likely to subscribe over the longer term. I’ve always suspected that it’s more than you might think, especially if you consider how much you spent previously on your satellite or cable bundle. But it’s not a limitless amount.

Certainly starting a streaming service, even quite a niche one, is a lot harder than starting a Substack newsletter. And as Quibi’s failure has shown, you need a lot more subscribers to make a new streaming video service sustainable, compared with making a partial-living writing newsletters.

But I’m just not completely convinced.

There is undoubtedly a good model for Substack, but I just wonder to what extent it can scale?

Elsewhere you might already be supporting artists or podcasters via Patreon, your favourite YouTubers via membership schemes or subscribing to your favourite Twitch gamers. The list goes on.

(Also, please don’t compare every subscription level to the price of a Starbucks coffee, because 1) I don’t drink coffee, and 2) even if I did, all these subscriptions would add up to a seriously unhealthy amount of it!)

Ben Smith, the New York Times’ media columnist reports today that there have been discussions about Twitter acquiring Substack.

That would certainly be interesting. It doesn’t change my thinking though.