Newsletters go back at least as far as the Middle Ages, but these days, with full-time jobs at stable media companies evaporating—between the 2008 recession and 2019, newsroom employment dropped by 23 percent—Substack offers an appealing alternative. And, for many, it’s a viable source of income. In three years, Substack’s newsletters—covering almost every conceivable topic, from Australian Aboriginal rights to bread recipes to local Tennessee politics—have drawn more than two hundred fifty thousand paid subscribers. The top newsletter authors can earn six figures, an unheard-of amount for freelance journalists.
(...) They have a system, created by a former employee named Nathan Baschez, that measures a Twitter user’s engagement level—retweets, likes, replies—among their followers. This person is then assigned a score on a logarithmic scale of fire emojis. Four fire emojis is very good—Substack material. Best and McKenzie will reach out and suggest that the person try a newsletter. The four-fire-emoji method turned up Heather Cox Richardson, a history professor at Boston College, whose Substack, Letters from an American—political with a historical eye—is now the second-top-paid.
(...) “Substack is not the sort of thing that is going to create a sustainable next phase, but it can open the door (...) “GoFundMe can help us see things we’re not seeing and put money where it would not go,” Schneider said. “Of course, we don’t want a GoFundMe society.”
(...) as you peruse the lists, something becomes clear: the most successful people on Substack are those who have already been well-served by existing media power structures. Most are white and male; several are conservative. Matt Taibbi, Andrew Sullivan, and most recently, Glenn Greenwald—who offer similar screeds about the dangers of cancel culture and the left—all land in the top ten.
(...) It’s a bit of a brain twister: Substack, eager to attract customers over Mailchimp or WordPress, has begun to look like it’s reverse engineering a media company. But all the while, its founders insist that they simply provide a platform. By not acknowledging the ways in which they are actively encouraging (and discouraging) certain people to use Substack, and the ways they benefit monetarily from doing so, they obscure their role as publishers.
(...) As more journalists embark on independent careers, the need for support infrastructure, beyond Substack, will become increasingly urgent. Labor organizing, the traditional method for making an industry more equitable, will have to adapt to the new conditions, especially as more and more industries embrace the independent-contractor model. Accountability is harder when the company you work for refuses to acknowledge what field it’s operating in. Yet people like Peck are still workers, even if they lack a boss.