Control shift: why newspaper hacks are switching to Substack | Digital media | The Guardian
Control shift: why newspaper hacks are switching to Substack
An online platform where journalists sell content directly to subscribers is luring eminent voices away from traditional media
glenn greenwald working in his study in rio de janeiro
A new way of reaching people: the writer Glenn Greenwald, who has 1.5 million Twitter followers, has moved to Substack. Photograph: Léo Corrêa/AP
Sat 26 Dec 2020 16.00 GMT
Way back in March, at the beginning of the first lockdown, I fell to wondering what a columnist, academic and blogger under house arrest might usefully do for the duration of his imprisonment. My eye fell on my blog, Memex 1.1, which has been a harmless presence on the web since the mid-1990s and a source of puzzlement to journalistic and academic colleagues alike. The hacks unanimously shared Dr Johnson’s view that “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money”, while my academic colleagues thought it peculiar to waste one’s energy writing anything that would not figure in scholarly citation indices. The idea that one might maintain a blog simply because one enjoyed doing it never crossed their minds.
So there it was, with a modest readership, which occasionally spiked as it caught some brief wave of attention. Given that many people were going to be locked down like me, I wondered if the regularity of receiving the blog as an email every morning might be welcome. The thought came from observing how Dave Winer’s wonderful blog, Scripting News, drew an even wider readership after he offered it as a daily email to subscribers. So I began looking for an easy way of doing something similar.
The obvious solution would be an email list service like Mailchimp, but that looked like hard work, so I opted for Substack, which made it really easy. My blog would be published and available on the web every day as usual, but every night the day’s version would be neatly packaged into an email and delivered at 7am the following morning to anyone who had subscribed. The only change I made was to include a daily five-minute audio diary – something I’d never done before.
It was such an obvious thing to do. But the results were surprising – and often gratifying. Two things in particular stood out. The first was that the level of reader “engagement” (the holy grail of surveillance capitalists) dramatically increased. People were reading the email version more intensively than its online counterpart: I could see that, because Substack told me which links had been most popular; and they signalled their reactions by “liking” things or by emailing me directly, pointing out errors or making suggestions about how a particular topic could be expanded or extended.
The biggest surprise, though, was how popular the audio diary was: it was consistently the most clicked-on link. And slowly, it dawned on me that audio seems to reach parts of the human psyche that other media cannot. Because the email was coming from a mailing-list server, some subscribers’ spam filters would occasionally block it, and on several occasions I received alarmed emails from readers who wondered if I had succumbed to Covid. But there was clearly something about the regularity of hearing a familiar voice every morning that was important.
It was founded in 2018 and backed by the big venture-capital firm Andreessen Horowitz. As of July this year it had around 100,000 people paying various sums for at least one of the newsletters on its books. Its sudden prominence may be a portent of significant changes in our media, as traditional journalistic outlets decline and most of those that thrive online tend to be driven by clickbait. Given that, Substack offers a new option for journalists.
Suppose you have 1,000 paid subscribers, each paying $5 a month. That’s an annual income of $60,000, less the 10% that Substack levies. Then imagine you’re Glenn Greenwald, who has 1.5m Twitter followers and has just moved to Substack. Even if only a fraction of them sign up, well… do the maths. Lots of other prominent journalists and writers have – for example Andrew Sullivan and Zeynep Tufekci, to name just two I know: they have seen a way of being liberated from the demands of editorial gatekeepers or advertising-led clickbait while getting paid. “If you charge $10 a month or $5 a month, or $50 a year – if you can get 1,000 or 2,000 people to pay for that,” one of Substack’s founders told Buzzfeed, “you’ve suddenly got enough to go as an individual.”