It was the moment, Atkin said, that she “kind of broke as a person.”
“Slowly, over the course of a career in this industry, I think you start to realize that there is a line between when the publication is benefiting you as a writer and when you are benefiting it,” she said. And the question became, “Is this publication giving me as much as I’m giving it?”
She left the magazine a month later, in July 2019, and by September had launched Heated, a deeply reported, four-times-a-week newsletter on the climate crisis. Today, Heated is among Substack’s top paid publications.
Atkin is among a growing number of writers gravitating to Substack and other newsletter platforms — a trend that has accelerated as the coronavirus recession hammers at the long-beleaguered news industry, forcing rounds of furloughs and layoffs to counter tumbling ad revenue.
San Francisco-based Substack was founded by Hamish McKenzie, Chris Best and Jairaj Sethi in 2017, as newsletters were having a renaissance. The three had worked together at Kik, a messaging app co-founded by Best. Put off by the social media algorithms that controlled news distribution, they wanted a platform that would allow each client to build a “mini media empire” around their mailing lists, McKenzie said in an interview.
The platform handles the technical end of newsletter production in exchange for 10 percent of subscription revenue. The creators own all content, plus their mailing lists. Newsletters do not feature ads.
Substack declined to provide detailed statistics on its readership or registrations. Its website says “more than 100,000 people pay to subscribe to writers” across its network and the “top writers are making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.” The platform has big-name backers in Andreessen Horowitz and Y Combinator, from which it raised $15.3 million in Series A funding last year. It has also attracted a number of prominent writers.
Columnist Matt Taibbi left Rolling Stone in April to write on Substack full time. Andrew Sullivan did the same last week, leaving New York Magazine to resurrect his blog the Dish. Joan Niesen, a Sports Illustrated staff writer who was laid off in October, shortly after the magazine’s sale, started a free Substack newsletter last week.
News outfits had backed away from newsletters in the early 2010s, convinced email would go out of style as social media platforms — especially Facebook — took off. But social media sites are governed by algorithms, which put distance between publishers and readers. Email bridges that gap, experts say, because consumers are willing to pay for quality content from creators they trust and who make them feel part of a community.
“Email is so important because it’s one of the most effective tools for building relationships,” said Dan Oshinsky, the founder of newsletter consultancy Inbox Collective and former newsletter director at the New Yorker and BuzzFeed. “If I want to get to know a reader better, for them to get to know me better, to establish trust, for them to build a habit with me, there’s nothing that does it better than email.”
That connection goes a long way to turning them into paying customers. In 2017, the New York Times reported that readers who signed up for the paper’s free newsletters were twice as likely to become subscribers.
Newsletters have exploded in recent years, both from legacy publications and independent journalists. Mailchimp, which also offers noneditorial newsletter hosting, said it saw a 45 percent increase in new publisher accounts in 2019. Sign-ups are up this year, too, roughly 11 percent higher than 2019′s pace. Account registrations have soared during the pandemic: They spiked 49 percent in March, compared with the year-ago period, and 68 percent in February.
“Newsletters meet people in their habits,” said Sam Ragland, a faculty member at the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank. “If you can meet people where they are, you’re more likely to retain them to get their attention.”
Atkin said she didn’t have a personal relationship with her audience at New Republic, or at Sinclair Broadcast Group and ThinkProgress before that. She hadn’t realized that some readers had been closely following her climate change coverage for years. While reporters are taught to engage with readers, she said, working at a large publication skewed her perception of what readers really wanted. Was it journalism backed by a recognizable masthead, or it was it her journalism?
When Atkin launched Heated, Substack gave her a $20,000 advance, she said, to get organized and fund things such as audience acquisition and legal costs associated with starting a business. Today she has 28,000 subscribers, 10 percent of whom pay between $50 and $75 annually for premium content, and she earns enough to employ a research assistant. She says she feels more financially secure now than when she held a more traditional journalism job.
Oshinsky said most people are looking at a two-year process and should be able to generate $75,000 — to invest in their business, but also to live on — before considering striking out on their own full time. In newsletter terms, that’s 1,000 subscribers paying $75 annually.
“It is a slow process. People should be realistic about it,” he said. “There is a path, it just requires a degree of persistence.”
Generating revenue from a newsletter is not a faucet creators can simply twist on, and having a substantial Twitter following is not a guarantee an audience will follow a writer to a newsletter. Perhaps the greatest challenge, Oshinsky said, is the regular drumbeat of publishing required to hold a reader’s attention. Some talented reporters and interesting people, he said, simply can’t keep up with writing a daily newsletter, or one that publishes several times a week.
But as the news industry job market shrinks — more than 36,000 journalists plus thousands more freelancers and contract writers have lost their jobs since the pandemic began, the New York Times reported — independent newsletter opportunities are starting to even out the job market’s supply and demand.
As more reporters prove they can command a paying audience on their own, their success lifts the economic fortunes of colleagues negotiating for a raise, or — like Atkin — looking for another way to pursue a journalism career. Some newsletter publishers have begun bundling their products for paying subscribers. Others have started proto-magazines with a handful of contributors who all publish on the same newsletter, re-creating mastheads on their own terms.
“Amazing journalists with great careers have been taken advantage of by publications that refuse to budge on important topics, refuse to give them protection or allow them to cover stories, underpay them for so long,” Atkin said.
“I think at least what this model does is it gives journalists that confidence in their own worth both intellectually with their ability and monetarily. [It makes you think], ‘Oh, I actually could be worth quite, quite a bit. My ideas are good.’ I think that we need that. I think we’ve been undervalued by both our employers and by politicians and by a lot of the public for a long time. And this teaches us how to value ourselves.”