Warzel, however, is an amiable progressive who doesn’t ruffle many feathers, and the job he had is normally the apex of a journalistic career, not a gig from which writers typically launch solo acts. Which suggests that maybe “small but profitable niche products” is the wrong way to look at the rise of paid newsletters. What if they pose a more direct competitive threat to media incumbents like (gulp) the one you’re reading?
Substack has been up front about its desire to disrupt reading habits — mostly of social media feeds, though. Co-founder Hamish McKenzie recently wrote that “our addiction to social media is having negative effects on both individual and collective thought. . . . We are feeding our minds with a poisoned information supply.”
“Our model is that the attention economy we’re giving our lives to is a mistake,” Chris Best, Substack’s co-founder and CEO, told me. “We need to have a different model with different rules.” Instead of competing for algorithmic engagement with clickbait, authors can build a long-term relationship with the readers who support them.
“Substack,” writes McKenzie, “is designed to be a calm space that encourages reflection.”
I doubt that email newsletters can replace all the shoe-leather reporting traditional publications do. But market disrupters needn’t replicate an entire business line; it’s often better to nibble off the most profitable bits.
That’s what tech firms have been doing to journalism for two decades: swallowing the lucrative advertising that used to subsidize all the reporting, while leaving media outlets with the expensive and mostly unprofitable job of finding stuff out and publishing it. This is why my industry is in semi-collapse, shedding jobs and publications as we consolidate toward fewer, subscription-supported outlets.
Subscription models work, as outlets like The Post show. But we’re competing with a lot of free content, which means that to get readers to pay up, we must get them passionate about our particular writing, our specific project.
Necessarily, this alienates those who hate whatever we’re doing, which is why mainstream media’s hardening progressive consensus has spurred outrage from the right and even the center — and spawned so many Substack newsletters. (Disclosure: My husband writes a for-profit Substack newsletter about cocktails.) But the deeper vulnerability is the imbalances this can create within publications.
Traditional publications benefited from bundling: Readers might not subscribe for one individual writer or section, but they’re willing to pay for the whole thing. But not all of that journalism is equally costly to produce. A year-long investigative project takes a lot more resources per word than a weekly column.
Nor do all kinds of journalism generate the same amount of reader passion. And some kinds — notably opinion writing — manage to convert a lot of subscribers while costing comparatively little. Those are the kinds that do particularly well as Substack newsletters. By the same token, that’s also a good reason for incumbents to try to make Substack’s business go away. Shortly after Warzel departed, Business Insider reported that the Times, too, was readying a major newsletter push.
There are some reasons to think that Substack might survive a march of the incumbents. While incumbents start with considerable assets, such as access to capital, production and distribution capabilities, or premium brands, those advantages aren’t always helpful at fending off competitive threats. Occasionally, they’re even a detriment.
The New York Times has a formidable brand, but it can’t offer the quantity or diversity of writers that Substack can because doing so would erode its appeal to its core subscribers. Facebook and Twitter have expertise with algorithm design and ad sales, but are those strengths useful at getting readers to sign up for newsletters?
Incumbents also have powerful constituencies, internal or external, who don’t want the business to change. Rather than cannibalize a profitable core business, or fight a bruising corporate war, they’ll often cede a part of their market to upstarts instead of fighting them for the whole thing.
The trick is to do so without giving the upstarts a foothold from which they can upend your entire business model. For while first movers in a new market don’t always have the advantage, they do sometimes get the last laugh.