The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Out-of-work sportswriters are turning to newsletters, hoping the economics can work

From left, Substack founders Hamish McKenzie, Chris Best and Jairaj Sethi (Substack)
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Last fall, sportswriter Lindsay Gibbs could have looked for a new job after she was laid off by the website ThinkProgress. Instead, facing a difficult job market for journalism, she launched a newsletter covering gender issues in sports on the publishing platform Substack.

In February, she began charging for it — around $6 per month or as much as $72 per year — and quickly exceeded 1,000 paid subscribers.

“I’m almost making what I was making at ThinkProgress,” she said. “I’m trying to completely pivot because I know there are a lot of great writers who no longer have a place to write."

Gibbs isn’t alone. In recent years, a growing number of sports journalists — and plenty of other writers — have made a similar pivot to newsletters as their industry has disintegrated around them, a trend that has only accelerated during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

A sampling of what sports fans can receive directly to their inbox today, courtesy of Substack, includes a variety of writers they used to find on popular websites. Former Yahoo Sports reporter Kelly Dwyer writes on the NBA, and his former colleague Kevin Kaduk covers Chicago sports. Tom Ziller and Matt Brown, former writers at SB Nation, have struck out on their own, joined by furloughed SB Nation staffer Mike Prada. Author Eric Nusbaum writes features; another team of writers covers women’s sports; and Ryan O’Hanlon, formerly of the Ringer, is devoted to soccer analytics.

As Pete Volk, an SB Nation writer, tweeted in early May, “[M]y favorite sports website is now my email inbox.”

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For a profession that has watched publications such as Sports Illustrated, Deadspin and SB Nation wither over the past year, Substack is a sign of hope for a troubled industry — though what it is beyond that is probably too soon to tell.

“Substack tells us that if you can get to 1,000 people paying five bucks a month, you’re set for life,” Dwyer said, referencing what would be $60,000 in annual revenue. “I’m not there yet, but that’s the goal, that’s the dream."

Substack was founded in 2017 by tech executive Chris Best, former journalist Hamish McKenzie and developer Jairaj Sethi. The appeal is clear: Eliminate everything around the troubled business of journalism, from corporate ownership to advertising to traffic-driven clickbait, and replace it with the ability to monetize a direct relationship with your readers.

“All I do is write,” Dwyer said. “I’m happier doing this than I’ve ever been in my career.”

“Look around at Sports Illustrated; the [Chicago] Tribune has furloughed people,” Kaduk said. “It’s a scary time. We’ve seen the big platforms can’t give you security; maybe there is more security in a dedicated group of your readers.”

Indeed, most of the writers interviewed for this story said they had not seen big dips in subscriptions at the same time so many publications are struggling to replace ad revenue that has dried up during the pandemic. But exactly how much money are writers making? It varies — and any long-term optimism about Substack serving as an avenue to mass employment remains aspirational for now.

Dwyer started his newsletter when he was laid off from Yahoo Sports in 2017. Today, he charges $3 per month and $60 per year. (The pricier option features additional benefits.) He hasn’t hit the 1,000-subscriber mark and has spent time driving for Lyft to make ends meet.

Ziller started a free newsletter when he was at SB Nation that grew to 15,000 subscribers. About 800 of those converted to the paid version on Substack for which he charges $50 per year or $5 per month.

Brown is making around $1,700 per month, he said, with about 2,000 subscribers, 250 of which are paid.

Henry Abbott, an early NBA blogger and the former editor in charge of ESPN’s basketball content, launched a new media company, TrueHoop, in 2019 and became a Substack customer. He declined to say how many subscribers he has but said, “The revenue is enough for one good salary,” noting that TrueHoop’s revenue supports four full-time employees and a freelance budget.

Substack is new, but the newsletter concept isn’t. And the difficulties of building big lists are no surprise to Joe Sheehan, a founding member of Baseball Prospectus and a Sports Illustrated contributor. He launched a newsletter in 2010 by simply emailing all of his contacts and asking for $20; it has been his primary income since 2014. Today, he has nearly 2,000 subscribers on various payment plans — from $50 per year to a lifetime subscription for $450.

It’s a different model if you’re 24 and single in Indianapolis versus you lost a job at a major newspaper and you’re trying to support two kids,” he said. “It pays my bills.”

Sheehan processes his own payments via PayPal, sends renewal notices manually and writes his newsletter right in his email. For its clients, Substack eliminates those logistical hurdles and has other perks.

Last year, it offered writers a fellowship with a $3,000 stipend and a one-day workshop on the newsletter business in San Francisco. After the pandemic hit, the company offered more than 40 writers — including several in sports — grants of between $1,000 and $3,000. Writers usually share 10 percent of their revenue with the company.

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There are other financial arrangements, too. Gibbs received a $20,000 advance and shares more than 10 percent of her revenue with Substack to pay it back. She is now assigning freelance articles for her newsletter — including to reporters who have been laid off in recent months.

Where it all leads depends on whom you ask. Substack’s co-founders said they can envision bundles of newsletters that ideally maximize revenue for writers and offer readers more content. Brown, for instance, is already planning to merge his newsletter with another writer who covers college sports. But down the road, he worries about cannibalization.

“I don’t think you can get a consumer to pay for more than two or three of these,” Brown said, noting that more and more traditional media is also moving to subscription models. “So I think there is a ceiling.”

Abbott has looked for business development and audience growth help beyond Substack, including an incubator program with the Information, a subscription media company focused on tech. “I don’t think there’s some version of this where every writer figures out the business on their own,” he said. “Right now, Substack isn’t a business. It’s a stack of software tools.”

The most successful Substack newsletters so far, with writers making multiples of $100,000, according to Ben Smith of the New York Times, are in politics. Sports’ place in the Substack ecosystem also remains unique, McKenzie said, because of another start-up: the Athletic.

“Their focus on sportswriters has stopped me from recruiting a lot of them,” he said.

He added: “The Athletic is offering writers the option of the old world — it ends up looking like a traditional publication — except it’s writing for an audience that pays with subscriptions. Substack is an alternative to that. ... It’s more entrepreneurial with more upside. They’re using venture money to fund a media operation. We’re using it to build a platform. Our idea is that Substack will be the home to future the Athletics.”