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Is Substack Really the Solution for Indepdent Journalism?
It seems like Substack is perfect for the independent journalist, or is it?
In the age of short-form content and difficult-to-understand algorithms, Substack has introduced a new way to connect with people. Substack is a publishing platform that allows anyone to write newsletters sent directly to their follower's emails. With few rules about what you can write about, and no one telling you what to write about, journalists flocked to the platform. This is a way to be real, tell the truth, or be as inflammatory as you want and find the people who want to hear it (and pay for it). It seems like Substack is perfect for the independent journalist, or is it?
The Substack Model
At its core, Substack is a publishing platform. A writer creates an account and has instant access to the software needed to share their newsletters on the web or send them directly to followers' emails. Writers also have the option to hide their writings behind a paywall and turn on paid memberships. There is even an X (formerly known as Twitter) style discussion thread where users can connect more closely. While this is available to anyone who signs up, it is especially alluring to journalists. Now they have the opportunity to not only write how they want and about what they want, but to also be paid from the beginning.
Oversaturation of the Platform
As with any new social media platform, Substack quickly gained thousands of users. As of March 2023, there were over 17 thousand active writers. While this is great for the platform, it isn’t great for the journalists. New users who read articles about making over $60,000 a year by simply writing on Substack simply aren’t seeing that financial growth. There are too many already on the platform. Writers who have dedicated followers, have perfected their niche, and are recommended above new faces. While we can’t blame them for becoming popular or starting sooner, it shows an obvious problem with the continued message from Substack being that you can make it big too.
Of course, it doesn’t matter how popular you are if you aren’t finding a way to turn those views into cash. Monetization on any media platform is more difficult than it seems. Those platforms, including Substack, eat up a portion of what your subscribers are giving. In Substack’s case, that number is 10% and then another 3% is taken by Stripe, the digital payment company they use. This is why you see writers with thousands of subscribers still working their day jobs. But there is another problem with Substack. It seems the platform does actually care about who it promotes and what content is allowed. While advertised as simply a tool to allow everyone to write about what they want, Substack has been caught by numerous users for promoting only certain writers. Not just promoting either, but offering cash advances in order to help those writers truly make the money needed to live off of independent writing alone.
Without Substack’s help, users are having a hard time finding subscribers who want to pay when they have been enjoying content for free. Most writers say they have to still offer free content with paid only sprinkled throughout to entice readers into subscribing. Annalee Newitz is an already successful writer who wanted to use Substack for what it promised, a way to send newsletters directly to email and build your following. What she found was what she called a “scam”. She states that she wonders how many of the top-followed writers got their thanks to the “advances” from Substack mentioned above. While a few of her writings went viral (thanks to the fact that she already had a dedicated following on other platforms), she couldn’t have made enough to support herself if this was her only option. If you want to read more about her personal experience, this is her post where she announces why she was leaving the platform: Here’s why Substack’s scam worked so well.
Lack of Support and Resources
Here’s where we talk about what Substack offers in regard to support and resources for its writers, which is basically nothing. Besides the obvious of being a platform that allows you to write and send newsletters for free, there isn’t much in the name of support. One main interest of writers is being seen on Google. Because Substack doesn’t post the same way as other blogging platforms, content often has a hard time making it onto the top search engine. Subscribers to Substack also see a huge uptick in their emails, not just from the people they want to see but from the platform itself sharing others and its own personal news. Unfortunately, if you want to make it big on Substack, you need to find the followers yourself, usually from other social media you have.
The points above tie in with the other problem with Substack. Lack of discoverability. Their algorithm is not set up to push your content. When a reader signs up for Substack they are given a few categories of interests to choose from and some of the top writers to follow. Given what we know about Substack's hidden support of some writers, it’s difficult to know if these pushed writers are actually in line with what you want to see or just part of Substack's pocketbooks. For writers, there isn’t really a way for you to put your writing in a category, which makes you wonder how Substack will promote your work if they don’t even know what you are writing about. After you write an article you can manually add some tags but aren’t given recommendations for what is popular in your category. All of this adds up to new users having a hard time making it in front of new eyes.
The Successes of Substack
This article wouldn’t be very “independent journalist” of us if we didn’t acknowledge the obvious successes of Substack. Writers like Glenn Greenwald, Matt Yglesias, and Heather Cox Richardson are some of the top writers on the platform, each making well into the 6-digit income. These are writers with thousands of followers, however (and some cash advances from Substack itself). One top writer, Lenny Rachitsky broke down how much money you actually make on the platform, saying you are “lucky to see half of what you think you will make”. He goes on to say that 1,000 subscribers at $10 a month equates to about $5,000 a month instead of the $10,000 you would expect. With some top writers making 6-digits and other top writers making about the same as a lower-wage job, users have to ask themselves if the success stories are the exception rather than the rule.
Alternatives to Substack
There are plenty of alternatives out there, each offering its own list of pros and cons.
Patreon is a subscription-based platform that allows you to have different “tiers” of subscribers. You can customize what is in each tier and how much each one costs and subscribers are well aware of the fact that they need to pay for more content. The problem is that Patreon is not good for pushing content if it is your only site. This is a great option for those who already have large followings elsewhere.
Medium is another article-writing platform that has the option for paid subscribers. The first look at Medium versus Substack reveals a similar interface and user experience. However, Medium isn’t a mail-sending service like Substack. Medium is much better at pushing new writers and showing content you and your readers will be interested in.
Ghost is advertised as another newsletter, and blog writing platform for independent publishers. They offer a wide range of support and ways to connect with your following while staying true to their promise to not overly promote any one kind of content. You also have the option to customize your content and page a lot more than Substack making it truly your own. Many people who left Substack say they are moving over to Ghost.
If you already have a successful social media or blog elsewhere and simply want a newsletter platform, Buttondown is for you. The platform is a little more complicated than the others mentioned because it is really only for one thing. However, you can still have paid subscribers and the ability to send content directly to email for free like what Substack and Ghost offer.
Substack created a market for something that had been missing, a free way to get your content into the mailboxes of people who want to see it. While it seems great at face value, there are a few criticisms of its “independent journalist-loving” stance. Substack promises it isn’t an editor and doesn’t police what content is allowed, but looking at who they pay and promote seems to imply another story. With few resources for growth and a subpar algorithm, it isn’t the best for people brand new to the writing game. It isn’t all bad though. In our current digital age, platforms like Substack, Medium, Ghost, and the like are offering us true unbiased news on things we want to learn more about. For journalists, the key to any platform is building a following. That means, as readers, the best thing you can do on any social media site is to follow the people you like.