The rise of the editorial newsletter and the future of journalism

29.06.2021 · By Camilla Allen

The recent resurgence of the humble newsletter has shaken up the media industry and seen great content hitting our inboxes from all angles, every day. The rise of the creator economy and subscription-based content has given power back to the independent writer but is this trend here to stay?

Finding creative and financial freedom

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Today, 500,000 people are paying for a newsletter on Substack in what the newsletter-publishing platform openly calls “a better future for news. The startup, which enables writers to monetise their work by placing it behind a paywall, brings in over $15 million in revenues per year for its top 10 writers alone.

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In 2017, Substack set out to change the media landscape forever. Its founders were “fed up about the effects of the social- media diet” and an influx in algorithm-powered suggestions detering readers from the content they actually wanted to consume; quality writing with authentic intent.

Many writers have been given the freedom to quit their jobs, join the platform and unlock their full journalistic potential.”

Their mission statement calls for a shift of power in the media industry: “The great journalistic totems of the last century are dying…content farms, clickbait, listicles, inane but viral debates over optical illusions, and a fake news epidemic”. 

Putting control back in the hands of journalists and allowing them to effectively become their own media brands has seen the subscription platform flourish, along with rival services such as Revue and Ghost. 

In March, the startup confirmed that it has raised $65 million in funding backed by venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz. This skyrocketed its market value to more than ten times what it was reportedly worth when it raised its first $15-million round of funding in 2019 and the newsletter craze is only set to grow.

Restoring trust in the media

With rapidly deteriorating trust in the media, Substack claims to give writers back the freedom they deserve; the freedom to create authentic content that brings real value to their readers. Through subscriptions, writers have the power to build out their own audience and grow it into a highly engaged community of readers, fed by content curated solely by them. 

As Substack CEO Chris Best has said, the overarching goal is “to allow writers and creators to run their own personal media empire.” While Substack takes a 10% cut of earnings and payment company Stripe takes another 3%, writers keep the rest.

The platform has also revealed its intentions to “rapidly” expand its Substack Pro program which helps writers launch their own mini publications, paying them for a year to do so and taking a larger cut of earnings during this period. This has given many the freedom to quit their jobs, join the platform and unlock their full journalistic potential.

“It’s not about gaming the Google algorithm or the Facebook algorithm,” explains Substack author, Judd Legum. Instead, it’s about creating compelling content that truly resonates with readers. Another Substack writer, Emily Atkin opens a newsletter with: “Guys, I’m scared. I quit my job to do this. Please don’t let me fail.”

These opportunities are enabling writers and their readers to sidestep the noise to build new, personal relationships which help to restore a sense of faith in journalism as a craft.

New players in the newsletter sphere

Unsurprisingly, tech giants like Twitter, Facebook and Linkedin have all also made recent moves in the newsletter sphere, out to rival the success of Substack, and fellow newsletter business models.  

In January, Twitter acquired Dutch startup Revue, a tool to create and distribute newsletters. Twitter is encouraging its content creator users to make the most of a newly developed integration of Revue within its platform. While Revue remains an independent brand with a 5% commission on subscriptions, this trumps Substack’s 12-13%.

Meanwhile, Facebook is working on a new publishing platform to help writers publish and monetise their content either on a website or in a newsletter. Facebook is currently testing the platform with a small number of independent writers. 

LinkedIn also says it’s, “Starting a community management team to support and grow [its] content creators, with the mission to source, nurture, uplevel and retain these important voices.” In turn, the social media giant will have to up its game to compete with Substack to attract and retain the best writers on its platform.

The rebirth of this seemingly old-fashioned format has clearly set the ball rolling for some much-needed change within the media industry. Whether this business model is sustainable or not is yet to be answered but greater control in the hands of journalists has certainly encouraged more of the quality journalism we love. 

Now, let me go check my inbox (while you sign up to our newsletter below)…

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