Saturday, November 21, 2020

"The Substackerati"

 From the Columbia Journalism Review:

Did a newsletter company create a more equitable media system—or replicate the flaws of the old one?

The first week of March, Patrice Peck, a freelance journalist living in New York, started sanitizing everything. She went to Nitehawk, a dine-in movie theater, and brought Clorox to wipe down the little table by her seat, her drinking glass, the utensils. In those early days, she felt like she was the only one obsessing over the coronavirus. As the pandemic spread, she started exchanging updates with a friend via text message and calling her grandmother in Jamaica to discuss the situation there. Peck anticipated that Black people would be hit the hardest, and that this aspect of the story would not receive enough coverage. “It was just very obvious to me,” she said.

By April, shelter-in-place orders were in effect. Peck—who is thirty-three and stylish, lately with cat-eye glasses and short hair—was holed up in her apartment. She and her partner set up to work side by side, their laptops perched on the kitchen island; Peck scoured the internet for news as Black people in America began dying from covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, at twice the rate of whites. “I wanted to write something that would be valuable to readers and informative and empowering, particularly to Black audiences,” she said. So she did what so many other independent journalists were doing—she started a Substack.

Substack, established in 2017 by three tech-and-media guys—Chris Best, Hamish McKenzie, and Jairaj Sethi—is a newsletter platform that allows writers and other creative types to distribute their work at tiered subscription rates. Newsletters go back at least as far as the Middle Ages, but these days, with full-time jobs at stable media companies evaporating—between the 2008 recession and 2019, newsroom employment dropped by 23 percent—Substack offers an appealing alternative. And, for many, it’s a viable source of income. In three years, Substack’s newsletters—covering almost every conceivable topic, from Australian Aboriginal rights to bread recipes to local Tennessee politics—have drawn more than two hundred fifty thousand paid subscribers. The top newsletter authors can earn six figures, an unheard-of amount for freelance journalists. Emily Atkin, who runs Heated, on the climate crisis, told me that her gross annual income surpassed $200,000—and among paid-readership Substacks, she’s ranked fifteenth. “I literally opened my first savings account,” she said.

Peck had been mulling the idea of starting a newsletter for a while. She began thinking seriously about Substack when she saw Beauty IRL, a newsletter by Darian Harvin. Like Peck, Harvin is a freelancer—it was “really a matter of time” until she was laid off from one media job or another, she figured—and she was using Substack as a place for surplus ideas. “I take some of my pitches and just write them for my newsletter,” Harvin said. “Publications are only paying me three hundred dollars per piece, so I thought, What would happen if I took some of them and grew my audience?” Her efforts were getting noticed; eventually, Substack gave her a $3,000 stipend and a $25,000 advance (in the latter arrangement, Substack takes 50 percent of her subscription fees until the advance is paid off, but if she doesn’t reach that number, Harvin won’t owe Substack the rest)....