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Print is dead. Over the last decade, news and media outlets have nav­i­gated a rising demand for online content and a plum­meting print industry to stay finan­cially afloat. Even this comes with more chal­lenges for their writers, however, as they face cen­sorship and growing cancel culture. It’s hard for them to freely express their ideas.

Sub­stack, created in 2017, is an online news site that pro­vides a solution. Its website is incredibly simple. Readers select the topics they’re inter­ested in and Sub­stack pro­vides a list of inde­pendent writers of that topic.

Readers then choose which writers they sub­scribe to and pay indi­vidual sub­scrip­tions, typ­i­cally ranging from $5-$10 a month. 

No ads. No account fees. Just a simple sub­scription for the kind of articles people want to read. 

“We believe in putting writers and readers in charge,” the Sub­stack website reads. “Writers own their content and their mailing lists and have full edi­torial control on Sub­stack. Readers choose for them­selves which writers to invite into their inboxes and their minds.”

For writers, this is an easy way to write without finding a company to publish their work or wor­rying about building their own web­sites. They get to set their sub­scription fee, write whatever they want to write about, and build their own mailing lists without any overhead. 

The only cost for writers is the 10% com­mission Sub­stack takes, plus the credit card pro­cessing fee, charged by Stripe, that’s roughly 3%, according to Blogging Guide. 

John Miller, director of Hillsdale’s Dow Jour­nalism Program, uses Sub­stack to sub­scribe to an online mag­azine called“The Dis­patch.” He said he’s noticed a trend in writers going off on their own to write using plat­forms such as Sub­stack, and he doesn’t think it’s slowing down any time soon.

“It empowers these indi­vidual writers to work on their own. I don’t think it’s a fad,” Miller said. “It does seem like a lot of people are flooding into it right now.”

With its free-to-join writer accounts, Miller said Sub­stack has a lot of potential for writers looking to make a living.

“It’s def­i­nitely a viable business,” he said. “It appears as though a number of people are quite suc­cessful at this, and a lot of people will use this not to make money. They’ll just use this because it’s a platform and it’s like a labor of love. But clearly a number of people are using it to make money.”

 

When it comes to cen­sorship, Sub­stack takes a relaxed approach, giving writers the freedom to write what they choose, so long as they follow respectful content guidelines.

“We will always err on the side of respecting writers’ right to express them­selves and readers’ right to decide for them­selves what to read,” a Sub­stack article reads. “That is what it takes to make Sub­stack the best place for inde­pendent writing.” 

The company’s guide­lines include: no spam or phishing, harassment or threats, doxxing, n hate — defined as pub­lishing content or funding ini­tia­tives that call for vio­lence, exclusion, or seg­re­gation based on pro­tected classes –, imper­son­ation, pla­giarism, and no porn or sex­ually exploitative content. 

This model is working. Since 2017, more than half a million people have sub­scribed to Sub­stack writers. Readers have paid writers tens of mil­lions of dollars since its inception, and the top ten pub­lishers are grossing more than $15 million a year, according to Substack’s website.

Chris Best and Hamish McKenzie, the founders of Sub­stack, took a risk in relying solely on sub­scrip­tions. Without ad revenue, they depend on writers to build a large sub­scription base to bring in enough revenue to keep the site running, and the risk has paid off. 

This unique and simple platform is changing the way jour­nalists engage with their readers, and it’s proving to be a suc­cessful new model. It’s freeing jour­nalists to write what they want, when they want, and readers appear to want it, too. 

“It’s an inter­esting devel­opment in the field. It’s another example of how jour­nalism is con­stantly dis­rupted by new tech­nology,” Miller said. “Whatever Sub­stack is doing, they’ve figured out a way to make this work and mon­etize it for indi­viduals. It’s kind of an exciting opportunity.”