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.”