This is one of the most exciting developments I’ve seen in local news in a long time — certainly more exciting than the news that Substack and Facebook were going to toss some spare change in a tin cup in the hopes of enticing community journalists to set up shop on their platforms.
Earliest this week David Folkenflik of NPR reported that The Colorado Sun, a digital startup that arose from the ashes of The Denver Post, would acquire a chain of 24 small newspapers in the Denver suburbs in partnership with a new nonprofit organization called the National Trust for Local News. As Sun editor and co-founder Larry Ryckman told Folkenflik:
These are the folks who are covering school boards, city councils, county commissions that no one else is covering. They provide unique local coverage. And we’re doing this so that we can preserve those voices.
Denver is the best-known example of the damage inflicted on newspapers by the hedge fund Alden Global Capital. Three years ago, journalists at The Denver Post rebelled at Alden’s brutal budget cuts. But guess who won? That led Ryckman and others to leave and launch the Sun. Ryckman described what happened last fall at the Radically Rural conference sponsored by the Keene (N.H.) Sentinel, which I covered for the Nieman Journalism Lab:
We endured cut after cut after cut. I had to lay people off. We were under assault, really, from our own owners, and nothing that we did — not being faster, smarter, more digital — none of those things really matter when a hedge fund doesn’t really care about the community or the journalism that the newspaper it owns produces. It’s really about this quarter’s return.
At one time, Denver’s newspapers employed about 600 journalists, Ryckman said. But the Rocky Mountain News shut down in 2009, and, as of last fall, Ryckman estimated the head count at the Post as being somewhere around 60. The Sun employs 10 people. But as a public benefit corporation, it can reinvest whatever money it makes in improving its journalism.
Could such a model work elsewhere? I don’t see why not. Take Eastern Massachusetts, whose weekly and daily community newspapers are nearly all owned by Alden’s rival in cost-cutting, Gannett. Could some sort of nonprofit entity be formed that would attempt to buy back Gannett’s properties in the Boston area? Gannett does sell papers from time to time. Maybe it’s possible to make them an offer they wouldn’t refuse.
The situation is dire. And what’s taking place in Denver suggests a possible way forward.
All of a sudden, platform companies are deciding that local is the place to be.
Two weeks ago, Substack announced Substack Local, a program to seed $1 million worth of local news projects. It was a bit like Dr. Doom announcing he’d destroy the earth unless he was paid $1 million — the Substack initiative would only be enough to get 30 local journalists up and running. But no doubt there will be more to come if the first round proves successful.
Then, earlier this week, Facebook said it would pay $5 million to fund a similar program, with an emphasis on “Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian or other audiences of color.” You are free to conclude that this gives Mark Zuckerberg something positive to talk about the next time he gets dragged before a congressional committee. But I’m sure he’d like it to succeed as well, since anything that keeps people glued to Facebook is good for his bottom line.
In both cases, these are drops in the bucket — especially for Facebook, whose revenues in 2020 approached $86 billion. But even though the platforms themselves are paying next to nothing, it should help us find out whether they can help local news entrepreneurs solve some of the problems in building successful projects.
I’m of two minds about Substack. As a newsletter-and-blogging platform that is attractive and simplifies the task of writers charging readers for their work, it’s fine. As a venture capital-backed company whose leaders seem to have visions of world domination (and endless riches), well, I’m more than a little skeptical.
Which is to say that I’m dubious about Substack Local, a just-announced initiative under which 30 lucky local journalists will be able to get start-up funding and health insurance in order to cover their communities. Obviously the idea addresses the two biggest obstacles to going independent. And if it works, presumably there will be many more such Substack-backed local projects to come.
But is this really going to work? What happens when — as seems inevitable — the venture capitalists see no path to profitability and decide to cash out? I realize there may not be too many similarities, but this feels like Medium, with its ever-shifting business model, which has left many publishers holding the proverbial bag.
If I were starting such a site, I’d be much more interested in the Tiny News Collective, which is providing local news entrepreneurs with support for back-end services such as technology, business training and legal services for around $100 a month.
No, it’s not as lucrative as getting VC money via Substack. But as Sarah Scire points out at the Nieman Journalism Lab, the money isn’t all that much and is aimed at moving the sites toward sustainability — a goal that can be pursued without Substack’s help.
We seem to be moving toward peak Substack. My only advice to local news folks thinking about applying is that they should have a clear, detailed plan in place for how to move rapidly to a different platform if they wind up getting Medium’d.
At the beginning of 2021, I decided to shift my online activities — I was going to blog more and use Facebook and Twitter less. At the same time, I decided to start offering memberships to Media Nation for $5 a month, following the lead of Boston College historian Heather Cox Richardson, pundits such as Andrew Sullivan, reporters such as Patrice Peck and others.
Most of these other folks are using Substack, a newsletter platform. I figured I had sunk way too many years — 16 — into writing Media Nation as a blog, and I didn’t want to switch to a platform that’s reliant on venture capital and could eventually go the way of most such companies. So here I am, still blogging at WordPress.com, and asking readers to consider becoming members by supporting me on Patreon.
And yes, I have been blogging more as I try to stay on top of various media stories, especially involving local journalism, as well as politics, culture and the news of the day. Just this week I’ve written about Larry Flynt and the First Amendment, Duke Ellington’s legacy, a new partnership between The Boston Globe and the Portland Press Herald, and a Louisiana reporter who’s been sued for — believe it or not — filing a public-records request.
If you value this work, I hope you’ll consider supporting it for $5 a month. Members receive a newsletter every Friday morning with exclusive content.
Boston Globe columnist Michael Cohen is leaving the paper in order to seek his fortune on Substack:
Some personal news: after six and a half years as an opinion columnist at the Boston Globe I am leaving the paper … and launching a subscription Substack newsletter, Truth and Consequences (https://t.co/7regdSTrWQ)
Unlike most of the solo practitioners who’ve set up shop on Substack, Cohen plans to have contributors — so it sounds like it will be more of a mini-publication than a personal newsletter. Still, it’s a big undertaking. When I started asking for voluntary subscriptions for Media Nation recently, I did it with two things in mind: to give myself an incentive to post more frequently, and to develop a small revenue stream. I can’t imagine trying to support myself this way.
Recently I wrote about Substack for GBH News — what was good about it (superior payment tools) and what was unimpressive (it’s just a bloggy newsletter, or a newslettery blog).
Writing the column sparked my interest in paid content, and that only intensified when I read Ben Smith’s piece in The New York Times about Heather Cox Richardson. A Boston College history professor who writes “Letters from An American” on Substack, Richardson is pulling in an estimate $1 million or so a year. She’s working very hard at it — a lot harder than I want to work. But it’s difficult not to be intrigued by the possibility of pulling in some money, even if it’s a tiny fraction of what she’s making.
I don’t want to move to Substack, and I don’t want to put any of my content behind a paywall. What I’ve done instead is set up a page on Patreon that lets you purchase a voluntary subscription to Media Nation for $5 a month. Subscribers will receive the additional benefit for an exclusive newsletter, although, to be honest, I haven’t figured out what to do with that yet.
Media Nation will remain free, and other than the newsletter, I’m not planning at the moment to do more than I’m already doing. (Of course, that could change if this takes off.) If you would like to lend your support to my work in the form of a subscription, I hope you’ll consider signing up.
The newsletter platform seems like a clean, simple tool aimed at helping independent writers charge subscription fees for their work.
But please spare me the hype. Substack has been the subject of recent stories by NPR, the Columbia Journalism Review and The New York Times, among others. And though most of the coverage has come with a few caveats, the impression that’s left is that Substack, at long last, has created a workable business model to support journalism at a time when COVID, Google and Facebook are destroying more traditional forms of media.
Substack, Ben Smith wrote in the Times earlier this year, holds out the promise of “reversing the dynamic of the old top-down media company and producing something more like a talent agency, where the individual journalist is the star and the boss, and the editor is merely on call.” Now where have we heard that before?
With celebrity journalists such as Matt Taibbi, Glenn Greenwald, Andrew Sullivan and Matthew Iglesias giving up their institutional gigs and going it alone, Substack has emerged as the hot new media thing of 2021, even though it’s not new and it’s unlikely to pay off for more than a few writers who had a substantial audience even before they switched to Substack.
“The Substack model works really well for some people who already have prestige and a following,” New York University journalism professor Meredith Broussard told NPR. “And it doesn’t work that well for everybody else.”
Back when I was a graduate student in the 1980s, I remember coming across an aphorism that there are two schools of thought about the unfolding of history. The first is that it’s one damn thing after another. The second is that it’s the same damn thing over and over.
Substack is clearly an example of the second. Because what is the newsletter model if it’s not blogging revisited? Remember blogs? I’ve been writing one since 2002. I also teach a workshop on “Blogging for Journalists” once or twice a year at the Harvard Kennedy School. Over the years, my message has morphed from “this is a cool new thing” to “everyone is doing it, so you should too” to “blogging may be dead, but it’s still got a lot of value.”
I guess my revised message should be “blogging is alive and well, except now we call it Substack.” After all, you can subscribe to my blog and get an email every time I post — so it’s a newsletter, right? And Substack archives your past newsletters in an attractive list kept in reverse-chronological order — so it’s a blog, right? Does this sound like a revolution to you?
There is one important difference: Substack has better, more flexible tools for payment than blogging ever had. We could put out a virtual tip jar back in the day (I never did) or run ads (I experimented with them but decided they weren’’t worth the bother). For the most part, though, charging subscription fees for access to a blog is difficult, and very few bloggers tried it. Substack makes it simple and, as the coverage enthusiastically notes, a small number of writers at the top of the heap are earning six-figure incomes. That’s pretty impressive.
At the same time, though, the paid-subscription model itself may be heading for the bubble-bursting stratosphere sometime in 2021. National news organizations have returned to something like financial health through reader revenue, which is no small accomplishment after years of wondering if The New York Times would survive. But how many news subscriptions are readers going to pay for? My guess: one or two digital newspapers; a magazine or two; and that’s just about it. Writers charging $6 a month on Substack are going to be frozen out — again, except for the celebrities.
“If Substack is successful, it will remind news consumers that paying for good journalism is worth it,” wrote the University of Maine’s Michael Socolow for The Conversation. “But if Substack’s pricing precludes widespread distribution of its news and commentary, its value as a public service won’t be fully realized.”
Moreover, there are some problems with Substack that sound exactly like the laments you used to hear from bloggers.
For instance, when Andrew Sullivan gave up his blog a few years ago and went to work for New York magazine, he said the grind had gotten to be too much. This past summer, when he announced he was leaving the magazine for Substack, he was still whining about the workload.
“Since I closed down the Dish, my bloggy website, five years ago, after 15 years of daily blogging,” he wrote, “I have not missed the insane work hours that all but broke my health.”
Somehow Sullivan has convinced himself that things will be different at Substack. Maybe he should have checked in with Patrice Peck, a journalist who publishes a Substack newsletter in relative obscurity called Coronavirus News for Black Folks. According to an article by Clio Chang in the Columbia Journalism Review, Peck has discovered that overwork and burnout are just as real for newsletter writers as they are for bloggers. (And why would we think otherwise?)
“I’m creating graphics on Instagram to promote it, tweeting it, doing everything,” Peck told Chang. “It’s a one-woman show. That gets exhausting. I don’t put it out as frequently as I’d like to.”
As for Substack’s corporate priorities, well, look out below. Chang noted that Substack is funded in large measure through $15.3 million in venture capital that it received in 2018. Among other things, the money has enabled Substack to recruit well-known writers. But at some point the investors will insist on their payday, as they always do. That’s when Substack writers will realize they’re not working on their own but are, rather, cogs in someone else’s machine.
After the initial excitement of the early to mid-2000s, blogging settled into a valuable but small niche in the digital media world. Some of us are still at it. Many others moved on.
The same is likely to be true of Substack as well. Because Substack isn’t merely similar to blogging. It is blogging, and it’s amazing that so many think that it’s new and different. Like Blogspot, WordPress, Medium (an earlier cautionary tale for journalists) and others, Substack will take its place as just another platform for self-publishing — better than some, but evolutionary, not revolutionary.
And the hard work of finding ways to pay for journalism in the digital age will continue.
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To what extent have Google and Facebook destroyed the digital ad model for news organizations? I came across a telling data point the other day from Josh Marshall, the editor and founder of Talking Points Memo, a liberal political site that’s one of the oldest outposts on the web. In an email to subscribers explaining why he’s raising rates, Marshall wrote:
The high watermark of advertising revenue for TPM was in 2014. That year we had a little over $2.5 million in ad revenue and $165,000 in membership revenue. In 2020, we’re on pace for $538,000 in ad revenue and $2.1 million in membership revenue.
What Marshall describes is a successful business venture that has boosted reader revenue by a factor of 13 over the past six years — but that at the same time has seen its ad income plummet to about a fifth of what it was.
Google’s auction system has destroyed the value of digital ads. Meanwhile, more than 90% of all new spending on digital advertising goes to Google and Facebook, which works out nicely for them because of sheer volume and the fact that most of their operations are automated.
It’s great for TPM that it’s been able to induce so many readers to pay. But with more and more publishers asking for subscription money (including all those individual journalists who’ve decamped for Substack), the ceiling is going to be hit fairly soon.
We need a way to bring digital advertising back for news publishers.
Correction: Post updated to fix several math errors.
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