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The Substack Superstar System

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eye on the news

The Substack Superstar System

By unbundling themselves from media platforms, big-name journalists signal broader economic shifts. September 28, 2020
Economy, finance, and budgets
Technology and Innovation

Until recently, when a prominent writer like Andrew Sullivan lost his job for voicing controversial opinions, he had two options: write for the other side or fade into obscurity. But when Sullivan was fired from New York Magazine recently, he turned to Substack, a platform that lets authors publish and monetize a newsletter or sell standalone content directly to readers. Sullivan claims that he has more than 75,000 subscribers and is making more money than he did at New York.

He’s not the first to turn to a newsletter. In May, chef Alison Roman started a Substack newsletter after leaving the New York Times under fire for criticizing two Asian women and using turmeric in a recipe without showing sufficient cultural sensitivity. Sometimes cancellation is not even necessary. Some writers, like Matt Taibbi, left Rolling Stone to write a paid newsletter because he wanted more independence.

Newsletters are just one way that writers can free themselves from institutions. Katie Herzog, former beleaguered writer at The Stranger, now devotes her time to a podcast and raises money through Patreon. Like Sullivan, she claims to be earning more than she did as a staff writer.

These experiences are part of the growing unbundled economy, an economic trend that extends beyond media. Up until fairly recently, we consumed many goods and services bundled together. Your airline ticket price included a meal and checked luggage. Your cable bill included hundreds of channels. A newspaper subscription offered content from many journalists. But changing economics and technology have made bundling less necessary and attractive—at least in the short run. A bundled service offers lots of variety for a fixed price, but you end up paying for things you don’t want. Now, when we book flights online, we can see other airlines’ prices for identical routes; an airline can appear more competitive by breaking out different services. Streaming platforms mean that we no longer must pay for cable channels we don’t watch. And now, members of the media whom colleagues deem “problematic” don’t have to tolerate a hostile newsroom; they can send out an email newsletter or broadcast a podcast to their audience and collect money directly.

In some ways, the unbundled economy is more efficient for consumers. We pay only for the goods and services we want, and we get more choices. Journalists don’t have to tailor their writing to avoid upsetting the most sensitive members of the newsrooms, and they can talk directly to readers. While unbundling feels new, it is in some ways a throwback to a preindustrial economy, when information was shared in newsletters or handbills, and small-scale artisans made customized goods or offered services on demand.

Long term, though, there could be problems. Paying for podcasts and newsletters from all your favorite writers will get expensive. People will need to make choices; they’ll probably pay only for writers they already know and like—and only a few, the most popular, will be able to earn a good living. Most high-profile writers developed their following off the credibility of institutions for which they once worked. If the economy fully unbundles, it’s unclear where the new pipeline of talent will come from, where future on-the-job training will occur, and who will pay for it.

One way forward could be bundled newsletters and podcasts, where subscribers pay for content from several sources. This may prove attractive for writers with a decent-size following but not large enough to generate a stable income on Patreon or Substack.

Substack is currently seen as a trend, but it’s one that represents an important economic shift, where investing in an institution is seen as less valuable than being a superstar in one’s field. These changes largely reflect changes in technology and a more polarized world. But they could ultimately lead to less skilled and more partisan journalists operating in echo-chambered media silos.

The media market changes faster than other industries facing the same economic trends. The move to Substack, and unbundling in media more generally, may be the canary in the coalmine telling us what’s in store for the rest of the economy. If so, it’s a mixed bag.

Photo: ValentynVolkov/iStock

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