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Oct. 8, 2019, 8 a.m.

Substack’s first media company is The Dispatch, a center-right site founded by former Weekly Standard and National Review editors

It’s a step forward for Substack, which had been focused on individuals’ newsletters but is now testing out broader offerings for media companies.

Two significant figures in the conservative media world — Stephen Hayes, former editor-in-chief of the now defunct Weekly Standard, and Jonah Goldberg, formerly senior editor at National Review — say they see opportunity in the center-right, conservative-but-not-kneejerk-pro-Trump political news space. Substack, which until now has focused primarily on individual writers’ email newsletters, sees a chance to do more for media companies. So they’re all teaming up: The Dispatch, a center-right news and analysis website, newsletter, and podcast, launches Tuesday on Substack.

“We think there’s a pretty big opening for thoughtful, sane, non-booster-ish conservative journalism,” Hayes said. “We’re emphasizing reporting.”

“There are lots of publications for the center-left. A lot consider reporting to be central to what they’re doing,” Goldberg said. “On the center-right, there aren’t a lot of places that do reporting — and the places places that do do reporting basically do opposition research–type stuff rather than anything truly in depth. We felt that, with the end of the Weekly Standard, there was a place for a philosophically conservative, but journalistically skeptical, [publication] to cover and discuss the right and analyze these kinds of issues.”

The Dispatch launches with eight full-time staff members (including Goldberg and Hayes) and raised money to start out from individual investors, with Goldberg, Hayes, and their third cofounder, Toby Stock, owning a majority of the company. They’re purposely starting small, and free: The website with its mission statement launches Tuesday, with what will eventually be a daily newsletter beginning on Wednesday. “Over time, we’ll add more and more newsletters, and podcasts, to the mix,” Goldberg said. Some of the newsletters will be personality-based; some will be on specific topics, such as national security, and the world of organized center-right religion — “We want to have something that’s philosophically and theologically sympathetic, but journalistically skeptical about the personalities and organizations in that world,” Goldberg explained. The inaugural podcast will be a weekly news roundup jumping off of Goldberg’s existing The Remnant, with more to come.

The website will fully launch in January. “Substack is basically building everything, this bespoke customized digital media presence,” Hayes said. (It’s the first time that Substack has done this: The company, which announced about $15 million in VC funding over the summer, has until now catered only to individual writers, not larger publications.) It will have three stories a day — an “anchor piece” of 1,500 words or more, and two side pieces around 750 words. “We’re not going to do hot takes,” Hayes said. “This is not a place to come and find a 400-word screed against something that makes you angry in the news today.”

The center-right — or, perhaps more accurately, the non-Trumpist right — is a uniquely open space in the digital political space today. A landmark Berkman study of media around the 2016 election found that, while liberal media represented a range of ideological positions from far left to the center, conservative media was highly concentrated on the far right:

The leading media on the right and left are rooted in different traditions and journalistic practices. On the conservative side, more attention was paid to pro-Trump, highly partisan media outlets. On the liberal side, by contrast, the center of gravity was made up largely of long-standing media organizations steeped in the traditions and practices of objective journalism…Prominent media on the left are well distributed across the center, center-left, and left. On the right, prominent media are highly partisan…

The center of gravity of the overall landscape is the center-left. Partisan media sources on the left are integrated into this landscape and are of lesser importance than the major media outlets of the center-left. The center of attention and influence for conservative media is on the far right. The center-right is of minor importance and is the least represented portion of the media spectrum.

Note the dip just right of center in this chart showing the number of links shared to publications at various points along the political spectrum.

The call for a more reporting-centered conservative media is also not new. Back in 2009, an earlier iteration of Tucker Carlson argued for a conservative counterbalance to the journalistic style of The New York Times. Last month, Politico White House reporter Eliana Johnson was announced as the new editor of the conservative Washington Free Beacon, and she made a similar pitch for stronger reporting chops on the right. “The focus has been and will continue to be on scoops and original reporting,” she told Ben Smith. “Conservatives have tended to gravitate toward opinion, and they run the most successful cable news outlet, and they’ve done talk radio very successfully — but there’s been less interest on the right in doing real, serious reporting.” (Yesterday, the Free Beacon published a reported story casting doubt on Elizabeth Warren’s story of being fired from a teaching job because she was pregnant, using public records from 1971. The story has gotten substantial pushback from Warren and other outlets.)

While The Dispatch’s content will be free at first to build up an audience, membership is the site’s ultimate business model; the website and newsletters will be ad-free (there will be some ads on the podcasts). The cost will likely be $10 a month, including access to all of the content as well as additional member perks like conference calls and events; a “lifetime subscription” was available Tuesday for $1,500. But Hayes and Goldberg are reluctant to over-promise. (From The Dispatch’s mission statement: “We are not launching The Dispatch to change the world, to reimagine news and information, to fix the internet, or to scold those we think have fallen short. We have more humble objectives. We are launching The Dispatch to provide engaged citizens with a community for thoughtful, fact-based reporting and commentary on politics, policy and culture — informed by conservative principles.”)

“We’re asking people who are dissatisfied with the options they have right now to sign up with us when we’re still figuring things out,” Goldberg said. “We want people to feel like they’re investing in this from the beginning. If we come out the gates promising the world, it’s a bad idea for inculcating this concept of membership and belonging.”

Photo by Octavio Serra on Behance.

POSTED     Oct. 8, 2019, 8 a.m.
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