Blogging is back, but better

“The primary difference is that these blogs, these magazines, these whatevers, will be built and guided by the individual creators for their audience, not by the executives they once reported to.”

This coming year, 2021, is when general interest publications will finally embrace micropayments for consumers who aren’t ready to make a long-term commitment, or who only want to access one or two articles without adding another username and password to their growing list of subscriptions.

Just kidding. I don’t think that’s ever going to happen, in part because, as this Digiday article on “why micropayments for news schemes struggle to take off” explained way back in 2015, they’re “mentally taxing for users.” (For more on the problems with micropayments, see this Twitter thread.)

What’s also mentally — and financially! — taxing for users, though, is that lengthening list of subscriptions. It never stops growing. As more writers extricate themselves from the publishers that helped to create their brand in the first place, consumers are left deciding which, and how many, to follow into independence. Even if you use a password manager (or are one of the lucky few who don’t seem to need to log back into your New York account every single time you navigate to Vulture or The Cut), there are still all the monthly payments, and they add up. Just two Substack subscriptions at $5/month will cost you as much as an entire year of The New Yorker. Most of us are going to max out soon, if we haven’t already.

Writers know this. It’s a good gig if you can get it, as they say, but just as there’s only one Stephenie Meyer despite modern-day self-publishing entering middle age, there’s also only one Andrew Sullivan and one Glenn Greenwald (thankfully). And though we’d like there to be more, there’s also only one Ann Friedman, who recently wrote openly about how newsletters are “a bit of a pyramid scheme” in that “a few successful people at the top make it seem like the system works for everyone, when in fact there is no way for most folks to make it up from the bottom.” When the venture capital funding that Substack is passing on to creators in order to lure them to the platform runs dry, we’ll see how many are making enough to keep putting in the hours on their own.

Will the go-it-alone model work for many? Maybe! The team behind Substack has built something I find truly enjoyable, and I’ll celebrate any attempt to build new revenue streams for writing and reporting (though how much reporting can be done without support systems — editors, fact-checkers, copy-editors, and lawyers, oh my — remains to be seen).

But what I think you’re more likely to see, and soon, are more bundles. When writers can’t make it on their own, they’ll band together. When they want to share the responsibilities for figuring out insurance and health care and other benefits, they’ll join forces with others who want similar things. When they want to put out a weekly product but only be responsible for publishing once a month, they’ll find three friends. And it’ll be easier for potential subscribers to justify the expense of a bundle — not just more content, but a diversity of content, and voices, all for one price and under one subscription. It’ll probably look a lot like a magazine, but on the internet. Growing up, we used to call them blogs. (Unless you’re Slate, which has been calling itself a magazine for 24 years now, even though it only looks like one if you print it out at home and staple it together yourself.)

The primary difference is that these blogs, these magazines, these whatevers, will be built and guided by the individual creators for their audience, not by the executives they once reported to or their shareholders and owners. And that’s interesting. You’re unlikely to see a new brand from Condé Nast this year, which is still trying (and failing) to clean up the ongoing problems at Bon Appetit. But we’ve already seen exciting new launches like Defector, from the team that brought you Deadspin, and Brick House, a media cooperative owned by the editors of the publications that it houses.

Maybe these will live on Substack 2.0, which is almost certainly going to create its own bundling tools, and soon, despite its claims that it’s not a publisher or media company. Or they’ll live on Lede, a new publishing and subscription platform from the people behind Alley. Or they’ll look completely different from either of those things. It won’t matter much to readers, who all benefit from the great re-bundling. Or to writers, who have an opportunity here to create a more fair and equitable media industry, this time from the bottom up.

Nicholas Jackson is the director of content at Built In and former editor-in-chief of Pacific Standard.

This coming year, 2021, is when general interest publications will finally embrace micropayments for consumers who aren’t ready to make a long-term commitment, or who only want to access one or two articles without adding another username and password to their growing list of subscriptions.

Just kidding. I don’t think that’s ever going to happen, in part because, as this Digiday article on “why micropayments for news schemes struggle to take off” explained way back in 2015, they’re “mentally taxing for users.” (For more on the problems with micropayments, see this Twitter thread.)

What’s also mentally — and financially! — taxing for users, though, is that lengthening list of subscriptions. It never stops growing. As more writers extricate themselves from the publishers that helped to create their brand in the first place, consumers are left deciding which, and how many, to follow into independence. Even if you use a password manager (or are one of the lucky few who don’t seem to need to log back into your New York account every single time you navigate to Vulture or The Cut), there are still all the monthly payments, and they add up. Just two Substack subscriptions at $5/month will cost you as much as an entire year of The New Yorker. Most of us are going to max out soon, if we haven’t already.

Writers know this. It’s a good gig if you can get it, as they say, but just as there’s only one Stephenie Meyer despite modern-day self-publishing entering middle age, there’s also only one Andrew Sullivan and one Glenn Greenwald (thankfully). And though we’d like there to be more, there’s also only one Ann Friedman, who recently wrote openly about how newsletters are “a bit of a pyramid scheme” in that “a few successful people at the top make it seem like the system works for everyone, when in fact there is no way for most folks to make it up from the bottom.” When the venture capital funding that Substack is passing on to creators in order to lure them to the platform runs dry, we’ll see how many are making enough to keep putting in the hours on their own.

Will the go-it-alone model work for many? Maybe! The team behind Substack has built something I find truly enjoyable, and I’ll celebrate any attempt to build new revenue streams for writing and reporting (though how much reporting can be done without support systems — editors, fact-checkers, copy-editors, and lawyers, oh my — remains to be seen).

But what I think you’re more likely to see, and soon, are more bundles. When writers can’t make it on their own, they’ll band together. When they want to share the responsibilities for figuring out insurance and health care and other benefits, they’ll join forces with others who want similar things. When they want to put out a weekly product but only be responsible for publishing once a month, they’ll find three friends. And it’ll be easier for potential subscribers to justify the expense of a bundle — not just more content, but a diversity of content, and voices, all for one price and under one subscription. It’ll probably look a lot like a magazine, but on the internet. Growing up, we used to call them blogs. (Unless you’re Slate, which has been calling itself a magazine for 24 years now, even though it only looks like one if you print it out at home and staple it together yourself.)

The primary difference is that these blogs, these magazines, these whatevers, will be built and guided by the individual creators for their audience, not by the executives they once reported to or their shareholders and owners. And that’s interesting. You’re unlikely to see a new brand from Condé Nast this year, which is still trying (and failing) to clean up the ongoing problems at Bon Appetit. But we’ve already seen exciting new launches like Defector, from the team that brought you Deadspin, and Brick House, a media cooperative owned by the editors of the publications that it houses.

Maybe these will live on Substack 2.0, which is almost certainly going to create its own bundling tools, and soon, despite its claims that it’s not a publisher or media company. Or they’ll live on Lede, a new publishing and subscription platform from the people behind Alley. Or they’ll look completely different from either of those things. It won’t matter much to readers, who all benefit from the great re-bundling. Or to writers, who have an opportunity here to create a more fair and equitable media industry, this time from the bottom up.

Nicholas Jackson is the director of content at Built In and former editor-in-chief of Pacific Standard.

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