Subscriptions start working for the middle

“Six-figure Substack incomes and subscriber numbers sure sound great, but they’re not the only ends to the means.”

If media is a cafeteria, there’s no question that this year’s Popular Girl was Substack. It felt like every few weeks, someone new was getting invited to the cool kids’ table to join the likes of Daniel Lavery, Judd Legum, and Emily Atkin to launch their own screamingly profitable personal newsletters. And while much ink has been spilled over the lucrative new incomes, the unleashed creative potential, and the sweet, sweet uncensored freedom entailed, there’s also been plenty of smart criticism over how the Substack model has most immediately rewarded established those with Twitter megaphones and decades-old followings.

So what I think will be most interesting to watch in 2021 is how the larger cultural shift around digital subscriptions that Substack is riding — this phenomenon of People Willing And Able To Pay For Good Content — will benefit all the outlets in the middle part of the spectrum, between the Individual Star Creator and, like, The New York Times.

I’m talking about outlets like Discourse Blog, Defector, Brick House, The City — newish outlets and collectives that launched (some from the ashes of ad-supported media sites we all watched crash and burn) with the subscriber model front and center. But I’m also thinking of campus newspapers. (If we had Substack around when my alma mater paper, The Maneater, was scrambling for digital ad dollars and had no concept of how to build our own digital subscription product, man, that would have made all the difference.)

I’m thinking of newsletters like Patrice Peck’s Coronavirus News For Black Folks — where a priority on accessibility is at odds with the traditional subscription model — hacking the “membership tier” option to allow donors and nonprofits to support the great work at hand. And I’m also being inspired by local outlets like the Cedar Rapids Gazette and the Indian Manorama Weekly, who got creative using their physical product as a delivery mechanism — for educational material for distance learning and little packets of vegetable seeds, respectively.

What’s the digital equivalent of that for other local news outlets, many of whom are finally settling into their online identities? The City is at its heart a local paper that uses its daily newsletter as a digital “front page.” What other newsletter-y innovations can local outlets reinvent for their own purposes?

Six-figure Substack incomes and subscriber numbers sure sound great, but they’re not the only ends to the means. What a relief it is to find that people are finally comfortable — even willing — to pay for relevant and high-quality journalism, especially if it meets a niche that can’t be filled anywhere else, especially when written in voice-y, approachable editions that show up in your inbox like a close friend. Watch for more newsletter bundling (maybe they’ll one day turn into magazines?); more NYT Cooking-esque added value spinoffs from your local paper; members-only communities like Study Hall; and habit-forming service-y standalones like The Listings Project.

The Substackaissance feels like a gold rush for blue checks right now. But what’s most worth watching in 2021 is how it’s also kicked open the doors for all the outlets that couldn’t make it before on advertising, awkward PayPal requests, and deep-pocketed benefactors alone.

Because what if this could work for everyone else, too?

Delia Cai writes the media newsletter Deez Links.

If media is a cafeteria, there’s no question that this year’s Popular Girl was Substack. It felt like every few weeks, someone new was getting invited to the cool kids’ table to join the likes of Daniel Lavery, Judd Legum, and Emily Atkin to launch their own screamingly profitable personal newsletters. And while much ink has been spilled over the lucrative new incomes, the unleashed creative potential, and the sweet, sweet uncensored freedom entailed, there’s also been plenty of smart criticism over how the Substack model has most immediately rewarded established those with Twitter megaphones and decades-old followings.

So what I think will be most interesting to watch in 2021 is how the larger cultural shift around digital subscriptions that Substack is riding — this phenomenon of People Willing And Able To Pay For Good Content — will benefit all the outlets in the middle part of the spectrum, between the Individual Star Creator and, like, The New York Times.

I’m talking about outlets like Discourse Blog, Defector, Brick House, The City — newish outlets and collectives that launched (some from the ashes of ad-supported media sites we all watched crash and burn) with the subscriber model front and center. But I’m also thinking of campus newspapers. (If we had Substack around when my alma mater paper, The Maneater, was scrambling for digital ad dollars and had no concept of how to build our own digital subscription product, man, that would have made all the difference.)

I’m thinking of newsletters like Patrice Peck’s Coronavirus News For Black Folks — where a priority on accessibility is at odds with the traditional subscription model — hacking the “membership tier” option to allow donors and nonprofits to support the great work at hand. And I’m also being inspired by local outlets like the Cedar Rapids Gazette and the Indian Manorama Weekly, who got creative using their physical product as a delivery mechanism — for educational material for distance learning and little packets of vegetable seeds, respectively.

What’s the digital equivalent of that for other local news outlets, many of whom are finally settling into their online identities? The City is at its heart a local paper that uses its daily newsletter as a digital “front page.” What other newsletter-y innovations can local outlets reinvent for their own purposes?

Six-figure Substack incomes and subscriber numbers sure sound great, but they’re not the only ends to the means. What a relief it is to find that people are finally comfortable — even willing — to pay for relevant and high-quality journalism, especially if it meets a niche that can’t be filled anywhere else, especially when written in voice-y, approachable editions that show up in your inbox like a close friend. Watch for more newsletter bundling (maybe they’ll one day turn into magazines?); more NYT Cooking-esque added value spinoffs from your local paper; members-only communities like Study Hall; and habit-forming service-y standalones like The Listings Project.

The Substackaissance feels like a gold rush for blue checks right now. But what’s most worth watching in 2021 is how it’s also kicked open the doors for all the outlets that couldn’t make it before on advertising, awkward PayPal requests, and deep-pocketed benefactors alone.

Because what if this could work for everyone else, too?

Delia Cai writes the media newsletter Deez Links.

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