Remember when newsletters were hot?
That’s what 2020 and 2021 was all about: Big-name writers were leaving big-name publications to start one-man publishing operations, and some of them were making a lot of money doing it. Serious people wondered if Substack, the email platform of the moment, was a threat to the New York Times. Facebook and Twitter wanted in.
That was then.
Now newsletters are less… hot. Some writers who have gone out on their own have decided that they would like a full-time job working for someone else, just like the old days. Substack has struggled to raise funds and has laid off some of its staff. Twitter doesn’t talk much about its newsletter plans anymore. And a year after launching Bulletin, its own Substack platform, Facebook has put the project on the back burner.
Which is not to say that newsletters have disappeared. Absolutely not. Just some of the hype surrounding them. And in its place, there’s a more realistic attitude about the format and the business you can build around it: newsletters, it turns out, are like blogs and podcasts: they’re very simple for anyone to create. But turning them into something more than a hobby, let alone a full-time job, takes talent and sustained effort.
“I don’t think it’s an easy path to fame and fortune,” says Judd Legum, who has been writing his popular newsletter since 2018. “But that was something I never believed.”
Legum, whose newsletter focuses on how big business interacts with public policy, recently pressured the dating app operator Match Group to stop giving money to the Attorney General’s Association Republic after the disappearance of Roe v. Wade – it’s going pretty well. He says he has more than 15,000 subscribers who pay at least $50 a year, which means he probably makes more than $750,000 a year. And that income has allowed him to hire two full-time employees for his micro-publishing company.
But he also says that publishing the newsletter four times a week can “feel like a nuisance. And if you’re not 100 percent committed to it, I can definitely see how you feel burned out.” And for solo newsletter writers, it can also be “isolating,” she says.
This effort and loneliness is what led Emily Atkins, whose Heated newsletter covers the climate crisis, to take a break in February this year, some two and a half years after she started. “My brain feels in a constant state of fog and overwhelm,” she wrote.
Now Atkins is starting up again, but he’s vowing to take care of himself by posting less frequently than in his heyday, when he was doing four updates a week. And she’s getting help doing it, hiring a reporter to work with her.
Eventually, he tells me, he’d like to get to the point where other people are doing most of the writing, just like the traditional publications he worked for before jumping into newsletters. “I feel like the dream for me is to be editor-in-chief.”
The pared down, sober reality of newsletters is also sinking in on the media and technology companies that have recently taken an interest in them over the past couple of years.
Meta launched its newsletter program Bulletin a year ago, and people familiar with its efforts tell me that more than 1 million people signed up for free newsletters created by famous or famous writers; Earlier this year, the company planned to expand its roster of writers, sources said. But last month he abruptly pulled the plug on the program as CEO Mark Zuckerberg urged his company to focus on a few key initiatives, such as Reels, its TikTok clone.
Last year, The Atlantic launched its own newsletter program, which editor Nick Thompson says was an effort to attract new readers to the media company and to help persuade paying subscribers to stay “They’re doing great,” he says. “It is a publishing success; it’s a business success.”
But Thompson admits that when Atlantic launched its newsletter program, it was also concerned that some of its staff writers might leave to launch their own newsletters, lured by the enormous success that a handful of writers like Bari Weiss and Andrew Sullivan were enjoying themselves at Substack.
Last fall, for example, Weiss told me she had more than 100,000 people reading her Common Sense newsletter, which tends to focus on the perceived and real excesses of cancellation culture, and more than 16,500 subscribers. Which would mean he was raking in over $825,000 a year before expenses. Now Weiss says she has 210,000 readers, but she won’t share a payment number with me until “we hit a big goal that we have in mind.”
But Thompson and other publishing executives I speak with say Substack no longer poses an existential threat to their business. The new conventional wisdom is that a handful of writers, especially those from the center/center-right/beyond the political spectrum, like Weiss, Sullivan, and my former Vox colleague Matt Yglesias, are thriving on the platform. And Substack says its top 10 publishers are collectively making more than $25 million a year.
But Substack won’t disclose the average income of a Substack writer, and I’ve heard many anecdotes from Substackers who say the platform generates some income for them, but not enough to replace a full-time job. A prominent example is Charlie Warzel, who left the New York Times in the spring of 2021 to launch his own Substack, then abandoned the fall effort and moved to the Atlantic; at the time, he said that during his Substack experiment he “earned a lot less than I did working at the Times.“(Worth noting: Warzel’s fellow writer Anne Helen Petersen is crushing it with Substack — her culture-study newsletter has “tens of thousands” of paying subscribers, at $50 a year .)
But just because newsletters can be a heavy and uncertain climb for sole proprietors doesn’t mean they’re going away. One place where you’ll still find a lot of enthusiasm for newsletters is with a small group of media executives trying to use newsletters as a launch pad for new business.
Brian Morrissey, the former editor-in-chief of Digiday, a media trade publication, has been writing the Reboot since 2020 and now has 9,500 subscribers. It’s currently free, but Morrissey believes he will eventually offer a paid version, while using it to drive a business that will include events and perhaps video.
“The newsletters themselves are a great minimally viable product,” an easy way to build a relationship with customers, he says.
This is also the business plan for Puck, which launched last year with a group of writers, including my former colleague Teddy Schleifer, who covers media and politics; so does Punchbowl, a collection of former Politico staffers who cover Washington; and the same goes for Ankler, which began as a sharp Hollywood newsletter from reporter Richard Rushfield, who is now working with veteran publishing executive Janice Min to create a company that boasts five other newsletters and multiple podcasts . (A counterpoint: Semafor, the much-talked about news startup from Ben Smith, the former New York Times media columnist, and Justin Smith, the former Bloomberg executive, will include newsletters and a good old website, Ben Smith em says, “We will regard both the site and the bulletins as first-class citizens.”
Newsletters are a “really great and effective way to communicate with our audience” of Hollywood insiders and wannabes, says Min, who used to edit US magazine and then the Hollywood Reporter. While both of these publications needed a large audience to make money by selling advertising, Min says his company will be able to thrive by targeting narrow, affluent niches. Its newest product, the Optionist, which tracks the status of scripts and projects around Hollywood, will be priced at $2,500 a year.
This is where I’m supposed to point out that regular people (people who can’t afford to spend an expensive newsletter on their studio employer) will have limited ability and interest to pay for many newsletters. And that newsletters aren’t just competing with newsletters for your money, but with every subscription company that wants your money, from the New York Times to Spotify to Netflix. Oh and also: that we may or may not be entering a recession that will make it harder to convince people to pay for things, period.
But you know all that. You are a smart person reading this story, which may have been delivered to your inbox for free, like a newsletter.
I think the biggest problem for newsletter makers (solo, corporate or mid-tier) will be how much interest people have in news of all kinds, and whether they want something sent to them or whether they just want it. I like to play for a while.
The optimistic view is that newsletters allow people to get exactly what they want, bypassing general interest publications or the quagmire of social media. The downside is that by appealing to highly engaged niches, newsletters and the people who make them aren’t communicating with the general public, who could stand to get more, not less, news in their lives.
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