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Lithium How the Substack boom is shaping the future of media

Oct. 21, 2021
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Before I found out about Substack, I tended to throw newsletters in my junk mail folder upon receiving them. Cheekily referred to as the “OnlyFans” or “Tumblr” for writers, Substack offers a fresh take on the newsletter; it’s no longer a corporate nuisance, but a more personalized opportunity to receive short musings or long reads from writers of all kinds. In a way, the platform digitally replicates the feeling of having news delivered to your doorstep. 

In addition to her work as a staff reporter at Vox, Brooklyn-based Terry Nguyen runs the monthly Substack newsletter, GEN YEET, which discusses trends, technology, and current affairs in a way that is fun and digestible for a Gen-Z audience. Feeling constrained by the work she was doing at her internship at the time, Nguyen launched the newsletter in March 2019. 

“I wanted to experiment with a more fun writing style and cover things that I was personally interested in,” she says.

For young, blossoming writers, Substack offers a space to grow a portfolio of work. For more experienced writers, it can be a way to try out a different beat or write with a more personal tone. 

“Blogs since the early 2000s have always been a space that young people, marginalized people, and even people just wanting to write and not be institutionally backed could put out their work,” Nguyen says. “I think that the resurgence of newsletters is just kind of the latest iteration of the desire to self-publish.” 

The reasons writers flock to Substack are diverse. While many use the platform as a way to supplement, or even act as their main source of income, others have used it to foster a community around a niche interest or service. 

The latter is what writers like Aidan McGloin are doing: taking community-centered approaches to Substack. In his senior year at California Polytechnic State University, McGloin and a group of student journalists set up a college newswire for California State Universities to share work, tips, and pitches across student papers. Soon, the Cal State Journalism Newswire started building collaboration and better communication between its member universities. In the time of COVID-19, McGloin says this connection has been crucial. 

“It’s absurdly easy to get content out there,” McGloin says. “The fact that it comes at a certain time, and the fact that it’s delivered to your inbox I think makes it a lot easier for people.”

Similarly, The Supplement, a newsletter project run by three young Canadian journalists, Samantha McCabe, Alex Nguyen, and Sierra Bein, functions as a collective effort and service. Staying true to its namesake, it aims to supplement people’s newsfeed by filling in the gaps through reader questions and recommendations. 

“I think that sometimes, we rely on folks either going to the homepage of news outlets and finding things on social media. We don’t really make that concerted effort to go beyond that to reach people,” McCabe says. 

In this way, McCabe says Substack newsletters are a fresh take on an older communicative medium. 

“Obviously, newsletters aren’t a new format; they’re actually pretty old-school at this point if we think of how long email has been around,” McCabe says. “I really think they’re coming into this interesting space where they can be topic-specific or hyper-targeted.” 

In the age of a disinformation crisis, McCabe says using Instagram as an additional medium to share their newsletter has been a way of offering fact-checked, verified information to a larger audience—their own way of tackling some of the issues that have come out of the Instagram infographic industrial complex

“Every week, when the content of our newsletter comes up, we generate that into a post,” she says. “It's kind of a way to add fact-checked, accurate reporting to your feed and reach people the way they want to be reached.”

Objectivity has long been praised as the holy grail of journalism. It’s a principle highlighted in bold in nearly every modern journalism textbook, encompassing the pillars of accuracy, fairness, independence, and impartiality. Through the objective reporting lens, “good journalism” requires the reporter to remove themselves from the situation at hand, create balanced stories, and uphold some vague notion of “unbiased” storytelling. 

At the same time, objectivity as a principle has faced valid critique for forcing marginalized writers to remain detached observers when reporting on stories that directly impact their communities.

In an essay for The Walrus, veteran journalist Pacinthe Mattar argues that objectivity is a privilege that tends to be afforded to white journalists. Journalists of color, she says, are often “mistrusted” when it comes to reporting on issues such as police brutality. “Under the banner of diversity, we are told to bring our perspectives,” she writes. “But if we bring too much of them, we are marked and kept back.” 

In many ways, the personalized nature of Substack allows authors to choose what stories they share and how they report on them. Concerns about being “biased” or daring to challenge objectivity are left behind. While this may be true for all of self-publishing, Substack uniquely combines independence with reach; the reader has to look no farther than their inbox to get access to the writer’s work. 

“I think the newsletter started presenting this opportunity for journalists to create an outlet of their own on an individual basis,” McCabe says. “For a lot of writers, it’s maybe a little bit of a breath of fresh air to not have to engage in this ‘pretend’ objectivity that some outlets engage in and be upfront about the topics they care about, while still reporting on them in a fact-based way.” 

Of course, Substack is not without its issues. McGloin, who has subscribed to dozens of Substacks since it surfaced in 2017, has noticed a pattern of burnout among many writers he follows. While many start out with weekly reads, he says that most tend to trickle down to sending a newsletter on a monthly basis or even stopping altogether. At the same time, the institutional support of a newsroom—the collaboration between writers, editors, and other members of a creative team—is something that Substack often fails to replicate. 

“They don’t have the support team because newsletters are a one-person band for the most part,” McGloin says, “You have to build everything from scratch for the most part. That just kind of causes people to burn out.” 

For this reason, some newsletter writers, like the team behind The Supplement, are combating the risks of burnout and isolation by making the process a collective effort. 

Still, Substack doesn’t solve many of the inequalities that exist in traditional newsroom environments. Generating a successful, well-received Substack often means that those with already large followings on other platforms simply build their readership from their existing bases. So while a small share of writers may be making six or even seven figures from their monthly newsletter, it’s often a result of existing social capital.

“I think there’s this sort of desire to be like ‘Substack solves everything!’ and that anyone can monetize their writing,” Nguyen says. “In reality, it has replicated existing media structures; those who have the biggest microphone and who are institutionally backed bring their follower and reader base to Substack.”

Nonetheless, Substack brings the personalized touch of getting a digital newsletter to your inbox while providing readers with the option to support their favorite writers’ work as direct patrons. At its core, the newsletter boom is a response to a changing media landscape that emphasizes the need for storytelling that goes beyond the confines of the traditional newsroom. 

For the freshly laid-off, senior-level writers seeking independence, and personal essay enthusiasts alike, the platform offers a way to have complete narrative license and creative control over their newsletter content. For some writers, the ability to monetize their work has been a lifeline in the face of precarity. For others, Substack acts as a way to build a niche community, whether it’s a student paper newswire or a tech news platform. 

While the state of the traditional newsroom is increasingly bleak—or dare I say, increasingly nonexistent in many cases—Substack is a beacon of hope for many writers, journalists, and thinkers looking for a (new) home for their work. 

The precariousness of journalism has stopped many marginalized journalists from remaining in the profession, but fortunately this very instability has begun entering mainstream discourse. While Substack does replicate some of the inequalities of the traditional newsroom, it’s also countering them by giving writers the license to tell stories the way they believe they should be told. The future of journalism demands melding authenticity with accuracy, not prioritizing detached objectivity. As the field opens up to welcome a long-awaited diversity of voices, the Substack boom is just a taste of what’s to come.