How Substack is changing the media game

An illustration of a newsletter
The top 10 writers on the platform earn nearly $30 million every year. Photo credit: Getty Images

Emile Donovan for The Detail. The Detail is a daily news podcast produced for RNZ by Newsroom and is published on Newshub with permission. Click on this link to subscribe to the podcast.

Since the advent of the internet, journalists and writers have devoted many column inches and many hours of airtime to complaining about how difficult it's becoming to make a living from journalism and writing.  

The internet, the argument goes, has sucked the advertising – the financial lifeblood – out of the industry: chasing readers, outlets with dwindling numbers chase clicks desperately in a craven race to the bottom of the barrel.  

But the internet is also providing new opportunities for writers to monetise their musings themselves: online platforms like Patreon and Substack allow people to sign up to have the work of their favourite authors, journalists, podcasters and content creators delivered right to their email inbox, while also facilitating those creators to get paid for their work. 

Substack is an online newsletter platform: it was founded in 2017 by developers Chris Best and Jairaj Sethi, and writer Hamish McKenzie – a New Zealander who was raised in Alexandra and edited Critic, Otago University's student magazine, in 2004.  

Pretty much anyone can create a newsletter: once you've done that, people can sign up for it and Substack will email the newsletter to all your subscribers. It also provides an online Wordpress-style platform where writers can interact with their readers. 

You can sign up to a newsletter for free, or you can choose to pay for content, with writers deciding what they charge. Generally, Substack takes a 10 per cent cut of paying subscriptions, and the rest goes to the content creator.

All in all, more than half a million people have paid Substack subscriptions, and the top 10 writers earn nearly $30 million every year.  

Dylan Cleaver and Emily Writes, however, got their work on the platform a different way: they were approached by Substack's co-founder Hamish McKenzie himself. 

"He got wind of the fact that I was looking for a change. We arranged a Zoom meeting, and he said he'd be offering me a deal to come over and join the platform", says Cleaver.  

The deal essentially paid Cleaver a year's salary to help him build up his subscriber numbers: during that time, Substack takes the vast majority of the paid subscriptions Cleaver's newsletter, The Bounce, attracts. Once the year is up, the tables turn: the salary ends, and Cleaver has to rely on the fanbase he's built up.  

The deal for Writes' newsletter, Emily Writes Weekly, is similar, and she says it's allowed her to dedicate herself to writing full-time.  

"Now I earn enough not to do a thousand shitty marketing jobs. Now I just write, and I never thought I'd get here. It's wonderful." 

Substack isn't free from controversy: it has almost no filters on who can start up a newsletter and this has led to a lot of criticism from people who argue it can be used to give a platform to hateful views. 

Graham Linehan, for example, the TV writer and director, has a controversial Substack page with thousands of paying subscribers, which has been regularly described as anti-trans hate speech. 

And the writer Jude Ellison Sady Doyle has criticised some of the business decisions Substack has made, saying it was "famous for giving massive advances … to people who actively hate trans people and women."  

Substack, for its part, says the question of who gets Pro deals is a business decision, not an editorial one. 

In a blog post, Hamish McKenzie wrote: "We don't commission or edit stories. We don't hire writers or manage them. The writers, not Substack, are the owners. No one writes for Substack — they write for their own publications." 

It does have content guidelines – you can't publish porn or erotica on there, you can't publish work that incites hate or encourages harassment – but these are certainly not free from controversy.  

And Cleaver says while Substack is a welcome addition to the media landscape, it's no substitute for ‘legacy' mainstream media companies. 

"Substack – don't get me wrong, it's a wonderful platform, and a great place to go and find really interesting stuff – but I'm not even sure if its aim is to democratise the news function." 

"I still think there's a massive place for that big legacy media."