Remember when newsletters were hot?
That was back in 2020 and 2021: big-name authors were leaving Well-Known Publications to start one-person publishing operations, and some of them were making big money doing it. Serious people questioned whether Substack, the current email platform, was a threat to the New York Times. Facebook and Twitter wanted to be part of it.
That was then.
Now newsletters are less…heated. Some writers who have gone into business for themselves have decided that they would like a full-time job for someone else, just like in the old days. Substack has struggled to raise funds and has laid off some of its employees. Twitter isn’t talking much about its newsletter plans anymore. And a year after launching Bulletin, its own substack platform, Facebook has shelved the project.
That doesn’t mean newsletters are gone. At all. Just part of the hype surrounding them. And instead, there’s a more realistic take on the format and the business that can be built around it: newsletters, it turns out, are just like blogs and podcasts — they’re super easy for anyone to create. But turning them into something more than a hobby — let alone turning them into 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 written his Popular Information newsletter since 2018. “But I never believed in that.”
Legum, whose muckraking newsletter focuses on the way big corporations interact with public policy – he recently pressured Match Group, the dating app operator, to stop offering money after Match Group’s demise to donate to the Republican Attorney Generals Association Deer vs Wade – runs quite well. He says he has more than 15,000 subscribers paying at least $50 a year, which means he’s likely grossing more than $750,000 a year. And that income has given him the opportunity 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 drudgery. And if you’re not 100 percent committed to it, I can definitely see the burnout you’re feeling.” And for solo newsletter writers, it “can be isolating, too,” he says.
That wear and tear and loneliness led Emily Atkins, whose heated newsletter addresses the climate crisis, to take a break in February this year, about two and a half years after she started. “My brain feels like it’s in a constant state of fog and overwhelm,” she wrote.
Now Atkins is starting again, but vows to take care of herself by posting less often than she did at her peak, when she was putting out four updates a week. And she gets help with that by hiring a reporter to work with her.
Eventually, she tells me, she’d like to get other people to do most of the writing—just like the traditional publications she worked for before she got into newsletter distribution. “I feel like my dream is to be editor-in-chief.”
The stripped-down, no-nonsense newsletter reality is also making its way into media and tech companies that have taken a fresh interest in them in recent years.
Meta launched its bulletin newsletter program a year ago, and people familiar with its endeavors tell me that more than 1 million people have signed up for free newsletters created by famous or well-known authors; Earlier this year, the company planned to expand its roster of authors, sources say. But it abruptly pulled the plug on the program last month when CEO Mark Zuckerberg urged his company to focus on a few key initiatives, like Reels, its TikTok clone.
Last year, The Atlantic launched its own newsletter program, which editor Nick Thompson says was an attempt to attract new readers to the media company and convince paying subscribers to stick with it. “They’re going great,” he says. “It’s an editorial success; it is a business success.”
But Thompson concedes that when The Atlantic launched its newsletter program, it was also concerned that some of its staff might leave to start their own newsletters, lured by the tremendous success that a handful of writers like Bari Weiss and Andrew Sullivan were achieving had substack.
For example, last fall, Weiss told me that more than 100,000 people read her Common Sense newsletter — which tends to focus on the perceived and actual excesses of the withdrawal culture — and more than 16,500 subscribers. Which would mean she was making more than $825,000 a year before expenses. Now Weiss says she has 210,000 readers but won’t share a paid number with me until “we’ve achieved a big goal that we have in mind.”
But Thompson and other publishing executives I speak to say Substack is no longer an existential threat to their business. The new conventional wisdom dictates that a handful of writers — particularly those on the center/centre-right/outside 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 combine to make more than $25 million a year.
But Substack won’t disclose the average income of a Substack author, and I’ve heard many anecdotes from Substacks saying that while the platform generates some income for them, it’s not enough to replace a full-time job. A high-profile example is Charlie Warzel, who left The New York Times in spring 2021 to launch his own substack, then quit in the fall and moved to the Atlantic; At the time, he said that during his Substack experiment, he “made a lot less than I did at the Times.” (Notable: Writer Anne Helen Petersen, Warzel’s partner, hits it on Substack: Her Culture Study newsletter has “tens of thousands” of paying subscribers for $50 a year.)
But just because newsletters can be a heavy and uncertain boost for sole proprietorships doesn’t mean they’re going away. One place you’ll still find plenty of enthusiasm for newsletters is in a small group of media executives trying to use newsletters as a launch pad for new businesses.
Brian Morrissey, former editor-in-chief of Digiday, a media trade journal, has been writing the reboot since 2020 and now has 9,500 subscribers. It’s currently free, but Morrissey believes he’ll eventually offer a paid version while he’s using it to build a business that will include events and maybe videos.
“Newsletters themselves are a great minimally viable product” — an easy way to connect with customers, he says.
That’s also the business plan for Puck, which launched last year with a number of writers including my former colleague Teddy Schleifer, who covers media and politics; the same goes for Punchbowl, a collection of former Politico employees covering Washington; and the same goes for The Ankler, which began as the razor-sharp Hollywood newsletter of journalist Richard Rushfield, who is now working with veteran publishing executive Janice Min to create a business that will offer five other newsletters, as well as several podcasts. (A counterpoint: Semafor, the much-discussed news startup-to-be of Ben Smith, former New York Times media columnist, and Justin Smith, former Bloomberg exec, becomes a newsletter and a good old-fashioned website, Ben Smith tells me : “We will treat both the website and the newsletters as first class citizens.”)
Newsletters are a “really great and efficient way to communicate with our audience” from Hollywood insiders and would-be insiders, says Min, who formerly edited US Magazine and then The Hollywood Reporter. While both of these publications needed sizable audiences to make money selling advertising, Min says her company will thrive by targeting narrow and affluent niches. Their latest product – The Optionist, which tracks the status of scripts and projects around Hollywood – will be priced at $2,500 a year.
It’s here that I should point out that ordinary people—people who can’t give their studio employer an expensive newsletter—will have limited ability and interest to pay for many newsletters. And that newsletters don’t just compete 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 enter a recession, which will make it harder to convince people to pay for things, period.
But you know all that. You are a smart person if you read this story, which may have been delivered free of charge, to your inbox – sort of like a newsletter.
I think the bigger issue for newsletter creators — solo, corporate, or in between — is going to be how much interest people have in news of all kinds and whether they want some of it delivered or just like to knock out for a while.
The optimistic view is that newsletters allow people to get exactly what they want, bypassing general publicity or the morass of social media. The downside is that newsletters and the people who create them don’t communicate to the general public by targeting highly engaged niches — who could use more news in their lives, not less.
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