Over the past few years, online-publishing platforms have made it easy for users to charge a subscription fee for newsletters. As Facebook, Google, and private equity have laid waste to print media nationwide, these platforms have given rise to a new publishing economy, in which any writer with a dedicated following might be able to make a living. Of all the platforms out there, Substack, launched in 2017, has become the preferred tool for writers striking out on their own. According to the company, more than 100,000 subscribers now pay for at least one newsletter, and the platform’s top users collect hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue, which, in some cases, amounts to more than they might earn as staff writers at legacy publications.
Substack collects a 10 percent fee from all subscriptions, which allows it to maintain its one sacred oath: no advertisements. Like traditional media, publishing platforms have been crushed under the pressure advertisers put on traffic expectations and Substack sees its commitment to remaining ad-free as insurance against venture capitalists looking to bulk up or scrap publishers for parts. But that doesn’t mean Substack hasn’t gotten attention from investors. The company raised $15.3 million in funding from Andreessen Horowitz last year, some of which has been used to provide fellowships and sizable advances to writers, and it the company is also considering using the some of the money to provide its users with legal and editorial guidance.
The newsletter trend is bigger than independent journalists. Print veterans like Graydon Carter and Jonah Goldberg have styled their new publications — staffed with editors and funded by investments from private equity — as newsletters. And some Substack users are beginning to join forces, bundling their subscriptions at a discount, to offer their readers something that resembles a traditional publication (and that, perhaps, can bring together writers across the ideological spectrum). The question may no longer be whether readers are willing to pay for hyper-focused newsletters, but how many are willing to do so. Substack CEO Chris Best thinks the appetite is great.
“We’ve developed this habit of outsourcing everything we’re reading to our Facebook and Twitter feeds. Paying for writers that you trust is a way to take back control,” Best said. “People are ready to take back their mind.”
Substack’s top earners have tens of thousands of subscribers:
1. The Dispatch
National Review editor Jonah Goldberg and Weekly Standard alum Stephen Hayes founded this conservative newsletter, which they describe as a “center-right Atlantic.”
For: Your uncle who rails against Trump but probably won’t vote for Biden.
Launch: October 2019.
Cost: $10 a month.
What you get: Regular columns from Goldberg, Hayes, David French, and a collection of editors and writers drawn from The Weekly Standard, The Bulwark, and various conservative think tanks.
Heather Cox Richardson, a professor at Boston College, contextualizes today’s news with American history.
For: Ken Burns fans.
Launch: November 2019.
Cost: $5 a month.
What you get: Richardson’s newsletter started as a regular Facebook post in which she offered historical context for Trump’s Ukraine scandal and subsequent impeachment. Now, readers wake to a roundup of the previous day’s news delivered in the clear-eyed language of an email from your smartest friend, who happens to have a Ph.D. from Harvard and has spent decades researching American history and politics.
Matt Taibbi moves his alt-left blogging from Rolling Stone to a sort-of-weekly newsletter.
For: Gonzo nostalgics and Russiagate skeptics.
Launch: April 2020.
Cost: $5 a month.
What you get: Taibbi’s irreverent columns are just as critical of corporate greed and the barbarism of Trump’s GOP as they are of anti-racism initiatives and cancel culture, which, according to Taibbi, are symptoms of the New Left’s tendency to divide people between victimizers and victims (he adds an asterisk as a sarcastic scarlet letter to the name of anyone who has been canceled).
Bill Bishop, who formerly wrote newsletters for Axios and the New York Times, strikes out on his own with a daily newsletter on all things China.
For: Day traders and retired spooks.
Launch: October 2017.
Cost: $15 a month.
What you get: Bishop breaks down the day’s “essential eight” most-important stories, from a Xi Jinping inspection tour, to Huawei, to TikTok. Bishop knows when to be skeptical of China’s propaganda and when to be skeptical of propaganda about China.
Former New York Magazine columnist Andrew Sullivan returns to blogging.
For: People who despise Trump but think “wokeness” is also a threat to the American experiment.
Launch: July 2020.
Cost: $5 a month.
What you get: A cosmopolitan conservative’s analysis of race, gender, sexuality, religion, and class, sprinkled with deconstructions of Trumpism.
And others are climbing the charts quickly:
A former staff writer at The New Republic, Emily Atkin writes an impassioned, deeply reported newsletter on climate change four times a week.
For: People who are the right amount of angry (outraged) about climate change.
Launch: September 2019.
Cost: $8 a month.
What you get: Atkin breaks news, as she did recently when she discovered Democratic congressman Tim Ryan had taken $10,000 from a corrupt fossil-fuel company despite signing the “No Fossil Fuel Money” pledge. Atkin’s work has earned her about 2,500 subscribers and, according to The New York Times, she expects to gross $175,000 this year.
Boston-based writer and reporter Luke O’Neil.
For: Your friend who laments the death of alt-weeklies.
Cost: $6.65 a month.
Launch: July, 2018.
What you get: O’Neil packages his columns in stream-of-consciousness reports that detail the many reasons reasonable people have to be angry right now. His reports are filled with accompanying exhibits and tweets and he frequently includes original interviews and guest posts. O’Neil has said he is on track to make $100,000 annually.
When G/O Media folded the news site Splinter, eight journalists started a WordPress site. In March, they switched to Substack and in July launched a paid subscription.
For: Your friend who laments the death of Splinter.
Cost: $8 a month.
Launch: March 2020.
What you get: A leftist politics newsletter that’s heavy on the labor beat.
ThinkProgress founder Judd Legum reinvents his liberal news and opinion blog as a newsletter.
For: Your cousin who canvasses for Dems.
Cost: $6 a month.
Launch: July, 2018.
What you get: Want a comprehensive guide to the Trump Administration’s attack on the USPS? Or an investigation into Sarah Palin’s “Facebook grift”? Popular Information has you covered.
Anonymously written analysis on investing, restructuring, and bankruptcies.
For: Anyone looking for a break from GMAT prep.
Cost: $49 a month.
Launch: November 2016.
What you get: Two newsletters a week provide a skim of corporate bankruptcies and disruptions in the country’s largest industries and offer analyses on everything from airlines and J. Crew in the time of Covid to WeWork’s epic implosion.
Substacks aren’t the only newsletters vying for space in your in-box:
Business, technology, and media analysis from Ben Thompson.
For: New York tech investors.
Launch: March 2013.
Cost: $12 a month.
What you get: Thompson’s daily columns cover everything from the Big Four, to venture capital, to the future of business and media. Thompson is considered by many to be the godfather of the modern paid-subscription newsletter.
Gender, politics, and whatever else is on her mind that day.
For: Anyone in search of a friend.
Launch: March 2013.
Cost: $5 a year, minimum.
What you get: Like Thompson, Friedman is a newsletter pioneer and has spent the better part of the last decade winning readers over with insightful writing and reporting, reading recommendations, and doodled pie charts.
Magazine legend Graydon Carter’s weekly newsletter picks up where he left off at Vanity Fair, albeit with a smaller platform and a tighter budget.
For: Globe-trotting boomers and bankers who buy art.
Launch: July 2019.
Cost: $9.99 a month.
What you get: Culture, crime, travel, politics from magazine luminaries (including many Vanity Fair alums). The newsletter is a weekly window into Carter’s proclivities — vacations on Lake Como, designer suit recommendations. It all smacks of an era when magazine editors could afford such decadence.
Want the scoop from your hometown? Try:
Charlotte Ledger: North Carolina business news, by Tony Mecia.
The Dog and Pony Show: Tennessee news and gossip, by Cari Wade Gervin. Street Justice: Washington, D.C., newsletter, by Gordon Chaffin. Importantville: Indiana politics, by Adam Wren.
Or dip a toe in the water with one of the top free newsletters, like:
ParentData: “Evidence based” parenting advice, by Emily Oster.
¡Hola Papi!: Witty LGBTQ advice column, by John Paul Brammer.
BIG: Thinking on monopolies, by Matt Stoller.
Margins: The intersection of business and technology, by Ranjan Roy and Can Duruk.
*This article appears in the August 31, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!