Change in control: Why Newspaper Writers Turn to Substack


An online marketplace where journalists directly sell content to customers pulls influential voices away from conventional media outlets.

I wondered back in March, at the beginning of the first lockout, what might be useful for a columnist, scholar and blogger under house arrest for the duration of his incarceration.

My eye fell on my blog, Memex 1.1, which since the mid-1990s has been an innocuous presence on the Internet, baffling journalistic and academic colleagues alike. Dr. Johnson’s opinion that “no man but a fool has ever written anything but money,” was uniformly shared by Scribblers, while my academic peers found it strange to spend one’s energy writing something that would not appear in scholarly citation indexes. The thought that a blog should be maintained only because one enjoyed it never happened to them.

So there it was, with a small readership that often skyrocketed when a fleeting wave of publicity caught it. I wondered if the regularity of receiving the blog as an email each morning would be welcome, given that many people like me would be included. The thought occurred to me as I watched the wonderful blog of Dave Winer, Scripting News, attract an even greater readership after he offered it to subscribers as a daily email.

So I began searching for a simple way to do a similar thing.

An email list service like Mailchimp would be the obvious solution, but that looked like hard work, so I decided on Substack, which really made it simple.

Every day, my blog would be released and accessible on the web as usual, but every night the version of the day would be conveniently packed into an email and sent to anyone who had signed up at 7am the next morning. The only adjustment I made was to record a five-minute audio diary on a regular basis – something I had never done before.

It was something so obvious to do.

But the effects were surprising – and also rewarding. Two things particularly stuck out. The first was that there was a drastic rise in reader “engagement” (the holy grail of surveillance capitalists). People read the email version more deeply than their online counterpart: I could see this because Substack told me which links were most popular; and by “liking” stuff or emailing me directly, pointing out mistakes or suggesting how to broaden or extend a particular subject, they signaled their reactions.

The biggest surprise, however, was how famous the audio diary was: it was the most clicked link consistently.

And it dawned on me slowly that audio seemed to enter areas of the human mind that other media could not.

It was often blocked by some subscribers’ spam filters because the email came from a mailing list server, and on some occasions I got worried emails from readers asking if I had succumbed to the Covid.

But there was obviously something that was significant about the regularity of hearing a familiar voice every morning. “like thoughts for the day, but without the God stuff.”like thoughts for the day, but without the things of God.

It was pretty hard work to log, and I had to quit after 100 days as the requirements of my daily work increased, but the transcripts are now available as an e-book.

I had noted briefly that Substack offered a one-click option for moving from free to paying subscriptions, but I had ignored it because I was not interested in charging readers.

But Substack has evolved into a deal that is far bigger than I realized.

It was founded in 2018 and is funded by Andreessen Horowitz, a major venture capital company.

It had about 100,000 people paying different amounts for at least one of its newsletters by July of this year.

The sudden popularity of Substack may be a sign of drastic changes in our media, as conventional journalistic outlets disappear and clickbait drives most of those who excel online. Against this context, Substack provides journalists with a new alternative.

Let’s say you’ve got 1,000 paid subscribers, paying $5 a month each. That’s $60,000 in annual sales, minus the 10 percent substack tax. Then imagine that you’re Glenn Greenwald, who just moved to Substack and has 1.5 million Twitter followers. And if just a fraction of them are


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