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The Rise of Substack and the Death of Traditional Journalism

October 26, 2020

With the constantly evolving changes in digital marketing, media and advertising it’s evident that changes are brewing inside journalism. Modern journalism has moved away from it’s old standards of investigative reporting and has morphed into a sea of dramatized headlines, inaccurate portrayal of opinions, fiction over facts and clickbait pictures.

It’s not so much that traditional journalism is dying, it’s simply in a painful transition period due to fundamental changes in the way people consume news. As a result, this has given birth to many different types of news websites online and the one for the topic of discussion today is Substack.

What is Substack?

Substack is an email newsletter website and platform which is geared towards independent publishers who want to turn their email subscribers into paid customers. 

Great writing holds tremendous value and with Substack readers chose to pay directly for the writing they care about and the writing they want to receive on a monthly basis. In a sense, readers opt-in to have a direct relationship to a specific topic or writer and are able to be more selective in the type of information they consume. 

This allows readers to focus on the ideas, people and topics which hold the most value and meaning to them. Traditional journalism can oftentimes lack focus, hold strong biases and lack the necessary depth which is necessary to make a good story come together. 

In short Substack allows independent writers to:

  • Start their own newsletter
  • Build a community
  • Make money from the paid subscriptions

There is no cost to start your own Substack newsletter and the great part is that you set your own subscription rates and publishing frequency. 

Why Substack is Good for Independent Writers

Suppose you are an independent writer who is passionate about a topic and you want to start your own website.

You hope to eventually monetize the website but aren’t interested in running spammy ads on your website which can make your website seem spammy.

In order to start your website you now have to:

  • Purchase a domain
  • Purchase hosting
  • Install complicated plugins and themes and apps
  • Maybe even have custom coding and 

This is time consuming and can quickly run you hundreds of dollars before you have even published a single article. 

But with Substack, this whole process is 100% free to you. Substack provides you with all the necessary tools to launch your newsletter, collect emails and monetize your readers by selling monthly subscriptions. 

In exchange for providing you all these tools, Substack takes a 10% commission for every paid subscriber. This is a great deal considering you don’t have to pay for hosting, domains and complicated themes. If you don’t want to monetize your content you can still use Substack and all it’s publication features 100% free.

On top of that Substack also offers audio content support for independent creators who want to sell podcast subscriptions.

Making Money With Substack

The monetization structure is effortless for independent writers. First you need to create your Substack account and after that you need to create and link your Stripe account to the platform since this is how you will be paid out.

Free Version of Substack

Free version of Substack

Most Substack publications start off as free and then convert over to paid once they have a steady base of loyal readers. Substack reports that roughly an average of 10% of your audience will convert to paid subscribers if you decide to switch your.

Paid Version of Substack

top paid publications substack

As a Substack publication you actually have the option to offer your readers content that can only be unlocked if your members are paid subscribers AND content that is free. Some publications have a mix of posts which they don't require you to be a paid member in order to view. 

These are teaser posts which are meant to gain you organic exposure to your writing and let people get familiar with your style of writing before they decide to pay you. 

As you can see the monthly pricing for paid publications can vary between $5 - $50 on the high end. We have found that the sweet spot is between $5-$15 per month. 

Benefits of Publishing on Substack

As an independent publisher the benefits of Substack are tremendous. Let’s take a look at some of the awesome benefits of publishing with Substack. 

  • You get your own free domain 
  • Substack hosts your website and publications
  • Free Email newsletter to collect subscribers and distribute content
  • Simply monetization and integration setup
  • Easy to use interface
  • Chance to build your own community
  • Don’t have to adhere to guidelines of a publishers

These benefits give you total freedom and control as an independent publisher who wants to focus on bridging valuable insight to readers in various topics. You also get to increase your connection between your readers as you can directly exchange comments with paid subscribers.

Substack also allows you to charge what you feel is necessary and best of all is that there are no ads within your publication. 

Reading tip: The Inverted Pyramid Style of Content Writing

Getting Discovered on Substack

Many people wonder how you actually attract subscribers, let alone paid subscribers. A big component to getting discovered is picking a topic which people have a genuine interest in. Just explore some of the popular writers on Substack to get an idea behind the platform's diversity.

Browse Top Writers

screenshot of substack writers and what they write about

Since you will be on your own domain when you create your Substack publication, the articles you create will carry some SEO relevance. As such, you have the option to set up your Substack domain to the Google Search console in order get your content indexed once you publish it.

This is one massive component to getting your content discovered by readers. You will get readers organically from SEO efforts, promoting your content on social media and by finding people in the Substack community to get further ideas.

How Much Can you Make On Substack

The amount of money you can make on Substack depends on a variety of different variables. 

  • The niche you are in
  • Amount of paid subscribers you have
  • What percentage of your content is free and paid
  • How much you charge per month
  • How long you have been on the platform

All of these will have a direct impact on how much you can potentially make. There are publications which are big and small. The biggest publication on the Substack platform at the moment is The Dispatch

The Dispatch screenshot

They are a political style publication and have tens of thousands of paid subscribers at $10/month. They employ a team of writers and publish multiple times per day on various political topics and genres. 

They actually recently passed the $1 million revenue mark early in May of 2020 and are probably double the size at this point.

Checkout the article which details it all: The Dispatch Surpassed $1 million in Revenue by Being Newsletters and Podcasts and Taking it Slow

This is obviously on the higher end of the earning spectrum but it gives you an idea of what is possible if you put some serious effort in. 

The great thing is that smaller publications run by single individuals can also earn a significant income. 

Smaller publications can already bring  good amount of money in.

The MacroTourist by Kevin Muir has thousands of subscribers at $35 per month which is a financial newsletter which covers a wide array of different topics. It’s estimated that Kevin pulls in roughly $15,000 - $25,000 per month from this publication. 

Not bad for an independent writer who publishes roughly 3 times per week. 

Is Traditional Journalism Dying?

With platforms like Substack emerging and putting the power back in the hands of individual publishers, is traditional journalism doomed?

It’s no doubt that technology is putting pressure in the field of journalism and news to evolve in order to better serve consumers and provide more value than just sexy headlines. People are also evolving and so are their expectations.

More and more people are looking for depth that they can’t get from the publications such as the New York Times, The Guardian, USA today and others. People want substance over headlines and the evolution of technology is causing changes within the field of journalism which big conglomerates will have to evolve with or face a slow dying death.

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