MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
The news industry, like so many others, has been hammered by the pandemic. It has put thousands of journalists out of work. And that is part of the reason why a newsletter startup called Substack is having a moment. As NPR's Bobby Allyn reports, it offers writers a way to get paid without relying on bosses or the whims of Facebook to distribute their stories.
BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: For the past seven years, journalist Casey Newton has covered the tech world for the website The Verge. He's become something of a Silicon Valley institution - required reading for industry insiders. This fall, he quit his staff job to launch a Substack newsletter.
CASEY NEWTON: And all of a sudden, this thing comes along where it's like, imagine never having to ask your boss for a raise again. Like, all you have to do is do good work and attract customers.
ALLYN: Substack gave Newton a website and slick email tools. It offered him the added perks of a health care subsidy and a legal defense fund. Newton does his own marketing.
NEWTON: All I have to do is find a few thousand people that'll pay me 10 bucks a month or a hundred bucks a year, and I'll have one of the best jobs in journalism.
ALLYN: Newton enjoins legions of other writers who are ditching jobs at established publications like Rolling Stone, The New Republic and Vox to join what's become known as the Substackerati. San Francisco-based Substack co-founder Chris Best says part of his pitch to writers is this - sick of publishing clickbait in hopes of becoming the next viral hit on Facebook or Twitter? Join Substack.
CHRIS BEST: The platforms we're spending all of our time on incentivize that stuff and make that stuff easy and give it fuel. And so the way to fix that is to have a better business model where that's not true.
ALLYN: Email newsletters are nothing new, but Best says Substack is different because it lets independent writers make money; that is, if they can convert readers into paid subscribers. Helena Fitzgerald, a New York freelance writer, had almost given up on newsletter writing until she found Substack. Now she's getting a sizable chunk of her income from her newsletter called "Griefbacon."
HELENA FITZGERALD: The one-sentence pitch I have for it is that it's like long, weird essays about love. And that's like something that, like, you can't really pitch to a site that is looking to get a lot of clicks through an algorithm.
ALLYN: Substack is a three-year-old company but has reached new heights this year. It makes sense. People are glued to their phones like never before, and the pandemic has slammed the media industry. By one estimate, nearly 30,000 media jobs have been cut in 2020. Substack sees this as an opportunity. But paychecks aren't guaranteed, notes NYU journalism professor Meredith Broussard.
MEREDITH BROUSSARD: The Substack model works really well for some people who already have prestige and a following, and it doesn't work that well for everybody else.
ALLYN: Influential voices on the right and left, historians and even an anonymous bankruptcy expert have all found success on Substack. But Broussard says the question is whether this is an enduring model or just another passing Internet fad.
BROUSSARD: We've seen the enthusiasm before. We've seen this hype cycle before. So if this is the time that it really happens, then I'm here for it. And if it's not the time that it happens, there's going to be another thing around the corner.
NEWTON: I'm not somebody who thinks that Substack is going to save journalism.
ALLYN: Again, Casey Newton, formerly of The Verge, now of Substack.
NEWTON: Do I think it can create a lot of sustainable journalism jobs? I do.
ALLYN: Newton says he understands the suspicion some have about a tech startup trying to disrupt the news business. But he says more journalism in the world is a good thing, and maybe this one should be given a chance.
Bobby Allyn, NPR News, San Francisco.
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