Can solo writers monetize longform journalism?
Audience growth doesn’t have to come at the expense of research and quality.
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Can solo writers monetize longform journalism?
This week I published a piece about the investigative journalism of Substack writer Judd Legum, and in it I specifically pushed back against the notion that only opinion writing can succeed on Substack.
This is a sentiment that’s expressed widely in some journalism circles, and so I want to spend a little bit more time exploring it. First, I’ll paraphrase the actual argument that solo content creators can’t build a sustainable business through original reporting:
As much as we’d like the success of any particular media business to rest solely on content quality, publishing frequency also plays a big role. With rare exceptions, you simply can’t build a successful digital operation if you’re only posting content once or twice a month. This means that, if you’re a solo content creator, you don’t have the time to interview sources, conduct extensive research, and write the kind of longform feature stories you might find in a magazine. Instead, you must commit to opinion and analysis pieces that can be dashed off in only a few hours. That’s the only conceivable way that you’ll meet your quota of three fresh newsletters per week.
Let me start by acknowledging that I agree with the notion that publishing frequency is important. I occasionally get asked by writers who are thinking about going the Substack route how often they should publish, and I always tell them they need to post at least once a week. Any less than that, and they simply won’t gain enough momentum to grow their email list. Ideally, they should be posting at least two or three times per week.
So how can you post three times per week AND produce longform, reported articles? Well, it mostly comes down to creating a workflow that allows you to release steady morsels of content while you’re working on the longer tentpole pieces.
Take that Judd Legum article that I published this week. It’s 2,600 words long. I spent about an hour interviewing him and probably another two hours transcribing that interview. I combed through years worth of his articles, read other interviews with him, and spent a significant amount of time looking at his Twitter feed. Once the research was finished, the actual writing of the article took at least eight hours. Then there was the editing, the formatting, and the publishing. Finally, I had to promote it across all my various channels.
All together, I probably devoted at least 20 hours to that piece, from start to finish. If you factor in all my other daily work tasks, I wouldn’t be able to consistently produce longform articles of that nature more than once a week.
And yet…I’ve published four pieces of content this week. There was the 900-word essay about how the creator economy is not failing to spread the wealth. There was the 8-minute YouTube video about Netflix’s commitment to binge watching. There was the Judd Legum article, of course. And then there’s the piece you’re reading right now.
I’ve basically created a work flow where, on any given week, I’m devoting about three full days to longform content and the two remaining days to shortform. I also make sure to have a steady flow of new projects in the pipeline; at the time that I’m writing this, I’ve already conducted the interviews for 12 future articles and seven future podcast episodes. This ensures that I never have a week where I’m scrambling to find new topics to write about.
Does my process take discipline? Definitely. It took me over a decade of practicing journalism and several years running a content marketing consultancy to figure out the right cadence for researching and writing articles. But it also shows that producing a steady output of original journalism is possible. Audience growth, in other words, doesn’t have to come at the expense of research and quality.
"There is a dearth of what can be called midsize [book] publishers that fall between the Big Five and the many independent publishers with sales of $20 million or less." [Publisher’s Weekly]
Amazon launched a platform for serialized fiction in July. Here's a look at how it's performing for participating authors. [Geekwire]
"Today, half of all daily newspapers in the U.S. are controlled by financial firms." [The Atlantic] We like to blame the decline of legacy newspapers on Facebook, Google, and Craigslist, but "vulture capital" firms have gutted hundreds of otherwise-profitable outlets.
A cool profile of a guy who turned his real estate hobby into a hit podcast with over 100 million downloads. [Business Insider]
More and more huge YouTube channels are hiring traditional CEOs. [Deadline] This is a natural progression as you transition from a small creator team into a full-fledged media company.
"The [YouTube] ad revenue for crypto is a lot higher than anything else finance-related, like credit cards or banks." [Business Insider]
"There is a battle being fought in the media shadows that could determine the future of advertising, entertainment and maybe even commerce ... Who’s going to own the TV OS?" [Mike Shields]
A profile of the guy who's about to run one of the world's biggest media conglomerates, second only to Disney. [Vanity Fair]
If you run a big enough media company, you're likely operating dozens of newsletters. It's probably a good idea to constantly monitor engagement rates and look for opportunities to consolidate lists. [Digiday]
This piece looks at the New York Times's new audio app and how it might be strategically positioned. [Medialyte] It's not just about podcasts; it'll basically create an audio version of The New York Times.
Coming next week…
Google has long had a complicated relationship with news publishers. On the one hand, it sends billions of visitors to their websites every year through its main search engine, Google News, and other products. On the other hand, some publishers believe that the Mountain View company has siphoned away ad revenue on the back of their content.
Amy Adams Harding, Google’s director of analytics and revenue optimization for news and publishing, believes the search giant has the potential to provide a net benefit to publishers. Over the past several years, her team has developed a suite of tools aimed at helping media outlets to optimize their content so it reaches a bigger audience and drives more revenue.
In our interview, Amy walked me through these tools and explained how they work. She also talked about why publishers need to adopt many of the strategies that ecommerce platforms developed over a decade ago.
Look for that interview to hit your inboxes early next week…