Proof that paid newsletters don’t just rely on hot takes
All sorts of solo newsletter creators are breaking news and moving the needle on important issues.
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Proof that paid newsletters don’t just rely on hot takes
For every trend within the media industry, there are those who try to throw cold water on that trend. For example: as more and more writers decamped from their media jobs to launch their own newsletter businesses, skeptics argued that solo newsletters don’t actually compete with traditional publishers because they’re not optimized to produce original journalism.
To support this argument, the skeptics invariably point to the politics leaderboard on Substack, which indeed is populated mostly by mud-slinging opinion writers like Glenn Greenwald and Bari Weiss. From this small sampling, the skeptics conclude that newsletter economics rely entirely on a high-frequency output of hot takes that leverage tribal politics to drive paid subscriptions. According to this logic, original gumshoe reporting is too time-intensive to produce at a high enough volume, and it is only under the umbrella of the traditional media content bundle that journalists can spend the days or weeks required to report out blockbuster stories.
This line of thinking is wrong, mostly because it relies too heavily on a tiny sampling of the newsletter ecosystem. Widen the aperture a bit, and you’ll find all sorts of solo newsletter creators who are breaking news and moving the needle on important issues.
For instance, back in 2021 I profiled Judd Legum, the former ThinkProgress editor who now generates six figures in revenue through his newsletter Popular Information. He became adept at combing through public disclosure documents and unearthing major scoops that forced major corporations to pull their financial support for pro-insurrectionist Republicans. Just this week, he published a bombshell report that triggered a criminal inquiry into Florida governor Ron DeSantis.
Then there’s Casey Newton. Two years ago, the tech journalist decamped from The Verge to launch his own newsletter, and this week he published a retrospective on what he’s learned so far. What stood out to me most was Newton’s roundup of his biggest stories:
I broke the news that Instagram was walking back controversial changes to the app. Along with Zoe Schiffer, I revealed how Twitter’s plans to build an OnlyFans competitor were foiled by its struggles to find and remove illegal content on the platform. I brought you one of the first on-the-record interviews with a former TikTok policy manager to explain what working for ByteDance is really like.
I’ve also regularly delivered news from inside Twitter as Elon Musk attempted to buy — and then get out of buying — the company, explored the fascinating case of the man who got fired by his DAO, and became one of the first writers to regularly illustrate my newsletter with DALL-E. These pieces really struck a chord with you, and the business grew accordingly.
But he also notes that he sent out an average four newsletters per week. How on earth did he find the time to report out these stories when he was responsible for so much volume? He hints at the answer further down in the piece:
Sometimes when I feel like it’s been too long since I’ve had a scoop, a bit of existential dread can creep up on me: is the work I’m doing here really valuable enough to charge for? …
What I am forgetting in those moments is that people are generally under-served by the commentary and analysis they find online. …Because I write several times a week, the newsletter has an episodic format that makes it resistant to the more obnoxious forms of punditry. I don’t have to tell you absolutely everything I think about a particular subject, because I’m almost certainly going to talk about it again in the future. This lets me focus on nuances and trade-offs that folks in the hot-take business might not.
In other words, Newton relies on his informed opinion and analysis to carry him through in between his blockbuster stories. He’s established a careful balance of high-effort and low-effort content so he can keep his audience satisfied without burning out.
This balance isn’t unique to the newsletter space. Take MrBeast as an example. If you’re familiar with the YouTuber, it’s likely because of his expensive, elaborate stunts, like when he spent $3.5 million to recreate the challenges from Netflix’s Squid Game. But as his manager recently revealed in an interview, it was difficult to build a business around these stunts alone, mostly because they take months to produce and their virality can be difficult to predict in advance. This makes it extremely challenging to negotiate prices with potential sponsors.
That’s why MrBeast launched several side channels, including Beast Reacts, MrBeast Gaming, and Beast Philanthropy. They require much less effort and allow MrBeast to churn out videos at a higher, more predictable volume. While he owes his stardom to his main channel, it’s these side channels that generate the reliable revenue that make his entire venture possible.
Of course, traditional media outlets embrace this approach too. One of my earliest journalism jobs was at a print newspaper called The Smithfield Times. As one of three staff reporters, I was responsible for producing a minimum of seven articles per week, and while some of those articles required multiple phone calls and in-depth research, the vast majority were 400-word write-ups of minor news. The media industry likes to mythologize the investigative journalist who spends four months on a single story, but they’re really the exception to the rule. Publishers have always relied on high content volume to subsidize their deeper reporting, which means that the skepticism toward the journalistic capacity of solo newsletters mainly boils down to sour grapes. Nothing more, nothing less.
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So I'm putting together an interview series on building a successful newsletter business, and as such I'm looking for newsletter businesses to feature.
What's my criteria for featuring a newsletter? Simply that it generates enough revenue to support at least one full-time person.
So which newsletters should I feature? I'm specifically looking for warm introductions if you can make them. You can find my contact info over here.
YouTubers have long complained about the difficulty of licensing music for their videos and the unfair redistribution of ad revenue to music rights holders. The new tool YouTube just announced looks like a good step toward addressing those issues. [TechCrunch]
"YouTube will pool all the money it makes from ads that air in between Shorts videos and allocate 45% of that to creators, which will be distributed based on creators' share of total Shorts views." [Axios] Every single social platform should be doing this, and not just for video content.
Future has quietly built a media empire spanning hundreds of publications, and it's very profitable. [Press Gazette]
A good profile of Netflix's incoming ad chief. [The Information]
One guy's preternatural ability to read lips launched an entire sports media empire. [NYT]
ICYMI: This YouTuber built a massive following with pop music guitar lessons
A lot of people conduct searches for instructions on how to play their favorite songs.
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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. For a full bio, go here.
I don't think we can draw any such conclusions on such a small sample size. The fact that this platform has so few Creators in categories outside of the popular writers, is alarming for the credibility of the content format. Furthemore what rises to the top isn't like you have mentioned, necessarily the best content.
Social media has also changed, going viral isn't really a thing anymore. So the nature of "hot takes" has also changed. So it saddens me greatly that ideology and realities aren't in sync yet again.
Whatever paid Newsletters rely on, news is likely a category in decline as mobile video continues to shift the attention economy. I'm naturally skeptical when we praise a few winners and draw conclusions from it.
As a reader I'm not looking for original scoops, I just want a synthesis of a topic that's educational or an op-ed on breaking news that connects the dots.
You lost me at "mud-slinging" with Glenn Greenwald and Bari Weiss. If you disagree with them, fine, but they are both successfully writing stories they were pushed away from at their old-school media companies. I hope more "mainstream" writers do the same.