Even in a downturn, journalists are finding success with paid newsletters, texting, patronage and more
In a time of decline for American news, beset by losses due to the pandemic and internal strife from the racial justice reckoning, some online platforms are offering up compensation for journalists who are savvy subject matter experts. Tiny Letter and Substack have created a boom of “single operator newsletters,” while Subtext lets reporters create subscription text services for those who really want the inside scoop. And patronage services led by Patreon let fans kick in one-time or monthly payments to support their favorite writers.
Coming on strong is the new social network Voice, with $150 million in funding, and a goal of authenticating all its users to remove trolls, bots and other bad actors. Voice is working to entice journalists and local online news outlets to join its platform, with the promise of a blockchain token that is awarded from engagement metrics. Of course, counting on the community to police users can go terribly right (Wikipedia) or terribly wrong (AOL).
In any case, the stage is set for independent journalists and even staff reporters to look into creating “side hustles” or even full-time businesses if they build up enough fans and paying subscribers by offering unique, insightful content. And with the pandemic, we have a lot more time on our hands for reading the plethora of great independent publications.
Email newsletters are the cockroaches of the internet age. No matter how many new technologies and platforms and formats are launched, our inboxes continue to get inundated with newsletters. And many aren’t that bad! TinyLetter is the home of many boutique newsletters, limited to 5,000 subscribers and with no cost and few analytics. Once it was bought by MailChimp, writers realized that if they wanted more subscribers and features, they would have to move to the more costly (and marketing focused) MailChimp.
In stepped Substack, another relatively simple service that also offered an option to charge subscribers, while only charging writers a 10% cut of their subscription fees. If your newsletter is free, then you don’t have to pay anything to Substack, no matter how large your list gets. Featured writers include Sam Irby (“books/snacks/softcore”), Azeem Azhar (technology and the future) and investigative reporter Matt Taibbi.
Hamish McKenzie, co-founder of Substack, wouldn’t tell me the number of newsletters they host, but said total paid subscribers are north of 100,000 and counting. One of the attractions of the service is the resources they provide for writers, along with video workshops and even a podcast that highlights top writers. While not everyone will have the breakout success of environmental writer Emily Atkin and her “six-figure income” from paid newsletters, there’s the chance for some modest income.
As tech and media journalist Simon Owens said on his own Substack newsletter, “I think we’re going to see more and more creators come to view it as the equivalent of an ‘anchor client.’ What’s an anchor client? It’s a freelancer term for the client that provides the most consistent work every month. It’s the fallback security that makes freelancing life possible.”
Substack’s Mackenzie said that the best marketing is with the writing itself. Start with a free newsletter and build an audience. “That work demonstrates their voice, worldview, and quality of thought to the largest possible audience, and it gives the largest number of people the opportunity to fall in love – over time, those who fall in love will pay to subscribe to hear more from you,” he said.
Educator and scientist Amber Schmidtke is a good example of a writer who took advantage of Substack to convert her expertise on COVID-19 in Georgia into a freemium service where people can get a free daily newsletter, but pay for extras like a live Q&A Zoom session and additional analysis. She told me she had been using Patreon, but decided to move everything over to Substack to simplify the process. In just a few months, she has nearly 20,000 followers on Facebook and 10,000 newsletter subscribers.
“Substack was much more hands-on with tips for me,” Schmidtke said. “I never had anyone reach out from Patreon, but I didn’t expect anyone to say anything. I’m not an IT person, my job is data analysis. So I just wanted to focus on the content. Substack helps pay the bills. Fiona Monga, [head of writer partnerships] at Substack, helped me go through calculations for my ‘bingo number’ in order to match my previous full-time income. It was doable. Based on conversion rates, she said it looks like I could attain that if 10% of my audience becomes paid.”
Texting for Dollars
For a long time, people viewed commercial texting as profane, an intrusion into a very personal space. But thanks (or no thanks) to everything from politician texting to emergency alerts, we’re now used to getting less personal texts. And that helped a new texting service called Subtext gain prominence among journalists who could purvey vital news via text to paying subscribers. Subtext has run a bilingual text campaign in West Dallas for the Advocate Magazine, as well as a Spanish language campaign in Ventura County, Calif., for community organizers.
But probably the most popular text service on Subtext is from Mission Local managing editor Joe Eskenazi, covering San Francisco politics. He charges $1 per week to subscribers, and is up to nearly 350 subscribers. They get a text with breaking news or analysis each weekday, and he’s now sent more than 500 texts. Subscribers can respond via text directly to Joe, which helps him gather more tips while building engagement. He famously broke the news on to his text subscribers that London Breed had won the San Francisco mayoral election in 2019.
“The limitation is it’s a text message, and you have to be convivial even though the topic might be tough,” Eskenazi told me. “You are working fast so you have to balance the need for accuracy… The texts aren’t edited [before going out].”
Eskenazi said that his bosses at Mission Local are fine with him doing the texting service for added income, and he makes sure not to scoop his own publication. He’s suggested Subtext to fellow reporters, especially those where he would like to read their insider take on the news.
“I have suggested that people do it, but it’s a commitment,” he said. “I couldn’t have done this as a younger reporter without the institutional knowledge of the city. I wouldn’t begin to think I could get people’s attention without knowledge of it. It could work for a beat writer for the San Francisco Giants or Oakland A’s. It’s for insiders. This is the rare book library.”
Journalists realize they have that rare inside take on a topic that is truly valuable for people in that industry, which means they will pay for it.
Another idea is the journalist teaming up with their publication for a Subtext publication. That’s what happened in Baltimore, where Technical.ly Baltimore assistant editor Stephen Babcock, who writes the Baltimorning newsletter, jointly launched “Texting Baltimore” recently with Technical.ly. It will be a way for Babcock to monetize his side project, while also keeping his employer happy.
“Being a reporter, I’ve always toyed with an idea about what would be a good revenue path,” Babcock told me. “It’s a way for my newsletter subscribers to raise their hand and say ‘I support this work.’ The newsletter is still free. I believe in the internet as a free distribution aspect is important. At the same time, I think journalists should think about the business and how to create new business models.”
So far, they’ve had some early text subscribers and Babcock hopes to convert a mix of Baltimorning and Technical.ly subscribers to his text service, which will focus on breaking news and conversations about the changes happening in the city. His overall goals are upgrading to MailChimp for his newsletter and possibly hiring someone to help out.
Finding Your Patrons
In 2008, Wired editor Kevin Kelly wrote an essay about how creatives just need to find “1000 True Fans” to support their work so they can make a living. That idea of identifying your super-fans or patrons has bubbled up into various services such as Patreon, PressPatron and Pico. Those fans will typically be willing to pay monthly fees, sometimes with the promise of getting exclusive or timely content, one-on-one video sessions with the journalist, or other special perks. (Here’s a nice roundup of perks that Patreon journalists have offered their patrons.)
Building your fan base can take some time, through hard work covering a topic and sharpening your expertise. And sometimes the fan base can grow from being in the right place at the right time. That’s the case with Capitol Hill Seattle blog, run by publisher Justin Carder, as the neighborhood became the center of the social justice protests, including the controversial Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ).
“I’ve never seen more recognition of our work and desire to support the site than I have this summer,” Carder told me. “The coverage of the protests – people really valued it…Plus the site’s been around long enough so I have a good relationship with freelancers. We were able to throw the weight of journalism at this, and we were ahead of other news outlets, and we’ve covered protests in the past. And now there’s more support and money to pay for journalists.”
Carder long had the goal of getting to 1,000 patrons, and he’s nearly made it now with 966 paid supporters. Carder went with Patreon because it was an established brand that he figured would be around longer than newer platforms. He did say there have been issues, like when Patreon had a data breach in 2015 exposing the personal information of 2.3 million users. Carder also noted that it takes a pretty large audience to get enough people to start paying.
“If you need to get 1000 subscribers, you better have 10,000 readers,” he said. “The audience has to be much bigger than the paying group. It’s been painfully clear that the wall to jump over, that bridge to cross to get someone to put in their credit card information — that’s a big leap for a reader to make.”
Amber Schmidtke, who runs the “COVID-19 in Georgia” newsletter, noted that Patreon does offer more community engagement than she has found on Substack so far. One issue she had with Patreon was that you have to choose whether people can pay a one-time fee or monthly fees, but not both. PressPatron, by comparison, allows both types of input for paying fans.
“With Patreon, it was a little more like a semi-private setup, where you could have conversations with people,” Schmidtke said. “It felt more like a VIP room.”
The Token Approach
For journalists and creators who are willing to take a chance with a brand new platform there’s Voice, the new social platform from Block.one, a company that raised $4 billion in 2018 from an initial coin offering (ICO) of crypto tokens before even having a live product. The company is pumping $150 million into the Voice platform, which aims to authenticate all users and keep trolls and bots at bay.
“It’s called ‘Human Sign-Up’ that we developed,” said Voice CEO Salah Zalatimo. “So in less than 90 seconds we can verify you are human and unique. You can only ever have one account on Voice, and we use advanced 3D imagery to help verify users.”
More than that, Voice would like to create a new incentive platform for local journalists and writers, where they receive blockchain tokens based on engagement such as likes and shares. Each day the platform highlights a top contributor.
Of course, publishers recently experienced the excitement and failure of a similar blockchain venture, Civil, so might be a little wary about jumping in with a new tech venture. Zalatimo says that while both startups are blockchain-based, “our efforts and business models end there — they pursued a noble objective in removing fake news, but they were pursuing a purely journalistic endeavor while we are building a destination and social platform.”
Zalatimo says that they are working with associations such as LION Publishers to identify potential digital local news outlets that are interested in putting writers and content on Voice. At first that might just involve syndicating existing content via RSS feeds, but eventually the goal is get publishers to move completely onto Voice, getting paid in Voice tokens based on engagement. One of the barriers is that Voice tokens can’t yet be sold on the open market, and won’t be of much value until there is a massive amount of users on the platform.
So why would a publisher try out a new untested platform?
“There are several compelling reasons for it and the top one is SEO [search engine optimization],” Zalatimo said. “I come from a publisher that’s the single strongest publisher with SEO and that’s Forbes. Once you figure it out, it works. The challenge of that is that search is half the traffic, so no matter what you do, the traffic is coming to you. The top result gets 60% of clicks, and there’s no way that a newspaper in a small town will ever show up in search results like that.”
Zalatimo has also hired local media consultant Chris Hendricks, who has been doing outreach to small, medium and large publishers and hopes to announce some who are coming to Voice within the next few weeks. So far, the content that’s most popular on Voice is about blockchain topics or Voice itself. The app is still invite-only but expects to open up more widely soon.
Picking the Right Platform
In the end, journalists will need to test out the various platforms to find out what works for their publication (or their own side hustle), and which ones will provide the least friction for bringing in revenues. As the shift continues from advertising to reader-supported revenues, there are more options for journalists and writers to get paid for their work. And what they really want is to concentrate on doing their important journalism, and not having to worry as much about the technology behind payment systems. So whether it’s Substack for newsletters, Subtext for texting, Patreon for gathering patrons or Voice for getting crypto tokens, there are a lot of avenues to pursue.
Mark Glaser is a consultant and advisor with a focus on supporting local and independent news in America. He was the founder and executive director of MediaShift.org, and is an associate at Dot Connector Studio.
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