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Siren’s Joe Holmes Milner, first found out about Substack after discovering food writer Jonathan Nunn. Nunn travels around the suburbs of Greater London, shining a spotlight on the local eateries that are the beating heart of their communities, with a healthy drizzle of Jamie Oliver-bashing to boot. Nunn’s excellent Vittles newsletter is available to read via Substack, but only accessible on a subscription basis. As a PR & Comms agency, we’re always on the lookout for new trends, and we’re noticing Substack being used more and more among journos. So what is Substack, and why is it on the rise?
The digital era has changed traditional media outlets for good. The recent ‘State of Journalism UK’ study by Muckrack, the media database for PR firms, found that among the top concerns facing journalists were limited editorial freedom, a lack of funding and an increasingly fragmented audience. From this scorched earth has risen Substack, which has emerged as a beacon of hope for journalists seeking independence, creative freedom, and direct engagement with their readership. With its innovatively monetised model and user-friendly interface, Substack is moving the goalposts in journalism, attracting an increasing number of journos opting to go solo and build their own subscriber-based publications.
The origins of Substack
Founded in 2017 by three friends, Substack was conceived as a simple email newsletter tool aiming to offer a direct connection between writers and their audience. Since then, Substack has evolved into a comprehensive platform for journalists, empowering them to build their own subscription-based publications and monetise their work independently.
Cutting out the middle man
Substack’s appeal lies in its ability to provide journalists with a level of creative and financial independence that writing in broadsheets and tabloids may not allow. It empowers writers to explore their passions, experiment with writing styles, and cover niche topics that may not receive attention from mainstream outlets. Instead of buying a paper to access your favourite regular column, you only need an online subscription. In this way, Substack enables journalists to foster a more intimate and interactive experience with their captivated readership.
Own your own content
One of the most significant advantages of Substack is in how it incentivises journalists. The platform enables journalists to monetise their content by offering subscription-based newsletters, with readers paying a monthly or annual fee to access premium content. Vittles newsletter, for example, charges £900 for an annual subscription, giving their contributors a bigger piece of the pie. Substack takes a small percentage of the subscription revenue, allowing journalists to retain the majority of their earnings – a positive symbiotic relationship. This model provides a sustainable income stream for journalists, while challenging and encouraging them to consistently produce high-quality and engaging content. Win, win right
Substack has become a catalyst for journalists to build their personal brands and develop a loyal readership, as Nunn has. By allowing writers to directly engage with subscribers through comments, Q&A sessions, and even exclusive events, Substack buttresses the central relationship between writer and reader. This consequently empowers journalists to better understand their readers’ interests, preferences, and feedback, while providing financial stability and creative freedom during the rising cost of living.
Criticisms and challenges
While Substack has garnered significant popularity and praise, its critics are equally robust. Some argue that it perpetuates the trend of the ‘attention economy’ – at a time when distrust in the media is growing, especially in light of the historic phone hacking at The News of the World, sensationalistic headlines can be used to drive engagement. Others raise concerns about the potential lack of editorial oversight. Substack does not enforce traditional journalistic rigour of an editorial process, leading to concerns it may only serve to slipping standards and an increase in disinformation.
Substack has emerged as a game-changer for journalists, offering an alternative path to success beyond the formulaic approach of traditional media. With its emphasis on independence, creative freedom, and direct engagement with readers, Substack has become an appealing platform for journalists seeking to build their personal brands, monetise their work, and cultivate a loyal audience.
This is important because, as an industry-leading PR agency, we have to stay on top of media developments to help our clients navigate Substack and achieve best media results. We recognise that Substack is changing the landscape of freelance journalism and encouraging more freelancers to write stories about their passion projects. For us, it may change the way we pitch to journalists in the future, with more of an emphasis on specialism – one of our key skills at Siren Comms. If Substack continues developing, we will be keeping a close eye on the knock-on effect on the power and reach of traditional media outlets and keep tabs on how it shapes the future of journalism. In the meantime, Joe will keep reading Vittles with gusto and we will experiment with targeting specific media with credible communities to work with.
Ask you team if you’d like to know more about Substack and then contact one of our experts at Siren Comms –