Journalism’s value to consumers has decreased dramatically, even as its role in society has become increasingly important. Traditional media companies are struggling to get by, as they compete to stay relevant in the attention economy dominated by social media giants. In order to drive engagement and stay relevant in the constant news cycle, publishers often have to resort to lower quality journalism, optimizing for clicks over quality. Algorithms are the ultimate factor in the success of content, taking agency away from consumers themselves. However, with rampant misinformation plaguing the news and social media, we are in need of quality journalism now more than ever. I believe that this caliber of journalism is only possible when the motivations of the industry transform from maximizing clicks to enabling individual journalists to pursue their writing with integrity and rigor.
Substack, an all-in-one service for independent writers, aims to disrupt the media industry by allowing journalists to act as writer, editor, and to an extent, publisher. Its core mission is to make the tools that are necessary to grow an independent publishing business accessible for everyone. Substack eliminates some barriers for writers who are just starting out by helping them grow their audience through a payment system, a website with tooling to format pieces, and in some cases, legal support (which is especially important for local news writers). Rather than primarily relying on an ad-based revenue model, Substack is structured around subscription revenue. Writers decide which parts of their content are free and which are paid, and for paid articles, Substack captures a portion of the subscription.
Substack’s platform has huge potential to heighten journalistic quality and consumption by encouraging readers to consciously choose what they read. Writers on Substack have to foster a sense of deep trust between themselves and the members of their community; doing so is the only way to draw in subscription revenue from a paying audience. By valuing trust, perspective, and individual connection, independent journalists are able to reach standards of journalism that aren’t possible when articles have to compete for clicks on social media platforms that promote sensationalized content. On Substack, readers can follow many different writers to get a wide range of perspectives, in a way creating their own personal “newspapers.” They can access high quality journalism from writers who they trust and know, deliberately curating their news sources rather than passively consuming recommended content, which stands in stark contrast to the distracting onslaught of information in social media newsfeeds.
The subscription-based business model seems to be a solution to the deteriorating quality of journalism, but this model comes with its own challenges and potential pitfalls. An interesting parallel to consider is that of streaming services. Cable networks are expensive, curate all your channels for you, and still subject you to a number of advertisements. The rise of Netflix disrupted the entire industry, offering consumers a flat fee subscription service that they could seamlessly discontinue at any point. Soon after, an entire ecosystem of streaming services arose, all competing to offer quality content that keeps their customers paying. However, these services have come to be dominated by recommender algorithms, taking away the element of deliberate viewership and once again turning customers into passive consumers. To exacerbate that problem, the slew of deals between streaming companies suggest that streaming services are rebundling; at what point does paying for all of these different streaming services become tantamount to paying for cable?
Though not a perfect analogy, does this trajectory serve as a forewarning for Substack? Platforms like Substack have the promise to represent the future of written media, but we need to take steps to ensure that we do not end up with conglomerates of purportedly “independent” newsletters algorithmically bundled together. If that happens, we may end up right back where we started, never quite escaping the clutching grasp of the algorithms that threaten to pull us deeper into the void of mindless consumption of media. I am optimistic, but time will tell.