The Return of The Email Newsletter


From print to cable news to social media, the news ecosystem never stops changing. The latest development has seen the revival of an old medium: email newsletters. Communicators, advertisers and readers are always on the lookout for new options, but the ongoing democratization of news makes it a challenge to decide what voices are credible or worth following.

The concept of newsletters is a familiar one. To DC residents and political junkies, our inboxes are filled with Playbook, Axios AM, Morning Brew and many others. They have had a welcome home in our news reading routines for years. But 2020 has seen an explosion of interest in the platform Substack, a three-year-old service aiming to democratize newsletters – offering the chance for anyone, whether they work for a media company or not, to launch their own media empire.

What makes Substack different from its predecessors is the breadth of its offerings and its focus on individuals over brands. You can find a newsletter for pretty much any topic – from the funny to the complex – with the commitment of a subscription and an often-smaller readership building a deeper connection between writer and reader than you find from big-name media newsletters or even on Twitter. Many Substack subscriptions come at a cost – one that many readers are willing to pay because of that connection. As Jacob Bogage of The Washington Post explains, “Consumers are willing to pay for quality content from creators they trust and who make them feel part of a community.”

Judging by the numbers – and the endless media profiles – it’s been successful. According to NPR, “Substack now has more than 250,000 paying subscribers. Taken together, its top 10 publishers rake in some $7 million annually.”

Substack has been a lifeboat for those thrown overboard by traditional outlets, but it’s also served as a respite for writers seeking independence. In the future, it’s likely the next Brian Stelter or Ezra Klein – young, enterprising bloggers recruited by major media outlets – will come from Substack.

Some of these writers have built tremendous followings on the platform, despite lacking the backing of a bigger organization. Clio Chang of the Columbia Journalism Review calls this “the paradox of Substack: it’s a way out of a newsroom – and the racism or harassment or vulture-venture capitalism one encountered there – but it’s all the way out, on one’s own.” That can be a scary proposition for those without the journalistic cachet that comes with working for a premier outlet.

Too often in public affairs and communications, credibility is correlated with the biggest media brands. And while there will always be those who won’t be satisfied until they see their legislative or regulatory concern splashed across the front page of The New York Times, niche newsletters – with their built-in, loyal audiences – offer tremendous opportunities for reaching very targeted, often committed groups of people.

Substack is adamant that it is not seeking to replicate The Times, The Atlantic or any other publisher. CEO Chris Best spells it out: “The whole point of Substack is that as a writer, you can use Substack to go independent, and we are spawning a million media companies.”

Left unanswered is whether having a million media companies is a good thing.

It is the fragmentation of our current media environment that has led to widespread belief in dangerous conspiracy theories. Afterall, 79% of Trump voters think the election was stolen, according to the recent Seven Letter Insight Voter Survey. That number may seem startlingly high, but it is understandable once you take a glance at the election coverage from Fox News or Newsmax. As Americans enclose themselves in filtered bubbles, we need more media that bridge the divide and reestablish a shared understanding of reality. When more than half the country does not trust the news media, democracy doesn’t work.

Perhaps someday Substack will bundle the best of its content – covering all different topics and viewpoints – into one package. They could call it a newspaper.