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The newsletter is revolutionizing the media industry

Becoming your own boss, being in control of your content, talking to a listening audience and, for some, leaving the newsroom to work independently is the road that many American journalists are taking by launching their own newsletter. Similar to paid subscriptions, this new model offers content via regular emails, capable of generating increasing revenues. Is this innovative approach the solution to the crisis facing print media?

Casey Newton, an American journalist, has just left the major news outlet The Verge, where he had been covering Silicon Valley news and technology issues for seven years and with whom he created his first newsletter, The Interface. Casey Newton’s departure was prompted by the launch of his own newsletter, Platformer, to which he hoped subscribers from The Interface would follow: I wanted to control my destiny. When you’re working for someone else, you’re always at risk of your company being sold, going through an economic downturn, and so on. When you work for yourself, you can plan for your future.Focused on GAFA news, his independent newsletter offers investigative journalism and reports with information that he deems important enough to be offered as paid content.

Launched in October 2020, Platformer has 30,000 free subscribers and more than 1,000 paid subscribers after one month of operation, already representing an annual revenue of US$100,000. Although its paid readership is still lower than that of The Interface, Casey Newton is confident about the future: “If I can work toward my goal over time, not only will I be in a position where I’m doing well for myself, but I’ll be in a position where I can create media jobs. I can hire someone to go out and do more reporting. I can hire an editor. I can hire a graphics person. I can start to — in this tiny, tiny way — rebuild a little of what has been lost and figure some things out for the future. That just seemed like a really cool bet to make.”

A new economic model is emerging

Popularized by the Substack newsletter platform created in 2018, this new way of working is attracting more and more journalists. Founded by Chris Best, Hamish McKenzie and Jairaj Sethi, Substack has only 12 employees, but is betting on $2 million in revenue by the end of 2020. In just two years, subscriber growth has been exponential, rising from 11,000 to 250,000 subscribers across all their newsletters.

The point is simple: a journalist, or anyone who wishes to do so, registers on the platform and creates a newsletter that will be distributed to anyone who subscribes to it. The concept is quite quickly monetizable for someone who already has a following. Hamish McKenzie, one of Substack’s co-founders, explains that “with the subscription model, the numbers don’t have to be huge to produce meaningful revenue. If you can persuade a couple thousand people to pay you $5 a month, you’ll make $100,000 a year.” Many well-known journalists, like Casey Newton, have jumped on the bandwagon: Polina Marinova, Fortune tech and business journalist, Haley Nahman, deputy editor of Repeller, and Matt Taibbi, Rolling Stone’s political reporter.

Journalists regain control of their words

This trend of individualization in journalism began to develop a few years ago with Twitter, the microblogging platform created in 2006. This social network, well-liked by journalists, has enabled them to create their own content and work on their individual image, regardless of the media they work for. Thanks to Twitter, and other social networks, journalists can create their own audience and develop their community of subscribers, which then enables them to switch to a paid and independent distribution model, such as the individual newsletter.

Faced with the crisis in print media, challenged by the boom of social media and the difficulties caused by the international pandemic, these journalists are trying to find meaning in their profession again. More than ever, the time seems to be right for taking risks. Faced with ever-increasing pressures, journalists want to move away from controlling algorithms, from readers who don’t read an entire article or from their dependence on advertising revenue, which is declining in print media.

Digital: a problem … or a solution?

Instead of trying to “save” a dying business model, the time has come to reinvent the media and find new ways of accessing information. By speaking out and individualizing their work, these journalists are now addressing a new audience, Generation Z, which is more inclined to support and commit, including financially, to the projects they believe in. Young people of “Gen Z” are the first in line when it comes to buying a T-shirt made by their favorite YouTuber or supporting a brand they love. More than anything, they appreciate independence and authenticity. Activists and sometimes anti-capitalists, this new generation tends to be wary of the news divulged by large media corporations, preferring information from one person they believe they can trust.

Faced with the flood of fake news or readers’ mistrust of traditional media, the newsletter model offers individualized information and inspires confidence by putting forward authors rather than institutions. This new form of information can also give hope by reinventing, through new channels and a new way of doing things, a profession that for many had lost its meaning.