How do you see the role of newsletters in the changing relationship between traditional media organizations and their talent?
Are you trying to get me fired? Look, it’s no secret that legacy media organizations (including mine) are worried about the rise of subscription newsletters. I understand that concern — talented, big-name writers really are leaving prestigious publications to start their own independent media companies with email newsletters as their centerpieces — but I worry that the people who run big media companies (except my bosses, who are perfect) are conflating two separate things.
There’s the actual medium of the email newsletter, which has been around for decades and is frankly pretty boring and non-threatening. News organizations already encourage their writers to promote themselves and their work on platforms like Twitter and Facebook, so I’m not sure what a reasonable managerial objection to email newsletters would be, other than that writing on yet another platform might cut into productive work time.
The actual thing news organizations are defensively reacting to, I think, is the economic model underpinning the newsletters — and the possibility that the big-name writers who work for them will soon discover that they could be making 2 or 3 times their salary if they left their jobs and went solo.
That kind of thing is already happening, and it’s a very real challenge to the business model of a lot of legacy media organizations, which depend on a kind of cross-subsidy flowing from the stuff that is popular and cheap to produce to the hard, expensive news-gathering that doesn’t pay for itself in ads and subscriptions. (There used to be a saying at the NYT that “the crossword puzzle pays for the Baghdad bureau.” I’m not sure what the modern version of that is, but it probably involves Spelling Bee.)
That model still works for now, but it gets harder if a lot of the people doing the cross-subsidizing leave to start paid newsletters. There are still plenty of good reasons to work at a large media organization — especially for writers who like collaborative work, who need editors and lawyers behind them, and who want access to a big, mainstream audience — but there are also reasons to want to go independent, especially when there’s already an ecosystem of independent writers proving that it’s possible to make a living doing this.
Someone on Twitter compared Revue, Substack, etc. to a price discovery mechanism for writers, and I think there’s something to that. Before a few years ago, most big-name media personalities didn’t really have a way to quantify the value they created for their employers. Now they do, and it turns out that a lot of them have been substantially underpaid.
That’s a fascinating development I’m sure we’ll all be agonizing over for years.