The newsletter renaissance: Patreon, Substack and the newest ‘new media’
Newsletters are nothing new — from fashion, to tech, to political punditry, newsletters slide into everyone’s inbox. Living in the digital-first age, we are unfortunately bearing witness to the shrinking traditional media landscape and successive mass layoffs, as outlets shift from print to digital to video seemingly overnight. Viral twitter threads with writers announcing they’ve been laid off are often followed up with news that their old place of work is shuttering its doors. Typically, we find out one of our favourite publications is collapsing when it is reported by a competitor. Next, a wave of tweets from those affected confirm the news. At the same time, we’re seeing newsletters fill the growing void. With so much brain-power finding themselves out of work, newsletters are having a renaissance of sorts, taking an entirely different shape than the versions we’ve become accustomed to.
Say hello to Substack
What started as job loss turned into newfound freedom for some writers who have found a silver lining in working for themselves, on their own terms. Content monetization platforms are a tool where creators can connect with their audience directly — no editors or overlords involved. With a little help from the Twitterverse groundswell and goodwill of their empathetic peers in the journalism community, starting a newsletter can pay off. Retweets can rapidly spread the word and bring in an initial wave of subscribers (and capital) to support getting the newsletter off the ground.
Enter Substack: the venture capital-backed platform provides a bridge between writers and their readers, dealing with the basic administration of a subscription-based newsletter. On Substack, you can find everything from traditional journalism, to personal essays, to think-piece-type content, as well as more entertainment-focused newsletters. Sports writer Lindsay Gibbs makes almost as much with her newsletter Power Plays as she did at ThinkProgress before she was laid off. Rich Text became a main source of income for Claire Fallon and Emma Gray, who were both laid off by Huffington Post after working at the publication for nearly a decade.
Piggy-backing off of Patreon’s success
Patreon was one of the first platforms to make waves in the content monetization space. Since 2013, Patreon has been a go-to source for creators to turn their hobby into cash, welcoming youtubers, artists, writers and podcasters onto it’s platform. Toronto-based Alex V Green — a name you might recognize from The Outline, BuzzFeed, Canadaland, Xtra Magazine, Briarpatch and Slate — has nearly 300 patrons supporting their work on the platform. She started her Patreon “in search of ways to distinguish and express [herself] in the chaotic waning days of global capitalism.” Their content includes original essays, newsletter content, early drafts of published work, guides and workshops for new freelancers and other, more personal content. Jesse Brown founded CANADALAND after numerous pitches critiquing journalism in Canada were rejected by different Canadian mainstream news organizations. Initially, the Canadian news site and podcast network was supported through paid sponsorships before using Patreon to crowdfund operations.
Five years after Patreon’s launch (and success), Substack hit the scene. Both the platforms handle the administrative side of things for creators — from payment processing to content distribution and hosting. Though they sound similar on the surface, the platforms differ from one another in terms of their business model and what kind of content is most popular. Patreon is the go-to spot for video creators and podcasters and offers a tier-based fee structure, whereas Substack is the destination of choice for writers and has only one subscription level.
Following in Patreon and Substack’s footsteps, Meta Platforms recently started rolling out its own subscription tools on Facebook and Instagram, soon after Twitter announced a similar service. This move is signaling a larger shift in the social media sphere, where content creators are increasingly thought of as an important part of the changing media landscape.
Democratizing the media landscape
With these tools, writers have a new sense of creative, editorial and financial freedom. Here, they make their own rules, unencumbered by editors, advertisers, or publishers. Creators have complete control over their content and subscriber list, and are free to move their newsletter to another platform if they choose. This freedom also fosters trust between writers and their readers in a time where trust in the media is deteriorating — unbeholden to anyone but themselves, writers are able to speak freely and candidly about their lives and beliefs. Trust, especially when established through vulnerability and authenticity, breeds loyalty. With this, Patreon has more than 6 billion active patrons, and new-comer Substack reportedly reached 1 million subscribers at the end of last year.
The growth in the content monetization space is just beginning, and how the traditional media landscape will react remains to be seen. Just this week, Substack began testing a video feature in private beta. Patreon has also started working on a similar feature. Soon, creators on these platforms will not only have a new way to connect with subscribers, but embedding an unlisted YouTube video will be a thing of the past. Whether these platforms will be embraced by the media landscape (like NOW Magazine has done with NOW Streaming) remains to be seen.