Remember when newsletters were hot?
That was until 2020 and 2021: big-name writers were leaving well-known publications to start singles, and some of them were earning a lot of money do it. Serious people wondered if Substack, an email platform at this point, was a threat to the New York Times. Facebook and Twitter wanted in on it.
That was then.
Now the newsletters are less … heated. Some writers who have gone out on their own have decided that they would like a full-time job working for someone else, just like the old days. Substack struggled to raise funds and there is fired part of its staff. Twitter is no longer saying much about its plans for the newsletter. A year after launching Bulletin, its own Substack platform, Facebook has put the project on the back burner.
Which is not to say that newsletters have disappeared. Not at all. Just part of the hype around them. And instead, there’s a more realistic take on the format and the business you can build around it: newsletters, it turns out, are like blogs and podcasts — they’re super easy to create. But turning it into something beyond a hobby—let alone a full-time job—requires talent and sustained effort.
“I don’t think it’s an easy road to fame and fortune,” says Judd Legum, who wrote Popular Information newsletter from 2018 “But it was a thing I never believed in.”
Legum, whose newsletter focuses on how big companies interact with public policy – he recently Group of matches under pressure, dating app operator, to stop donating money to the Republican Association of State Prosecutors after the shutdown Roe v. Wade — is going just fine. He says he has more than 15,000 subscribers who pay at least $50 a year, which means he’s likely to make more than $750,000 a year. And that income gave him the ability to hire two full-time employees for his micro-publishing company.
But he also says that publishing a newsletter four times a week can be “like a pain. And if you’re not 100 percent committed to it, I can definitely see you feeling burned out about it.” And for solo newsletter writers, it can be “isolating,” he says.
That grind and loneliness is what drove Emily Atkin, whose Heated newsletter covers the climate crisis, which will end in February of this year, roughly two and a half years after it began. “My brain feels in a constant state fog and flooding“, she wrote.
Now Atkin is starting over, but she promises to take care of herself by posting less frequently than she did at her peak, when she posted four updates a week. And she gets some help to do it, hiring a reporter to work with her.
Eventually, she tells me, she’d like to warm up to the point where other people do most of the writing—just like the traditional publications she worked for before jumping into the newsletter. “I feel like my dream is to be editor-in-chief.”
The scaled-down, sober reality of newsletters is also sinking in with the media and technology companies that have taken an interest in them over the past few years.
Meta launched its newsletter, The Bulletin, a year ago, and people familiar with its efforts tell me that more than a million people have signed up for free newsletters created by well-known or well-known writers; earlier this year, the company planned to expand its roster of writers, sources said. But suddenly pulled the plug on the program last month, as CEO Mark Zuckerberg called his company narrow its focus on several key initiatives, such as Reels, its TikTok clone.
Last year, The Atlantic launched its own newsletter program, which CEO Nick Thompson says was an effort to bring new readers to the media company and help convince paying subscribers to stay. “They’re doing great,” he says. “It is an editorial success; it’s a business success.”
But Thompson admits that when The Atlantic launched its newsletter program, he was also concerned that some of his staff writers might leave to start their own newsletters, lured by the huge success a handful of writers like Barry Weiss and Andrew Sullivan have enjoyed at Substack.
Last fall, for example, Weiss told me that more than 100,000 people were reading it Common sense newsletter — which tends to focus on the perceived and real excesses of cancellation culture — and more than 16,500 subscribers. Which would mean she was making more than $825,000 a year before expenses. Now Weiss says he has 210,000 readers, but he won’t share the paid number with me until “we hit the big goal we have in mind.”
But Thompson and other publishers I speak with say Substack no longer poses an existential threat to their business. The new conventional wisdom is that a handful of writers—especially those from the center/center-right/outside part of the political spectrum, like Weiss, Sullivan, and my former Vox colleague Matt Yglesias—are thriving on the platform. Substack says its top 10 publishers collectively make more than $25 million a year.
But Substack won’t reveal the average income for a Substack writer, and I’ve heard plenty of anecdotes from Substackers who say that the platform brings a certain income for them, but not enough to replace a full-time job. A high-profile example is Charlie Warzel, who left the New York Times in the spring of 2021 to start his own Substack, then abandoned the effort that fall and moved to the Atlantic; at the time, he said that during his Substack experiment “made significantly less than I did at the Times.” (Worth noting: Writer Anne Helen Petersen, Warzel’s partner, breaks it down on Substack: Her Culture Study newsletter boasts “tens of thousands” of paid subscribers, priced at $50 a year.)
But just because newsletters can be a difficult and uncertain incentive for solo owners doesn’t mean they’re leaving. One place you’ll still find a lot of enthusiasm for newsletters is among the small group of media executives who are trying to use newsletters as a launch pad for new business.
Brian Morrissey, former editor-in-chief of Digiday, a media trade publication, writes reboot as of 2020 and now has 9,500 subscribers. It’s currently free, but Morrissey thinks he’ll eventually offer a paid version, using it to launch a business that will include events and possibly video.
“Newsletters are great in themselves minimum viable product” — an easy way to build relationships with customers, he says.
It’s also the business plan for Puck, which launched last year with a range of writers, including my former colleague Teddy Schleifer, who covers media and politics; ditto for Punchbowl, a collection of former Politico staffers covering Washington; and it’s the same with Ankler, who started off as razor-sharp Journalist Richard Rushfield’s Hollywood newsletter, who is now working with veteran publishing executive Janice Min to create a company that has five more newsletters, as well as multiple podcasts. (Counterpoint: Semaphore, the much-discussed future news startup from Ben Smith, a former New York Times media columnist, and Justin Smith, a former Bloomberg executive, will have newsletters and a good old website, Bena Smith tells me: “We we’ll consider both the website and the newsletters first-class citizens.”)
Newsletters are “a really great, effective way to communicate with our audience” of Hollywood insiders and potential insiders, says Min, who edited the US magazine and then the Hollywood Reporter. Although the two publications needed a significant audience to make money from advertising, Min says her company will be able to thrive by targeting narrow and rich niches. Its latest product – Optionist, which tracks the status of scripts and projects circulating in Hollywood – will be priced at $2,500 a year.
I should point out here that ordinary people — people who can’t pay for expensive newsletters from their studio employer — will have limited ability and interest in paying for many newsletters. And that newsletters aren’t just competing with newsletters for your money, but with every subscription business that wants your money, from the New York Times to Spotify to Netflix. Oh, and also: that we may or may not be entering a recession that will make it harder to convince people to pay for things, period.
But you know all that. You are a smart person reading this story, which may actually have been delivered to your inbox for free – sort of like a newsletter.
I think the bigger issue for newsletter creators – freelance, corporate, or in between – will be how interested people are in news of all kinds, and whether they want any of it delivered to them or not. if they would just like to hear each other for a while.
The optimistic view is that newsletters allow people to get exactly what they want, bypassing general interest publications or social media clutter. The downside is that by appealing to highly engaged niches, newsletters and the people who make them fail to communicate with the general public—who could handle more, not less, news in their lives.
Like I said, this column could really be delivered to your inbox — the irony! — and if you don’t take it that way, you can do it by going here. And if you’ve already subscribed — thank you! Let me know what you’d like to read in the future by emailing me here.
Correction, August 2, 6:00 PM ET: A previous version of this story misstated the Atlantic’s Nick Thompson. He is the general manager.