With 2020 further shaking up traditional media, more journalists have flocked to Substack.
The San Francisco-based newsletter technology platform, founded in 2017 and backed by Andreessen Horowitz and Y Combinator, added numerous new writers last year, including The Verge’s Casey Newton, Vulture’s Hunter Harris, BuzzFeed’s Anne Helen Petersen and Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi.
The main attraction is that the platform, which makes money through subscriptions as opposed to ads, allows reporters to generate income directly from their own audiences at a time when advertising is dwindling even further amid the pandemic. The newsletters are owned by the writers and in most cases Substack takes 10 percent of earnings, although some writers have been paid up-front fees.
“The size of the audience you need to make it work is orders of magnitude smaller,” Substack cofounder and chief executive officer Chris Best told BuzzFeed News in 2019. “If you charge $10 a month or $5 a month, or $50 a year — if you can get 1,000 or 2,000 people to pay for that, you’ve suddenly got enough to go as an individual.”
As well as a new revenue model for many reporters, it’s also become home to some who feel they were limited in what they could write in their previous media jobs. Matthew Yglesias, Andrew Sullivan and Glenn Greenwald departed Vox, New York Magazine and Intercept respectively last year and are all now on Substack.
But despite its growing popularity among reporters, to date, there haven’t been many fashion or beauty editors flocking to the service or its competitors — even at a time of mass layoffs across media in 2020. In the glossy magazine world, Condé Nast laid off 100 staffers and furloughed another 100; InStyle and People owner Meredith Corp. cut 50 positions in its magazine division, and Hearst Magazines let go of 59 staffers at O, The Oprah Magazine. Numerous titles are continuing to shrink frequency, while rumors continue to persist that the print future of a few is in serious doubt.
Among the current offerings in the fashion space is newsletter Blackbird Spyplane, the brainchild of culture journalist Jonah Weiner and Erin Wylie, who works for Apple, while writer and creative strategist Michael Williams just relaunched his men’s wear blog A Continuous Lean as a Substack newsletter. Leandra Medine Cohen, who recently shuttered her site Repeller (formerly known as Man Repeller), is also on Substack, as is Phillip Picardi, former Teen Vogue digital director and former Out editor in chief, although their newsletters aren’t fashion-focused.
More in the beauty space, former Lucky beauty editor and author Cat Marnell launched Beauty Shambles on Substack rival Patreon, although beauty is just one of many topics she writes about. Subscriptions begin at $5 and top subscribers even receive a phone call. Back on Substack, former Repeller beauty columnist Claire Carusillo pens beauty newsletter That Wet Look.
Whether 2021 will see fashion editors from glossy magazines flock to the site, only time will tell, but Aileen Gallagher, associate professor of magazine, news and digital journalism at Syracuse University, isn’t holding her breath.
“Fashion and beauty, in particular, is so visual and Substack is not really. You can put visuals in there, but it’s not really a visually orientated platform in the way that Instagram is,” she said, adding that another issue is that at big media companies, they have access to photo sites like Getty and obtaining those images on their own will be pricey.
“I think the other thing to consider is that it’s more difficult for people in fashion and beauty to break out as individual personalities in the same way that the journalists that have turned to Substack are,” she continued. “A fashion and beauty editor is going to build their brand really rooted in the publication that they work for and some of them have certainly become influencers, but again they’re really living more on Instagram and I think moving that audience over to Substack would be challenging — just because their audiences don’t interact with them in the same way.”
She thinks it could be a good outlet for those who write about cultural criticism, through a fashion lens, citing The Washington Post’s Robin Givhan’s work as an example, although she just got a promotion and is unlikely to head to Substack anytime soon.
“That platform might be great for them because they’re not so tied to the visual and talk a lot more about culture and ideas and how fashion plays into those things,” she said.
But even for these fashion critics, there’s no guarantee of success on the site and leaving a decently paid job at a respected media organization is always a risk. Already having a loyal readership and strong social following will certainly assist them in their mission.
Nevertheless, Professor Liz Fuerst of Rutgers University’s department of journalism and media studies, thinks it could be worth the try — no matter the type of fashion writing
“If fashion writers aren’t flocking to online publications like Substack, perhaps they should be. Substack attracts sophisticated targeted audiences for writing that might otherwise go undiscovered,” she said. “Why not jump ship and write for audiences who adore fashion and can’t seem to find an outlet for their passion in traditional and social media? Magazine and newspaper journalists today live such precarious lives, never knowing when their publications will fold or whether they might be let go as publications retrench. Substack provides a safe haven for these writers. Fashion writers, too.”
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