Maybe of limited interest to Ted’s largely American readership, but if you want your heart warmed by confirmation that there is a paying readership for quality work it’s worth taking a cursory look at The Mill (Manchester), The Post (Liverpool) and The Tribune (Sheffield). The Mill was started as an attempt to prove that people will pay for thoughtful, long-form local journalism, as an antidote to the awful clickbait being churned out by the ton by the established Manchester paper. Operating on a shoestring, driven by a tiny number of fledgling journalists, it has become self-sustaining in just a couple of years and inspired sister papers in Liverpool and Sheffield, both growing their subscriber base at a rate of knots. They’re all on Substack, although with origins in email distribution I suspect many of their readers won’t even be aware of the platform other than as the name against their modest monthly payment.

I agree with some of the comments elsewhere that there are challenges here - cost, subscription fatigue, time to consume all the content you want to support but can’t get through. As a news, music and culture junkie I have to take a regular look at how the subscriptions I’ve built up with my heart have to be slimmed back down by my head. But I’m optimistic that this will shake down over time. Practically, people are likely to develop loyalty to just a few subscription bubbles - but that will still be a few more shades of opinion than the glory days of journalism when most folks got their views from one paper and one broadcaster.

Thanks as always for a thought-provoking piece Ted.

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How can Substack be sustained when there are so many writers publishing newsletters on it's site? Few people can afford to subscribe to everyone that they read. I just got an email from a friend, and he's publishing his latest novel on Substack in weekly installments. He is a successful writer and will probably do ok, but how many writers can Substack readers support? I guess we'll find out.

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Since techie marketing people were the ones who started Buzzfeed, Upworthy and all of these other misbegotten contraptions that existed only to pay their founders through an IPO, it is no surprise that none of them could come up with anything but stupid copycat gimmicks and failed. All of them are scam companies. Run, of course, by stupid greedy people. Who also all love the AI concept for obvious reasons. And techie rags like Fast Company exist only as the hype Wurlitzer since, of course, they’re also a pig at the trough. Ironic that the tech monopolies are the only companies policing this pathetic sector of the economy. But those 2500 dead newspapers are never coming back.

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As the grandson of the owners/publishers/editors of a weekly newspaper, I applaud Ted's analysis. Two additional comments, the second one being one I'd love to hear Ted's response to:

1) To give the 10,000-foot perspective on things, when you base your economic model on clicks, you slide down a very steep slope to an inevitable end. And that end is the basest desires, and you debase your organization and the very concept of journalism itself.

When a meteorologist at The Weather Channel spoke to our student meteorology group at the University of Georgia about 15 years ago, bragging about how they were chasing after viewers with entertainment content instead of weather coverage, I couldn't take it anymore. I went up to him after the talk and said,

"Mike, if you want more viewers, you know what you should do? Nudity. Call it Full Frontal Weather."

He stared at me uncomprehendingly. Basing your model on clicks means that, in the end, your newspaper becomes a variant on a porn site. Because the data show that nothing gets more clicks than porn. But that's where you will end up, or as close to it as the laws will permit.

For example, our dying local paper's website has a user-contributed photos section. The most popular photos by far are from sorority rush. And it's probably not because the young women's parents and friends are going to that site. We know what the demographics of that site are.

2) Many years ago, David Simon of "The Wire" fame, and before that the Baltimore Sun, wrote a perceptive piece in the Washington Post about what we were losing as newspapers died. His cogent point: when you speak truth to power, power will try to shut you up via legal pressure. And that is when you absolutely need an organization behind you with the stature and the means to push back publicly and also legally. In other words, media back in the day and now *must* have two of the three of "lawyers, guns, and money" to do real journalism.

So my question regarding the Substack model of journalism is this: what happens when you, the writer, manage to say something incendiary-and-true enough that you raise the ire of important players in our society? They are going to come after you with everything they've got. What do *you* got to fight back with, that a citizen blogger doesn't have? Because citizen bloggers can and do get shut down by the powers-that-be. One that I know of, a former newspaper journalist, ended up getting beaten up and put in jail. (I guess he needed all 3 of "lawyers, guns, and money.")

How does the Substack model defend against intimidation and legal muzzles? Because if it's no better than the citizen blogger model, then it's still crucially deficient vs. the old model of a large newspaper with considerable resources and a crackerjack legal team.

I hope that it is better, but I worry it's not. Sincerely asking, because I fear for our nation as our newspapers die a mostly farcical death.

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Thank you for this. I've been wondering how to wrap my head around all the changes swirling around us in the world of journalism. You're absolutely right about subscriptions.

I subscribe to many newspapers and magazines, and prefer getting my information from actual writers. As always, your writing is at once logical, succinct, and eloquent.

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A quick reaction…. I think this analysis gets a “yeah but…” I completely agree that click chasing is a fool’s game, and that subscription-driven journalism is much more sustainable. But when do consumers (a) reach saturation - subscribing to too many channels such that they can’t afford or can’t read all of them, and (b) find themselves happy enough in their chosen echo chamber that they have no motivation to seek other input? I don’t know what the ultimate good answer is, but I don’t think it’s hundreds (thousands?) of Substack writers competing for a large, but finite, universe of cash-paying eyeballs. No, I have never tweeted; thanks but no thanks for the opportunity to seek likes, clicks and whatever other noise comes with sharing to Notes.

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I hope more Substackers will introduce more differentiated levels of pricing. I currently have 6-8 annual Substack subscriptions of about $60 each and can't afford to add more.

BUT I'd love to be able to buy individual articles for $1 each, or buy a "mini" subscription of $10 per year that includes only a few of the paid articles, or something like that. I currently subscribe to 50-60 Substacks on the free tier, and would like to be able to pay them something without fully committing to a paid subscription.

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The problem with subscription-based models, though, is the can grotesquely distort the content, as Matt Taibbi and Glenn Greenwald have amply ldemonstrated. Yes, the NYT has grow its digital subscription base, but it's largely people who want to hear what they already believe. And when the Times veers from that narrative (i.e., publishing an op-ed by a Republican senator), they get so much pushback from their subscribers ("That is NOT what we wanted to read.") that they end up firing good journalists to placate their activist subscription base.

So it is no panacea, that's for sure.

Now, that doesn't mean that is the only model for building a subscription-based publication business.

If you are upfront that your writing is a certain way, that you are going to write what you believe to be true or factual, and folks can take it or leave it, it may work. That seems to be more of the Wall Street Journal approach, and they're doing even better than the NYT.

But in and of itself, just going from an advertising revenue model to a subscription revenue model is no guarantee of quality or sustainability.

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I try to write quality, honest content. I'll keep writing and hope to get exposure. Without the exposure my writing (even if it's good) will remain hidden but I'll keep writing. Substack is a model I believe in.

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For the most part, I am very happy to see this shift. However, it exacerbates a society-wide problem: The truth is behind paywalls, and rampant misinformation is free. That divides our society against itself and contributes to the rise of everything from anti-vaxers to insurrectionists. What model can solve that problem?

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This is exactly what I knew I wanted to read but didn't know what to call it. Finally, a way for readers to see it writ LARGE for all to digest and process. I feel so relieved to know that so many readers are wanting good writing and know the difference between feeding the mind and soul and "slopping the pigs" with CLICKS.

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American Express gives away NYT annual subscriptions to credit card holders and I refuse to take one. My point is those numbers are false also.

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What these companies failed to realize is that their content just wasn't that good... and I know I'm on the wrong site to be making such a comment, but: this writer's strike? Yeah... sorry, folks.. your content just isn't that good. TV/Movies have been embarrassing for decades at this point.

I haven't haven't owned a TV or paid for cable since 2002. I was a very early "cable-cutter", but I was also an early adopter of streaming services... and not a single one of them could hold my attention for more than a month before I cancelled (even tried again several years later..nah). You would have to PAY ME to consume the garbage being put out by Hollywood and all the people propping them up.

AI can take their jobs for all I care. Maybe they should learn to.... IDK, write differently... like, instructions for a computer to follow, or something.... I'm sure you clever folks can come up with a better way of putting it.. but, yeah should learn to do that instead.

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There's a bunch of substacks I'm interested in but they all cost $7 a month. It's not a do-able amount of money for me. I appreciate the goal to make a living wage or pay bills for the writer, but I'm not going to pay $70 to subscribe to 10 substacks. I'd probably pay $30 to subscribe to 10. It's sort of the same with Patreons...there is a guitar player I like who sets his lowest tier at $10 and provides very little for that. Prices go up rapidly after that.

I appreciate that there is inflation all around us but one thing that hasn't inflated is my wages as a nurse (they've been pretty static in the last decade). I have less free money now than I had in the past.

I'd really love if patreon and substack content makers thought through how much they were charging vs how much money their subscribers might actually have available. I have a suspicion they would make more money and have many more subscribers if they charged less.

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You know this is spot on based upon how viciously the old media goes after these “lone wolf” Indy journalists like Matt Taibis of the world. First, they get rebucketed by the competition that use their bully pulpet to, we’ll, bully the courageous new breed. Then the petty jealous little mean teen girls come with knives out for the carcass. But alas, it’s too late.

I for one can’t wait for these bought and paid for clowns to meet their maker.

Oh the irony of using GPT for self immolation.

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Ted: "I was going to call this story the “tragedy of American journalism.” But when you dig into the details, it’s more a farce."

For those who feel deeply, life is a tragedy. For those who think deeply, life is a comedy.

Ha ha. (Used to be the other guy.)

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