Skip to main content

What Is Substack and Why Should I Care?

What Is Substack and Why Should I Care?

April 2023

Consider the career of Andrew Sullivan, the openly gay, conservative and Catholic political analyst and cultural critic.

Born, raised and educated in England, Sullivan began writing about American politics for London’s Daily Telegraph in the 1980s. Coming to the U.S., he wrote for the New Republic, working his way up from an internship to serve as its editor for five years, leaving in 1996. In 2000, as one of the first pundits to do so, he launched his own blog, the Daily Dish, which in 2008 won Weblog’s Best Blog award. Along the way, the increasingly influential Sullivan — admired widely for his valiant campaign for marriage equality — has been a columnist for the Sunday Times of London as well as a contributor to such established print magazines as New York and The Atlantic.

In 2013, Sullivan launched his stand-alone, reader-funded platform, the Dish, earning, by one reputable report, more than $1 million a year, which is considerably more than he would get if he held a salaried staff position at, say, The New York Times. Even so, in July 2020, he moved his work to Substack, a relatively new platform. There, for $5 a month, subscribers to the Weekly Dish can get all the Andrew Sullivan they could ever want.

Impressive, to be sure, but what does Sullivan’s professional trajectory mean? Why does it matter, and what does it tell us about the state of political punditry? And — assuming there’s a pattern here — where are the rest of us to go in this rapidly changing media environment to find smart commentary?

Subscriber-Supported Newsletters

Sullivan, it turns out, is only one of a number of high-level opinion journalists to move from established newspapers and magazines to blogs and from blogs to Substack and now to emerging competitors. Making its debut in 2017 as an independent newsletter publishing platform, Substack by this time last year was home to hundreds of thousands of subscriber-supporter newsletters and reportedly valued at $650 million.

While writers pay nothing to publish on Substack, they must send 10% of their revenues to the company and an additional 3% to its payment processor. Subscribers to the newsletters have paid more than $20 million a year just to read its top 10 writers, such as historian Heather Cox Richardson; her take on the news of the day is read by more than a million paid and unpaid subscribers, earning her $1 million a year as early as 2020.

Other headliners — some of whom Substack has paid hefty advances to attract — have included novelist Salman Rushie, poet and singer-songwriter Patti Smith, economist Paul Klugman, documentary filmmaker Michael Moore, and pundits Glenn Greenwald, Matthew Yglesias, Roxane Gay and Matt Taibbi. Most of these writers made their bones in conventional journalism — Taibbi in Rolling Stone, for example — before migrating to online platforms.

“For decades, if you wanted to make it as a pundit, you had to ‘break into print,’” says Neil Howe, the consultant and author of, among other books, Generations, The Fourth Turning and Millennials Rising. “Breaking into print was the way to get established.” You contributed articles to The Nation, The New Republic, National Review or maybe the op-ed pages of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal or The Washington Post, which gave you credibility as well as a modest payment. This was a time when columns by David Broder, for example, were syndicated in hundreds of daily newspapers. (The only holdover from that Lost World might be The Washington Post’s George Will, who turns 82 next month.)

“Today, you don’t need to do any of that,” Howe says. “You can go it alone, without the institutional support of newspapers and magazines. All you need is 30,000 subscribers paying $5 a month, and you’re bringing in nearly $2 million a year. For the individual subscriber, that’s the cost of going to Starbucks.”

Forty years ago, every town “had healthy newspapers,” says Jack Shafer, media columnist for Politico. “Those papers had more advertising pages than stories, and they needed stories to fill news holes, which means they needed more writers than they had on staff. They could pay $5 a day to a syndicate and run bylined articles by people like Anthony Lewis of The New York Times and Broder from the Post.”

TV ‘Buckrakers’

Then things changed, and while some experts attribute the shift to the internet, others trace it back earlier — to the rise of cable TV. “With cable, there was suddenly a bull market for those columnists to go on TV and in a five-minute exchange with a show’s hosts offer their take on the day’s events,” Shafer says. “People used to have to go to their daily newspapers for this kind of analysis. But now, with the commentariat moving to television, you could flip the dial for 20 minutes and get the whole spectrum of political opinion.

“People like Michael Kinsley and David Brooks would write their articles and then get a second deal on TV. That’s how Tucker Carlson and Jake Tapper ended up where they are. They started out as print journalists, writing feature pieces for magazines. Kinsley called these print journalists who got lucrative TV deals ‘buckrakers.’”

David Greenberg, professor of history and of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University, sees something else happening, too. “We’ve always had opinion journalism to complement objective reporting-centered journalism,” says Greenberg, the author of Republic of Spin: An Inside History of the American Presidency. “We’ve seen the splintering of journalistic authority, but we’ve also seen the rise of opinion for its own sake. Cable news and even newspapers have found it less expensive to churn out opinion than actual reporting. Posting a columnist is cheap compared to sending an ace reporter to Ukraine.”

Add to this the increasing polarization of what used to be called news consumers. “Back in the day, Americans read their newspaper and watched CBS or NBC and then supplemented this by reading their favorite columnists to explain what an event might mean,” Greenberg says. “But over time, we’ve seen the rise of partisan news, which for millions of people seemed to eclipse the desire for ‘objective’ reporting. I see younger people leaving behind ‘objective’ news altogether and going straight for opinion — and for opinion only.”

New Competitors

Substack, meanwhile, is facing its own challenges or “growing pains,” as the Times puts it. A number of competitors have launched newsletter platforms. One such competitor, called Ghost, has “a concierge service to help Substack users transition their work,” while Medium is paring back “its editorial publications to pursue a more Substackian model of ‘supporting independent voices.’”

Substack has also seen the departure of a few of its writers who object to what they see as the “transphobic and anti-vaccine” biases of some of the other writers. An open forum, as Substack has fashioned itself, almost invites such difficulties. Ghost operates through an open-source software developed by a nonprofit, which a number of independent writers also find attractive. Twitter and Facebook are also working on alternatives to Substack. Other competitors — including ones launched by more established news organizations — are also emerging.

Substack, for its part, isn’t standing still either. “It is no longer just a newsletter site,” Howe says. “You can now do all media on it — interviews, videos, podcasts,” as it tries to expand and keep pace with emerging competitors.

So — why should you care? Because if you want to stay current with what the top pundits are saying, Substack and its competitors’ platforms are where you’ll find them. The day when all you had to do was open the Post, the Times or The Wall Street Journal has passed. Substack and its competitors probably aren’t the right platform for your CEO’s articles — it takes years to build a subscriber base — and most of the writers with Substack newsletters never amass a sufficient following to earn money (or make much of an impact) doing it. But it is — at least for now — where the most cutting-edge and influential opinion journalists have established their base. Ignore them at your own peril.

“We’re coming out of this era where platforms own people,” Hamish McKenzie, one of Substack’s founders, told the Times, “and moving into this era where people own platforms.” This means their fans will have to keep chasing them as they seek more agreeable homes.

Earlier this year, in fact, Greenwald announced that he was moving his work from Substack, where he was earning from $1 million to $2 million a year, to a new platform called Locals. Where he and other independent journalists will be a year from now is anybody’s guess. We’ll keep you posted.

assuming there’s a pattern here — where are the rest of us to go in this rapidly changing media environment to find smart commentary?

Sign Up For Impact

Have the monthly Impact Newsletter emailed to you.

Featured Event

The leading annual event for digital comms and advocacy professionals. Hear new strategies, and case studies for energizing grassroots and policy campaigns.

Washington, D.C. | June 10, 2024