Here’s a media trend: Journalists create their own newsletters instead of working for large, established publishers.
Here’s a media trend that works in the opposite direction: large, established publishers with robust business models or big funders – or both – consolidating their power by attracting talent.
And here’s a story that can do both: The Atlantic is launching a newsletter offering that wants to put writers under the Atlantic umbrella (and paywall) while allowing them to remain semi-independent.
The idea, according to people familiar, is for the magazine to unveil a list of newsletter authors – maybe a dozen or so – in the coming weeks. They will only be available to Atlantic subscribers. The New York Times did something similar this year, rolling out subscriber-only letters to writers, including Kara Swisher and Jay Caspian Kang.
A big difference between Atlantic’s plan and other newsletter distributors is that in some cases Atlantic is hiring writers who are already in the paid newsletter business. And he wants to convert those writers’ subscribers to Atlantic subscribers.
At least one of those writers, I confirmed, is a writer who has now moved to Substack, the company that started the latest newsletter boom by (theoretically) facilitating self-publishing.
Here are the main lines of what the Atlantic wants to do, via people with knowledge:
- The Atlantic doesn’t hire writers as full-time employees, but will offer them some sort of base payment with the ability to earn extra money if they meet certain subscription goals. So it’s a much more reliable source of income than a paid newsletter – even Casey Newton, a contributing writer for The Verge from Vox Media, who has been running his own Substack for a year, says he sees a monthly churn rate. 3 to 4 percent.
- If writers are already selling paid subscriptions to their letters, Atlantic wants to turn those subscriptions into Atlantic subscriptions. That is: if you are currently paying Provocative But Thinky Takes Guy $ 5 per month for his work, now that same money will get you this letter, along with all the other newsletters published by Atlantic, plus Atlantic itself, which currently sells a single subscription for $ 50 per year.
- Newsletter writers who join the Atlantic program keep their existing subscriber list. So if they decide to bail out on the Atlantic, they could restart their business.
- The degree of oversight or help letter writers will get from Atlantic editors and staff always feels like a work in progress. But the main idea is that the authors are supposed to remain editorially independent of the publication; they will not be edited by Atlantic publishers. So what if the Atlantic ends up hiring someone they deem too racy / racist / problematic for the Atlantic? Good question!
An Atlantic representative declined to comment.
It’s easy to see the attraction of the program for the Atlantic, led by editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg and CEO Nick Thompson. The publication gets a new list of voices and the ability to instantly increase its number of subscribers. And while more subscribers are always nice, they would be especially kind to the Atlantic right now, which flourished during the Trump years and the pandemic in particular but, like other publishers, has seen traffic to its site. Web collapse as Trump and Covid-19 halted dominating the news cycle.
And since declining traffic makes it harder to convert new readers to subscribers, anything that catches new eyes – let alone an injection of paid readers – would be welcome. (Here, it’s worth noting that while Atlantic is owned by Laurene Powell Jobs, the billionaire wants the publication, which saw a spate of layoffs in the first few months of the pandemic, to be self-sufficient.)
The discourse to writers is a little more nuanced, with some parts clarified and others more tacit. The obvious: come work on an award-winning, wide-reaching publication backed by a billionaire. Undeclared: You might have thought you would crush it once you got your newsletter business up and running. But maybe you are not, and maybe you would like a regular salary. Running a store solo isn’t for everyone.
That said, some newsletter writers who have found a receptive audience – primarily through Substack – are making a lot more money than they ever did in established media companies.
Former New York Times opinion journalist and editor Bari Weiss, for example, tells me that she now has 16,500 subscribers to her sub-stack, Common Sense. Which, at $ 5 per subscriber per month, means it could bring in $ 890,000 per year, after Substack takes its 10% fee. So don’t expect Weiss to appear on the Atlantic roster anytime soon.
I asked Substack co-founder Hamish McKenzie what it means if competitors like Atlantic poach some of its writers. He was benevolent about it. âWe’re looking for writers even when they’re not sub-stackers, so we’re happy to see a trend toward more ownership for writers,â McKenzie said in a statement. “We have always advocated that writers have full ownership of their content and their audience, and we applaud every step in that direction.”
McKenzie and her team clearly envisioned some sort of platform jump: Part of Substack’s talk is that writers can easily walk away, taking all the content they’ve posted and a mailing list of all of them. their subscribers. And Substack’s success has spurred new competitors, including Facebook and Twitter, who can easily spend more than Substack if they want to.
But if you’re not a Substack superstar, it might not take a ton of cash to woo you the business: just a regular paycheck and the ability to write for a large group of people. . As do the folks at some regular media companies.