The Digital News Stand

How many Substack subscriptions can people afford?

News Stand photo by Andrew Smith via Flickr.
News Stand photo by Andrew Smith via Flickr.

hen I think of new media coming to us in the form of a-la-carte, individual packages, I can’t help but think of the advice to “be careful what you wish for.” For years we decried the bundles that were offered to us by cable providers. “Who needs all of those channels,” we rightly asked ourselves. We wondered loudly about why we should have to pay for a bunch of networks we didn’t watch.

The cable bundle model often gets talked about in conjunction with the proliferation of online streaming platforms. A new platform seems to crop up every month, and as soon as you’ve dismissed the latest offering as an also-ran, a really compelling show or movie premieres exclusively on that service. Netflix Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos once said of the company, “The goal is to become HBO faster than HBO can become us.” Well, HBO is picking up the pace in the race against Netflix. This Christmas, one of the year’s most anticipated movies, Wonder Woman, 1984, will debut on both the HBO Max service and in theaters. HBO is extending that model into next year (to the dismay of many movie theater chains). So, while the monthly subscription cost for Netflix keeps going up, you also have to look at what you want to watch on the other services and what they will all cost you.

The new a-la-carte way of offering subscription content seems to be most often considered in the context of streaming video, but it has become increasingly relevant with written media, as well. There has been some discussion around the defection of writers from well-known publications to their own enclaves, most notably on the Substack newsletter platform. Berny Belvedere writes about this model and what it means for the consumer’s bottom line.

Similarly, there’s a growing consternation about what the new Substack model means for our Hot Take Budgets. You get a subscription to The New York Times and it’s a flat fee for their entire lineup of reporters and opinion writers. On the Substack model, though, you pay for each individually. It’s possible that there will need to be some consolidation in order for the model to work over time. But once that happens, what? Do we now just have a publication again? Just . . . with fewer editors?

He raises good questions, and as he notes, others are asking about the same things. I know I am only willing to pay for one Substack subscription, though there are many writers I enjoy on the platform. Belvedere is more bullish on Medium, which has a better system of aggregating content, for a reasonable monthly (or yearly) fee. Medium knows that they are competing heavily with Substack and they are making a lot of changes to the platform to make it more attractive to writers.

As Belvedere writes, those who are successful on Substack tend to be those writers that have an existing reader base. In this piece for NPR on the phenomenon, Bobby Allyn quotes New York University Journalism Professor Meredith Broussard on that subject.

The Substack model works really well for some people who already have prestige and a following. And it doesn’t work that well for everybody else.

In the same piece, Casey Newton (formerly of the Verge), who came to Substack with a lot of followers, explains his financial rationale.

All I have to do is find a few thousand people who will pay me $10 a month or $100 a year and I’ll have one of the best jobs in journalism.

How many single writers can readers afford to pay $100 a year? Even the lowest Substack tier is $30. Following multiple writers will cost you in the hundreds of dollars. You can get subscriptions to the Atlantic or the Washington Post, with their wealth of writers, for a lot less. Also, as mentioned previously, you can get access to publications with a variety of great writers, like Arc Digital, as well as syndicated content from publications like the Atlantic, and many pieces from independent writers for $50 a year on Medium. Apple News+ also aggregates content from the some of the top publications for $9.99 a month.

If, hypothetically, Substack were to become the dominant form of paid journalism, it would create a fairly substantial financial barrier of entry into the world of news and analysis. To have many priced out of that world seems to me to be less than desirable, if we are to have an informed and educated public.1

I really like Substack as a delivery mechanism for some of my favorite writers, but I can’t see the paid model working out for many people (readers or writers). Ultimately, that is probably for the best.

  1. To picture what it would be like without this, imagine an exaggerated version of the last four years of United States history — if you can. ↩︎

Robert is a Christian, aspiring minimalist, software dev manager and paper airplane mechanic located in North Carolina.