How to do something about local news

Hi, this is Hamish, one of Substack’s founders and a former journalist. Like a lot of other people interested in the news business, I’ve been watching the merger between newspaper giants Gannett and GateHouse Media with concern. This is the latest development in a sustained period of consolidations, job losses, and closures that’s contributing to a heightened sense of insecurity about the future of local news. But I don’t think we should feel defeated. The old model for local news is dying, but in every crisis there is an opportunity. I believe that a more promising model for local news is just emerging. 

Substack has been around only a couple of years, but we now know that there is a model for independent writers that works. The top writers on Substack are making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year from subscriptions, and many others are making tens of thousands a year. The economics of the Substack model are such that your audience doesn’t have to be huge to make meaningful money. As you can see from the revenue calculator on our publisher page, 400 subscribers who pay $10 a month results in about $37,000 a year – which, as a Twitter friend recently noted, is the US median income. Yes, those are not easy numbers to attain – but with the right focus, the right approach, and a lot of determination, they are more than possible. 

So far, analysts, opinion writers, and curators have been the most financially successful publishers on Substack, but I believe this model has enormous potential for local news. A single reporter can cover a beat with zero startup expenses, no tech or design costs, no distraction from ads, no need to reach a mass audience, and few other overheads. Just as importantly, reporters using this model need to be loyal only to their readers, which means they can guarantee editorial independence. If I weren’t helping to build Substack the company, I’d probably be publishing my own substack. 

With Substack, you can publish posts that are free to everyone or available only to paying subscribers. If you have a big scoop, you can make sure anyone can read it, but you can also make money by publishing more service-oriented stories – legislative updates, staffing changes at City Hall, what’s going on around town, notices – just for paying subscribers. The more you serve your community, the more you’ll get paid. 

From the evidence we’ve seen, four or five posts a week is enough. Each post can be a story, a digest, a round-up, a photo essay, a video, or a podcast episode – whatever best fits the purpose. Doing a good job with the subscription model means respecting your readers’ attention, so quality is more important than inundation. Meanwhile, your stories live on the web so they can be found by everyone, but they also enjoy the benefit of the world’s most effective distribution system: email. By owning a mailing list, you control your relationship with your audience. Your stories won’t be mediated by an algorithm or influenced by anyone’s conflicting interests. 

Reporters are already taking advantage of Substack to cover their communities and beyond. Cari Gervin, a veteran political reporter, is holding power to account in Tennessee for her newsletter, The Dog and Pony Show (she plans to add paid subscriptions soon). In Toronto, Matt Elliott applies deep scrutiny to local government in City Hall Watcher. Former Weekly Standard reporter Tony Mecia focuses on Charlotte business news in The Charlotte Ledger. Gordon Chaffin writes about local transportation issues in Washington DC with Street Justice. Political journalist Adam Wren covers the ins and outs of Indiana politics in Importantville. And Luke O’Neil covers local and national issues by mixing first-person opinion with boot-leather reporting in Hell World. I’d love to see many thousands more.

As anyone who has worked as a reporter knows, though, a publishing tool is not enough. To do their best work, reporters also need access to legal resources, affordable health insurance, and editorial support. As Substack grows, we intend to work on solutions on all these fronts, but we need help. If you’re a lawyer with a creative idea for how to provide support for independent reporters at scale, or an investor interested in directly funding subscription news enterprises, or someone who knows anything at all about how the hell to offer affordable health insurance to independent writers, please get in touch: hello@substack.com

And if you’re a reporter who is interested in getting started on Substack, let’s talk. I’ll get on a 30-minute call with you to talk through best practices and workshop ideas for your news publication. I can also connect you to people – Substack publishers, independent writers, editors, social media influencers, lawyers, and others – who might be able to help. Once you get started in earnest, Substack will give you priority consideration when it comes to featuring your publication on our website, in our newsletter, and on social media.

We don’t yet have all the answers, but we are deeply committed to figuring them out. If you think you can help, please get in touch. Perhaps we can build a new ecosystem that strengthens local news everywhere. 

Find out more: substack.com/about