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Why every magazine should embrace paid newsletters: Insights from Substack

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Substack UK Head of Writer Partnerships Farrah Storr on why media businesses should focus on paid newsletters

This week we hear from Substack UK’s Head of Writer Partnerships Farrah Storr. Over the past decade she’s worked in leading editorial roles at some of the biggest lifestyle magazines in the UK before leaving ELLE to join the newsletter platform.

She tells us about why more mainstream media brands should be investing in Substack, why she doesn’t believe you need a huge profile to start out on the platform, and what problems with the wider internet ecosystem Substack is trying to solve.

In the news round-up, the team dissect some unfortunately-timed stories about Reach plc, and why the national and regional publisher’s woes are only likely to increase as the ad-stuffing strategy plays out. In the news in brief section, we explore increasingly troublesome links between the Conservative government and senior BBC executives, BuzzFeed’s edict to staff to increase story output, and Meta’s subtle de-emphasis of its metaverse project.

Here are some highlights:

Why Farrah left the magazine world for Substack

The easiest answer is, I had done 22 years in traditional media. Whilst I loved it, I got to the top, to the place where I always intended to be. However the other side of that story is, I was 42. I was editing ELLE. And the media landscape looked very different to when I first came in; that’s two decades.

When I first came into the media, it all looked cheery. I thought I’d probably be in traditional media for the rest of my days. But by the time I was editing ELLE – and I took on the editorship pre-Covid, so most of the editorship was done from my spare bedroom – I remember coming out into the real world, and newsstands had shrunk, so I went into Sainsburys and asked, ‘Where is the magazine newsstand?’ It had all been taken over by homeware.

The digital revolution, as brilliant as it was, of course put a lot of pressure on magazines. There was always this worry of, are people going to pay £5 for a magazine when they can have endless content for free?

The final point was, I was really worried when I looked at the magazines that I had edited, apart from ELLE. Women’s Health was the first one, Cosmopolitan was the second one. Those were brands which actually traditionally were very reliant on consumer revenue, which is readers loving the content and buying the magazine – less so on advertising. But of course, with digital, we moved into a place where advertising became absolutely key, and eyeballs became key. My personal feeling was, it wasn’t the best environment for writers to produce their best work when those were the metrics you were working for.

18 months ago I was thinking probably traditional media is no longer for me. As it happens, I remember weighing up how much I was spending on magazine subscriptions, and how much I was spending on…writers who were writing on [Substack], and it ended up being more. I thought, hang on a minute, there’s something really interesting happening here. And I’d like to be a part of it.

The trends that have enabled Substack to grow

I don’t think readers ever stopped loving writers. That never changed. They never grew tired of writers, people love writers. When I was editing a magazine, I was always very aware that writers are not like dairy cows, you can’t trade one for the other and it won’t make any difference. Writers are really special and the audience comes for the writer.

What happened with digital is, we started to see this proliferation of listicles, and everybody swarming over the same stories of the Kardashians and god knows what else. So actually, I think audiences just stopped and went, ‘Hang on a minute. What happened to that stuff five years ago that I used to love…those long-form journalistic pieces?’ It’s not that the appetite went for them. It’s just that they were replaced by something that was necessitated by the ad model.

What Substack has understood implicitly is the trust between writer and reader, which is very special, and the bond between them. Again, I saw this at Cosmo and Women’s Health, people will pay to support writers they love…and they will pay for journalism that they love.

That’s very simply what Substack has done in an ad-free environment. That very intimate connection, a bit like magazines, between writers and readers together on one journey. So that’s what Substack has seized upon, and I don’t think that’s a trend. I think we just forgot about that.

The attributes that make a good Substack writer

You don’t necessarily have to have a big profile – that is important. There’s a lady called Nicola Lamb, she was a pastry chef. She didn’t have a big social media presence at all. She started a Substack in lockdown, she was religious; published twice a week. She built a community to the extent that she does live events with them… She didn’t have a big community to start with, it’s now her full-time job and she makes an excellent salary.

I think you have to be strict, be disciplined. But also don’t think of it like traditional media and go, ‘Okay, well, I have to have this franchise,’ you can relax. The best Substacks are quite rustic. You want to feel like the writer has woken up one day and gone, ‘You know what, I’m going to write a poem today’. That is quite interesting, to get inside the head of the writer. So I think somebody who’s quite relaxed about that sort of thing and experimental, Substack is going to serve you very well.

The other thing I would say, people who tend to do well is those writers who are really honest about it. I always laugh and wonder if it’s a British thing, and I think it’s a writer/British thing. Writers feel quite uncomfortable talking about money. A lot of writers, when I talk to them, they go, ‘Oh, first, who’s going to pay for me? And secondly, I feel a bit icky about asking for money.’ But I say to them, ‘Look, you only have to ask.’ You have to explain your situation. The people that I have seen do the best of those, when they start a Substack, they are really honest.

What traditional media can learn from Substack

I think all traditional media should have a Substack; not instead of a magazine, not instead of a website, it is something different. I don’t think they’re in competition. Nobody wants to see traditional media fall, no way. But if I still edited ELLE or Cosmo, I could see a place where you have individuals on that brand, as part of their day job, perhaps writing for Substack.

It might be the beauty editor going, ‘Right, I’m doing a video from inside the beauty cupboard today. Join me for a conversation with this person who’s just launched a beauty line. It’s for paid subscribers only, you can ask your questions, come on over.’ I can absolutely see a world where that would exist.

The New Statesman joined Substack maybe two weeks ago, and it’s absolutely brilliant. The Byline Times is also on Substack. So I can see a world where it’s just a slightly different offering, and it may well be a different community that you’re bringing in.

Republished with kind permission of Media Voices, a weekly look at all the news and views from across the media world.