Editor’s Note: A version of this text appeared in the last issue of our weekly newsletter for media managers. Sign up and receive the latest media updates and opportunities. We will keep exploring this topic, particularly the flight of individual writers to Substack, in the European context. If you have stories to share, reach out to us on Twitter or at firstname.lastname@example.org
Over the past two weeks, two out of three co-founders left Vox, a pioneer in digital explanatory journalism.
Ezra Klein, the co-founder of Vox and perhaps its leading public voice, announced on Friday he would be leaving for The New York Times. The news came just a week after Vox’s other co-founder, Matthew Yglesias, left to publish on his own with Substack.
The two co-founders’ paths are exemplary of recent trends in the US news media industry, namely the dominance of The New York Times and the flourishing of Substack newsletters.
With a fast-growing number of subscribers (already over seven million!) The New York Times has been thriving despite the crisis — and acquiring top talent, from ex-BuzzFeed chief editor Ben Smith to Vox’s Kara Swisher and now Ezra Klein. NYT can offer not only good and stable compensation but also a large and growing platform capable of shaping public discourse.
While the biggest have been growing bigger through acquisition, smaller (but still noteworthy) players are losing star journalists with their own fan bases, who have been going solo on Substack. Some of the most prominent examples include Vox Media’s Andrew Sullivan, Matthew Yglesias, and Casey Newton or The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald.
For some the motivation to publish on their own is financial — several thousand paying subscribers can provide for an income considerably larger than a traditional publication can offer, particularly during the economic crisis that hit most media companies. It’s not an option for most journalists, but it might work great for most prominent ones, thanks to the changing relationship between publications and readers, with an increasing emphasis on personality. As Casey Newton put it in an interview to NYT, “you might follow a publication, but it’s more likely you care about an individual reporter or writer or YouTuber or podcaster”.
For other star journalists, it’s also an ideological move — both Sullivan and Yglesias have found themselves uncomfortable in the left-leaning environments of New York magazine and Vox respectively (even though Yglesias identifies as a liberal). They see publishing via Substack as a return to “early days of blogging” in the early 2000s, with their culture of discussion.
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