Six thoughts about the Substack Local initiative

Newsletter platform Substack is chucking $1m of its VC cash at local news journalism. Is this helpful — or just marketing?

Adam Tinworth
Adam Tinworth

While I was off having a nice Easter holiday day out with my wife and daughters, Substack, having been out of the news for a couple of days, made another bid for our attention, like an affectionate puppy that had been left on its own for too long.

They’re about to spend $1m on up to 30 local journalists or teams, to help them launch sustainable, newsletter-based local news operations.

These aren’t grants — they’re the same basic Substack Pro deals they’ve been offering to big names in journalism and related fields: a cash advance, but Substack takes 85% of the site revenue for the first year only, before reverting to their standard cut. Indeed, it’s possible that this initiative might actually make Substack money in the first year, especially given that they’re funding “up to 30” people from $1m. That could be as low as just over £30k per writer. That’s not a fabulous income to stake your future on. (And yes, that low level of funding makes Substack Local a bit more like Substack Not-Quite-As-Pro.)

Here’s a few things that struck me about the initiative:

1. It must be lovely to spend other people’s money.

This isn’t Substack’s money per se. It’s VC money. Substack has taken a bunch of investment. Bear that in mind. VCs look for:

  • Growth
  • An exit

We’re in the growth phase right now, and this initiative will help this, both by (hopefully) launching a number of profitable businesses, and by inspiring others to follow them. But always remember — you’re building a business on a platform that will require an exit…

2. Even if it goes completely wrong, they’ve probably earned $1m worth of publicity from this.

This initiative might not work. Local news is hard, and lots of people have lost fortunes on it.  Ghost tried something similar back in the day, and we heard very, very little about the outcomes. But even if it doesn’t work, these sorts of initiatives put Substack on the radar of everybody thinking about launching a member-supported publication. They’re another step towards being the default place to launch a new publication.

Oh, and the next point will help with the marketing side, too…

3. The judging panel is very talented and… slightly patronising?

They have four talented, learned and experienced judges for the competition — and not one of them has extensive experience in local media. Anyone who has worked in local, consumer or B2B media will notice the underlying, and slightly patronising, idea that the big mainstream media folks know media better than the local folks.

Spoiler alert: highly engaged, smaller scale media where the people you are writing for are the same people you are writing about is a very different game. There’s a danger that they’ll end up with the sort of journalists that Big Names like, rather than the sort that can actually engage with a local community.

One might almost suspect that they were chosen for the name recognition and marketing value, rather than directly relevant experience. Would it really have been that hard to find one successful local media creator to put on the panel?

4. Two weeks is kinda short notice.

Even for a deadline-driven profession, this feels like a pretty short period of time to come up with an idea and get your ducks in a row for a decision that could change your life.

But maybe I’m just old.

5. Providing an editor and a designer is a smart move.

I’ve been writing here for 18 years. There’s not been a single week that I haven’t wished for an editor. If I ever get enough paid subscribers to fund it, a freelance editor will be literally the first thing I spend money on. If you’re going to be doing news reporting on local communities, you need an editor, not least for the second pair of eyes that might keep you away from unnecessary legal trouble.

And a designer changes the sorts of stories you can tell. These are smart additions to the initiative. They will help people build something professional in a year.

6. This is actually quite a good idea.

Newsletters might be the perfect delivery mechanism for local news. Sure, you need to put a bunch of thinking into your acquisition funnel — how you’re going to get people to put their email address in the box in the first place. And that probably means some decent SEO and social media skills (which don’t seem to be in the mentoring package on offer). But once you’ve got people subscribed, you have a much better chance of building an audience — and an engaged one that send you leads, if they merely have to press “reply” in their email to talk to you.

So, despite my reservations on the balance between Substack’s own self-promotion and the actual journalism value of this, it’s probably a good thing. We need more experimental local news startups that aren’t merely trying to replicate what’s been lost, and this will help pump prime some of those.

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Adam is a lecturer, trainer and writer. He's been a blogger for over 20 years, and a journalist for more than 30. He lectures on audience strategy and engagement at City, University of London.