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The direct sale of content, a model of written press on the rise

E-mail, newsletter, telephone text messages … More and more print journalists are diverting from traditional media and successfully selling their content directly to readers, a trend that has attracted the interest of Twitter and Facebook.

Anna Codrea-Rado took the step in May 2019. “At that time she told me that it was crazy to make people pay for a newsletter,” recalls this journalist who then had 2,500 readers for her free LANCE newsletter, specialized in journalism freelance.

Its weekly publication became paid through the specialized platform Substack. The number of subscribers fell to 130 and then progressively rose to 330. “It was a good source of income,” he recalls, although as a result of the pandemic he decided to suspend his paid formula and make it free.

Like this 30-year-old British woman, who also has her podcast, more and more journalists are becoming entrepreneurs and looking directly for paying readers.

The newsletter existed before the internet, free or paid. This new wave is linked to the emergence of digital tools but above all to new practices.

“10 years ago, the idea of ​​a subscription was not very widespread,” recalls Jeremy Caplan, director of the program dedicated to entrepreneurship at CUNY’s school of journalism, the City University of New York.

Netflix and then Spotify went through that. Currently, “people are subscribed to a lot of things” and are open to low-dollar “microsubscriptions” to financially support a podcast or read a newsletter, Caplan notes.

Some even propose to inform their readers through text messages, a function offered by the Subtext platform.

The crisis in the written press, which involved mergers, disappearances and layoffs, also led journalists to explore alternative models.

“The lack of decent wages and medical coverage proposed by the press groups is causing more and more people to go to Substack or elsewhere,” observes Jon Schleuss, president of NewsGuild, America’s leading press union.

– “It is not for everybody” –

The first advantage for freelance writers is direct payment, after the withdrawal of a 10% commission for Substack. “As freelance journalists, we are paid on time and on time, that changes things a lot financially,” explains Codrea-Rado.

Substack now has more than 500,000 paying subscribers, with a monthly fee of $ 5-10 for most of the most widely read newsletters. The 10 most popular publications in total generated more than $ 15 million in revenue last year, the platform told AFP.

The most read topics are politics and pop culture. Authors often propose a piece of content for free, or even associate it with a podcast, to broaden their audience, eventually generate ad revenue, and create a gateway to subscription.

“For me the best thing in all this is that I am not associated with any brand, any institution,” explains Isaac Saul, creator of the American policy newsletter Tangle, with some 3,000 paid subscribers. “In the political world that is a huge advantage.”

For David Sirota, founder of The Daily Poster, a project for which several journalists work, direct contact establishes a healthier relationship with readers than many of the big media that pretend to be objective.

“We don’t give our readers the false impression, we don’t infantilize them by pretending we don’t have a point of view,” says Sirota, who is still a columnist for the British daily The Guardian.

The Daily Poster relies “on our subscribers for their feedback, their contribution and their ideas of topics. They are not only our audience, they are part of our team,” he emphasizes.

They all describe a calmer relationship with the audience, away from social media.

“It is not for everyone,” warns Caplan, who at CUNY proposes an accompaniment program, because this form of independence also means precariousness, uncertainty and total investment.

“Expanding coverage, growing the audience, that takes time,” warns Sirota. “There is no possible shortcut.”

The appetite for this format is growing and competition is increasing. Substack already had to face Ghost, a platform with attractive rates, but also the champion of the participatory art economy, Patreon, as well as TinyLetter or ButtonDown.

In January, Twitter bought Revue, a small player in the market, and in mid-March, Facebook unveiled a project directly inspired by existing platforms.

Aware of the danger, Substack proposes contracts to large pens, sometimes paying several hundred thousand dollars, which has prompted protests from several unhappy actors about the lack of transparency of the platform.

The traditional media should not fear this new form of journalism, more complementary than competing, estimates Isaac Saul. Globally, “it’s a good thing for the industry,” he said.

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