(Fair warning: This issue is going to be a little different from the last few!)
Yesterday, the newsletter platform Substack announced a new initiative called Substack Local
, “to foster and develop the local news ecosystem by helping independent writers build local news publications based on the subscription model.”
The company is offering advances of up to $100,000 to writers who commit to covering the news of their communities via Substack newsletters, and are “serious about building a full-time, enduring media business supported entirely by subscriptions.” Four judges will handpick up to 30 writers to receive the one-time cash advance, in addition to a percentage of subscription revenue, mentorship from experienced journalists, subsidized access to health insurance, and a designer and editor to work with. U.S.-based writers can apply to receive legal support.
While Substack has been adamant in its messaging that this isn’t the solution to the local journalism crisis, I’m not convinced that people won’t see it that way. And as someone who has experienced many of the pitfalls of local journalism — like small paychecks for big hours, burnout, the shuttering of my publication — I’m concerned for the chosen 30.
“The newspaper industry has been in a tailspin since internet companies ate the $5 billion in classified advertising
they’d been raking in, and social media became an alternative entry point to the day’s news. … Just 14 percent of Pew’s survey respondents said they had paid for local news in some way in the past year. Forty-nine percent of the people who didn’t pay cited the ‘widespread availability of free content’ as their reason why, according to Pew.”
Why does it matter? Well, in addition to historicizing the events of small towns oft-ignored by national publications, acting as watchdogs for local politicians, and helping to ensure democracy nationwide, local newspapers also give readers a strong sense of community. They give people a chance to have their voices heard, to communicate with local politicians, to learn about local businesses.
Over the years, there have been plenty of attempts — by nonprofits
, and companies
— to save local news. But none have proven to be a one-size-fits-all solution for a national crisis. And I imagine Substack Local will follow suit.
While investing in local news is ostensibly better than not investing in local news, I am still wary of a business model that places the onus of creating a thriving publication on individuals. It can take years to build strong relationships with sources, to find a devoted readership willing to pay for news, to develop an editorial strategy. And it takes much more than one person, or even a small group of people — as I’ve learned time and time again at the tiny newsrooms I’ve worked at.
I worry for what will happen with these writers after a year has passed, and all they’re left with is 90% of their subscription revenue to carry them forward — especially given the low numbers of people willing to subscribe to local papers. I worry about how much time they will invest to get to every city council meeting or local event, and how much of their personal lives they will have to sacrifice in order to single-handedly get the story.
And I worry about the people Substack will hire to take on this herculean task, since it’s been about a month since the platform was came under fire for extending large cash advances to transphobic writers
. How will Substack Local address these discriminatory practices? How will it provide support to the non-U.S. writers it encourages to apply to Local, despite not offering them legal protection? What stories will these writers choose to cover, and whose voices will they elevate?
I’m not against the idea of receiving local news in your inbox instead of on your doorstep, nor am I anti-individual. But I do think we’re entering dangerous territory here.
At best, Substack Local will be a poorly placed band-aid on the gaping wound that is local news in 2021. At worst, it’ll be another knife twisted into an industry deeply struggling to find a cure for decades-long issues.
Quite frankly, I don’t have an alternate solution outside of wailing to anyone who will listen that they need to subscribe to a local news source. There are papers that have weathered the storm through robust digital reinventions
, but this still required money — both philanthropic and from readers. And until this country seriously reevaluates the importance of news and puts federal funding on the table, the burden, I must say, does fall on the reader to do something
So, I’m stepping off my soapbox and getting back to telling you what you should cook now. But before I do: Please subscribe to your local paper, or at least bookmark its website on your computer and read articles that don’t fall behind its paywall. Support the journalists that have spent years covering your community. And don’t wait around for a tech or media company to swoop in and save the news, because that’s how we got into this mess in the first place
As always, thank you for reading.