Tech giants look to jump into the ”newsletter renaissance,“ but will they be able to topple Substack?
The fight for newsletter supremacy is officially on, with Twitter and Facebook recently unveiling new features that, just by launching, threaten the supremacy of Substack, the reigning king of the industry. Despite the tech giants’ built-in advantages, though, professional newsletter writers tell TheWrap it’ll be difficult to unseat Substack as the go-to platform for reaching readers through their inboxes.
One key factor working in Substack’s favor? Only four years after its founding, the company has already become synonymous with the term “newsletter” — and that’s a big deal for writers.
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“Substack has a prominent first-mover advantage,” Mark Stenberg, a media reporter with AdWeek and author of the Medialyte newsletter, told TheWrap. “It’s almost become you say, ‘I have a Substack,’ and people know what it means. It just owns this nascent newsletter renaissance.”
Verizon Media reporter Kelsey Weekman agreed. The 27-year-old New York City-based writer covers TikTok and other youth culture trends at her day job, but looking for a space to expand on those topics in a more informal fashion, Weekman launched her Substack newsletter OK Zoomer back in February. For Weekman — who’s been writing newsletters since her college days at UNC Chapel Hill — the switch from a smaller newsletter service was beneficial, with OK Zoomer quickly racking up more than 1,000 followers; Substack’s name recognition and status, she said, didn’t hurt. As Weekman told TheWrap: “I say I have a Subtack and people know what that means.”
Much of that notoriety stems from Substack’s eclectic mix of big-name writers. The platform is now the home to Andrew Sullivan, Bari Weiss, Matthew Yglesias, Glenn Greenwald, Matt Taibbi and Roxane Gay, just to name a few prominent content producers.
It’s almost a cliché at this point: Tech giants watch smaller startups succeed in a space where they’re absent, before jumping in with their own copycat services and features. We’ve seen it recently with Clubhouse, and we’re seeing it again with Substack.
Twitter acquired the newsletter service Revue earlier this year, and will soon add a “subscribe” button directly to users’ profiles, allowing them to signup for newsletters. (But not Substack newsletters or any other services — just Revue newsletters.) Writers using Revue can choose to make their work free or paid, with Twitter taking a 5% cut in any subscription fees. The move comes as Twitter has shown a renewed focus on adding new features and revenue streams this year, with the company also recently unveiling Spaces, its Clubhouse clone, as well as a subscription service that lets users edit tweets.
Facebook, meanwhile, isn’t going to leave the newsletter corner to Substack and Twitter without a fight. The social network is aiming to launch its own newsletter service, dubbed Bulletin, by the end of June. Like Twitter and Substack, Bulletin will allow readers to follow writers they’re interested in by signing up for steady stream of content in their inboxes. Facebook will also offer both a free and paid subscription option at some point, Recode reported a few weeks ago.
To Stenberg and Weekman, it’s easy to see why Twitter and Facebook are getting in on the action. Newsletters, Weekman said, are a throwback to a bygone era of the internet, when you fired up your web browser and enjoyed checking a few of your favorite sites. There was more of a direct connection between readers and the content they liked, she said, compared to the steady flood of content users are now hit with on social media. Stenberg agreed, adding newsletters are “having a moment right now” because they help both readers and writers slice through the clutter.
“Newsletters are direct. You don’t have to fight through an algorithm to reach readers,” Stenberg said. “It goes securely to their inbox and you have certainty they will see it, and that is huge.”
It’s also easy to see what Twitter and Facebook bring to the table: massive audiences. That’s their biggest selling point in trying to woo writers away from Substack or getting new newsletter writers to join their services instead. Twitter has 199 million daily active users, while Facebook is the biggest social platform, with nearly 1.9 billion daily users. Substack, for comparison, had 12 million readers a month and had 500,000 paying subscribers as of April, according to Politico. That’s nothing to sneeze at, but there’s clearly a scale factor that looms large. Writers looking to earn an extra buck and reach more people may be willing to give Facebook and Twitter’s newsletter services a shot, just based on the sheer size of their audiences.
Stenberg said he’s interested in taking a test drive with Twitter’s Revue when he has the chance. He already uses the app to share his work, he said, so using it as a one-stop shop where followers can also signup for his newsletter makes sense, he said; it’s a good “synergy.” The fact Twitter said it’ll take 5% of subscription revenue, rather than the 10% Substack takes, is also appealing, he said.
At the same time, Stenberg said it’ll be tough to supplant Substack, at least in the near term, as the industry leader. He currently uses the service Ghost to send his newsletter, after switching over from Substack a few months back — but that switch has only made him more cognizant of what makes Substack a good platform, he said.
“I appreciate Substack more since moving away from the platform,” Stenberg said.
Substack’s features are “remarkably easy” to use, Weekman said, allowing her to simply worry about the quality of her content. But she did gripe about the lack of customization options. (“Everyone uses the same fonts” on Substack, she said while chuckling.) And while her newsletter is currently free, as she focuses on growing subscribers, Weekman likes how easy it is to throw her work behind Substack’s paywall.
“I know that I can really easily monetize it, if I want to,” Weekman said. “I’m constantly thinking about losing my job because I work in media. But being able to flip a switch and make it ‘paid’ is a huge pull.”
Ah, money. Facebook has plenty of it, and the company is planning on giving out $5 million to writers to jumpstart Bulletin. It’s also looking to lock in writers with two-year deals, and the company has suggested previously that it won’t take a cut of newsletter subscription revenue. (Substack, for its part, has offered six-figure advances to lure high-profile writers.)
Ultimately, that could be what the newsletter wars boil down to — which platforms help their writers make the most money. Facebook and Twitter come with massive built-in audiences and juicy revenue deals — two factors that shouldn’t be downplayed. But Substack’s first-mover advantage, user-friendly features and easy ability to monetize will make it tough to topple, Stenberg and Weekman said. On top of that, Weekman said it’s nice to diversify how to reach your audience — without having to lean on Big Tech.
“I just want to feel like I own everything,” Weekman said. “And I feel if I’m putting it on a huge tech company’s platform, it’s no longer completely mine. I don’t want to have to put all of my trust into Facebook, ever.”