The most popular paid Substack offering is The Dispatch. It was started last year by Steve Hayes, the former editor in chief of The Weekly Standard, along with Jonah Goldberg, a former editor at National Review, and Toby Stock, a former executive at the American Enterprise Institute. A conservative newsletter with more than a dozen employees, The Dispatch has nearly 100,000 subscribers, almost 18,000 paid, and is close to pulling in $2 million in first-year revenue, most of it derived from Substack subscriptions, Mr. Hayes said.
For all the editorial freedom and entrepreneurial opportunities it offers, Substack exists at a remove from the internet. Journalists who go the subscription route end up writing mainly for their fans, instead of tossing their work into the web, where it can be praised or torn apart by a wide variety of readers.
That is fine with Andrew Sullivan, who joined Substack in the summer after years at New York magazine, where his contrarian essays led to criticism from its liberal readers and a tense relationship with its editors. “There’s something wonderful about writing just for readers,” he said. “Because your people are there, you have to be accountable, but it’s a very pure relationship. It reminds me of the wonderful old days of the blogosphere.”
Edith Zimmerman, a former editor of The Hairpin, whose Substack newsletter, Drawing Links, features slice-of-life comics, also noted the similarity between Substack writers and bloggers of yore. “They seemed to be having fun in a way I hadn’t seen in a while,” she said. “People were creating these spaces for themselves to be goofy and a little protected from the turbulence of just throwing yourself at the entire internet.”
Samantha Irby, a humorist whose newsletter recaps the reality-TV court show “Judge Mathis,” had a newsletter on TinyLetter before moving to Substack, where she has over 1,000 paid subscribers. “They make it so a child could do it, and that’s what I need,” she said. (Note: Since March, I have published a free Substack for a movie-watching club.)
Without the backing of an institution and the audience that goes with it, Substackers may find it a challenge to get their reporting calls returned. Mr. Newton said that, before he decided to make the leap, he checked in with sources at companies he covers — which include Facebook and Google — to make sure they would return his reporting calls after his departure from The Verge, an established institution.
Substack hasn’t worked for everyone. The eight owners of a left-wing newsletter, Discourse Blog, have decided to leave it for a rival platform, Lede, after finding it hard to attract readers through internet search. They also wanted more detailed data on their readers.