Substack succeeds by emulating old school blogging

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Illustration by Greg Storey

There is no hotter entity in the media right now than Substack. The paid newsletter platform is all the rage, luring in a number of mainstream journalists who have departed big-name publications and brought at least some of their audience with them. 

Folks have been looking for journalism’s savior for years—ever since Craigslist, Facebook and the like devoured online advertising budgets—and while Substack may not live up to that billing (because who could?), it’s hard to deny their success and the hope it breeds.

So why are they so successful with such a simple model? There’s no fancy elegant design like Medium. It doesn’t try to be some massive network. They’re just email newsletters folks pay to read.

It goes back to a concept I wrote about here on 99 Park Row previously—that after years of bloggers trying to be mainstream journalists, you see mainstream journalists benefit by trying to be bloggers. 

On a recent episode of This Week in Legal Blogging, Bob Ambrogi asked renowned legal industry writer David Lat why he went with Substack over a blog. Lat didn’t see it as a departure from blogging at all.

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In many ways, I do see it as another blog. Substack is this platform that allows writers to take their writing and essentially turn them into newsletter blasts, which go out to people by email. But all of those posts, I still the call them “posts” appear on a website, in my case, DavidLat.Substack.com in reverse chronological order, which is very much like a blog. So I think that’s one difference with Substack. It lets you turn things into newsletters more easily. But I think the major differences, it allows you to monetize them in a very easy way. […]

For me, I really wanted to return to the early days of blogging, where it’s really just you and the readers. And Substack lets me do that.

That final sentence is an idea I’ve actually thought about for a while—and been meaning to write on. Here’s why I think them going back to blogging’s roots is key to their success.

One voice

The vast majority, if not entirety, of Substacks are written by a single author. Their appeal isn’t purely about the subject they cover—but the way the author writes on the subject. It builds a strong relationship between author and reader. 

Not chasing clicks

Obviously, the ability to easily charge readers for content is core to Substack’s ascent—but that’s true in more ways than one, as Lat alludes to. By having readers subscribe, writers focus on pleasing just that audience, on appealing to that small but highly-engaged contingent. This leads to higher-quality writing over clickbait and hot takes. 

Niches lead to riches

Just like the old days of blogging, these Substacks often cover one subject and one subject only. They’re not trying to do too much. It could be the top 101 Nintendo video games of all time, the history and politics of monopoly power or women’s basketball analytics. One writer, one subject and, as a result, a loyal audience.

Content over everything

As David Lat mentioned on TWILB, the web-based version of Substack is just a series of posts listed in reverse-chronological order. And really, it is just that. No fancy design. No magazine layout. No giant menus. The focus is on the text, where it should be. 

Start quickly, easily

When you go to read a Substack, the site frequently reminds you “Hey, you could write here.” You could get going in a matter of minutes and write about what you want to write about. No setup, no stakeholders, just you and what you want to say. You don’t even have to pick a Blogspot template.

•    •    •    •

Substack is just one of a few examples that point to blogging’s return. Things may not always look like a blog or be called a “blog,” but people are blogging. Even if they don’t always stick with it. 

But there’s an important lesson for the people who have been blogging, want to begin or are looking for a fresh start—go back to the basics. You don’t have to try to be the New York Times or Washington Post of a subject, because they’re honestly trying to be the basement blogger of something else. 

Focus on what you want to write about, and write about it for the people who really want to read it. And don’t worry about anything else.

Colin O'Keefe
About the Author

As Publisher at LexBlog, Colin leads the Publishing team and guides LexBlog clients and community members on blogging digital publishing strategy. A professionally-trained journalist, he’s applied the trade by helping keep LexBlog at the forefront of blogging and digital media trends for more than a decade—split up by a four-year stint helping lead the Seattle Mariners’ digital marketing efforts. He’s a fan of those M’s, the Green Bay Packers, Seattle craft beer, pinball, jogging and ebikes.

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