An open letter to Substack

Photo by Morgan Housel on Unsplash

Chris Best

Dear Chris,

We’re big fans. So we want to say: Hey, you’re missing an opportunity!

Thank you for Substack’s grant program helping out independent writers hurt by COVID and now the $1 million fund to help local news reporters set up Substack subscription businesses. We appreciate both. But here’s the thing:

Substack will do a lot more good in local news with one simple tweak: allow donations to your writers, especially those who work for nonprofits. It doesn’t take a paywall to make sure writers are paid, or to run a sustainable local news business.

Adding donation options, you will win three ways:

And it’s the right thing to do.

Doing without a paywall is an equity issue. More than 85% of Americans say everyone should have access to local news whether they can pay for it or not. (Knight Foundation / Gallup) In these times, has it ever been more important to make sure accurate information reaches everyone in every community? Add a donate button and those who can pay can cover those who can’t.

Many writers will likely end up making more money, if people have the choice to donate as well as subscribe. Substack comments show consumers are asking if they can add on a one-time donation to a writer. Writers are asking Substack how to set them up. Let them! Donations don’t subtract from sustaining payments — they drive them. Any charity in America will tell you that one-time donations are the catnip that leads to repeated donations. If you allow donations, your writers will end up with more ongoing donations, more subscriptions and make more money. So will Substack.

Americans aren’t wild about subscribing to news outlets, but they love to donate. Individual Americans donate more than $300 billion to charities in 2019. A few months ago, they donated more than $46 million to newsrooms seeded by the 2020 NewsMatch annual campaign. Individual donations are now bankrolling nearly 40 percent of the journalism from more than 300 U.S. nonprofit newsrooms. And you’re looking into a generational shift. U.S. adults older than 55 still subscribe to news, but those 18–34 are twice as likely as people aged 55 and older to donate to a news organization (Knight Foundation / Gallup again).

You can tap into a growing journalism market. Yes, there is one. There are more than 2,500 journalists who work for independent nonprofit newsrooms, fueled by those individual donations. There’s probably at least another 2,500 freelancing for them. And that’s on top of public media. We see Substack building a new kind of news media, and there’s a natural kinship with the thousands of writers for nonprofit newsrooms whose work is supported by donations.

Substack says its $1 million isn’t inspired by philanthropic intent but the goal “to foster an effective business model for independent local news that provides ample room for growth.” It isn’t an either-or. Philanthropic intent has generated 10x growth in nonprofit news businesses in just over ten years. So we hope you’ll join us, and all the communities using donations as well as subscriptions to build local news.

Sue Cross
Executive Director
Institute for Nonprofit News



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Institute for Nonprofit News

INN strengthens and supports more than 300 news organizations in a new kind of media network: nonprofit, nonpartisan and dedicated to public service.