The newsletter publishing service, Substack, debuted late in 2017 with the express goal of disrupting traditional journalism. As company CEO Chris Best told Forbes, the platform allowed an individual writer “to run their own personal media empire.” In less grandiose terms, Substack provided an easy way for “content creators” to monetize their work without the pesky interference of editors and ethics monitors.
Several journalists with a national profile like Matt Taibbi and Glenn Greenwald jumped on board and reportedly started earning 7-figure incomes. Reactions to Substack since have run the gamut from “will this really work?” skepticism to “oh, crap, is this the end?” alarmism. Cooler heads have taken the long view, noting the historical tendency for grumpy writers to break the bonds of convention.
But what’s been the effect on news and culture consumers? And will content creators who didn’t build their reputations at The New York Times or through bestselling books also be able to cash in? Those stories are still being written.
Substack boasts an impressive 500,000 subscribers but that’s a fraction of the potential audience (The New York Times recently reported over 10 million paid subscribers). The average reader is still most likely to stumble on a Substack because of it being posted on another social media platform or forwarded by a friend.
My personal history with the platform started because of a niche effort by Emily Atkins called Heated, that focuses on climate change. I welcomed her deep knowledge and passionate viewpoint on the subject. But when Atkins went on hiatus last month, I broadened my Substack diet with the goal of finding content that central Virginians might find most useful or, at least, entertaining.
In broad strokes, the newsletters I found fell into two categories: relevant and revelatory.
In our charged political environment, it makes sense that those with specific axes to grind would gravitate to this new platform. Among the options for those on the right, you have The Republican Standard; on the left, there’s Blue Virginia News (mostly links to its main site). There are also “non-partisans” like Chris Saxman who offers “The Intersection” that claims to focus on how business and politics intertwine. A quick Google search reveals Saxman’s pedigree as a former Republican delegate; still, he offers insightful perspectives and lots of content for those who subscribe.
More interesting to me has been finding deep-diving writers who are clearly exercising a broad political passion or have a specific policy area they are laser-focused on. Recent Top 40 Under 40 honoree Brandon Jarvis peals content off his VA Scope news service into the Virginia Political Newsletter. The daily email overflows with juicy insider details of the workings of Virginia government and has become essential reading for me.
Black Virginia News started up in March and has already proven itself a useful prism for consideration of what’s up in the Commonwealth. The recent inclusion of the complete outgoing letter of the Executive Director of the Virginia branch of the NAACP was enlightening, as was spotlighting the RNC’s amplification of Lt. Gov. Winsome Sears.
For those interested in political reform, consider subscribing to the VA Policing Reform Newsletter or the Substack offered by Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government. Both will give you clear reasons why you may want to jump on board – or shy away from – either of their efforts.
Like any social media platform, Substack gives those in search of a megaphone another place to shout. But a few writers have leveraged the service to give sweet slices of content that can exist simply to intrigue or delight.
My favorite among these is Pete Humes who now lives in Hampton Roads but has roots in Richmond as the founder of beloved local humor magazine, Punchline, and its successor, Brick. He offers Five Song Friday, a weekly collection of songs pulled from his encyclopedic knowledge of alternative music through the ages. As Humes states in an early post, “the right music can be a miracle drug,” and his weekly missives include weird and wonderful tracks that certainly serve as a prescription against boredom.
Given that each newsletter starts with an engaging preamble and ends with links to an playlists on Spotify and YouTube, subscribing offers the reader a delightful cross-platform journey.
A more existential wander is Kongcamera’s Identity, the general musings and a couple formal stories by Kong, a Bangkok native currently living in Lexington, Virginia, as part of a high school exchange program. His TOVA series, which stands for Too many Odd days in VA, pulled me in with melancholy statements about how “[e]verything seems a bit out of reach in winter. Nothing truly strikes me as real except the cold.”
With continued reading, the journey of a young person navigating his fish-out-of-water experiences is related in simple language that is bracingly raw and affecting. His stories also offer a cross-cultural window into what’s both very similar and surprisingly different about high school students everywhere.
For those who’ve dreamed about moving to the country, Laura and Christopher Lindsay provide a window into the reality of that world with their Willow Greens Farm Substack, recounting life on their 7-acre farm in Loudon County. Christopher tends to focus more on the nuts-and-bolts of running a farm, like planning a garden or building a greenhouse, while Laura digs into often fascinating historical tidbits about the land and how it was passed through the generations. Both are charming writers and their smart breezy prose makes for a fun weekly read.
Enterprising writers in Charlottesville and Scottsville have created Substack / podcast integrations that give a broader sense of the goings on in a community. While the Henrico News Minute has done something similar, there were no “here’s generally what’s up in Richmond” Substacks that this writer could find.