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Opinion | I Am Going to Miss Pitchfork, but That’s Only Half the Problem


There is still opportunity at the top. Take The New York Times. It faces real headwinds — print subscription revenues are dropping here, just like at many places — but access to a global audience has opened vistas of growth. The Times can be as competitive in California as it is in New York, and it can make a real run internationally, too. But a global market creates a winner-take-more dynamic. Most people will subscribe to only one news outlet, if that. And they will pick the subscription that delivers the most value. The more subscribers that market leader gets, the more money and reach it has to attract the best staff and expand its offerings. The more talent it then hires and products it offers (Cooking! Games! Product reviews! Local sports!), the better of a deal it is, which makes it that much more compelling a bundle, and the flywheel keeps going.

At the other end, it’s easier than ever to support yourself as an independent author. I got into journalism as a blogger back when there was no way to make that pay. What you did, then, was move your blog to an established media outlet with some kind of business model and get paid for it. I went to The American Prospect and then The Washington Post, and that was the start of my career.

But now those blogs are newsletters, and those newsletters have subscribers. Substack’s chief innovation, in my view, was realizing that you could charge much more for a newsletter subscription to a single author than most of us imagined. It never would have occurred to me to sell subscriptions to my blog for $80 a year. But if you do sell them for $80 a year, you can make a great living on the back of 5,000 subscribers. A small audience, well monetized, is a perfectly good revenue stream.

But that revenue stream doesn’t scale up to fund a publication where you need to support multiple reporters, editors, copy editors, photo editors and so on. There’s a reason opinions thrive on Substack and investigative journalism doesn’t. A few publications, like Politico and Axios, have built real newsrooms atop newsletters, but you need a very moneyed audience to make that work.

That’s where media is right now: You can thrive being very small or very big, but it’s extremely hard to even survive between those poles. That’s a disaster for journalism — and for readers. The middle can be more specific and strange and experimental than mass publications, and it can be more ambitious and reported and considered than the smaller players. The middle is where a lot of great journalists are found and trained. The middle is where local reporting happens and where culture is made rather than discovered.



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