The onset of the pandemic forced many journalists to forge their own way. In 2020, thousands were laid off or furloughed – and those lucky enough to remain in the newsroom experienced limited resources and tight deadlines. We received the same feedback from reporters time and time again: because newsrooms were shrinking, their flexibility had too.
Thus came a new era of independent journalism in the digital age. While we’ve seen this trend erupt across the media landscape in recent months, it’s important to point out that it’s not new. Ben Thompson founded the Stratechery blog and newsletter back in 2013, an early pioneer for the subscription-based media business model. In 2014, Thompson announced he had already secured 1,000 subscribers with a $10/month payment plan. Stacey Higginbotham is another trailblazer, identifying an untapped opportunity and creating the Stacey on IoT website and podcast. She found a specific niche that readers were passionate about, staked her claim, and now dominates the IoT conversation. The pandemic only accelerated the trajectory of journalists finding and creating value in their own, unique ways.
A few major publications and even social media platforms are also catching on to the movement. Forbes recently announced Journalist Entrepreneurs, a newsletter platform aimed at attracting independent journalists with large followings. Meanwhile, Twitter acquired Revue, a newsletter platform, to make it easier for independent creators and writers to publish their own long-form content. Such undertakings are an early sign that major platforms are taking independent journalists seriously and investing in their future.
So, what do marketers need to know about this growing trend?
What Is Independent Journalism?
Independent journalism generally means the content is not owned or directed by a publisher or larger corporation. To harness their creative freedom, journalists started creating blogs or using newsletter services, such as TinyLetter, Lede, or Ghost to establish a platform. Arguably the most popular platform, Substack, boasts over 250,000 paying subscribers across its network and claims 10% of writers’ subscription earnings. The platform is home to a number of popular newsletters, including James Ledbetter’s FIN and Technically.
Most journalists setting off on their own have a proven track record as news sources. Take Casey Newton, for example. After a seven-year stint with The Verge, Newton decided it was time to take his newsletter, previously known as The Interface, to the next level. Platformer was born, a newsletter about – you guessed it – all things platform, including social platforms and the very platform the newsletter itself existed upon: Substack. Newton analyzes these platforms through a political lens and their role in the big tech world. Given Newton’s established influence and respected reporting, Platformer took off.
Newsletter platforms aside, independent journalism is also inclusive of podcasts and mainstream reporters with side gigs. Rosalie Chan launched her newsletter, True Colors, to highlight reporting, essays, and multimedia work by women of color. Meanwhile, she is still a full-time, senior reporter for Business Insider covering enterprise technology. In short, independent journalism is a channel of content that unlocks a whole world of earned media opportunities and new relationships outside of mainstream news outlets.
The Highs and Lows of Going Solo
Independent journalists put a lot on the line to launch their platforms and share stories they believe earned a place in the public spotlight – hence why the majority venture solo later in their careers after establishing credibility and a following. By branching out on their own, journalists gain more space to develop long-form stories and in-depth industry analysis that mainstream news outlets lack room and resources to publish.
However, they forgo many corporate comforts, such as a regular salary and health insurance, to gain journalistic freedom. They also lose the safety net of a corporation and its legal support. To combat this challenge, Substack created a Defender program to support its writers facing legal action. Writers being threatened with legal pressure can apply for the program and potentially receive upwards of $1 million in legal fees covered – though a defamation lawsuit isn’t just about money, but also reputation.
As marketers, we should recognize the risk and commitment involved in independent journalism by not only respecting the content, but by subscribing and engaging. At face value, these platforms might look small, but they are not to be underestimated. These writers have a passion and a purpose, which means any content they produce is likely to be well-researched, in-depth, and unique, with a loyal audience on the receiving end.
What to Expect from Independent Journalists
“Small” but Mighty Audiences
Readership only means so much and it’s certainly not an exact science. While a news site may boast 500,000 average monthly readers, only a fraction of those readers are genuinely engaged. Independent journalists have a different business model and therefore different goals. Because most acquire paid subscribers, they are likely to have more regularly engaged readers.
Think of it this way: A journalist with 1,000 people willing to pay for their content holds an enormous amount of influence. Their readers value the content and trust the source enough to open their wallets. The time it takes to input your credit card information is often longer than your average 2-minute read article, so these subscribers are invested (literally). While building this relationship means playing the long game, the end result is worth it. Regardless of securing earned coverage, you are joining an intelligent, niche community where your opinion is valued, respected, and influential.
Independent journalists are experts and expect their readers to have some level of built-in understanding of the covered topic. Those with a successful newsletter and loyal following are typically seasoned professionals, so you can expect them to be far more selective and particular about their stories and sources. When working with an independent journalist, it isn’t about your company or what your company sells – it’s about them and the story they’re trying to tell. To build strong media relationships in this space, companies must provide information that is of genuine help to the journalist and their readers, whether it’s a unique perspective, access to a sought-after spokesperson, or relevant data findings.
While independent journalists have the benefit of being selective, they’re also eager for feedback. Every day brings new, uncharted territory to the journalist, so they want readers to give their honest feedback and come with smart questions and suggestions to increase the content’s value. Coverage aside, there are so many valuable advantages to working with these journalists. As Eric Newcomer put it, he wants to “create a sense of community” with his venture-capitalist focused newsletter, Newcomer. Because of their curated content niche, independent journalists inspire lively discussions and debates. This creates a unique opportunity for marketers to have authentic conversations and inspire ideas within a collaborative community.
Play the Long Game
It’s no secret that relationship building takes time. These independent endeavors represent a journalist’s passion and means of living, and it’s on us as marketers and PR professionals to be genuinely interested in their stories. During a time when the news cycle has been flipped on its head, it’s worth exploring other channels and supporting those who are pursuing them. There is a place where your company’s story can exist – and it may be in an unlikely one.
If you’re serious about supporting these journalists (and we think you should be), do some research and choose 3-5 to follow. This might mean subscribing to their newsletter and really absorbing their content. Get to know them. Talk with fellow readers and identify their purpose. Understand the larger story they’re trying to tell. Your company just might fit into it and if it does, you’re sure to have a loyal set of followers ready to hear what you have to say.