Culture

Substack Local's big investment won't save local news

A woman reads newspaper's headlines referring to the killing of a Greek journalist in Athens on April 10, 2021. - Giorgos Karaivaz, who worked for private TV station Star and also ran news blog bloko.gr, was shot several times outside his home on April 9. Greek Prime Minister called for the "swift resolution" of a probe into the journalist's shock murder, condemned by leading EU officials, political parties and unions. (Photo by Louisa GOULIAMAKI / AFP) (Photo by LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP via Getty Images)

$1M

Substack's total investment in its new "Local" program.

LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images

This morning Substack announced that it will be investing $1 million in expanding into the beleaguered local news market. Substack Local aims to use the company’s existing subscription-based model in its most targeted way yet. The program is more than just a financial incentive for local news writers to join the platform — it also includes mentorship and access to subsidized healthcare and other benefits.

“We are strong believers in the importance of local news as a bedrock for healthy communities and societies and are deeply concerned for the industry’s ongoing collapse,” the company writes on its official blog. The post highlights the success of local Substacks in Montreal, Toronto, and Manchester.

Writers interested in Substack Local will need to apply via Google Form by April 29; a panel of “independent judges” will work with Substack to choose up to 30 writers to participate. The judges — Zeynep Tufecki, Anne Helen Petersen, Dick Tofel, and Rachael Larimore — all publish Substack newsletters of their own.

Substack is betting that this million-dollar investment will bring in major revenue for the company, which faces increasing competition from the likes of Twitter, major news corporations, and smaller companies, too. A million dollars going towards local news writers is really, really great. Whether or not the program will actually help local news as an industry remains to be seen, though.

It’s a pretty good gig — Writers selected for Substack Local (who will be notified by May 20) will be taken care of quite well by Substack. They’ll receive an advance of “up to” $100,000, paid out over one year’s time, as well as 15 percent of all reader subscription revenue. After the publication’s first year, that cut will skyrocket to 90 percent — as long as you’ve established reader subscriptions, a mailing list, and have a long-term publishing strategy in place.

Selected writers won’t just be left to fend for themselves, either; they’ll also be provided with an independent designer, an independent editor, access to Getty Images, and connections to a U.S.-based healthcare provider. Substack Local writers will also be given access to the Substack Defender program, which provides legal support to Substack newsletter owners.

As far as local news gigs go, this has the potential to be hugely profitable for selected writers. Of course, not every writer will be given the full $100k — some quick math shows that, with a million-dollar investment, that’s simply not possible — but it’s also a chance at establishing a newsletter audience without the fear of financial doom.

But does this help local news? — There are a few hefty obstacles standing in the way of Substack Local actually carrying out its lofty mission of saving local news. On the most basic level, there’s the fact that this only introduces at most 30 new writers to the local news scene in various locations around the world.

Then there’s the problem of buy-in. In order for a Substack newsletter to work in the long run, it needs a large, invested subscriber base. Convincing local news readers to pay a monthly fee for their news, when they can already get that news elsewhere, will be difficult.

There’s always a chance Substack will prove us wrong. Perhaps Substack Local will prove miraculously successful and revitalize investment in local news. Either way, there’s a good chance the company will come out of the situation with more money in its pockets.