Journalists venture beyond their newsrooms to try to cash in

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Earlier this year, newsletter platform Substack Inc. expressed interest in signing up CNN contributor Van Jones to write a newsletter for its service, according to people familiar with the matter.

The proposal clashed with terms at CNN that guarantee the network exclusivity over written content from on-air contributors, the people said, and WarnerMedia News and Sports Chairman Jeff Zucker opposed the deal.

Facebook Inc. earlier in the year proposed paying between $200,000 and $500,000 a year to a contributor at CNN to write for its Bulletin newsletter program, but the deal talks never went far for similar reasons, according to people familiar with the offer.

The current boom in newsletters is creating new opportunities for some high-profile journalists to capitalize on their personal brands, potentially earn more income and get greater editorial autonomy than they typically enjoy. Services like Bulletin and Substack can make it easier for writers with followings to distribute and monetize their own newsletters.

Jeff Bezos hugs Van Jones, founder of Dream Corps, after announcing a $100 million award for his projects that help humanity on July 20, 2021 in Van Horn, Texas. Mr. Bezos presented the award after being part of the crew in the Blue Origin’s New Shep (Joe Raedle/Getty Images / Getty Images)

At a time when investors are flush with cash and streaming services are hungry for ever more content, some journalists have found other avenues beyond newsletters, including launching podcasts and selling film rights to their reporting. Others are joining upstart newsrooms that promise new types of compensation.

Those moves can create tensions for established news outlets. Many publishers are building substantial businesses of their own from newsletters, digital audio and video. In some cases, they face competition from former employees whose brands they helped establish.

Workers from a range of businesses, from music to fashion, have left large organizations to try to build their own brands and support themselves independently. The rise of services like Patreon, Cameo, Etsy and OnlyFans has given aspiring entrepreneurs platforms to make money by connecting directly with supporters.

For many journalists, the economics of venturing out don’t make sense. The proliferation of tech platforms has made it easier for anyone to publish, but it also means more competition for paying readers and advertisers.

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Substack co-founder Hamish McKenzie said in an interview that building a financially successful newsletter on the company’s platform could require several years. For many journalists, Substack only provides enough income to be a side gig. Mr. McKenzie said some can build a following more quickly.

Substack has attracted high-profile writers looking for more editorial independence, including investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald and policy journalist Matthew Yglesias. The platform generally keeps 10% of total subscription revenue, but the rates vary for some writers who are given advances by the company, according to a person familiar with the matter. Substack Chief Executive Chris Best said the company now has more than 500,000 total paying subscribers across all of its newsletters.

The platform has been lucrative for some. Mr. Yglesias, who left Vox Media last year to join Substack, said he has more than 12,000 paying subscribers, on pace to generate more than $1 million of total revenue this year. Mr. Greenwald said his newsletter generates more than $1.5 million annually; part of that goes toward paying a copy editor and research assistant, and funding a freelance program.

Substack said in June that the top 10 publications on its platform collectively generate more than $20 million annually in subscription revenue. Substack declined to provide more specific financial information, including the median revenue for writers on its platform.

When Delia Cai joined BuzzFeed in 2017, she continued to publish Deez Links, her media-industry newsletter, on the side. She moved it to Substack a year later, where it remained free but became ad-supported. Deez Links generated more than $20,000 in classified advertising revenue last year, she said, which she kept.

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"I really wanted the stability and mentorship of a staff job," Ms. Cai said. She left BuzzFeed for Vanity Fair this year and now publishes Deez Links infrequently, without ads.

Casey Newton, a former reporter at the Verge, last year launched a tech-focused newsletter, Platformer, that he said now has nearly 51,000 subscribers, resulting in higher total compensation than he had at the Verge—where he still works occasionally as a contributing editor.

"I kind of get to have my cake and eat it too," Mr. Newton said.

The emergence of platforms like Substack and Facebook Bulletin comes amid challenging times for the U.S. news industry. About one-fourth of all U.S. newspapers closed between 2004 and the end of 2019, according to research published by the University of North Carolina. Between 2008 and 2018, newsroom staffing at U.S. newspapers fell by about half, the UNC report said.

newspaper stacks at a sidewalk

Journalists who decide to strike out on their own face plenty of risks, from losing the editing, legal support and clout of an established newsroom to becoming drowned out by a growing number of independent writers.

Facebook, which recently changed its name to Meta, unveiled Bulletin in June, saying it aimed to support independent writers. The service lets writers keep all subscription revenue. At the start, Facebook is offering multiyear licensing deals to give writers time to build up their base of subscribers. Journalists who have joined Bulletin so far include former CNN correspondent Jessica Yellin, sports broadcaster Erin Andrews and author Malcolm Gladwell.

News Corp, owner of The Wall Street Journal, has a commercial agreement to supply news through Facebook.

CNN isn’t the only news organization scrutinizing whether journalists’ outside opportunities present any conflicts. The New York Times has recently begun introducing newsletters—from new and existing Times writers—that are behind the newspaper’s paywall. As a result, a Times spokeswoman said, outside newsletter projects are more likely to be considered in competition with the company’s own efforts.

At the Journal, employees must seek approval before starting a Substack or Facebook Bulletin newsletter and can’t charge a subscription fee, a spokesman said. The Journal is also trying to get a stronger hold on rights. Under new rules, journalists who receive permission to write a book based on their Journal reporting must seek a separate agreement with the company in order to pursue a film deal, a spokesman said.

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The media scene is full of outlets, from Vox Media’s Vox.com to Politico to Axios Media Inc., started by veterans of traditional news publications. In some instances, leaders of news startups eventually went back to legacy outlets, such as former BuzzFeed News editor-in-chief Ben Smith and Vox.com co-founder Ezra Klein, who both now work for the New York Times.

One new entrant is Punchbowl News, which was founded by former Politico staffers including Anna Palmer and Jake Sherman, who co-wrote that organization’s Playbook newsletter.

Near the end of 2020, Ms. Palmer and Mr. Sherman wanted to focus on legislative deal making, an area they thought would be a pivotal battleground for the incoming president’s agenda, Mr. Sherman said. But that strategy wasn’t a fit for Playbook, which covers the White House, the Supreme Court, Congress and political campaigns, he said.

A spokesman for Politico declined to comment.

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Punchbowl News has attracted more than 100,000 subscribers since its January debut, Mr. Sherman said. The company—which employs eight people and has raised $1 million from investors including LionTree LLC’s Kindred Media—is on pace to generate more than $10 million in revenue this year, according to a person familiar with the company’s finances.

Meanwhile, other new ventures are experimenting with compensation to attract writers. Puck, a media company co-founded by former Vanity Fair editor Jon Kelly, is striking deals with reporters that give them a mix of salary, equity in the publication, and a financial bonus for new subscribers to its flagship letters—which cover media, politics and the ultrawealthy.

This article originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal

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