If you’re wondering what Substack is, and why writers are turning to it in droves, wonder no more: in the latest episode of NOW What, I talked to three Toronto writers who’ve been publishing on the platform: Kat Angus, who reviews movies (and “internet stuff”) at Kat Watches Everything; Matt Elliott, who writes about Toronto politics in City Hall Watcher; and Andrew Stoeten, who covers Blue Jays and baseball with the Batflip.
Elliott spent a decade writing for commuter paper Metro before launching the newsletter City Hall Watcher.
“As things happen in media, that newspaper changed formats and then went away entirely,” he says. “I found myself really the first time as a journalist, [thinking] ‘Okay, what am I going to do? What’s my career going to be?’ I’m very narrowly focused on one thing, like I want to write about Toronto city hall and nothing else. Which is weird, I acknowledge.”
Two years later, City Hall Watcher has over 900 paying subscribers.
“It’s been one of my favourite professional experiences, having this thing actually succeed at the level it has,” he adds. “I’m a big fan of the newsletter as a concept, and a big advocate of paid newsletters.”
Angus and Soteten are newer to the Substack model. Angus, a senior editor at Buzzfeed Canada, started Kat Watches Everything about six months ago, while Stoeten—who covered baseball for the Athletic until he was let go last year—launched the Batflip in January.
“It was just, ‘Hey, I haven’t been doing anything but watching television and movies even more than I usually do’,” Angus says. “I already have a podcast called I Hate It But I Love It where we talk about pop culture, but I was finding that I was watching so much more that I wanted to talk about than we could actually cover on the show.”
“It’s just nice to do my own thing,” Stoeten says. “I came out of the blogging world—that’s how I ended up in the traditional media sphere to begin with. I call it a blog disguised as a newsletter—I don’t have set [publication] times, nobody knows when it’s going to come out, I just fire things off at will.
“The response has been great,” Angus continues. “I’m not trying to do an ad for Substack, but it’s been just a really bright moment professionally.”
Angus says she saw her Substack newsletter as “a way to make myself write a little bit, and try not to be as precious about my writing. If I liked [a movie], I’d just say that I liked it and advise people to go watch it, and not get bogged down in film criticism. Really, just give myself something to do and feel a little bit productive, even if it’s just like an issue that’s full of links for the day.”
The idea of being paid to self-publish is appealing, but everyone I spoke to sees the money as less important than the sense of control over their own work.
“It’s not just some guy in a suit with a spreadsheet in a skyscraper somewhere saying, ‘You know what, I’m going to move the numbers around’ and then I don’t have a job anymore,” Elliott says.
“More people are paying for it than I actually expected,” Angus says. “I went into this as just sort of a, ‘Let’s see what happens and this will be a fun thing I can do, and if I could make a little bit of pocket change on the side, that would be nice.’ And so far that’s what’s happening. If you really want to do more longform stuff, then probably doing a daily newsletter is maybe not what you should be doing.”
“I’ve had previous jobs where it was like, you know, ‘You’ve got to get 10 posts a day out!’ or some absurd number, where the model was to get eyeballs on the site because you’re serving ads to people,” Stoeten says. “I’m fortunate that I was at the Athletic for two or three years, where people got used to paying for the content behind the paywall. And that’s lent itself very nicely to the way Substack works.
“It’s more blog-like, but with the with the knowledge that I don’t have to just keep trying to bring people back to the site with diminishing returns of serving ads at them,” he says.
Angus points out that subscriber-based platforms like Patreon and Substack emphasizes a smaller group of highly engaged readers—who are willing to pay—versus a general audience who may or may not return.
“There’s a big difference between convincing an editor that 10,000 people are going to read this article and [realizing] 50 people are going to pay five dollars a month for me to write one something a week,” she says.
There’s also the fact that the entire publishing model has changed radically in recent years, with the rush to maximize clicks drowning out journalism that properly serves readers.
“The journalism industry got really hung up on giant numbers for a couple of decades that weren’t really even reasonable,” Elliott says, “this idea that you could write a post and you’d get like hundreds of thousands of views. Okay, maybe occasionally. But it was a bit of a trip to suddenly recalibrate as like, ‘Okay, these are smaller numbers of newsletter readers, but they are actually dedicated readers who want to engage with you and really care about this stuff.' ”