How researchers get heard
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Substack: Should You?

TL;dr: If you have to ask, probably not.

For the uninitiated: Substack being the email newsletter platform to which many famous and semi-famous journalists (from Glenn Greenwald to Emily Atkin to Andrew Sullivan to Dave Roberts) have fled as the traditional media economy evaporates under economic and cultural pressures, and that some of those writers are making a good living using. Substack allows people to subscribe to a writer’s essays and open threads — at either a basic, free level or, for a monthly or annual payment, to more premium offerings (more frequent emails, for instance, or a deeper weekly dive).

Subscribing to a Substack newsletter is easy. Finding the Substack newsletters that cater to your interest graphs? Not as easy. There’s a search appliance on the Substack site; you can also search your Twitter follows for which ones have a Substack. But as a subscriber, you’re basically paying for access to a constellation of walled gardens. There are no network effects among Substacks, unless writers bundle their individual Substacks into a bundled Substack. As a Substack author, you have to demonstrate enough value through your Substack writing to compel potential subscribers to give you the monthly or annual subscription you set. A typical Substack subscription price might be $10/month or $100/year.

Given all that, if you’re looking at subscribing to a Substack newsletter, you’re probably favoring writers:

  • Whose work and thinking you already know and like;
  • Who have proven they can excel at medium- and long-form writing, which is what dominates Substack;
  • Who are posting on Substack frequently enough to justify the cost of the subscription;
  • Who are at least somewhat responsive to current events; and
  • Who are using Substack to provide fresh takes they don’t or haven’t provided elsewhere.

Do you want emails from Matt Yglesias twice a day, or some rando? (Depending on your politics, that might be a trick question.) My point: Substack is not like podcasting, where discovery seems to be much of the fun to those who are having fun. Substack is email, and we all have our expectations around email — how much we want to get, how much time we want to spend with it. Those expectations are not terribly elastic, and winners within those expectations will almost always be known quantities who can overdeliver.

I subscribe to a ton of Substack newsletters, both free and paid, because I prefer long-form and to manage my content through email or RSS. But only a handful of those Substacks come from scientists or researchers. Most of the ones I follow (e.g., Emily Oster, Zeynep Tufekci) either had newsletters or were doing copious public writing before they moved to Substack.

The questions I would ask a researcher before advising them to start a Substack newsletter for a nonspecialist audience:

  • Have you ever published long-form content (> 1,500 words) at least once a week for at least six months?
  • Do you already have an audience through Twitter or another social channel that would be interested in reading your Substack?
  • Will you quickly publish content to your Substack list that’s at least occasionally responsive to current events?
  • Will you engage with your audience through comments without losing your shit?
  • Will you use your social channels to promote your Substack and gather new ideas for content?
  • Can you eventually be entrepreneurial about introducing new features for your Substack to keep people’s interest? For instance, here’s Zeynep’s “The Counter,” an occasional issue of her Substack where she presents someone arguing at length against one of her arguments?
  • The most important: Can you come up with a list of at least 20 uncomfortable questions whose answers your research expertise can shed light on?

You’ll probably have noticed: None of those questions is about charging for your content. They are all about whether you can deliver and promote content that’s abidingly worth paying for.

If you can answer “yes” to all of those questions, I’m wondering why you’re not already doing public engagement — if not already on Substack or an equivalent. Because you obviously already have the chops.

If you answered “no” to any of the above, don’t start a Substack.