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How Forbes is harnessing the “Substackization of media” with a new paid newsletter platform

Forbes announced its new paid newsletters platform last week, and industry insiders are already calling it “a big deal.” 

The platform, “Journalist Entrepreneurs,” will allow writers to launch their own paid newsletters under the publisher’s brand and generate revenue from their work. They will be a part of Forbes staff and receive a salary and benefits, as well as a split of the subscription and ad revenue they generate. 

Writers can create their own profile page on Forbes.com and self-publish their work through Forbes’ CMS. They can easily create and distribute their own customized paid newsletters, which are then distributed, marketed and managed by Forbes. They will also receive editorial, marketing and customer service/support functions, and benefit from the extensive reach of the site.

“Consumers will pay for premium content”

“With Journalist Entrepreneurs, we’re giving our writers the opportunity to go deeper into the subjects that matter and leverage Forbes to directly profit, while also demonstrating consumers will pay for premium content,” says Randall Lane, Chief Content Officer, Forbes. 

The idea is to create a platform that offers writers all of the marketing, editorial and salary benefits of being a part of Forbes’ newsroom, but gives them enough editorial independence to ensure that their audiences follow them over to Forbes. 

Sara Fischer, Media Reporter, Axios

Forbes hopes to drive digital subscriptions, add a revenue stream, and bring new readers to its site with this new initiative. It will hire 20 to 30 new staff writers with big followings to help get the platform up and running. Subsequently, it plans to add some of its existing editorial verticals to the platform and make the offering available to its 2,800-person contributor network. 

So far, the publisher has got Dwight Silverman, formerly of the Houston Chronicle, to write about consumer technology; Scott Mendelson, a Forbes contributor and entertainment critic, who will write about the box office; and Suzanne Rowan Kelleher who will cover luxury travel, reports Subscription Insider. 

“Strategies to deal with the Substack problem”

The move reflects predictions made by several publishing industry insiders based on the resurgent popularity of newsletters in recent years. Not only have publishers expanded and enhanced their newsletter offerings to positive results, several journalists have left regular jobs to set up their own newsletter-based publications

Substack has emerged as one of the most popular options for journalists opting to go independent. Some of them are generating revenues that are on par or better then what they were making earlier. The platform had over 250,000 newsletter subscribers with the top 10 publishers collectively making around $7M a year, NPR reported in December. 

Veteran journalist Simon Owens, who has a newsletter on Substack, predicted that publishers will be making moves to counter the flow of talent to Substack. “2021 will be the year that publishers start to form strategies to deal with the Substack Problem,” he told the newsletter platform Revue in December. “They’ll need to find ways to discourage their star writers from leaving to launch their own Substack newsletters.”

He’d explained that most likely publishers would do so by allowing writers to launch their newsletter under the banner of the company. “They might structure the deal so the writer gets to keep their current salary and then some percentage of the subscriber income they generate – similar to the advances and royalties that book publishers dole out”—something that Forbes is doing.

“Rise of the niche”

Moreover, this trend where readers like a journalist’s work or a certain niche to such an extent that they are willing to pay for it, also opens up a new revenue opportunity for publishers. 

“The era in which every news site covers more or less the same set of topics and stories is over,” writes Pia Frey, Journalist and Co-founder, Opinary

The challenge now is differentiation and segmentation — the rise of the niche, if you will. The clearer the editorial profile of a particular niche, the higher the potential to build a loyal and paying audience around it.

Pia Frey, Journalist and Co-founder, Opinary

“Media organizations can learn from the Substackization of media (and the consequent Substackerati) to see how journalists’ expertise can be channeled through newsletters to build their own communities,” adds Frey. 

She suggests publishers invest in such “journalists and experts, hire and put them into the center of a growth strategy, and then let them guide the entire marketing subscription funnel, including their own newsletter, podcast, and weekly column.” Over time, these “personality-centered communities may even serve as an excellent gateway for advertisers to reach their target audiences.” 

This is an opportunity for the media business to reassert value on top of the current revenue streams by fulfilling a need for creators who should be focused on what they do best: create. The solution is building the platform for talent, pairing both brand reputation and individual reputation, and connecting it all together. 

Jarrod Dicker, VP, Commercial, The Washington Post

“Opens up an entirely new well of business”

Dicker quotes NYT’s Ben Smith that the media’s next business model is “monetizing the individual.” He recommends publishers to take cues from the record industry where “artists and labels work together in order to grow both their businesses and reputation in parallel.”

“Emphasis on the talent (artist) only drives more value and more revenue for the label (brand),” he writes “The label pays for a song to be produced so they can partially own the song. There is equity in their investment of that artist. Record labels are having record years because they own the publishing rights to songs. People hear a song, the label gets paid.” 

It’s a formula that on top of existing revenue opportunities (advertising, subscriptions, events) opens up an entirely new well of business.

Jarrod Dicker, VP, Commercial, The Washington Post

“Better retain that talent in our industry”

“Such a shift will funnel more talent to publications with sustainable business models that align quality journalism and revenue,” adds Jessica E. Lessin, Founder and Editor-In-Chief, The Information. “Those publications will better retain that talent in our industry by creating a culture where they reward top performers for their impact. 

Lane tells Business Insider that although Forbes has been in the newsletter space for several decades, the recent newsletter renaissance has spurred renewed interest in the medium. “We saw that the market has evolved in terms of people’s willingness to pay for journalism and journalism from individual journalists,” he said.

We do think the market is there for journalists who want to be entrepreneurial, but we’re able to surround them with the services and muscle that might not be their core strength. 

Randall Lane, Chief Content Officer, Forbes

Moreover, not all journalists will have a reach comparable to the top earners at Substack like tech journalist Casey Newton from The Verge, Glenn Greenwald from The Intercept, Matt Taibbi from Rolling Stone, climate science and political reporter Emily Atkin, and Alex Kantrowitz from BuzzFeed.  

It can take a long time for writers to attract enough paying readers to make the idea financially sustainable. “The two types of people who seem to be making it work right now,” says Dan Oshinsky, Founder of newsletter consultancy Inbox Collective. “They either have an existing kind of audience – Andrew Sullivan is certainly one – who can jump in and convert that audience from Facebook or Twitter to their newsletter, or they’re people who are coming in with really niche kinds of products.” 

While much ink has been spilled over the lucrative new incomes, the unleashed creative potential, and the sweet, sweet uncensored freedom entailed, there’s also been plenty of smart criticism over how the Substack model has most immediately rewarded established those with Twitter megaphones and decades-old followings. 

Delia Cai, Author, media newsletter Deez Links

“Big win for everyone”

By building a platform that quickly expands writers’ reach, provides them with financial security as well as independence to grow their personal brands, it appears that Forbes has hit upon a win-win idea. 

“Journalists will likely see two main appeals in Forbes’ program,” says BI’s Mark Stenberg. “First, Forbes will promote its Journalist Entrepreneurs’ newsletters across its site, in the author’s articles as well as in other relevant pieces. This kind of exposure can be valuable for newsletter writers, because growing a newsletter audience is uniquely challenging. Newsletters are inherently siloed, in that they shoot from one inbox to another, which makes it difficult to “discover” a newsletter.”

The only way to grow your newsletter audience — outside of having your readers share it — is to promote your newsletter on other channels. Most newsletter writers use their social media for this purpose, but that limits reach. By displaying a newsletter across its site and social-media channels, Forbes increases its visibility, which could help it grow quickly.

Mark Stenberg, Journalist, Business Insider

“This is an exciting new chapter for Forbes,” says Dana Neuts, Editorial Director, Subscription Insider. “While subscription newsletters are not a new idea, they are a different way for Forbes to attract popular writers with built-in audiences. 

“The newsletters are a big win for everyone. Readers get the content they want from the journalists and writers they follow, writers have options for how and where to publish their work while being fairly compensated for their expertise, and Forbes adds another revenue stream while growing its own audience with the potential to bring on new Forbes’ subscribers and potentially attracting new advertisers.”

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