Substack was launched in 2017 by Chris Best, Jairaj Sethi, and Hamish McKenzie. Best was a Kik messenger co-founder, Sethi a developer, and McKenzie a former tech reporter.
These founders wanted to “build a better future for writers” by giving them a way to earn money directly and on their own terms. The primary goal, Best said, is “to allow writers and creators to run their own personal media empire.”
Writers, bloggers, podcasters, and creators of all types are often limited by modern publishing platforms in multiple ways. Because of the need to adhere to restrictions, tiptoe around political leanings, and carefully attempt to not become targeted by cancel culture, creativity is too often hindered.
Additionally, most traditional online media outlets rely on advertising to generate revenue. The problem with this is that ad revenue is usually dependent on page views. To generate page views, writers often have to resort to click-bait strategies, like salacious headlines.
On top of this, so much of news today is controlled by social media algorithms, with only the most click-bait heavy articles getting significant exposure.
This reality doesn’t lend to thoughtful writing or in-depth analysis. Substack allows writers to be supported by those who love their work, somewhat similar to Patreon. They don’t have to pursue the most page views, and can instead focus on doing quality writing.
As they wrote in their manifesto:
News organizations—and other entities that masquerade as them—are turning to increasingly desperate measures for survival. And so we have content farms, clickbait, listicles, inane but viral debates over optical illusions, and a “fake news” epidemic. Just as damaging is that, in the eyes of consumers, journalistic content has lost much of its perceived value—especially as measured in dollars.
Substack wants to be the place writers are free to pursue their own beliefs, ideas, and commentary directly with their audience, and support themselves in the process. New or casual creators might earn a nice side income and others may choose to create a lucrative income stream.
As Falon Fatemi notes in Forbes:
Beholden to editors, advertisers, and page-view metrics, the freedom of journalists has long been constrained. Journalists are flocking to Substack in hopes of gaining back this freedom—creative, editorial, as well as financial freedom. Substack offers journalists a platform to say whatever they want, unencumbered by editors.
Most modern media platforms filter and censor content regardless of what the reader is interested in. With Substack, readers also benefit because they’re able to connect with thought leaders and creators that they want to hear from.
Substack is also trying to rebuild trust between journalists and readers. Journalism, as an industry, has long been the focal point of critical examination. In 2019, however, a Gallup/Knight Foundation survey on public trust and confidence in American institutions estimated that only 6% of Americans had “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the press.
Substack hopes to repair the falling trust of readers. Authors are free to write what they want without worrying about how many page views they’ll generate, as they’re not being incentivized by anything other than an engaged audience.