Atlantic plans to push newsletter to subscribers

Here’s a media approach: journalists create their own newsletters rather than working with big, well-known publishers.

Here’s a media trend that’s working in the opposite direction: Big, established publishers with strong business models or big proponents—or both—strengthen their power by mobilizing talent.

Here’s a story that can do both: The Atlantic is launching a newsletter that wants to bring writers under the Atlantic umbrella (and paywall) while allowing them to remain semi-independent.

The idea, according to people familiar, is for the magazine to reveal a list of newsletter writers — perhaps a dozen or so — in the coming weeks. It will only be available to Atlantic subscribers. The New York Times did something similar this year, publishing subscriber-only letters from writers, including Kara Swisher and Jay Caspian Kang.

One big difference between Plan Atlantic and other newsletter distributors is that, in some cases, Atlantic Magazine recruits writers who are already in the paid newsletter business. And you want to convert these writers’ subscribers into Atlantic subscribers.

I’ve confirmed that at least one of these writers is a writer who’s currently setting up shop at Substack, the company that started the latest newsletter boom by making it easier (in theory) to make money from self-publishing.

Here is an outline of what the Atlantic wants to do, by people in the know:

  • The Atlantic does not hire writers as full-time employees, but will offer them some kind of base pay with the ability to make extra money if they achieve certain subscriber goals. So it’s a more reliable source of income than paid newsletters — even Casey Newton, contributing writer for Vox Media’s The Verge, who has been running his own successful Substack for the past year, says he sees a monthly disruption of 3 to 4 percent.
  • If writers are already selling paid subscriptions to their letters, Atlantic wants to convert those subscriptions to Atlantic subscriptions. That is: if you currently pay a provocative amount but Thinky takes Jay $5 a month for his work, you will now get the same money for that letter, plus any other newsletters published by The Atlantic, as well as The Atlantic itself, which is currently selling digital- Subscription only for $50 per year.
  • Newsletter writers who join the Atlantic Program must maintain their existing subscriber list. So if they decide to bail in the Atlantic, they can start their business again.
  • The amount of oversight or assistance that letter writers would get from the editors and staff at Atlantic still seemed like a work in progress. But the impulse is that writers are supposed to remain editorially independent from publication; It will not be edited by the editors of Atlantic. Update: I got some nice disapproval from an Atlantic source on this point – it seems more accurate to say that newsletter writers will get some light oversight from Atlantic editors, although it’s unclear exactly what that would entail. So what happens if the Atlantic ends up hiring someone the Atlantic decides is racist/racist/problematic for the Atlantic? Good question!

An Atlantic spokesman declined to comment.

It’s easy to see the program’s appeal to The Atlantic, led by Editor-in-Chief Jeffrey Goldberg and CEO Nick Thompson. The post gets a new list of votes and the ability to instantly increase subscriber numbers. And while more subscribers are always nice, they’d be especially nice for the Atlantic right now, which thrived during the Trump years and the pandemic in particular, but, like other publishers, saw their website traffic plummet as it left off. Trump and the Covid-19 virus. Dominate the news cycle.

And since low traffic makes it difficult to convert new readers into subscribers, anything that brings in new eyeballs—not to mention an injection of paying readers—will be welcome. (Here we should note that although The Atlantic is owned by Laurene Powell Jobs, the billionaire wants the publication, which had been laid off in the early months of the pandemic, to be self-sufficient.)

The tone of the book is a bit more subtle, with some parts being clarified and others more implicit. The obvious thing: Come to work at a large-scale award-winning publication, backed by a billionaire. Unmentioned: You probably thought you’d smash it once you started your newsletter. But you probably aren’t, and you probably want a steady salary. Managing a single store is not for everyone.

However, some newsletter writers who have found receptive audiences – primarily via Substack – are making more money than they did at established media companies.

For example, opinion writer and former editor of the New York Times Barry Weiss tells me that she now has 16,500 subscribers on Substack, Common Sense. Which means $5 per subscriber, per month, they could bring in $890,000 annually, after Substack gets their 10 percent fee. So don’t expect Vice to be on the Atlantic list anytime soon.

I asked Substack co-founder Hamish McKenzie what it would mean if competitors like The Atlantic poached some of its authors. He was generous about it. “We’re focusing on writers even when they’re not Substackers, so we’re excited to see a trend toward more book ownership,” McKenzie said in a statement. “We have always advocated for writers to have complete ownership of their content and audience, and applaud every step in that direction.”

McKenzie and his team have clearly thought about a kind of platform jump: Part of Substack’s offering is that writers can easily walk away, taking all the content they’ve published and the email list of all their subscribers. Substack’s success has spurred new competitors, including Facebook and Twitter, both of which could easily outpace Substack if they wanted to — as I reported in June, Facebook dropped $6 million on Bulletin’s URL, Substack’s copy.

But if you’re not a Substack star, it probably doesn’t take a lot of money to pull you out of the company: just a steady salary and the ability to write for a large group of people. Just like people do in some regular media companies.

Clarification, October 9: This article has been updated to reflect an Atlantic source’s statement that the upcoming roster of newsletter writers will have some degree of oversight by Atlantic editors.

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