What am I doing here?
Emily Writes Weekly
The teeny tiny world of people who care about journalism and opinion writing was a teeny tiny bit full of buzz this morning when former New York Times writer turned Substack writer Charlie Warzel revealed he was quitting the platform and moving to The Atlantic after just seven months. As a former writer for media places turned Substack writer I was really shocked by this.
Charlie’s newsletter Galaxy Brain is a good one. I signed up for an annual subscription immediately. Over seven months, I read probably half of his newsletters. On busy weeks/months I didn’t open them - but I wanted to support him as a writer because I could see how much effort and care he put into his writing.
Galaxy Brain was launched with much fanfare in April with a “Why I’m leaving (The) New York (Times).” post. I was so moved by that post. It was exactly how I felt.
He described the “intimacy of the reader-writer relationship” with newsletters. It was exactly how I’d describe the joy of the community I was part of that was created through blogging.
He said: “After a decade of writing mostly for the internet, I’ve grown increasingly exhausted by the notion of Chasing Audience™ or pinning every single story to a specific, perpetually-closing window of the news cycle. The things that are rattling around my brain at a given moment are almost always pieces of a long conversation that I want to have over weeks and months and years. I find myself struggling to hew to the traditional definitions of newsworthiness, which is already a choice masquerading as an inevitability. The last two places I worked were big, polarizing brands, which also meant that a huge chunk of my readers on a given story were there because they wanted to use what I’d written — usually just the headline — as ammunition in a culture war battle. That comes with the business card, I know. But it’s not what draws me to this work. And if I’m honest, it’s burned me out and left me feeling grim about the role of mainstream media.”
I felt this SO MUCH. I’ve written for almost every mainstream media organisation in New Zealand. After being a columnist for everyone from NZ Herald to Womens Weekly I knew when I came to The Spinoff as Parents Editor I’d found my true home. I had an astonishing amount of freedom and support from my editors (at the time Duncan Greive, Toby Manhire, Catherine McGregor, and Alice Neville) and I am still so grateful that they’ve kept me as part of The Spinoff whānau even though my home is now Substack.
[The above is a photo taken by a Women’s Weekly photographer. It was a traumatic stint where they curled my hair and said nothing in my wardrobe worked lol. I am wearing a top I bought for my mother-in-law. They also tried to dress the kids in khaki and I said no lol. I don’t think there’s ever been a worse fit and I hate this photo with the fire of a thousand suns. I had to pretend to write on a laptop that wasn’t turned on.]
It felt like it was one of the few places where my writing wasn’t being shoehorned into polarising takes. I have spent my writing life trying not to be a hot take machine. But sometimes it feels as if that becomes inevitable when you must write an opinion every week. Whenever I was commissioned for work by other media organisations the pitches I got were always: Can you say it’s wrong or right to be naked in front of your kids? Can you say it’s wrong or right to kiss your kids on the lips? Can you say it’s wrong or right to smack/vaccinate/huge issue that turns normal parents into raging homicidal beasts.
Doing radio was the same. You’re encouraged to take a stance and stick to it. But I’ve always believed that my opinion is subject to change. Did I still push out some shit takes? Of course! Do I regret things I’ve written over the last six years? Absolutely!
But honestly, the majority of the Enormous Feelings people had about me as a writer were based on headlines that I didn’t write. They were based on interpretations of my writing by someone who already thought I was a Wrong Person with Wrong Opinions.
It was my former editor and current friend Duncan Greive’s idea for me to start a newsletter. His belief in me has driven a lot of my career. From believing I couldn’t possibly be an editor, to believing I couldn’t possibly convince people to sign up to a newsletter - at every stage, I’ve been afraid and he’s been quietly championing me.
The newsletter started slow with support from The Spinoff. Eventually, we confirmed a separation between the two and in March this year I started writing for this newsletter as my full time job. It’s the first time I’ve ever made a full time income from writing.
Hamish McKenzie, the co-founder of Substack and a tireless cheerleader for writers, took me out for lunch and encouraged me to go full-time. I was terrified. My husband and I tried to crunch the numbers but it was so daunting. I have never been so afraid.
After a walk around the Wellington Botanic Gardens with Duncan (where we got papped by a lovely Verb photographer and a reader said we looked like a celebrity couple discussing our conscious uncoupling) I felt like I should do it. Duncan assured me I’d still have support from The Spinoff team and I have. I simply wouldn’t have this newsletter - finally - without his and The Spinoff’s and Substack’s support.
And I tell you this because I hope it helps you understand just how tough this gig can be. Not in a 'pity me' way, but in 'a clearing up the misconceptions way'.
I was exhausted after writing at least one opinion piece or blog a week for five plus years. In that time I was also an editor reading and commissioning dozens of pieces of writing every week and I also wrote two books while caring for two babies.
When The Spinoff Parents sponsorship ended so did my job as editor. Right after I’d quit my day job to focus on being an editor. I was fucked. Few media organisations can pay a full-time wage to a once-a-week opinion writer. So I got a new day job and I continued writing at night.
I tell you this because I think people assume you’d earn enough in New Zealand as an author. That’s not the case. Your support here is how I can continue this writing - you are literally my income.
So, I absolutely understand the underlying fear you can see in Charlie Warzel’s goodbye to Substack post. Because it’s hard.
He writes that he had 16,000 subscribers but only 1400 chose to pay. He writes that: “A lot of the people who opened my emails the most did not pay for the newsletter” and he shares that: “Some people want to hold their $6 dollars/month hostage. I was reasonably surprised at some of the emails I received from people telling me that, because they were paying for me, they expected x/y/z. I very much understand wanting value in return for your money. But I thought it really interesting how a very small minority of paid subscribers lorded this over me.”
When I started writing exclusively for my newsletter I had a few people contact me and tell me I was selling out and being unfair on my subscribers who couldn’t afford $7 a month (it was $5 at the beginning but I could not sustain that amount of writing for that price).
This was really interesting to me as all of my writing until this point - literally thousands of pieces of writing - were free. I made money for Mark Zuckerberg every day and in return I was rewarded with hundreds of men calling me a dumb slut every day! I made Jack Dorsey plenty of money while dealing with rabid stalkers making fake accounts that only existed to tweet “kill yourself” to me on a regular basis.
Everywhere I worked - bar The Spinoff - felt like a completely uneven employer-employee relationship. Because it was. They got clicks, engagement, money. I got death threats, constant abuse, and eventually a nervous breakdown.
Yet for some - $7 a week for three pieces of writing - still wasn’t worth that trade-off.
And it makes me wonder in what circumstances will people pay for writing?
I have had to work hard to earn my audience and I wonder if that’s why people opt out of doing paid newsletters? You have to really convince people of your worth. And that fucks with you in a new and different way. But - it’s also freeing.
I am completely myself here. I don’t think about what will get clicks. I don’t react to news as much as I used to. I don’t ever fall into a space of thinking I need to take a position on something that I don’t feel strongly about. This newsletter isn’t a broadcast, it’s a community.
I write what I want to and I learn from the conversations we have.
And I look back on all of this and think - How has it only been six or seven months of being mostly abuse free? This newsletter, and you as subscribers, have basically given me my life back. And with that - an income.
All of this returns to Charlie and others who leave Substack. I don’t begrudge them at all, and I look forward to reading his work on The Atlantic.
But I do wonder if writing by women always needs to have a home outside of social media in order to survive.
I do wonder if writing by women needs to be paid for by other women (and thankfully some cool guys) in order to be protected or even exist. Are subscription models the answer to supporting women opinion writers and those who write on social media? Those who are the most harassed and abused on social media?
Charlie shared some observations about newsletter writing and I thought I would to.
Like Charlie, paid subscribers rarely ask anything of me. Some don’t even read my newsletters but keep paying - some send me donations on top of their paid subs and say things like: “this is what I would have spent on a sleep consultant and I don’t need one now after reading your book”. It’s an absolute joy (and extremely helpful for rent).
I keep my newsletter content mostly free because I do recognise some folks can’t afford it and I worry greatly about paywalls. But the biggest amount of emotional labour of this newsletter is unpaid subscribers. They reply to newsletters by responding to their email as comments are for paid subs only (paid subs must have some benefits!) This fills up my inbox and I spend hours every day replying. Some reply constantly - yet never pay.
And I wonder who they think is paying me? But in a way, that’s women’s work isn’t it? So why should it be any different on this platform?
Finally, I wanted to end on Charlie saying, “independent media (he means Substack) is maybe most lucrative for people who, for any number of reasons, don’t really have a home elsewhere.”
I believe he’s right in saying that there are many writers on this platform here who have “exhausted [their] options by constantly alienating people or getting kicked out of other places”. In fact we even have New Zealand writers on here who fit this category…
But I also think it’s a comment with some privilege attached.
Last night I had dinner with four friends - all women - in a reunion of sorts. One had just finished up at the BBC to have her first baby. All of us were journalists. We were all part of the same Massey University post-grad in journalism class 16 years ago.
None of us work as journalists now.
I gave up on journalism years before I wrote my first blog post. Making a living doing what I loved just felt impossible, so I gave it up (after being made redundant again). We all did.
I know I would never have dreamed that I would eventually be paid by readers to write. It would never have crossed my mind.
And here we are.
So goodbye Charlie. And welcome to the voices who have found a home they never thought existed, with you, in this place. Because you think we’re worth $7 a month.
Also, this is one of the best Galaxy Brain posts imo - "It's Not Cancel Culture — It's A Platform Failure."