The trending way for many media members to pursue their journalistic aspirations, either by choice or following layoffs, is through subscription newsletters, and NBA journalists are no exception.
So how’s the subscription newsletter path going for them? It varies, as with the rest of the media world, during these times. A few writers left established organizations and took a gamble on Substack, others parlayed newsletters into new jobs, some are managing, and remaining writers have multiple jobs outside of journalism.
HoopsHype spoke with Marc Stein, Ethan Strauss from House of Strauss, TrueHoops’s Henry Abbott, Scott Agness of FieldHouse Files, Jonathan Macri from Knicks Film School, Quinton Mayo of May-Oh’s Wizards newsletter, media analyst Simon Owens and other writers to explain how the subscription NBA newsletter business is working behind the scenes.
Why writers use subscription newsletters
For Stein, the draw of editorial freedom and a deeper connection with his readers was just too strong.
A Hall of Fame writer and prominent reporter, Stein made waves a few months ago when he announced his decision to depart The New York Times and launch his own newsletter. He’s the biggest name in the NBA world to join the subscription newsletter world so far.
“Leaving The (New York) Times was my choice, and it was to immediately launch my Substack,” Stein told HoopsHype. “Even when I exited ESPN, I fought against a ridiculously onerous set of restrictions imposed on me to get back to work as quickly as possible. Some very smart people I trust were advising me to take a longer break, and there was definitely merit to that advice. Not for me, though. This is what I do, and this is who I am and the three months I was sidelined in the summer of 2017 was plenty.”
Since creating a Substack newsletter, Stein has broken news stories and conducted interviews with players, including Trae Young.
“The lure of Substack was like a magnet that just kept getting stronger,” Stein added. “I was prouder to work at The New York Times than anywhere I’ve ever been, and it was really hard to leave after three and a half great years. The chance to have a totally blank canvas and connect directly to the audience and write fully in my voice while having the ability for the first time in my career to take the coverage in any direction I wanted to go. It was ultimately too powerful to resist all that.”
Stein’s jump into the newsletter business as the first big-name NBA reporter to leave a legacy media company has been a big deal, according to multiple writers. The decision opened the door wider for others to consider making the transition and fortified the belief other Substack members already had that starting their own subscription newsletter wasn’t a crazy idea. Following Stein, Strauss became the latest big-name writer to enter the realm this offseason.
“Stein joining Substack legitimizes the platform in a way that probably can’t be quantified,” Macri proclaimed.
“As I see it, now he can do the same thing on his own and earn all the money,” Agness added. “It’s a bit easier because he’s an established name with strong contacts.”
For others lower in the media totem pole, though, it’s not so much by choice but rather a way to stay around the game and not fall off the radar, especially as the pandemic froze the freelance market for many publications.
“After my job was eliminated, this was a way that made sense for me to finish out the season on my own terms,” one writer who spoke to HoopsHype on the condition of anonymity said. “I would have lost my mind had I not had a place to write.”
“Staying relevant in this business is important,” a veteran writer who spoke on the condition of anonymity said. “Otherwise, you are forgotten about quickly.”
In separate cases, some writers have used the subscription newsletter business to make money while keeping options open to return to mainstream media.
“I would be open to other opportunities as well,” Agness said. “What I wasn’t going to do was sit around, sulk and do nothing. I’ve continued to work and have faith it will pay off.”
Rod Boone and Gina Mizell, who now cover the Hornets for The Charlotte Observer and the 76ers for The Philadelphia Inquirer, respectively, are two examples of this vision for writers.
What’s different about running a subscription newsletter?
On the surface, there are pros to running a subscription newsletter, such as being your own boss.
“What’s kept me sane through this journey of modern journalism, content creation, and entrepreneurship is the fact that I’m in control,” Mayo told HoopsHype. “It’s so refreshing to distribute my newsletter whenever I want, however I want, without a superior telling me “no.” It makes for a more authentic experience from both the journalist and the consumer, if done right, I believe.”
“The emergence of Substack has allowed for some great writers to broach topics that would otherwise get ignored in prestige media,” Strauss explained.
For example, Strauss has written about the NBA’s relationship with China, Klutch Sports and the Rachel Nichols situation.
Not only have newsletters opened the door for neglected topics, but undercovered markets can get more attention as well.
“The (Pacers’) fan base is underserved with only one full-time beat reporter, and that’s at the local newspaper,” Agness said. “Even the team no longer employs a full-time writer. So there’s a fan base craving Pacers news and features, and I enjoy providing that.”
However, there are also cons, like not having an editor to review your grammar and typos, discuss story ideas or help on the back end of publishing. More freedom comes with more responsibility to take care of the nitty-gritty way more than in a traditional media job.
“It’s different and exciting, but it’s also more work,” Abbott told HoopsHype. “I’m much more than a writer. I’m reporting, editing my stories and promoting them. The most difficult thing beyond building an audience is not having access to a major image network.”
The major image network Abbott is referring to includes Getty Images, AP Images, USA TODAY Network, etc. As a newsletter provider, you generally have to take your own photos and videos of the topic you’re covering.
You’re not just a writer at this point. You’re an editor and businessperson evaluating everything from how often to post, should there be a fee for content, what’s a fair price, and more.
Another caveat to running a subscription newsletter is to obtain media credentials and thus access to players and staff.
Some newsletter writers have multiple jobs and use their other affiliate(s) to gain access into the arena if they work for a reputable outlet. Other teams with fewer media members are more open to the idea of subscription newsletter coverage. Ultimately, it comes down to familiarity. If you’ve been around the block and a proven commodity, you’ll get the benefit of the doubt. A novice writer who’s starting a newsletter? Not so much.
“Someone like Stein should be rubber-stamped in the credentialing process,” Strauss said. “Someone like myself? Who knows.”
Being a do-it-all newsletter journalist also causes anxiety and exhaustion with the added responsibility.
“The toughest part, it’s just being tired pretty much all the time,” Macri explained. “Finishing newsletters at 2:00 am. or 3:00 am on game nights isn’t uncommon, and the 6:25 am alarm on those days is less fun than usual.”
“The feeling of responsibility that comes with hitting the SEND TO EVERYONE button on a Substack post is something I’m still getting used to,” Stein said. “There have been a few occasions where it’s taken me an extra hour to post a story to my Substack because I can’t help myself from checking and checking and re-checking it.”
Finally, even if a story is great, not many people may read it due to a paywall.
“It’s tough knowing I spent a day, sometimes weeks on a unique story, and it’s only being seen by my subscribers,” Agness said. “But those are the valuable pieces fans should want to read. Waiting for that hard work to pay off can also take a toll.”
The consensus appears to be that unless you’re a known name in the industry, your goal shouldn’t be to make a full-time living from a newsletter, at least not right away.
“It was not a viable full-time option for me during the time I was doing it,” one writer told HoopsHype on the condition of anonymity. “It was one of five or six freelance gigs that I had to get me through.”
Some believe it’s a tool to earn some money to get by or focus on pushing quality content to land a job with an outlet for better long-term success.
“It’s a tough business, and it doesn’t love you back,” another writer told HoopsHype on the condition of anonymity. “But I’ve never been a quitter. I want to leave on my own terms and ride off into the sunset when I’m ready, not when someone pushes me out.”
Even if you run a successful newsletter, there are expenses you’ll need to handle on your own with a company’s full-time coverage plan.
“Running my own business now means pay fluctuates, and I’m on the hook for health insurance,” as Agness noted.
Overall, that expense can be well worth the net result for some of the elite subscription newsletters.
For Strauss, it’s working. House of Strauss officially reached 1,000 paying subscribers eight weeks into publication, as he tweeted. However, he cautions it may not work for everybody.
“I think it will be a future with a large chasm between haves and have nots,” Strauss predicted. “That’s a less than savory outcome, but it seems like that’s life as an individual performer.”
It’s certainly a bit easier if you already have a large fan base before launching the paid newsletter, or it can be a grind to launch from essentially scratch.
“If you have, say, fewer than 100,000 Twitter followers, then you should assume at least a two-year horizon before you can replace your full-time salary,” Owens projected. “That’s a lot of time to go without an income, so you’ll need either savings in the bank or a spouse with a good salary.”
Other news breakers with big followings or sports gambling sites could monitor the trajectory of the subscription newsletter business to determine whether it’s worth compensating big bucks for exclusive news.
Another possibility down the road for many writers could be bundling, according to Abbott.
“All these journalists are spending time managing lists, hustling email addresses, when they all want to be writing and reporting,” he explained. “And, of course, customers don’t want to pay for 10 different NBA subscriptions. It seems to make sense to have one group running the lists and 10 people writing and reporting, rather than ten people doing everything. I’m interested in that.”
In the end, subscription newsletters have provided enough writers with full-time work and others the platform to get by and find a new job that this trend should continue.
“It means that I can exist outside of a major institution like ESPN,” Strauss said. “I don’t know what I do with that knowledge, but it’s good to know.”
“I don’t know that there’s a way to fit into this broken business,” Abbott said. “But there are ways to boldly rearrange everything to shape the future. People still love basketball. There’s a real opportunity. Someone will figure it out.”
You can follow Michael Scotto on Twitter: @MikeAScotto