Fact-checking the expulsion

All your questions about the cull answered

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Last week’s announcement that 15 percent of The Food Section’s free readers will be randomly trimmed from the newsletter’s email list received a tremendous amount of attention, in part because it challenged the Substack doctrine that more free readers means more paid subscriptions in the long run—not to mention the widely-held belief that women who write about food are supposed to be deferential.

For the same reason, it raised lots of questions, all of which I’ve endeavored to answer here. But if I’ve missed something that’s on your mind, please email me at readthefoodsection@gmail.com. There’s nothing I love more than dialogue (see below.)

MYTH: “It doesn’t cost you anything to press ‘send,’ so you might as well give the newsletter to people who don’t want to pay for it.”

FACT: Imagine you had an overgrown lawn. But you noticed that your neighbor’s lawn looked great. After keeping an eye on it for a few weeks, you deduced the difference was your neighbor paid for a landscaping service.

So, you approached the landscaper and explained you would like to be added to her free list. After all, it wouldn’t cost her more than a few cents in gasoline to mow your grass.

Perhaps the second part of this story was hard to imagine. That’s because literally nobody ever does this. It’s widely understood that professionals charge for their work, even if their marginal costs appear relatively low.

In this case of The Food Section, here’s what you don’t see: Because I assume every reader on the newsletter’s free list will eventually pay to subscribe, I spend hours every week reaching out to those readers individually, customizing promotional campaigns, designing surveys, and writing emails designed to facilitate conversion (Hey, you’re reading one right now!) I’d hardly classify that as “no cost.”

What you also haven’t yet seen is the amount of work behind the paywall: Since The Food Section’s launch, I’ve published 125 stories, resulting from 278 interviews and 4,806 miles traveled. And I’m very proud that not one of those stories sprang from a press release.  

But for me, the even greater unseen cost is a community populated by people who don’t want to be part of it. I believe deeply in reader engagement, but that’s a two-way street: If readers think of The Food Section as just one of 203 newsletters they don’t pay to receive, it dims the vibrancy of the publication.  

MYTH: “I get other newsletters for free so it’s obviously good business to give your work away.”

FACT: Substack is a platform, just like Facebook. And just like Facebook can be used to raise money for Ukrainian refugees or spread misinformation about COVID-19, there isn’t any one predetermined way to Substack.

In fact, there are so many approaches to Substacking, I can’t list them all here. But consider the following:

  • The Substack publisher who has a full-time job in the mortgage industry and an abiding interest in avant-funk music. She might not charge for her Cabaret Voltaire newsletter because she doesn’t really need the money—and because she doesn’t anticipate having the time to publish regularly.

  • The Substack publisher who just sold his first cookbook, celebrating the culinary traditions of Manitoba. He might not charge for his newsletter because he knows he’ll sell more copies of his book if he alerts people to the wonders of honey dill sauce right away.

  • The Substack publisher who writes about crypto. Let’s not linger too long on this guy, but he might not charge for his newsletter because he’s trying to attract advertisers by touting the number of names on his email list.

What’s important to know is The Food Section doesn’t fit into any of the above categories.

When Substack awarded me a yearlong grant to support The Food Section’s launch, the award was contingent on three factors: I had to quit my job, publish consistently, and agree not to accept any advertising or sponsorships.

In other words, I am wholly reliant on The Food Section’s subscription revenue. And I don’t harbor any cookbook plans or television dreams: My intention is to keep publishing independent and original journalism about food and drink in the American South for as long as readers will support it.

MYTH: “Man, you seem really angry/vindictive/spiteful. Why can’t you just go with the flow?”

FACT: Insofar as this strategy reflects that we live in a capitalist system, I suppose it’s mean. But if there’s any emotion behind it, I’d call it “concerned.” If The Food Section doesn’t acquire more paid subscribers, it will have to shut down when the Substack grant runs out in September.

MYTH: “It’s not fair to throw people off the free list because there are so many newsletters out there! Nobody can be expected to pay for all of them.”

FACT: Believe me, I get it. I long ago lost count of the many deserving publications, podcasts, and other creative projects I wish I was financially positioned to support.

But let’s be honest: There’s never been a shortage of things for sale in this country. When readers decide how to spend their hard-earned money, they’re not just choosing between a food newsletter and a bricklaying newsletter. They’re divvying up their cash among rent, student loan payments, charitable donations, movie tickets, and birthday gifts.

The proliferation of newsletters is dizzying, no doubt, but it doesn’t change your fundamental budget considerations: Once you’ve paid the bills, you should spend discretionary funds on whatever enriches and enhances your life. If The Food Section doesn’t do that for you, that’s fine: No newsletter is right for everyone.

But if you like The Food Section enough to keep reading it, you know what to do: Click the below button to join the newsletter today as a paying subscriber.


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