So long, Substack

The Food Section is moving out and up

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Plenty of fundamental choices are just too boring to talk about. For example, I’m sure there’s a certain brand of soap you stock in your shower, but I’d bet you don’t discuss it at dinner.

Generally, I feel the same way about email service providers. What matters is that this newsletter lands in your inbox as scheduled, not that it’s produced on Substack.

But I’m bringing up the dull topic of platforms now because The Food Section is making a move. By the end of this month, The Food Section will be an independent publication, without any ties to a big social media company.

As a reader, you shouldn’t notice any changes: The newsletter will still arrive on Mondays if you pay for it, and Fridays if you don’t. But with the shift, your subscription will become more valuable than ever before, since it will allow you to tap into a rich archive of food coverage and participate more fully in The Food Section’s extracurricular activities, such as email courses, online tastings, and in-person events.

I can’t wait for you to see what’s cooking at thefoodsection.com and look forward to sharing more details as the launch date approaches.1 But in the meantime, I wanted to brief you on the whys behind this metamorphosis.

This newsletter was initially backed by the Substack Local program, a one-year grant designed to support community journalism. While I wasn’t looking to leave my job at The Post and Courier in Charleston, South Carolina, I couldn’t turn down a $70,000 package, especially if it allowed me to practice food journalism in more places.

Substack found out fast that throwing money at the local news crisis wouldn’t quell it: It quietly discontinued its Substack Local effort after bankrolling its first round of winners. Presumably, the company reached the same conclusion as the dozen publishers it funded. Substack is a terrific platform for writing, but a lousy one for business—which is how a news outlet has to operate if it hopes to succeed.

In simplifying the publication process, Substack did away with nearly all the customization and engagement tools that media organizations use to attract and retain subscribers. Since The Food Section launched in September 2021, the platform has introduced various referral and recommendation systems, but those function primarily to draw readers deeper into the Substack universe, rather than promote allegiance to one publication.

By the time I cashed my last Substack check, I knew staying on the platform would ultimately inhibit The Food Section’s growth. But the decision to take on the added time, expenses, and headaches associated with putting together my own tech stack (Confidential to the geeks who care: WordPress, Memberful, Campaign Monitor, and Stripe) came down to five factors:

Brand identity

As the analyst who conducted my LION Publishers audit (more on that later) wrote, “The Food Section has quickly become one of the publications that people in the journalism industry point to as an example for others to follow. Founder Hanna Raskin has a crystal-clear vision for her coverage.”

In other words, The Food Section has a defined and unique brand, but that’s not apparent from its Substack site, which looks like the roughly 17,000 other Substack sites. Creating a website from scratch solves that problem.

Revenue potential

Folks who’ve kept an eye on efforts to reinvigorate local media know there’s been a recent surge in nonprofit news. The Food Section is staunchly for-profit because I don’t want to be beholden to the whims of grant-giving boards: This publication serves its readers, not another organization’s interests. As a result, subscriptions are central to its revenue picture.

But readers shouldn’t have to bear the financial burden alone. While I’m committed to keeping the paid newsletter ad-free, selling ads and sponsorships in the unpaid version—which requires wonky workarounds on Substack—would allow The Food Section to produce more quality journalism without taxing subscribers for it.

As the LION auditor wrote of another Substack shortcoming, “The inability to segment her audiences and collect data on reader behaviors prevents [Raskin] from exploring advertising and making data-driven editorial and revenue decisions.”

Reader service

Regarding those aforementioned “data-driven editorial decisions,” I’m sure longtime readers are tired of hearing me carp about how Substack doesn’t collect basic information, such as home addresses. But having no idea where my audience lives makes it difficult for me to decide between reviewing a restaurant in Kentucky and previewing a food festival in Louisiana.

To put it another way: Learning more about readers when they subscribe will help me publish a newsletter that’s highly relevant and deeply meaningful to its supporters.

Audience reach

Did I just say “me”? In a matter of weeks, The Food Section will be a “we,” with three new bureau chiefs putting out city-based newsletters. That kind of sub-specialization, which is core to The Food Section’s mission of delivering rigorous food journalism to underserved communities across the South, isn’t technically possible on Substack.

Another way in which Substack has limited The Food Section’s reach is by keeping it out of search engines’ sights. While a Substack post will sometimes pop up in response to a Google prompt, that’s not the norm. The Food Section will have a much better shot at being found by potential subscribers once it has a domain of its own.

Journalistic integrity

I’m a journalist, not a seer, but I got extra nervous about Substack when Twitter rebranded as X in July 2023. In fact, that’s the month in which I started my audit with LION Publishers, which generously awards up to $20,000 in connection with each sustainability audit it conducts. (You can check out my initial funding request for migration here.)

What Elon Musk demonstrated is that online platforms don’t belong to their users. They reflect their founders’ values and serve their founders’ purposes. There’s nothing to stop Substack from adopting a financial strategy that entails limiting publishers to 250 words at a time, shutting down without warning, or advancing white supremacy.

That last example isn’t theoretical. As The New York Times reported in a December 23 story headlined “Substack Says It Will Not Ban Nazis or Extremist Speech,” the platform’s co-founders have concluded that censoring racist and anti-Semitic rhetoric would speed the spread of hate—even though scholarly research suggests otherwise, and Substack’s own policies prohibit “publish[ing] content that incite violence based on protected classes.”

According to journalist Casey Newton, who followed up on reporting by The Atlantic’s Jonathan M. Katz, content now available on Substack includes newsletters “openly advocating for genocide against the Jewish people.”

It’s important to know when evaluating Substack’s stance that the platform takes a 10 percent cut of publication revenue, which means Substack isn’t just a passive vehicle for extremism. The company makes money every time a Nazi sells a subscription. While I don’t know if that’s why the company has showcased white supremacists by listing their publications on popularity leaderboards, it’s not an arrangement I want to support with my money or yours.

So, for that reason and all the rest, I’m done with Substack just as soon as the replacement tech is tested and ready to go. But over the next few weeks, I hope you’ll keep the following in mind:

  • Have patience with other Substack publishers. Getting off Substack is far more complicated than deleting a Twitter account, particularly if a newsletter is the publisher’s main source of income. In my case, the process took six months and $20,000, which I never could have scared up without LION’s help. Please know that writers who continue to publish on Substack aren’t necessarily Nazi sympathizers, and many of them are busy figuring out how to relocate their publications to platforms that don’t nurture hate.

  • Be forgiving of The Food Section. As I wrote up top, I’m aiming for a migration so seamless that readers won’t know when it happens. But in my limited tech experience, I’ve discovered that glitches are almost inevitable. Heck, I couldn’t get my car’s key fob to work this morning. (Hot tip for other folks flummoxed by this weirdly cold Southern winter: You have to warm it up.) Please accept my apologies in advance if a newsletter doesn’t look perfect, or if it arrives several minutes late.

  • I am so grateful for your support. The Food Section never would have reached this milestone moment without you. Thank you for making this possible, and for continuing to talk up The Food Section whenever you can. I firmly believe that The Food Section has succeeded despite Substack, rather than because of it, but I could be wrong. I’m counting on you to help keep this newsletter afloat as it sails into uncharted waters.

Happy New Year, mateys!


1

You read that right! A subscriber who asked to remain anonymous secured my wished-for web address. This miracle worker—who hasn’t yet claimed the dinner promised as bounty—credited previous domain owner Josh Friedland’s generosity and understanding with making the handover possible.

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    • Avatar photoHanna Raskin says

      Thank you! I’ll share more logistical details during launch week, but because I’m sticking with Stripe, current subscriptions will carry over automatically.

  1. Avatar photoAnn Hilton Fisher says

    I’m so happy you got the url. I hope your anonymous reader will let you share a little about the search.

    • Avatar photoHanna Raskin says

      As I wrote in the initial post, this was a problem of responsiveness, not reporting. The domain holder was ridiculously easy to find and contact a dozen different ways, but this reader chose the right words (which haven’t been shared with me either: It was a confidential conversation.)

  2. Avatar photoJohn Kamino says

    Thanks for the update. I don’t know much about journalism and the business behind it – other than a little about the current struggles of local journalism. I found this fascinating and informative. TBH, I’m a little frustrated about the amount I’m spending (or would like to spend) on individual subscriptions, balanced by the argument that I can have a curated (by me haha) set of journalists I follow. I do wonder if I’m creating my own little echo chamber though. Ok, enough rambling. I enjoy your writing and congrats on getting your web address! You’re doing a great job.

    • Avatar photoHanna Raskin says

      Thanks for reading, John. And I’m very sympathetic to your concerns about mounting subscription costs: I certainly can’t afford to financially support every writer and podcaster doing important work.

      In coming years, I suspect we’ll see more sophisticated bundling and micropayment options. But in the short run, bringing more food journalists into the TFS fold hopefully helps solve part of the problem.

  3. Avatar photoTerrell Johnson says

    Hanna, I’ll follow you wherever you go! (And I’m really excited to hear that you were able to secure thefoodsection.com!)

  4. Avatar photoMichael Willard says

    Congratulations, Hanna! Transitions are challenging, especially in the digital landscape, but knowing your audience and their levels of engagement is critical to success in this modern media landscape. I’m sure you know SEO is an evolving landscape, but still hugely important for visibility among the larger world outside your growing audience of subscribers and lookey-loos. As always, I’m excited to see how your recipe for success evolves into an even tastier digital dish.

  5. Avatar photoCharlie Byrne says

    Sounds like a well-thought-out and good business decision. I enjoy your food-related writing. Often think about subscribing! (Guess I should, good for the New Year).
    But the “Substack has a Nazi problem” part… that was great click-bait from the NYT and the Atlantic… But it it true? We still do want to know for ourselves (not “according to xyz”) if important ideas are actually true, right? No matter how evil the headline might sound?
    Well, let’s dive in: https://public.substack.com/p/censors-are-trying-to-trick-you-into

    • Avatar photoHanna Raskin says

      Thanks, Charlie: That post is for paying subscribers, so I can’t read it, but there’s a common error in the visible first graf: Free speech is a governmental concern, not a corporate one: Businesses are allowed to make rules that the state can’t.

      For folks looking to learn more about the situation, Casey Newton’s free-to-read explainer offers a good overview: https://www.platformer.news/p/why-substack-is-at-a-crossroads

  6. Avatar photoDon Schaffner says

    Even when writing about writing (or publishing) you excel. I’m here (or wherever you are) for the long haul.

  7. Avatar photoKate McDermott says

    Wow Hannah! You are a leader and inspiration as always. I too have been wondering what to do if Substack folds or gets crazy and what kind of backup plan I will need.

    • Avatar photoHanna Raskin says

      Thank you, Kate! My guess is we have to plan for social media disasters in much the way we ready for the natural kind (I feel like I ought to put quotes around “natural” to acknowledge global warming, but that’s another concern altogether.) I’d recommend picking out your replacement tech stack and plotting your communication strategy well in advance of having to evacuate.

  8. Avatar photoSusan Marquis says

    Wow! All good news. You are doing the good work required to fulfill your vision for The Food Section and you are “forging the path by walking it” – a road map of value to other independent publishers. Finally, terrific news about the domain name. Congrats!

  9. Avatar photoBeverly Patnaik says

    Thanks for being upfront about the changes to come. Your writing is superb and so informative. Glad you found a way to move on to a more controllable environment. Looking forward to Food Section 2.0!

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