Navigators of Change: how Substack is eating the lunch of traditional media
US-based Substack is a powerful platform for writers to build and connect directly with audiences while monetising their own content. Former Telegraph, Guardian and Times journalist Graham Ruddick tells Instinctif’s Chief UK Media Strategist Jeremy Durrant about his new newsletter and why UK business journalism is ripe for disruption.
- Leaving the traditional media has allowed Graham to explore new avenues and deeper stories, and reach fresh audiences
- Off to Lunch on Substack allows the freedom to look outside London and beyond the timescales and column inch restrictions that newspapers are bound by
- Ambitions for the business include further innovation from one-off specials and podcasts to in-person events to encourage even greater engagement
“The data feeds are amazing, but it is a blessing and a curse. You get addicted to it.”
Graham Ruddick, former deputy business editor of The Times, is talking about the plethora of reader information now at his fingertips via the dashboard of his newly launched Off to Lunch newsletter hosted on the Substack publishing platform.
For the uninitiated, Substack is an American online platform that provides publishing, payment, analytics, and design infrastructure to support subscription newsletters. It allows writers to send digital newsletters directly to subscribers. Founded in 2017, Substack is headquartered in San Francisco, California and major writers include historian Heather Cox Richardson, journalists Matt Taibbi and Bari Weiss and authors Daniel M. Lavery, George Saunders, and Sir Salman Rushdie.
After 15 years working in national newspapers, Ruddick has decided to step away from the cut-and-thrust of the newsroom environment to launch his own Substack newsletter which in his words will cover what really matters in business, finance, markets, venture capital, tech and crypto. He is among an early group of UK writers and journalists looking to commercialise their labours and his progress will be keenly watched.
Changing the way we consume content
Ruddick’s pitch to would-be subscribers is simple. Off to Lunch aims to step back from the daily noise to give the information that matters, and an insider’s take on why.
A mix of original written content and curation, Ruddick’s aim is to separate the really important signals from the cacophony of content that is today’s news media. By digesting the vast amount of news content himself, on behalf of his subscribers, he can reveal what is worth reading in his thrice-weekly output.
Only a few weeks into the new venture, he speaks enthusiastically about the intuitive, back-end information Substack provides which allows him to get a forensic feel of what is resonating and crucially what is not.
“The data I get from Substack is just brilliant and really allows me to shape what I am doing because you can work out what people like and what they don’t. It is addictive. You also get a much deeper relationship with your readers. They can email you directly and they do, and you have this wonderful ability to form a relationship with people, get to know them better and bounce ideas around.
“If you look at someone like Casey Newton with Platformer and a few of the other guys over in the US, they talk very clearly about the really deep connection that they get with their readers. It is a massive benefit and really changes the way you’re doing things. It was a big part of the appeal for me, and the newsletter becomes much more of a conversation.”
Untraditional appetites: the opportunity to serve up content in a new way to new audiences
Ruddick himself had been a subscriber to Substack for some time via his personal passion for American Football and the NFL. But why leave a high-profile senior position at one of the UK’s leading national newspapers to start a newsletter from scratch?
“There is a huge opportunity to do something different. Quality journalism has been under-valued and under-paid. There is a gap in the market, and I want to take advantage of it. The Times is a brilliant publication filled with brilliant people and I had a wonderful spell there, but I believe there is a big opportunity to present news and analysis in a unique way particularly for younger generations.
“In traditional media there is a core audience particularly on the print side which need to be served content in a certain way. However, the younger digital audience is growing very fast, and they have slightly different interests, and I wasn’t convinced these were being served sufficiently. This includes topics such as tech, crypto, venture capital, the markets more generally and life outside of London. This is what Off to Lunch is all about.
“I am interested in signal over noise and long-term over short. Getting stories from across the UK is also crucial because they are not being told as much as they could be. I have a unique opportunity now of being untethered from an office and I can travel around the UK. I also do not have the responsibility of filling 15 pages every day and I can really focus on the things that really matter and tell those stories over a much longer period than just one day.”
So what has been the reaction of colleagues and peers in the media industry some of whom may watch Ruddick’s progress closely as a test case for their own future career choices?
“Some people could not believe that I was taking the risk of doing it, but everyone has been very supportive in general. There is a lot of intrigue as to how it will all go as it is a very different model of stepping away from a salary and becoming entirely reliant on bringing in your own revenue. But it is such a big opportunity and one I know would later regret if I did not take it now.”
To start, the newsletter will land at 12 noon on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Content is initially free for Mondays and Wednesdays with Fridays’ only made available to subscribers who pay £6 a month or £50 for annual access. Ongoing, a limited amount of content will continue to be free which is a key tenet of the Substack model to allow new readers the chance to try before they buy. But why lunchtime?
“Initially I was looking at early morning and I knew I would be coming up against a lot of other established emails from the likes of The Times, FT and Bloomberg. I was confident I could produce better and differentiated content. However, would it be 10% or 20% better, and would that be enough to woo readers? So, I decided to detach myself from the morning and aim for lunchtime. It was important because it really emphasised that I was standing back and thinking about stuff not just pushing it out quickly. However, it is also a really good time that people want to read stuff while they are having their lunch and perhaps have a conversation.”
Outside of the core publishing days, Ruddick plans to publish other one-off specials with specific themes and will also use the podcast functionality that Substack provides. His initial series will be called “Business Studies” and take a second look at big business stories from the past and what we can learn from them today.
“More broadly, I really want to speak to senior and interesting figures from the business and financial world. There is a gap in the market which allows CEOs to sit down and with a bit more freedom have a longer form discussion on all sorts of topics. I also want to get a panel of journalists together to discuss business news which I think will be fascinating.”
Underexplored stories outside London
He is also keen to hear from PR companies about their clients and potential stories for both the newsletter and future podcasts.
“I don’t want to cover that A buys B, or C invests in D. There are some really great UK stories to tell which go much deeper than the headline. Take for example, the recent Ideagen deal – it is a great back story of a business which is based in a village outside Nottingham which is doing really interesting things to help companies cut red tape.
“Those stories outside London are not being told and I am keen to showcase these organisations and the brilliant work they are doing. So, I want to hear from PR companies on what they think is interesting and what their clients have to say as well.”
Although early days, Ruddick is already looking to the future and has ambitious plans to grow his community.
“My ambitions for this are unending really as there is such a big opportunity to do something different. Initially I want to get the core newsletter working and thriving, but it is already doing much, much better than I expected and I have been overwhelmed by the response. Events in person are also planned and these will happen across the UK. This is not just about writing a newsletter for me but about building a business.”
So far so good, and it seems Off to Lunch is very much on the money.
To find out more visit https://offtolunch.substack.com/