Hunter Harris, Substack’s Latest Star Recruit, Takes the Newsletter Boom in a New Direction
We didn’t intend to make newsletters a recurring beat on nofilter. It just happened, because so many of our favorite writers ended up leaving their traditional media jobs to start them. If “pivot to video” was the mantra of publications in 2015, “pivot to Substack” is 2020’s answer to the havoc it wrought. Like the worker-owned publications Defector and Discourse Blog, newsletters are allowing writers to seize control of their work.
Hunter Harris, who recently left Vulture to launch a Substack newsletter, Hung Up, is taking things a step further. Hung Up is not a solo venture: It will employ freelance editors and graphic designers, and one day, maybe, feature freelance writers as well. It’s a new publication with the Twitter-savvy, movie-obsessed Harris at the helm.
Harris got her start with internships at places like Oprah Magazine and the New York Observer, before working briefly as an executive assistant at Refinery29 and then finally landing at Vulture, where she worked as a blogger and eventually staff writer for the past four years. In that time, she cultivated a Twitter following of over 100,000 readers eager to hear her thoughts on everything from Timothee Chalamet to A Star Is Born.
“[Twitter] is a very natural extension of my personality in that I just think about the same thing a lot, a lot, a lot,” she says. (In her first edition of Hung Up, she writes that her published thoughts often prompt her her mother to text her a gentle, one-word scolding: “Hunter.”)
But the decision to go freelance during a pandemic, even when Substack themselves approaches you to do so, couldn’t have been made lightly, so I spoke to Harris about taking the leap and what the future of the newsletter boom may look like.
Were you a newsletter fan before this?
The only newsletters that I really like read and responded to were the Shea Serrano newsletter about basketball from, I guess, five years ago now, and I have to shout out Allie Jones's Gossip Time. I feel like that is the perfect newsletter in every single way. And as I was thinking about how I wanted mine to be, I was like, I want it to feel like that because it's so fun to read. I like the idea of a newsletter as like a thing that you look forward to.
I'm so curious about the fact that Substack approached you. Are you technically a Substack employee or did they just prod you to start a newsletter?
I am not a Substack employee. I am a freelance writer, but basically the prod was like, “We think that you could do really well on this platform,” and maybe I should think about building out completely on my own. I have had a pretty traditional path, from an EA to being a blogger to being a staff writer. So diverting from that structure did feel exciting, but also made me very nervous.
One of the things you mentioned in your introduction is that paid subscriptions would help cover things like copy editors and regular editors. Are those roles filled by people who already work at Substack or are they outside hires?
They are freelancers. They're not Substack employees. But Substack was really helpful in connecting me with a copy editor and with editors and with a graphic designer. They basically fronted those costs and then the subscription money will help me continue.
I think of it as a regular [writer-editor] relationship. It is kind of different, in that I have the final say of what goes up or not. I'm used to an editorial structure in that way, where someone is not necessarily doing a heavy edit of my work, but just making sure that my copy is really clean or [being there to] bounce ideas off of. That kind of collaboration is really useful.
So when you were being approached by Substack, were you like, “I want to have editors”?
Yeah, and they were super open to it. Another Substack publication, Culture Study by Anne Helen Peterson, also works with editors and photographers. As I was talking to [Substack] I was reading about her publication and I was like, okay, there's a precedent for asking for this kind of support.
I feel like you don't hear as much about the opportunity of being a freelance editor, and it's kind of interesting that that's something that newsletters could open up.
Something that was very important to me that I tried to speak to in the first post is that this is my job. I like freelancing other places and like working on other things, [but] this is what I'm doing instead of being a staff writer. So I wanted it to feel like I'm putting a lot of work and effort into making something special.
So there's a free version of the newsletter and soon a paid version of the newsletter, and it comes out twice a week. Can you walk me through the tiers?
Right now it's all free. I'm still thinking out the timeline for this, but there's two posts a week. The Tuesday post I'm thinking is going to be something longer and more of a column or something reported. And then the Friday post will be more of, not to be like Quibi, but quick thoughts, much bloggier, and that will eventually become only for paid subscribers. Then I'm also thinking that eventually, the ability to comment will be only for paid subscribers.
You were at Vulture before this and in your introduction when you’re teasing the writing readers can expect, you pointed to your work there. What made you decide to leave Vulture and instead write those things for Substack?
I just wanted to make it clear that a lot of that same stuff will live on Hung Up. [But] there are lots of things that I'm preparing to write about that I would never have written for Vulture just because it's an entertainment pop culture website. I like the idea of being able to write about lifestyle stuff and just generally culture stuff.
Media is a very hard industry to navigate and also it's hard to be sustainable. I feel like I have this conversation with my parents all the time about how no magazine is actually profitable. As [media] exists right now, there aren't a ton of opportunities, especially not for people who are younger or who are women or who aren't white, so I feel like finding these other platforms or other models gives you more control over your professional life and trajectory.
I know you've only just started, but have you had any issues transitioning from traditional media to working for yourself in terms of figuring out what success looks like now?
I'm figuring it out honestly minute by minute. My first post just went live last night. I feel very fortunate that when I was at Vulture, I didn't have to really keep an eye on traffic. But from the first post and the introduction post, my numbers are largely the same. Something that's been surprising and also curious to me is, working as a staff writer, I'd get emails sometimes from people being like, “I really like this” or “I really like that.” It felt like more of a rarity. But in response to the first [Hung Up] post I got dozens of emails from people responding directly, and it's coming to my personal inbox. As long as I've been on the internet I feel like I've never had that kind of one-to-one relationship with someone who is reading my work.
Looking ahead, do you have any goals for Hung Up that you can share?
Right now, because I'm just getting the rhythm of the output of this, it's going to be mostly columns, and then next year I want to do some original reporting. And I am still trying to figure out how this will work exactly, so I don't want to talk too much about it, but I also want to feature other writers. The newsletter's written by me, obviously, but I want to find a way to have the work of other writers live there too, and I would pay them for their work. It's important to me to have other voices in this space, too.