People have been going it solo for sometime now, and it's been referenced as a sort of renaissance in thinking. But taking a look at the history of how the web was created, we shouldn't really be all that surprised by what we ended up creating.

Web 2.0 and the desire to create

I'd argue that we could have started to see this coming with the rise of Web 2.0. Web 2.0 is defined as the movement where the internet turned from the majority of people consuming on the internet, to people actively engaging and creating with one another.

In one definition of Web 2.0, written by Graham Cormode and Balachander Krishnamurthy describes the shift as when users and creators became one of the same.

However, the essential difference between Web 1.0 and Web 2.0 is that content creators were few in Web 1.0 with the vast majority of users simply acting as consumers of content, while any participant can be a content creator in Web 2.0 and numerous technological aids have been created to maximize the potential for content creation. The democratic nature of Web 2.0 is exemplified by creations of large number of niche groups (collections of friends) who can exchange content of any kind (text, audio, video) and tag, comment, and link to both intra–group and extra–group “pages.” - Cormode and Krishnamurthy

This wave of the web's development relates heavily on sites having not only the ability to share content, but also in the creations, something that the primary inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, has gone on record that his original intention was to create a two-way form of communication.

‘‘We ought to be able not only to find any kind of document on the Web, but also to create any kind of document, easily.’’
  • Berners-Lee

This sort of of the users, for the users, by the users sort of thinking has led to the rise of citizen journalists, the decline of paparazzis, and the rise of the media solopreneur.

The headbutting of journalism and this next wave

Journalism and the internet never naturally got along, in fact — one of the reasons that journalism has struggled to remain relevant is because of its resistance to the fast-moving nature of our online worlds.

Neiman Reports called it back in an article in 2006; journalism is moving too slow to notice the early adopting fringe that is soon to dominate the mainstream.

Tomorrow’s potential readers are using the Web in ways we can hardly imagine, and if we want to remain significant for them, we need to understand how. Yet news organizations have been all too slow to notice movement in places that are away from what has been their center.

— Francis Pisani for  Neiman Reports

This type of thinking hasn't really evolved much in the past decade. Individuals surveyed while collecting this database mentioned frustrations with the traditional newsroom not being able to keep up as a reason to go it solo.

Substack arming the masses

Article after article pens Substack as the tool to which the masses will be armed to fulfill their destiny as an independent creator — however, I'll argue that tools and platforms are not incentivized to have good journalism but rather, good followings. While content may be still key, there's a different incentive for someone who wants to build a good following and someone who wants to be a good journalist.

In an article on Vanity Fair's December 2020 Issue, it talks about the recruitment strategy of Substack to start acquiring top talent.

“It was just the right time,” said Anne Helen Petersen, who left her job as a senior culture writer at BuzzFeed in August to focus full-time on a Substack newsletter. There were several factors in the decision, she said, from “the precariousness of digital media over the course of the pandemic” to wanting more creative freedom and writing without the burdens of gaming headlines to play on social media. Still, to get Petersen over the finish line, the Substack brass agreed to cover her health insurance and the hiring of a features editor. She took a lump payment for the first year (she declined to say how much) and agreed to let Substack keep 85 percent of her subscriber revenue.

What can journalism do to retain talent (and build a better product)

Listen. Listen to those who may be on the fringe of what's next. Listen to early adopters, listen to those who read ten thousand newsletters, listen to the twitch streamers, the brand advocates. In media, its taught that your competition is not only those in your industry, your competiton is anyone who's product is being consumed outside of your own. For newsrooms, this means that if someone is subscribed to 5 paid newsletters, and only one traditional news outlet — you should be damn well asking why.

Solopreneurs rely on niche topics, subject experts and authors as brands

While things like investigative reporting, breaking news, and more litigious-heavy claims are harder to execute in the capacity of a solopreneur, there are topics that the solopreneur can tend to dominate the conversation of the general public.

additional reading

View of Key differences between Web 1.0 and Web 2.0 | First Monday
Journalism and Web 2.0 | Nieman Report