Some Personal News: Welcome to Culture Study

For the last four years, I’ve written this newsletter sporadically, as a sort of Sunday treat — and only when it felt good. Which is why it never felt like a side hustle, or a burden. It didn’t feel obligatory. Instead, it felt light, conversational, a place to work out ideas — a return to my bloggy start in writing for the internet.

I wanted to keep it that way. I had periodic conversations with the leaders at Substack about embracing a pay option, but it seemed like a great way to ruin a nourishing thing that had functioned as a sort of reporter’s notebook and release valve for the rest of my writing and reporting. As anyone who’s subscribed to this newsletter for long knows, I’m very wary of monetizing a side gig or leisure activity. And I understood exactly how much work — from copy editors, photo editors, designers, fact checkers, lawyers, and editor editors — goes into making a piece of writing into a completed feature.

But I’ve also found myself bouncing off the boundaries of what was possible, in this particular economic moment, as a staff writer at a major publication, whether in terms of format, headlines, speed, or control over intellectual property. I wanted to experiment more. I wanted to rely less on how a piece would “share” on Facebook, or the imperative to always write for a broad, national audience. I wanted to spend more time on my newsletter, but I also didn’t want to just do a newsletter: I still wanted to do in-depth feature reporting, complete with original photography and design (and, in post-COVID times, travel). I wanted more control, but I also knew I’d need resources and help.

After several long conversations with Substack, we’ve figured out how to do both. Earlier this month, I officially left BuzzFeed News. I’ll now be dedicating myself full-time to the newsletter, where I’ll be working with an editor on features, and I’m looking for people to pay a fair wage for copy editing, fact checking, design, and photography. (If that’s you, email me!) Substack’s Defender Program will provide legal counsel. I’ll be able to poke around in the sort of formats that don’t translate well to imperatives of social media sharing: Q&As, niche topics, mini-profiles, history without any contemporary peg, pieces that take ten paragraphs to get to the nut graf, if there’s one at all.

I’ll still do a lot of very current work about whatever it is we’re pissed off or worried about. But I’ll also be able to continue to build a community of readers who trust that if I find it important enough to write about, it might be worth reading.

That’s what I think Substack is ultimately about: cultivating a relationship and trust between a writer and their readers. I am a person, not an idea, and I am not perfect; I will fail you in some way, even if it’s just my opinion about black licorice ice cream.

But you can expect more of me: that I will always, always try to get to the real heart of a story, that I will be transparent and honest as I work through ideas, that I will run towards complexity instead of away from it, that I will admit when I’m wrong, that I will be responsive to ideas and comments and criticism. And that I will expect more of you: that you will be generous and curious readers, that you will interact with others in the community in a way that doesn’t make everyone feel like shit, that you will approach new ideas (both mine and pieces linked in the newsletter) with an open mind, that you will be willing to challenge yourself and change your mind.

That’s what I’ve tried to model — and felt from our existing community — for the last four years, and that’s what I want to continue to grow moving forward. Subscribing to an individual newsletter doesn’t put you in control of it. But it might make you feel like you are a part of something.

You can read the long version of what this newsletter will be (and who I am) on the fancy new “About” page. Culture Study will come out two to three times a week, and will include a mix of features, recommendations, interviews, discussion threads, and good old fashioned blogging. Paid subscribers get it all. Free subscribers get one newsletter a week. You can click the button below to change your current subscription to a paid one — or to subscribe (even unpaid) for the first time.

But here’s the pitch for becoming a paid subscriber:

Do you pay for your clothes? For your food? For your housing? For your books? Even if you get your books from the library, you’re still paying for them — in some way — via your taxes. Services and products cost money. When I was writing this newsletter for free, I was getting paid by a corporation who made money through affiliate links, through Tasty merch, and by selling ads that filled the articles you were reading. But now I’m relying on you.

Your $5 a month (or $50 a year) pays for, well, everything. It pays for fact checking and copy editing on features. It helps me find and pay photographers a fair rate for their work. It helps me cover the student loan payment for the PhD that helps me analyze things the way that I do. It pays for the books and subscriptions that make me a better thinker and writer. It covers the hours I spend on Twitter (which is how I find the best links) and reading and writing and editing and responding to your emails and staring into space. It helps cover my health insurance payment and my internet bill and all the other things that a company would provide. You’re making it possible for me to do my best work — and send it directly to your inbox.

But I also understand that not everyone can afford an additional bill, however small, right now. If you are a contingent or gig worker (that includes graduate students and adjuncts), if you’re making minimum wage, if you’re an undergrad with no discretionary income, if you’re un- or underemployed, email me. You don’t have to tell me your story or make a case. Just ask.

And if you do have the means to underwrite others with expansive, curious minds and limited means, you can do that, too. To donate a subscription, click here. To give it to someone in your life, click the button below.

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This might seem like a weird and precarious time to make a massive life change. But as I’ve written before, the pandemic has served as a great clarifier: of what we actually prioritize as a country, of the broken state of so many institutions, of who cares about people who are not like them. It’s also accelerated changes that were brewing for years: moves, relationships, pet ownership, fights, career changes. I’m thrilled and terrified of what’s to come. But I’m so grateful that I have a readership that respects, challenges, and invigorates me — and is prepared to join me on this weird and winding road.

This wouldn’t be an AHP newsletter without…

Some Things I Read and Loved This Past Week:

And finally: Don’t have errand paralysis. Subscribe now. And if you’re willing, tell someone else about it — share it on Twitter or Facebook, forward this email or link to a friend. Unpaid or paid, it’s expanding that readership that matters. You can follow me on Instagram here, and on Twitter here. If you have thoughts, concerns, or, most importantly, ideas for future newsletters — just respond to this email, or find me at annehelenpetersen@gmail.com.