Most reporting on guns has problems, Stephen Gutowski says. Mainstream outlets understand the politics involved with firearms, but their reporters rarely understand guns or gun policy. Pro-gun outlets understand firearms and gun owners, but they tend not to understand how Washington, DC, works. “I have the ability to bridge both of those worlds,” Gutowski says.
That’s why the Washington Free Beacon reporter is putting his livelihood on the line—his last day at the conservative outlet was Friday. As of today, he’s started the Reload, an independent publication based on the Substack model, where people subscribe directly to his reporting. But Gutowski, who’s a certified firearms instructor and who has been one of the best reporters to follow about the NRA’s turmoil, isn’t leaving the Beacon for Substack. He’s built the Reload himself for a couple thousand bucks—his biggest expense was buying the URL—and living on money he saved during the pandemic while he sees whether readers will follow him as he “explains the politics and the guns,” as he says.
The reasoning is pretty simple: Gutowski looked at how big-name journalists like Andrew Sullivan and Glenn Greenwald have prospered by moving their “brands” to Substack, but he has also taken note of more niche publications like Bill Bishop’s Sinocism, which covers US-China relations and whose paid subscribers pay an average of more than $100 a year.
The Reload will cost $10/month, with a $7/month rate for inaugural subscribers. Substack’s usual cut of subscriptions is 10 percent, plus credit-card processing fees. “When you look at numbers in the long run, 10 percent becomes a lot pretty fast,” he says. He also wants to try adding membership tiers on the bet that some readers will pay more for extras like commenting, forum access, discounted events, and—for the ten slots he’s allocated for people who might pony up for the $1,000 “Co-Founders” level, a range day with him. (Full disclosure: I visited a range with Gutowski after I met him while writing about his NRA reporting.)
Gutowski says he’s mindful of the conflicts that can arise when he’s the Reload’s editor, publisher, and reporter. That’s why he has no plans to take advertising, and he insists that subscriptions, even at the highest tier, won’t come with veto power on his coverage: “Obviously, I’m going to use the community for story tips,” he says, “but there certainly won’t be any situations where someone buys a subscription and tells me what to write.”
About 40 percent of adults in the US either own a gun or live in a gun-owning household. Guns intersect with American life in multiple and complex ways. And yet there are few, if any, reporters at major outlets who cover guns exclusively.“I’m often surprised how little competition I get,” Gutowski says. He’s 34 and worked at the Free Beacon for nearly seven years, an experience he has nothing bad to say about. He’ll miss having editors, he says, and says that while his old outlet compensates employees well, his decision “was more about the opportunity that exists now to do something on my own.”
“The idea here is to be focused on reporting and analysis,” he says. “Not on hot takes. Not on partisan cheerleading.” His hope is that readers will join the Reload “because they want to know what is actually going on in gun politics and policy and gun culture without all the B.S.”
Correction: This article originally said Sinocism had about 85,000 subscribers who pay nearly $200 a year.