News & Politics

Substack Newsletter Writer Gets a Spot in the White House Briefing Room

A former White House reporter wants to cover politics in a different way. Is the briefing room the place for that?

Photograph via Flickr user mrgarethm.

Next time White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki drops a #Psakibomb, a reporter from newsletter platform Substack could be there to ask a follow-up. Hunter Walker, the writer behind the political newsletter “the Uprising,” tweeted Friday that he was issued a “hard pass,” the credential that gives reporters entry to the West Wing. Notably, Walker is the first solo Substacker to join the press corps—unprecedented access for an independent newsletter writer in the hallowed briefing room.

Substack may be new to the West Wing, but Walker himself is a press corps veteran, wrapping up a four-year stint as Yahoo News’ White House correspondent in April. While his newsletter opines to “be a different kind of Washington newsletter” covering “the details that have fallen out of the headlines,” the briefing room is regarded as a conventional space for headline-making news. If you want to cover politics differently, is the briefing room really the place to do it?

For Walker, the answer lies within the questions he asks. The reporter plans to leverage his independent status to query the administration on topics he fears have left our collective focus, such as the insurrection on January 6. The newsletter also covers local news stories with national implications that typically do not get space in the briefing room. Over the past six weeks, Walker broke the news of Prince George’s County public defender Stanford Fraser running for Maryland attorney general, and spent a few days in North Carolina covering the community’s reaction to the shooting of Andrew Brown Jr.

“To go into a place like that—into a community like that—and be able to bring their questions into the White House means the world to me,” says Walker. “I remember a lot of takes getting written saying that actual reporting, and shoe leather, and going to council meetings wouldn’t be possible with Substack. I’d really love to prove that wrong and turn it on its head if possible.”

Still, going indie has presented Walker with some challenges. Membership in the White House Correspondents’ Association requires reporters to predominantly cover the White House, which Walker does not. (He received a freelancer pass; in addition to the newsletter, Walker is writing a book about progressive politicians with fellow Substacker Luppe B. Luppen.) When he announced “the Uprising,” Walker says the House Press Gallery immediately reached out to request the return of his press pass. Later, when the WHCA’s requested a Spanish-speaking pooler for an event with the president of Guatemala, Walker reached out to offer his services. He says his emails were cut off immediately.

“I think there is still some pretty traditional gatekeepers here in Washington,” says Walker. “But I do think that one thing that’s always been cool about the White House, for better or for worse, is that they’ve had a policy of letting people in the briefing room from diverse outlets.”

Despite its indie status, Substack has wrangled plenty of establishment journalists to cover politics. Vox co-founder Matt Yglesias pens policy newsletter “Slow Boring,” and ThinkProgress founder Judd Legum started writing “Popular Information” in 2018. Substack-hosted media company the Dispatch also has White House credentials, albeit with a staff of 19 people. Getting back into the White House is a feat, but Walker has interfaced with Psaki, connected with members of Congress, met with people at foreign embassies, and interviewed political candidates—all without a hard pass.

“I really haven’t seen much hesitation from the political world to engage with this project,” says Walker. “I think we’re in a phase where Twitter, Substack, all these things have democratized distribution. It is much more about an individual worker’s reputation, and the quality of their work.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article noted requirements for a hard pass include predominantly covering the White House. This piece has been updated to reflect that requirement is related to WHCA membership.

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Daniella Byck
Assistant Editor

Daniella Byck joined Washingtonian in August 2018. She is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she studied journalism and digital culture.