News and views from the Substack team

Tuesday, February 20, 2018 

Now on Substack: Discover v0.1

Howdy folks, just a quick note to let you know that we’ve launched a basic discovery tool to help you find new Substack newsletters. Head over to https://www.substack.com/discover to see public posts from across the Substack network and find new writers to fall in love with. As with all our tools, this is very much in beta and we will be improving it over time.

Got feedback? Send it to hello@substack.com

Tuesday, February 6, 2018 

Now anyone can start a newsletter on Substack

Today, we’re announcing the launch of our open beta, which gives anyone the ability to start a newsletter, paid or free, on Substack. To get started, go to substack.com/beta-signup.

We’ve been blown away by the early interest and feedback from writers and readers, so we have worked as fast as possible to make it simple for more people to start a paid newsletter. You can start making money from paid subscriptions to your newsletter within minutes.

At the same time, we’ve found that the best way to set yourself up for success with a paid model is to start with a successful free newsletter. If you already have a newsletter, we’ve made it easy to import your existing subscriber list into Substack. And if you don’t? Well, we’ve also made it easy for anyone to start a free newsletter on Substack, with no subscriber limits and for no charge. When you’re ready to add a paid option, you can connect a Stripe account and start accepting subscriptions with a single click.

These are the early days for Substack, and we’re all figuring out this model together. If you’re new to this, you can learn as we learn. For instance, when you sign up, we send you an email with tips for getting started and an invitation to join a Slack group where Substack publishers can connect with each other.

We’re excited to move into the open beta phase of Substack and can’t wait to read your newsletters. Meanwhile, we’ll be working every day to improve the product. Thank you for your support so far.

Got any feedback? Send it to hello@substack.com.

Saturday, February 3, 2018 

We've found the future of media

(It was under the couch cushions the whole time)

The future of news is a personalized voice-activated AI that operates in a mixed-reality environment built completely on the blockchain.

Just kidding, it’s email.

Well, actually, it’s email with payments. But honestly, that’s about it.

If this doesn’t immediately strike you as a $100 billion idea, we forgive you. After all, no one makes money from media anymore, right? The VCs have learned their lesson. Facebook controls the news now, and there’s no turning back.

Even the best digital media startups have ultimately floundered at the feet of Zuckerberg. BuzzFeed, backed by $496 million dollar of venture capital, missed its targets last year and laid off six percent of its staff. Mashable sold to Ziff Davis for $50 million, a pittance compared to the rumored $250 million valuation it had a few years ago. Vice, which has raised $1.4 billion, has been missing its revenue goals, too. Do you remember Upworthy ($12 million raised)? Mic ($60 million)? Tronc? (Okay, okay, that last one’s not a startup—just a meme.)

What these struggles tell us, however, is not that the media is dead. People still read stuff. They just tell us that building for scale, pouring hundreds of millions of dollars of venture capital in to the mix, and praying that, in the face of the obvious logic that any sensible marketer is better off spending their money on Facebook or Google, some small piece of the advertising market can be funneled towards digital news sites, if only a headline can be perfectly bait-tweaked, if only enough pork-pie-hat-wearing hipsters point a camera at a gunfight in Kabul, if only a black-and-gold dress can magic up enough pageviews to pay for Woodward and Bernstein’s comp packages.

They also tell us that tech and media have, on the whole, not mixed well. If using tech to reach huge audiences doesn’t work, what does? If using a beautiful content management system doesn’t miraculously solve a media company’s cash flow problems, what will? If short videos, or elaborate commenting systems, or mobile storytelling, or interactive graphics, or Snapchat Stories, or Instagram hashtags, or Instant Articles, or Google AMP, or programmatic advertising, or native advertising, or branded content, or affiliate links, or press conferences in Second Life can’t save the media, why would any right-thinking investor ever send another dollar in the direction of anyone who dared to presume that the written word has value?

What Silicon Valley gets wrong is that tech has never been the answer to the media’s problems. Tech can be helpful, but overall everyone is much better off if it just gets out of the way. Silicon Valley is dripping with well-meaning people who genuinely want to help solve the media crisis, but the results haven’t even been mixed—they’ve just been sad. Flipboard didn’t save the news. Rockmelt didn’t save the news. Medium didn’t save the news. Twitter isn’t saving the news. No matter how many tweaks it makes to its News Feed, Facebook can’t help but do the opposite of saving the news—its business model practically demands it. In all these cases, the tech companies’ grand solution to the media’s problems has been inserting themselves between reader and writer as an unwelcome distribution layer to redirect ad dollars.

We can’t put all the blame on Silicon Valley’s shoulders, though. The media industry itself is guilty. It has proven to be hidebound, slow to adapt, and bad in all the areas where Silicon Valley is good: radical reinvention; scrappiness; acceptance of failure; making bold bets; starting lean; and proving new models with “minimum viable products” before they’re fully implemented, to name a few. In fact, the media industry has placed too much faith in Silicon Valley’s products and not enough in its way of building those products. That it took Jeff Bezos to come into the Washington Post and suggest simple things like licensing its content management system and being more aggressive with subscriptions is fair evidence that, just when it needs help the most, the media industry is incapable of helping itself.

The best way for media and tech to interact in the current climate is for media companies to turn away from the assumptions that have been dominating their business models for the last two centuries—namely, that content must be molded around blocks of advertising—and for tech companies to fade into the background, providing infrastructure and support without glory-hunting and thrusting themselves into experience itself.

Finally, after many years of panicked flailing, many rounds of buy-outs, and the bodies of many thousands of journalist-refugees washing up on the shores of PR-istan, we are seeing some glimpses of progress. Patreon, for one, has made it easy for creators to accept payments from their fans. That’s kind of groundbreaking. Last year, Patreon paid out more than $150 million to creators. 2017 was also a breakout year for The Athletic, a start-up that has vacuumed up the talent cast off from ESPN and Sports Illustrated to create a network of local sports news sites that are thriving on the support of subscriptions. And The Information, now in its fifth year, has committed to doubling its editorial staff in 2018 thanks to strong subscriber growth. It has even started an accelerator to help other media startups follow its path (which they definitely should).

But the example we like the most is Ben Thompson’s Stratechery, a one-man publication that sends its subscribers four emails a week that carry high-quality tech business analysis. Thompson’s coverage respects people’s time and intelligence because his business’s primary loyalty is to readers, not advertisers. He charges subscribers $10 a month or $100 a year.

Stratechery is an example of tech and media meeting perfectly in the middle. Thompson has taken a Silicon Valley approach to building the publication while taking advantage of online payments infrastructure and simple publishing tools to keeping overheads to a minimum. At the same time, he has not compromised any of the values that are important to good journalism, such as editorial independence, quality writing, and rigorous analysis. The tech gets out of the way while the writing shines.

Since revealing three years ago that he had two thousand subscribers, Thompson has been cagey about his subscriber numbers, saying only that Stratechery is “more than a business” because that $10 a month scales very well. But it is clear that, as well as becoming influential in Silicon Valley, Thompson has built an exceptionally profitable media business on a simple foundation: email plus payments.

No need for ads. No need for scale. No need for the middle man. The model is so stripped back. So simple. So beautiful. And Thompson has been telling anyone who will listen that they should copy it.

The question is, has anyone actually been listening?

Thursday, February 1, 2018 

Welcome to a new batch of Substack publishers

In the last few weeks, we’ve had a growth spurt. Several wonderful publishers have started paid newsletters on Substack. They’re brilliant and we love them all. Here’s why you should subscribe to each.

Griefbacon

Journalist Helena Fitzgerald writes personal confessional essays that blend love and melancholy to strike on something that is simultaneously poignant and romantic. “Travel is the hope to experience the world as obliterative, the clean and unladen opposite of the self,” Fitzgerald wrote in a recent essay. Her writing lingers lightly in the mind forever. She is a pure talent, and Griefbacon is her gift.

No Complaints

Author and podcaster Caroline Crampton has been writing No Complaints as weekly arts and culture links round-up since 2014. Now, in addition to the weekly missive, Crampton, who’s head of podcasts for The New Statesman, is writing regular commentary about podcasting culture, covering the art, practice, and beauty of audio storytelling. No Complaints is a must-read for anyone who loves podcasts.

Versioning

Adam Roberts has been curating and commenting on the best writing for web developers and designers since 2014. Since then, Versioning has grown into a cult hit thanks to Roberts’ deft mix of humor and links to useful resources, accruing more than 49,000 subscribers. Now, Roberts is focusing full-time on newsletters for his employer, SitePoint, and ditching the ads from the company’s marquee publication in favor of payments from readers.

Work Futures

Researcher and analyst Stowe Boyd has been writing for decades about technology’s impact on the way we work. In Work Futures, he presents bullshit-free analysis of how AI, robotics, social media, and other major tech developments are upending business conventions and refactoring the economy. Read why Stowe moved Work Futures from Medium to Substack.

Mixtape

British writer Dan Dalton saves you from having to stay on top of what’s great in indie music by curating weekly playlists of 10 great songs. Dalton, whose debut novel Johnny Ruin comes out in March, creates his playlists based on themes such as mood, location, and time. As one subscriber put it: “Each mixtape tells a story and always makes Sunday more beautiful.” Read why Dan moved Mixtape from Tinyletter to Substack.

SupChina

Independent publisher SupChina is building a community of English-speaking people who care about China—not just the news or economy, but also culture and the arts. SupChina has made a name for itself with its email newsletters, covering “China in 2 minutes a day” and boasting features like “Word of the day,” photos by Michael Yamashita, and links to the most interesting writing about the Middle Kingdom. It also produces the excellent Sinica podcast, hosted by Jeremy Goldkorn and Kaiser Kuo. The publisher’s weekly Substack newsletter sits at the center of its new membership program, SupChina Access.

We’re proud to host every one of these publications and can’t wait to see what the future holds for them. In the meantime, keep a close eye on Substack. We have something interesting to reveal next week...


Monday, January 29, 2018 

Don't look to Facebook to fix the news

Facebook has again changed the rules for showing content in its news feed, deciding to favor posts from family and friends over articles from news organizations. A few days ago, it announced that will also let readers rank those outlets’ credibility. Today, it has said it will promote more local news stories in the news feed.

These moves come in part as a response to mounting public concern. In a recent article published in Washington Monthly, former Facebook advisor Roger McNamee expressed alarm at how the social network’s optimized-for-addiction news feed can be exploited to foment outrage and polarization. The headline on McNamee’s article was blunt: “How to fix Facebook — before it fixes us.”

But the idea that Facebook might address these problems by featuring less content from publishers is all but an admission that, at least when it comes to news, Facebook can’t be fixed.

Facebook is in the business of converting your attention into dollars. The news feed is ruthlessly optimized to be addictive not because the company is callous, but because that is what its titanic economic engine demands. In a way, the algorithm rules Facebook. If Mark Zuckerberg were to stop its march, it would undermine the business.

Technologists sometimes discuss the fear that an artificial intelligence (A.I.) will become so efficient at executing a specific task that it will harm humans in the process. But for media, the killer A.I. is already here, and it has come in the form of the Facebook news feed.

The solution to our fake news woes, then, must come from somewhere else. It must come from readers choosing a different way to consume media, and publishers choosing not to play Facebook’s game.

To do this, media companies must move away from advertising, a market that, at least online, Facebook and Google virtually control. In 2018, the two tech giants are expected to account for 84 percent of global digital advertising spend, according to GroupM.

Just being tech-savvy is not enough. In 2017, BuzzFeed laid off six percent of its workforce after missing its annual revenue target. Earlier in the year, viral news startup Mic laid off 25 staffers and announced it would focus on “visual journalism.” Mashable, believed to have once been valued at $250 million, was sold for $50 million.

You can’t beat Facebook and Google at their game. But there is another game.

New opportunities are emerging for media businesses to flourish on the strength of readers paying publishers directly. Over the course of just a few months in 2017, The Wall Street Journal added more than 300,000 new subscribers and it has its sights set on 3 million in total. Patreon, a tech company that promotes patronage of the arts, paid out more than $150 million to creators on its platform in 2017. More than ten thousand people pay the profitable The Information $400 a year for its tech industry news coverage.

Having readers pay changes the consumer experience from addiction to choice. It changes the business model from delivering attention to delivering what readers consciously decide they want.

There is more work to be done. Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google and advocate of the “time well spent” movement, recently called advertising the “new coal” because it helped the early development of the online economy but has ultimately polluted our digital environment. The technologies that will replace advertising, such as subscriptions and micropayments, may not yet be enough to completely displace the lost source of revenue, Harris told Wired, “we can get to that point with technology if we make those investments now.”

Large media organizations like The Wall Street Journal and the The Washington Post are doing their parts to advance the cause, but we believe the most meaningful impact will come from entrepreneurial individuals and small teams who are creating media businesses from clean slates. For example, Ben Thompson, a Taiwan-based tech analyst, publishes a subscription newsletter called Stratechery that costs $10 a month or $100 a year and counts many thousands of subscribers. On his podcast and in his writing, Thompson has encouraged other people to follow his model.

Stratechery carries no ads and its readers feel a personal bond with Thompson. There is no sensationalism, nor outrage disguised as news, and there are no design tricks meant to persuade readers to click on just one more thing. Thompson is incentivized to consistently deliver quality analysis because his interests are completely aligned with his readers, not advertisers or tech platforms.

Three years ago, Thompson revealed that Stratechery had two thousand subscribers (a number he hasn’t updated since). The publication has grown in profile in the intervening time, and its Twitter following (and Thompson’s) suggests that today’s subscriber count is closer to ten thousand than two thousand. At that point, Thompson’s one-man operation would garner more than a million dollars in annual revenue.

Better yet? Facebook had nothing to do with it.

One day, we hope to be able to say the same for the rest of the media.

News and views from the Substack team