Thursday, October 19, 2017

Why we’re in private beta

Moving fast and slow

Since we launched our first customer’s publication, Sinocism (subscribe), we’ve received a flood of inquiries from publishers interested in using Substack. That’s awesome and we hope the interest continues. But we want to make it clear that we can’t take everyone just yet.

Substack is, for now, in private beta. That means we’re working with only a small number of hand-picked publishers until (probably) the end of 2017.

We’re rolling out in this fashion because we want to build a product that subscription publishers absolutely love. We think the best way to do that is to start by serving the needs of a select few customers and getting the product right for them. That means we need to invest a lot of manual work in every customer. Since we’re just three people right now, that has to be a small group.

Our goal here is to build a wonderful, stable product that can scale to hundreds, and then thousands, and later many more publishers. We want to build a new ecosystem for independent publishers to make real money from subscriptions, and for readers to get friction-free access to content they care deeply about. We believe that’s a huge opportunity for everyone, so it’s important that we don’t mess it up by getting ahead of ourselves.

So, absolutely reach out to us at hello@substack.com. If you are a writer with an established audience who wants to charge around $10 a month, we want to work with you soon. If not, we will put you on our waitlist and keep you updated as we roll out more broadly in the near future.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Meet Bill Bishop, author of Sinocism and Substack’s first publisher

An influential newsletter goes paid

For six years, Bill Bishop has published the best free newsletter about China. Now, to our delight at Substack, he’s making it a business.

Bishop, a former media executive and serial entrepreneur, is Substack’s first customer, and we couldn’t have hoped for better. Today, he launched the paid version of Sinocism, in which he provides commentary and curated links about the most consequential China news of the day.

Since launching the publication in 2011, Bishop has accumulated more than 30,000 subscribers, made up largely of diplomats, policy makers, financial professionals, journalists, and academics. Bishop, who moved back to Washington, DC, in 2015 after a decade in Beijing, has used Sinocism to help the western world makes sense of the Middle Kingdom; the New Yorker’s Evan Osnos has called him “the China Hand’s China Hand.”

Bishop got into the professional newsletter business almost by accident. In 1997, he co-founded the financial news site MarketWatch, which later sold to Dow Jones, and in 2005 he moved to Beijing. He had been there before. In 1989, while studying Chinese at Middlebury College, he went to China on a study-abroad program and was hired to help CBS News report on the democracy protests in Tiananmen Square that culminated in the infamous June 4 massacre. After returning to the US, he graduated with a master’s degree in China Studies from Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and went back to China in 2005 to try his luck as an entrepreneur. He co-founded a gaming studio that ultimately found itself on the wrong side of several tech and consumer trends and shut down in 2009. Then, as a side project, he started a blog to bring to light stories from the Chinese internet that weren’t being reflected in the English-language media. After a few months, the Chinese government took issue with the blog and blocked it, so Bishop instead made it a newsletter.

We think Sinocism is the ideal first publication for Substack—and it’s not just because Bishop is a great guy with a keen sense for tech, media, and the future. Following in the mold of Ben Thompson’s Stratechery, Sinocism is a specialized publication with a hardcore following. “I have always thought of [Bishop] as the perfect example of a publisher that was meant to monetize through a niche subscription,” Thompson recently tweeted. “Bill Bishop has been writing the single best newsletter about China for years. Highly differentiated and indispensable for those that care.”

“I wasn’t looking to make money off this,” Bishop says of Sinocism’s beginnings. “I wanted to build an audience, and I felt like I was providing a service to people.” A few years ago, he experimented by asking readers for donations. “I lived in socialist China, so I decided I would take a socialist approach to monetizing,” he jokes. And it worked—for a bit. One year, he made $100,000 through donations, but it was difficult to sustain. “Ultimately, I got sick of begging.”

Now, though, the conditions feel right to turn to paid subscriptions. “You’ve got people like Ben Thompson at Stratechery, people like Substack who make it super easy to get set up, and the market looks like it’s at a point where people want to pay for content they value.”

Bishop chose Substack because it took the slog out of starting a paid publication. He had looked for other tools and considered Patreon and Medium, but they didn’t serve the specific need of integrating payments and publishing for independent writers. “I couldn’t find anybody who could give me a recommendation on a clean, affordable platform for me to use that wasn’t going to require a whole bunch of technical work,” he says. “If you’re a writer or editor—most people don’t want to deal with those hassles. They just want a nice, clean interface that makes it easy to charge money, and then to move on with it.”

While Bishop is nervous about losing some of his audience, he is going to continue publishing a free weekly newsletter so he can still reach his existing subscribers. But in the meantime, the trade-off is a good shot at building a sustainable business that provides a decent living—and maybe he can even hire some people to help out. He’s initially charging $11 a month or $118 a year. After positive early feedback, he’s already wondering if his aim is off. “Lots of people tell me I’m crazy and it’s way too cheap.”

Subscribe to Sinocism and get smarter about China.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

A new movement in sports writing has begun

Life after ESPN

The last year has been rough on the sports media world, with mass layoffs, closures, and bankruptcies affecting ESPN, Sports Illustrated, Yahoo Sports, Fox Sports, Vice Sports, and Scout Media, among other outlets. But just as one era is coming to an end for sports journalism, a new one appears to be getting started. In increasing numbers, sports writers are realizing that their work and followings are strong enough to make money without needing traditional jobs. Could it be a sign of things to come?

A new wave of sports publications has coalesced around a subscription model in which readers, not advertisers, pay for the content. This year in particular there has been a spike in digital subscription sports publications, led by The Athletic, a venture capital-backed startup with a network of city-focused publications. The Athletic is stepping into a void in places like Toronto and Detroit where pro sports teams are inadequately covered by the mainstream press. By hiring some of the biggest names in sports journalism and asking them to write the stories that no one else is publishing, The Athletic provides readers with a compelling reason to pay for content that matters.

At the same time, some writers have struck out on their own. In 2014, former newspaper columnist Dejan Kovacevic started DK Pittsburgh Sports to offer coverage of teams in his home city. Three years later, the site claims nearly forty thousand subscribers and employs about a dozen reporters and photographers. It has succeeded, Kovacevic has said, “on a scale even our most optimistic projections hadn’t forecast.” Two months ago, former Sports Illustrated writer Greg Bedard followed Kovacevic’s lead by launching Boston Sports Journal, which already counts more than five thousand subscribers. In August, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s veteran Green Bay Packers writer Bob McGinn started his own news site, Bob McGinn Football, and a month later ESPN veteran Paul Kuharsky launched a publication about Tennessee football. Meanwhile, through Patreon, Jeff Gluck has been earning thousands of dollars a month by writing about NASCAR for his own site and accepting donations.

The emergence of The Athletic, the popularity of sports on social media, and the early success for this new stable of subscription publications suggest that the recent layoffs at ESPN and company have little to do with demand and everything to do with the evolution of business models for online news. People still want to read quality sports writing, especially about their hometowns and home teams—it’s just hard for the traditional media companies to keep paying salaries when ad sales are in precipitous decline. But now, more than ever, it’s possible for readers to get uncompromising coverage free of clickbait. They just have to pay. Early signs are that a fair number are willing to do so, and that the money is good enough to support more than a few bona fide sports writing businesses. As more publications starting charging for subscriptions, and payments option become easier, it could well be a trend that accelerates.

Sports lends itself well to subscription publishing for the following reasons:

  • It’s tribal, which guarantees a set of deeply interested followers who can’t read enough about their favorite teams, sports, or players (USA Today, taking note of the latter, has launched a site dedicated solely to Lonzo Ball).

  • There’s ample opportunity for timely and distinctive content because sports and their associated industries are news machines, with ongoing games, deals, trades, and other daily dramas. Yes, magazines and newspapers are already in the sports coverage business, but by necessity they must write for broad readerships, while niche publications can find success by catering to very targeted audiences.

  • Voice is important, because readers are looking for writers they can trust to deliver quality analysis and coverage, and who they enjoy reading. It’s possible to build a brand around these qualities and then ask people to pay for them.

Below is a list of online subscription sports publications that we know about. If you know of others, please let us know so we can add them to the list: hamish@substack.com.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Video can’t solve the news industry’s problems

How about a pivot away from Facebook?

For lovers of print, perhaps the most poignant media news of the week was that the Village Voice would stop publishing its paper edition.

That is certainly sad, but also sadly unsurprising. News organizations have been shutting down the presses for years now. What should be more concerning to media watchers is news of Mic’s “pivot to visual journalism” and the attendant layoffs. Mic is arguably one of the few new-media success stories of recent years. The New York-based start-up dared to establish a big-vision media company at a time when the news business was anything but a hot venture commodity, and when almost all the incumbents were firing writers. That the company is now doing its own layoffs is just sad.

Mic found early success by publishing socially minded stories—often with clickbait headlines—for millennials. Its two founders, 23 years old when they started the company, have raised $59.5 million over the last five years, which is at least testament to their ability to persuade a generally skeptical finance community that the media has a future worth betting on. It has hired quality editors and writers, built out a series of verticals focused on feminism, social justice, and politics, and, in 2015, it scored a big interview with President Obama.

So why is it changing course?

The optimistic spin is that it believes it’s close to a breakthrough in visual journalism, and specifically a new form of “tap-through” mobile storytelling appropriate for the Snapchat era. The CEO has claimed that visual journalism accounts for three quarters of the time that Mic’s audience spends on the site. He also sees tap-through stories as a new market, so the company’s going to pour its resources into that.

The less optimistic spin is that even a well-funded, well-staffed, well-executed publication with zero legacy problems, oodles of tech savvy, and an audience as desirable as mobile-first millennials finds it hard to survive in a media landscape dominated by advertising, which is in turn utterly, irrevocably, increasingly dominated by Facebook and Google. Mic’s problem—as is the case for dozens of its contemporaries—is that it depends on traffic from the same companies that hold duopoly power over the digital ad market from which it is supposed to justify its valuation, now in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

A story published on Tuesday in The Outline laid its problems bare. Mic is fixated on traffic and peddles “outrage journalism” to keep its social media clickthroughs high, according to former employees quoted (anonymously) in the article. When Facebook was really working for Mic, some stories were attracting millions of readers. But in August 2015, the Facebook party ended and Mic’s traffic plummeted. One of its responses was to juice search engine rankings. The company hired an executive who built a team focused exclusively on producing stories laden with popular search terms—“Watch Trump’s speech live,” “How to pick up women”—in an effort to diversify the effective traffic taxes it pays to the big platforms.

None of this was popular with its young, idealistic staff writers, who had joined the company with the hope that their work wouldn’t have to be poisoned by the mundane profit imperatives of a modern corporate media entity. And so, The Outline was able to take its pick from an abundant smorgasbord of articulate disgruntlement that, more than anything, underscores a fundamental business problem in the industry: it’s increasingly difficult to build a viable news business that offers its content for free. Mic knows it. The Village Voice knows it.

So were Mic’s founders wrong to persuade those venture capitalists that the media has a future worth betting on? As we’ve said before, not at all. But, even as ad-first media companies rush to pivot to video, one thing remains true: putting good journalists at the mercy of Facebook and Google is a model to go out of business.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Hit ’em in their inboxes

“Email is the largest social network”

Inside, an email-only news network started by online media pioneer Jason Calacanis, is a year old and closing in on 300,000 subscribers. While that number is not particularly interesting in itself, Inside’s approach to publishing certainly is. The company is a big believer in email exclusivity. Its publications aren’t available on websites or even shared on social networks. “Email,” says Inside, “is the largest social network.”

We suspect that Inside is onto something.

The rise of social networks and mobile messaging is supposed by some to have killed email, good and proper. But the statistics tell a different story. More than three billion legitimate emails are sent every hour, according to the latest numbers, and there are more than 3.7 billion email users worldwide. But when it comes to distributing written content, email’s scale is only one of its advantages. What Inside knows, and other savvy publishers are finding, is that email is the most personal, direct, and effective way to reach the readers who want to hear from you.

If your story is in a reader’s inbox, it’s because they have invited it in there, or because one of their friends personally passed it on. As we’re inundated with low-nutrition content from our unrelenting social feeds, inbox presence offers a strong signal that a story is likely to be high quality and highly relevant. Meanwhile, there’s no middleman watching to gather data on how you interact with that story or publisher. By taking traffic incentives and shareability completely out of the equation, the publisher is incentivized instead to focus on what is best for the reader.

Email is likely to be a feature of many successful subscription publications because all of the above factors are even more important in a membership-type context, where trust and direct relationships are critical to the model. When a reader makes a decision to pay for your content, they’re effectively accepting you into their trusted friend group. The inbox is the gathering place for that exclusive group. What’s more, it ensures they will see every item you publish–or at least that they’ll notice you have published something. Ever since Google crippled RSS by shutting down Google Reader, it’s been difficult for publishers to find a channel that reliably puts every piece of content in front of a committed reader’s eyes. In fact, email offers a useful variation of RSS–not “Really Simple Syndication,” but “Really Simple Subscription.”

For publications for whom it is important to offer easy access to content on the web, email exclusivity won’t be the best choice. But for many others, it may make more sense to be email exclusive than web exclusive. Subscription publishing is about trust, quality, and the relationship between producer and consumer. For that, there is no medium more powerful, nor more personal.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

The Athletic and the importance of quality

How to fund journalism that matters

In the annals of the death of clickbait, one of the most important entries will be reserved for 2017. The Athletic, a forerunner in a new era of subscription publishing, is a big reason for that.

On July 25, The Athletic announced that it has raised $5.4 million in funding—on top of a previously announced $2.6 million—and hired some top writers from ESPN and Sports Illustrated to staff their city- and niche-focused sports publications. The company so far has publications in five cities, with the San Francisco Bay Area being its latest addition. Its Toronto publication, launched in December last year, has more than ten thousand subscribers and is already profitable.

The Athletic’s credo was summed up by Stewart Mandel, the former Fox Sports reporter who has signed on as editor-of-chief of an upcoming Athletic publication that will focus on college football:

“The Athletic’s subscriber model allows us to focus entirely on high-quality written content. NO ads, NO auto-play videos, NO clickbait.”

We at Substack share Mandel’s enthusiasm for quality, ad-free journalism. They’re key reasons we are such big believers in subscription publishing.

In a recent interview with Ben Thompson, The Athletic’s CEO Alex Mather said that the early success the company has found in attracting subscribers could be explained not so much by technology, but by the quality of its writers. “I obsess over the product perhaps too much,” Mather, an engineer and designer by trade, said. “I have come to realize that in this opportunity with sports that talent is absolutely what we lead with.”

Mather’s comments suggest that the big opportunity in media today is in figuring out how to fund the great talent that already exists. Even in sports journalism, advertising doesn’t cut it anymore, as recent layoffs at ESPN, Yahoo Sports, Vice Sports, and Fox Sports attest. But the appetite for great sports writing hasn’t gone away. Like Substack, Mather and his co-founder, Adam Hansmann, believe that readers are willing to pay for sufficiently distinctive content, and that there are plenty of writers who can make money from producing it.

“[O]ur pitch to writers is, ‘Come do the best work of your life’ by not worrying about deadlines, not focusing on the games themselves,” Mather said. “[W]e don’t need another game recap, we need deeper analysis, we need minutiae, we need you to take us inside and tell stories that no one else is telling and we know that takes time.” Under this model, volume doesn’t matter as much. “If we can get three stories that you can’t get anywhere else in a city, we see unbelievable subscriber yield.”

This point about distinctive content has also been made by other subscription publishing success stories. “We’re asking reporters to spend their days writing stories no one else is writing,” Jessica Lessin, founder of the tech industry news publication The Information, said in a recent interview. “That’s very different from how other reporters spend their days, which is reacting to news.” (Last week, The Information announced an accelerator program to promote the development of subscription publications for other industries.)

Luke Timmerman, who publishes The Timmerman Report, a subscription news site about the biotech industry, shares Lessin’s view. “[T]here are other industries where [the subscriber model] can work, where you have readers who have a lot disposable income and clearly see a value in your distinctive content,” Timmerman said in an interview earlier this year.

What The Athletic, Jessica Lessin, Luke Timmerman, and Ben Thompson have all discovered is that there’s one really effective solution to the revenue problem that currently ails the media business: produce high-quality, distinctive content for an audience that cares about your niche, treat your readers with respect, and then ask them to pay.

That’s a business idea that you can have for free.

Friday, July 21, 2017

A call for writers

Get in on the ground floor with Substack

We are looking to add a few more writers to Substack’s crew of founding publishers. If you, or anyone you know, is interested in starting a publication that makes money from subscriptions, now is the time. We’d love to work with you to make it a success.

One of the inspirations for Substack is Ben Thompson’s Stratechery, a publication focused on tech business strategy. Since starting Stratechery in 2013, Thompson has attracted thousands of subscribers in 30 different countries who pay $100 a year. As a one-man operation, it has proven to be not only a valuable resource for readers, but also a highly profitable enterprise. “It’s more than a business,” Thompson has said.

We believe that there are many thousands of opportunities for Stratechery-like publications in almost any editorial niche imaginable. Are you an expert on your local college basketball team? There might be a valuable subscription publication in that. How about local-level politics in your city? Do the theater buffs in your state have a good way to read about the latest plays? Is anyone writing intelligently about your passion for artificial intelligence or The Handmaid’s Tale?

If you’re a writer who’s passionate about a niche and has a proven ability to build an audience around your work, we want to hear from you. We will make it easy for you to start a subscription publication by providing great tech tools and personalized support for your administrative and business needs, including hands-on help to grow your subscriber base.

While some writers will build huge businesses on our platform by attracting enormous subscriber bases, the beauty of the Substack model is that highly focused publications can be profitable even with small (but committed) readerships. So if you think some people would pay to read your work, please get in touch. Our goal will be to help you get to your magic number as quickly as possible.

In the meantime, if anyone out there is up for starting a high-quality subscription publication about the Highlanders rugby team, then let me know! I’ll be your first paying customer.

For more details and background, read our first post: A better future for news.

Any questions? Please send them to hamish@substack.com

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

A better future for news

Why we’re building Substack

In September 1833, Benjamin Day, the 23-year-old son of a hatter, put the New York Sun on sale for a sixth of the price of its competitors. The sensationalism-stuffed Sun, selling for a penny an issue, quickly became the most-read newspaper in America. The key to its low price and popularity was a business model innovation that would change the news industry forever: advertising.

The ad-supported model would undergird a golden age of newspapers that lasted 180 years. Those days are all but over. Today, as a result of a mass shift of advertising revenue to Google and Facebook, the news business is in crisis. The great journalistic totems of the last century are dying. News organizations—and other entities that masquerade as them—are turning to increasingly desperate measures for survival. And so we have content farms, clickbait, listicles, inane but viral debates over optical illusions, and a “fake news” epidemic. Just as damaging is that, in the eyes of consumers, journalistic content has lost much of its perceived value—especially as measured in dollars.

It’s easy to feel discouraged by these dire developments, but in every crisis there is opportunity. We believe that journalistic content has intrinsic value and that it doesn’t have to be given away for free. We believe that what you read matters. And we believe that there has never been a better time to bolster and protect those ideals. Now, more than ever, publishers of news and similar content can be profitable through direct payments from readers. In fact, we are so convinced by this notion that we have started a company to accelerate the advent of what we are convinced will be a new golden age for publishing. The company is called Substack.

Benjamin Day radically altered the future of journalism with a tweak to its funding model. Almost two centuries later, the news industry is ready for another reinvention.

Subscribe now

Subscriptions were pioneered by periodicals, including, in 1688, the first illustrated edition of Milton’s Paradise Lost. Now, through the power of the internet, they’re also used to sell things as varied as razor blades, meals, software, and underpants. At Substack, we believe that the time has again come for journalists to thrive on payments from readers. The news business—and here we interpret the word “news” in its broadest sense—is unsustainable if it continues to rely on advertising. But a model based on subscriptions can trigger an explosion of independent publishing, eventually leading to a future in which the aggregate market value of subscription-based content is larger than the value of the news industry we know today.

Times have certainly changed since the advent of the penny paper. The internet has saturated us with an information deluge that has changed the economics of news. No one wants to add more noise to their lives, let alone pay for the privilege. But that is the very reason that the right kind of subscription content can be even more valuable in the digital age.

Precisely targeted and curated content means less noise. In fact, by attributing a dollar value to such content, people can make more focused decisions about their consumption habits. Instead of allowing ourselves as readers to be vulnerable to the social media platforms that war with each other to monopolize our attention, we can instead be selective with our media choices, honing in on the interests, writers, and localities that we find most meaningful. We can have direct relationships with the writers we trust to do high-value work. And, because online distribution is basically free and universal, writers can find paying readers for content that would otherwise reach only modestly sized or dispersed audiences that are unattractive to advertisers.

So why aren’t a million subscription-based flowers already blooming on the internet?

Well, if you know where to look, you can see the first shoots of growth. The media future is here—it’s just not yet evenly distributed.

Deep value

In 2013, the journalist Andrew Sullivan moved his politics blog, The Dish, from the Daily Beast to its own website and attracted 30,000 subscribers who paid $20 a year. The site employed seven writers and, according to Sullivan, had more than a million dollars in revenue—without ads.

Later in 2013, Jessica Lessin founded The Information, a tech industry news site that charges subscribers $399 a year. Lessin has used that revenue to build up a staff of about 20 people, including a dozen reporters based in the San Francisco Bay Area and a small bureau in China. The Information has more than 10,000 subscribers and is profitable, according to Lessin.

Also in 2013, Ben Thompson, an American based in Taiwan, started charging $100 a year for his newsletter-first publication, Stratechery, in which he dispenses analysis of tech industry news. Two years later, Thompson had more than two thousand subscribers, representing upwards of $200,000 in annual revenue. He hasn’t disclosed subscriber figures since, but in February 2017 he characterized the financial viability of his one-man publication as “more than a business.”

“[B]y making something scarce, and worth paying for, you are by definition limiting your number of readers,” Thompson wrote in 2015. “Stratechery, though, serves a niche, and niches are best served by making more from customers who really care than from milking pennies from everyone.”

In 2015, following Thompson’s lead, former Bloomberg reporter Luke Timmerman established his own biotech news service, The Timmerman Report. It took him less than a year to reach a thousand subscribers—mostly biotech professionals—who at the time were paying $100 annually. He has since increased the price to $150 a year, with no apparent effect on the subscriber base. Timmerman does most of the writing for the publication, but he has also hired a couple of contributors.

Sullivan aside, however, these publications serve niche tech audiences. Can a subscription model work anywhere else?

Consider Patreon, a crowdfunding platform for creators. Patreon was launched in 2013 to help writers, artists, and other creatives solicit donations from people who love their work. The company recently claimed that a million people every month are making payments via its service, collectively supporting the work of 50,000 creators. It expected Patreon payments to total $150 million in 2017.

A glance at the top Patreon writers list proves that distinctive niche content does well. Video game critic Jim Sterling has more than 5,500 patrons, netting him $12,000 a month. The War Nerd has a following of more than two thousand patrons, who collectively pay him $9,000 per podcast, of which he produces two per month. And former USA Today reporter Jeff Gluck has amassed more than 850 supporters to fund his in-depth NASCAR reporting, which is available for free on his website. Although he has been on the platform for just half a year, Gluck’s Patreon donations amount to more than $6,500 a month.

If there is a community of people willing to pay a few dollars a month to get their fix of high-quality NASCAR writing, might there also be a community willing to pay for writing that is exclusively about their favorite sports team? (Actually, yes—more than two thousand patrons pay to support Derek Bodner’s writing about the Philadelphia 76ers.) And if a critical mass of people are willing to pay for local sports writing, might they also be willing to pay for quality news about podcasting? (Yep—Nick Quah has already found that with Hot Pod.) Or how about a hobbyist blog about foreign affairs? (World Politics Review started as a grad student’s side project). And are there any good reasons why a quality publication about, say, Game of Thrones could not support itself on subscriptions? How about a dedicated news site about your neighborhood—not one supported by ad revenue, but paid for directly by residents? Maybe there could even be paid publications about model trains, or League of Legends, or carbon sequestration.

These niches can support meaningful businesses. After all, a niche is just something that at least a few people care about a great deal—and perhaps enough to pay for. A subscription publication, then, doesn’t need to be the New York Times in breadth and scale. In some cases, it could be just one person writing for a small audience and earning pocket money. Others might attempt to professionalize their operations. Perhaps the NASCAR guy decides to hire another writer who covers racing in Europe. Maybe that move attracts more subscribers, allowing him to add more writers and editors to the team. Perhaps a writer covering happenings in her local neighborhood joins forces with someone in the adjacent neighborhood and grows the audience. Then, they might add a copy editor, or a writer who covers City Hall. Soon enough, it could be the best local news publication in the area. A group of writers and editors could raise funding to start a publication about, say, geoengineering, white-collar crime, or even the White House. One day, they could be counting subscribers in the millions.

Once the old rules are gone, a new world of possibility opens up.

Substack’s mission

While writers possess many powers, cobbling together an array of tech tools in order to start and manage a subscription-based business tends not to be one of them. Ben Thompson, Luke Timmerman, and Nick Quah have all made similar observations about how surprisingly difficult it is to figure out a payments system that is both flexible and reliable, manage administrative work, and handle customer support, all while running an intensive journalistic operation. In his first year of operating The Timmerman Report, for instance, Timmerman estimated that 40 percent of his time was spent attending to business matters. To many, these barriers are deal-breakers.

Substack’s mission, then, can be summed up in one sentence:

Make it simple to start a publication that makes money from subscriptions.

We are developing an all-in-one service to let writers get paid by reaching audiences that value them. Our tools will include easy-to-use editing software that can handle the simultaneous publication of stories and newsletters; a payments solution that makes subscriptions intuitive and manageable for both publisher and reader; sharing features that allow stories to find large audiences outside the paywalls; and design templates so that publishers can create beautiful reading experiences. We make money only when our publishers make money, taking a small cut of subscription revenue or charging recurring fees based on earnings thresholds.

Over time, we will introduce an ever-evolving suite of features and services to better serve independent publishers, helping them do the best work they can and build strong, enduring businesses. Publishers will be able to use our tools and resources to communicate with subscribers, grow their audiences, and find the help they need to get to the next level. They’ll also be able to participate in a meta community that encourages the growth of the whole ecosystem.

Our focus on subscriptions and creating a great user experience comes at the expense of advertising. All Substack publications without exception will have subscriptions, and we will not accommodate ads in the design of our publishing system. Publishers will own their data, which we will never attempt to sell or distribute, and we won’t place ads next to any of our own or our customers’ products.

Substack serves writers who are striking out on their own. Some of these will be professionals who can quit their jobs and financially support themselves by channeling their expertise into publications that they control. Others will be part-timers who are otherwise employed as teachers, academics, laborers, insurance agents, administrators, salespeople—or any number of other jobs—but can now earn money by writing about their passions. Entrepreneurial writers and editors may band together to bootstrap media companies focused on subjects that aren’t well covered in the existing media marketplace.

We’re not claiming that this model will work for all types of news, and we don’t think it should be the only model. Perhaps it will co-exist with a non-profit model like ProPublica, a government-supported model like the BBC, or, perhaps something new, like a non-partisan fund for journalism paid into by the tech platforms that rely on the work of others to fill their newsfeeds. Whatever the case may be, however, it is clear to us that subscriptions will be a giant and important part of a new media ecosystem. It’s the biggest opportunity for news since Benjamin Day invented the penny paper.

A new Day

At the core of Substack’s mission is the belief that, by democratizing the tools that they need to create independent businesses, we can help writers succeed in an era in which the overall market for news grows dramatically. When it has reached maturity, the subscription-based news industry could well be much larger than the newspaper business ever was, much like the ride-hailing industry in San Francisco is bigger than the taxi industry was before Lyft and Uber. Democratizing this subscription-based future will enable more writers to earn more money by writing about what truly matters. It puts the media’s destiny into the right hands.

One hundred and eighty-four years since the New York Sun first went on sale, we are standing on the cusp of a new revolution in the news business. The time for mourning the loss of the old media model is over. Now is the time to look ahead to the next two centuries.