How to use discussion threads to get closer to your readers

This is a guest post by Terrell Johnson, publisher of The Half Marathoner, who has mastered the art of the discussion thread on Substack. 


When I moved my newsletter from Mailchimp to Substack in the summer of 2018, I didn’t think a lot would change as far as how I went about publishing it. I’d still put together the same weekly issue, with the same basic structure, and that would be that.

Fast forward several months, and I began to notice a handful of other Substack publishers experimenting with message-board-like discussions. I dashed off an email to Hamish, one of Substack’s founders, to ask if I could I try that too. He said of course, and within a few days I got to try out a feature that has since become one of the best things I offer my subscribers.

To give you an idea of how it has gone, I tried it out for the first time in late May, with this discussion thread on changing your running form. Honestly, I had no idea what to expect; I just gave it a whirl by asking a question about running that I’ve often wondered about myself. I was impressed by the level of knowledge that my subscribers demonstrated in the conversation, but also by the back-and-forth chats once the conversation got going.

Since then, I’ve been hosting a weekly discussion thread every Friday morning that’s open to everyone on my mailing list. For the most part, they’ve gone well, frequently bringing 100 or more people into the conversation.

Hamish asked if I might share what I’ve learned about how to make discussion threads work. I hope this guide will help!

Ask specific questions 

When you ask readers to participate in a discussion, It helps to be as specific as possible about your topic. I’ve seen a handful of discussion threads that didn’t seem to attract much activity, and one thing they have in common is the topic was vague. You have to do the work first of sparking readers’ interest – that gives them a jumping-off point and you can broaden it from there. Also: don’t think you have to have all the answers – what are you curious about in your topic area that you’d like to know more about?

Example: “Can running together improve your relationship/marriage?

Be a social butterfly

I try to do is engage with as many people as I can during a discussion. Sometimes I have (what I think are) thoughtful and helpful comments; other times, I chime in just to make sure people submitting responses feel acknowledged. And sometimes I ask them questions. I’m constantly impressed by the level of knowledge my readers bring to running – and I may never have learned that without these discussion threads.

Become ‘appointment viewing’

We always do discussion threads on Friday mornings, starting between 8:30am and 9am EST. Why then? I wish I had some clever reason to share with you, but I simply copied what I saw Nicole Cliffe doing with her discussion threads. (I even copied the subject line she uses!) But Friday also works well for what I cover, as runners look ahead to the weekends, when races take place. It’s a perfect time to look back on the week that’s just passed and look ahead to something big you have planned for the weekend. 

Give readers a chance to share themselves and what’s important to them

Each week, I try to focus our discussion on a single topic/question that will encourage readers to open up and tell us about their own experiences. After all, when it comes to running, I really only know what it’s like on my own 48-year-old legs. Hearing about what it’s like from someone who’s 27 or 77 makes the discussion much richer. When readers feel comfortable enough to share their own experience, that means you’ve earned their confidence – they trust you’ll hear them out and value what they have to say.

Example: “Friday open thread: Your running goal/dream for 2020?

The finish line

That last point has been pivotal for me in how I understand what matters to the people who subscribe to The Half Marathoner. I’ve found that people seem most engaged when the topic allows them to share something about their own experience. By contrast, I’ve found that when they’re asked to share opinions about things in the news, they’ve been less engaged.

A case in point: a few weeks ago, the legendary runner Eliud Kipchoge made huge news by breaking the two-hour barrier in the marathon. I started a discussion thread on the first Friday following his record-breaking run, thinking this might really captivate my readers’ imaginations. I was surprised to find that it... really didn’t. It generated fewer than 30 responses. On the other hand, this thread on how to run in the cold got 99 responses.

Of course, you may have a different experience. It really depends on your audience and what's important to them – and discussion threads are one of the best ways to find that out.

If you have any questions at all about doing discussion threads on Substack, please feel free to reach me at terrell@halfmarathons.net. I'll be rooting for you!

– Terrell

Three to read: Lindsay Gibbs, Sarah Gailey, Scott Hines

This week’s three publications to read are... 

Lindsay Gibbs, Power Plays

What’s it about? A newsletter for people who are ready to see equality for women in sports. 

Worth reading: How Nike’s abuse of female athletes was exposed

Key line: “Cain saw Felix’s story, and that’s when she decided to reach out to Crouse. The courage became contagious. And it all started because one reporter listened closely to what these women were saying in public, read between the lines, and asked the right questions.”

Lindsay’s credits: Co-host of Burn It All down podcast, contributor to The Athletic DC, former sports reporter for ThinkProgress, bylines at Deadspin, Bleacher Report, The Ringer, NPR, and others. 

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Sarah Gailey, Here’s the Thing

What’s it about? Recipes, short stories, poems, essays, and more from Hugo award-winning author. 

Worth reading:Teen Wolf vs Teen Witch

Key line: “Did I watch this motion picture? I’m not sure. I certainly sat on my couch for ninety minutes with my eyes open and directed toward my television, and I am assured that the film played that entire time, but all I can report to you is a sense of humid upset. Between the opening credits and the closing credits I became a sentient fog of nausea and worry, because the thing I was seeing refused to resolve itself into a coherent image, and my optic nerves were braising themselves in the attempt. That is not to say TEEN WITCH is a bad movie.”

Sarah’s credits: Author of Magic For Liars, American Hippo, and more. Hugo award winner, finalist for Campbell and Nebula awards.

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Scott Hines, Action Cookbook

What’s it about? Sports and fandom, frivolous and serious, with recipes.

Worth reading: The sports internet mattered

Key line: “I don’t want to be overly sappy about it — a lot of that has just been making silly jokes and wasting time on various employers’ clocks — but it’s not a stretch to say that my life, and the lives of many people I know, would be different without the ecosystem that Deadspin helped foster.”

Scott’s credits: Bylines in SB Nation and Decider. 

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Hey, writers: Ask some lawyers anything

Hello! Today, we're hosting Mike Wolfe, Tim Hwang, and Lea Rosen, experienced media attorneys we're working with to provide some legal support for Substack writers. Mike, Tim, and Lea's work for Substack will cover copyright issues, and claims related to defamation, libel, and confidentiality. To kick off this first version of the 'Substack Defender' program, they'll be live in this discussion thread for the next hour (and perhaps a little beyond that), so you can ask them anything. Send in your questions on editorial-related legal matters now!

(ALSO: Please be aware that these answers are general, and are NOT personal legal advice. Mike, Tim, and Lea cannot give you personalized legal advice in this format. They can answer broad questions, but if you need specific advice about a particular situation, they cannot provide it in this format. They are ONLY offering general information about the law. By answering your question, they are NOT agreeing to represent you in any capacity.)

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Introducing the Substack Fellowship for Independent Writers

Today, we’re proud to announce the start of a program that we hope will become an important part of how Substack supports writers: The Substack Fellowship for Independent Writers. 

For this first batch of fellows, we have selected five writers who are already active on Substack to help them take their publications to the next level. As well as a stipend, the fellows will receive coaching and support in areas that will set them up for long-term success with the subscription publishing model. We will also host them for a summit in San Francisco. 

We’ve selected these writers based on the quality of the work they have already been doing through Substack, the subject areas they are covering, and their potential with the subscription publishing model. 

The first five Substack fellows are:

Emily Atkin, author of Heated, providing accountability journalism about climate change. 

Saeed Jones, author of The Intelligence of Honey, a newsletter about what we can learn from happiness. 

Lindsay Gibbs, author of Power Plays, an examination of the power structures and decision-makers that keep women’s sports on the margins.

Sarah Bessey, author of Field Notes, an ongoing collection of essays and recommendations about life, power, and faith. 

Amee Vanderpool, author of Shero, offering insight into legal and political issues facing women but affecting everyone.  

(Read their full bios below.) 

This fellowship is important for Substack because simply being a publishing tool is not enough. We aim to create the conditions for important independent writing to flourish, which means helping writers get access to the resources, expertise, and communities they need to do their best work. These fellows will receive dedicated support over a three-month period from the Substack team and a group of invited experts.

In talking to writers about why they should use Substack, we often stress simplicity: by using our tools, you don’t have to grapple with complicated technology or other overheads, so you can focus on doing the best work possible. In short, we take care of everything except the hard part: the writing itself. The Substack Fellowship for Independent Writers is an extension of that philosophy. The Substack model, based on the idea that a reader subscribes to a specific person, is relatively new and we want to do everything we can to make it an inviting option for writers who long to do the kind of work that’s not well accommodated by the prevailing media structure. 

To support the writers in this fellowship, we’re bringing in some star talent. 

Ben Williams, for more than a decade the editor of New York Magazine’s digital properties, will serve as an editorial consultant, providing one-on-one coaching for the fellows and helping them build first-rate publications. 

Bailey Richardson, one of the first employees at Instagram and an expert in community, will help the writers cultivate a sense of community among their readerships, so their publications can become much more than just periodicals. 

Tim Hwang, a media polymath who formerly was the head of public policy for Google on artificial intelligence – and who also happens to be a writer and lawyer – will provide legal coaching and advice. 

The fellows will also have access to Substack’s founders for product discussions and beyond, and we’ll offer further support on design, branding, publicity, and social media strategy. 

While the fellows will be the first beneficiaries of these initiatives, we will compile and package the best of the advice into materials that will be made available to everyone through our media channels, including the Substack blog. The lessons from the fellowship will also inform how we develop Substack as a product. 

There’s a lot of talk in and around the news industry about what can be done to “save” journalism. We don’t quite think of it that way. Instead, we think there’s so much that can be done to help journalism thrive. The Substack model provides a way to unlock potential that the old models could never fully exploit. By giving writers the power to do their best work and be supported directly by readers who care as much as they do, exciting new things can happen. This fellowship is a small step in what will be a long-term effort to help writers grasp these opportunities. 

Congratulations to the first Substack fellows!

Meet the fellows

(These photos are in order with the names listed below.)

Emily Atkin is the author and founder of HEATED, a daily newsletter dedicated to original accountability reporting and analysis on the climate crisis. Called “one of the foremost climate journalists in the U.S.” by MSNBC’s Ali Velshi, she’s been reporting on climate science and politics for the last six years, most recently as the climate staff writer at The New Republic. Emily also previously worked at ThinkProgress as the site’s deputy climate editor, and at Sinclair Broadcast Group as a national political reporter. An accomplished speaker, Emily has served as both panelist and moderator for several climate change journalism events, and gave a TEDx talk about hurricanes and sewage. She was mentored by the late, great investigative journalist Wayne Barrett, who inspires everything she does.

Saeed Jones, publisher of The Intelligence of Honey, is the author of the 2019 Kirkus Prize-winning memoir How We Fight For Our Lives. His poetry collection Prelude to Bruise, was the winner of the 2015 PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award and the 2015 Stonewall Book Award/Barbara Gittings Literature Award. The poetry collection was also a finalist for the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award, as well as awards from Lambda Literary and the Publishing Triangle in 2015. He lives in Columbus, Ohio.

Lindsay Gibbs is a sports reporter based in Washington, D.C., who writes Power Plays, a no-bullshit newsletter about sexism in sports. She is the co-host of the popular feminist sports podcast, Burn It All Down, and is a contributor to The Athletic DC, where she covers Maryland women's basketball and the WNBA’s Washington Mystics. For four years, she was the sports reporter at ThinkProgress, where she covered the intersection of sports and politics. She’s a regular guest on NPR, and her work has also appeared on Deadspin, Bleacher Report, and The Ringer, among others. Currently, Gibbs is writing a book with Beacon Press about this current wave of female athlete activism and the power of sports, due out in 2021.

Sarah Bessey, who writes the Substack newsletter Field Notes, is the author of the popular and critically acclaimed books Out of Sorts: Making Peace with an Evolving Faith and Jesus Feminist. Her brand new book is Miracles and Other Reasonable Things. She is a sought-after speaker at churches, conferences, and universities all around the world. Sarah is also the co-curator and co-host of the annual Evolving Faith Conference and she serves as President of the Board for Heartline Ministries in Haiti. She lives in Abbotsford, British Columbia with her husband and their four children.

Amee Vanderpool is writer and attorney who lives in Washington, D.C. She is the Director of The Inanna Project, a non-profit focused on pursuing true equality under the law for women. She is a contributor to Playboy Magazine and analyst for BBC Radio and also writes the Shero newsletter, which focuses on political and legal issues facing women but affecting everyone.


Photo by Bruno Martins on Unsplash

Three to read: Sarah Bessey, Whitney Fishburn, Dennis Lee

This week’s three publications to read are... 

Sarah Bessey, Field Notes

What’s it about? Essays, books worth reading, recommendations, and commentary on life and faith by author and speaker Sarah Bessey.

Worth reading: Nope, Not Going Home

Key line: “The Early Church was the one place in society where we weren’t told ‘go home, woman’ but ‘show up, sister.’ In fact, it is my sincere belief that if the Apostle Paul knew how a few lines he wrote in a letter to a particular church in a particular context had been twisted to silence women for generations, he would be brokenhearted.”

Sarah’s credits: Author of Jesus Feminist, Out of Sorts, and the just-released Miracles and Other Reasonable Things; creator of the Evolving Faith Conference.  

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Whitney Fishburn, Docu-mental

What’s it about? News, information, and analysis about identiy, mental health, and how to attain peace of mind in today’s America.  

Worth reading:Anti-trust and the crushing of physicians’ souls

Key line: “If CVS becomes the one in charge of infusion treatments what is lost? For one thing, the physicians lose control of the patient-physician relationship because it will now be intermediated by whoever is ultimately in charge of the CVS corporate mission.”

Whitney’s credits: Former managing editor of Psychiatric Annals, Pediatric Annals, and several other lifestyle and trade publications; former reporter of policy and practice in Clinical Psychiatry News, Pediatric News, and Internal Medicine News, among other medical titles; opera and classical music reviewer. 

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Dennis Lee, Food Is Stupid

What’s it about? Award-winning Chicago-based food writer celebrates the frequent stupidity of food with thoughtful commentary and questionable stunts. 

Worth reading: Vegan beef tartare is Beyond the pale

Key line: “Without any actual cooking to mask the flavor, the Beyond Beef’s decidedly smoky, pet-foody, un-meatlike taste was free to let its freak flag fly. The acid and spices of the other ingredients, while definitely pleasant, did little to rescue the dish. I don’t know what we expected.”

Dennis’s credits: Contributor to Serious Eats, Thrillist, The Takeout, Kitchen Toke, and Dill. 

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