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Sept. 20, 2021, 11:19 a.m.
Business Models

What I learned from a year on Substack

“The only way a Substack grows is through tweets. I am like 85% serious when I say this.”

This piece originally ran on Casey Newton’s Substack, Platformer. We’re republishing it here because it offers a lot of great detail about what it’s like to leave a media company and start your own publication.

A year ago, I quit the best job I ever had to start Platformer. Today I wanted to tell you all how it’s going, what I’ve learned, and how I hope the business will evolve in year two. My hope is that this piece offers some texture to ongoing discussions about how the creator economy and traditional journalism intersect, and proves useful both to journalists considering making a move like this and readers who are curious about whether this model can offer a more sustainable path for journalism than the rocky one we’ve been on lately.

I.

Let’s start with the good news. Platformer is, thanks to your support, the best job I’ve ever had. It affords me a good salary, covers my health care, and pays for the various expenses that come with running a small business. I’m hopeful that your continued support will allow me to expand the business soon, in ways I’ll discuss later in this post.

That support has come on the back of growth that surpassed my highest expectations for year one. When I started Platformer with the mailing list I accumulated while writing my previous newsletter, there were around 24,000 of them. Twelve months later, there are 49,604 people subscribed to Platformer’s free list, and they regularly open this newsletter at a rate that far exceeds in the industry average.

How did it grow that quickly? In short, by publishing journalism. The biggest spikes in both free and paid membership over the past year came after I published the best reporting I did this year. Here are some of the stories I’m proud of:

— Platformer was the first to report the details of the email that got Timnit Gebru fired from Google, in a piece later cited in a congressional inquiry.

— I revealed deep tensions within Signal over its plans to incorporate cryptocurrency and new social features into the app, risking a regulatory backlash that could threaten encryption globally.

— I explored how Medium’s latest pivot toward journalism ended in disaster for the talented journalists who worked there.

— I wrote the definitive pieces on what happened at Basecamp after its founders sought to eliminate political discussions in the workplace.

This was the incentive I hoped that this model of journalism would bring to my reporting: readers would encounter my journalism, like it, and pay me to go do more of it.

The result is a job that feels more durable, and sustainable, than any other employment I’ve had. In the past, to lose my job might require only a bad quarter in the ad market, the loss of an ally in upper management, or the takeover of my company by some indifferent telecom company. Today, I can really only lose my job if thousands of people decide independently to “fire” me. As a result, I’ve never felt more empowered to cover the issues I find most meaningful: the fraught, unpredictable collisions between big tech platforms and the world around them.

Anyway, here are some of the lessons I’ve learned in year one.

It’s a hits business. Platformer grows when it’s publishing good journalism — particularly journalism that takes you inside companies in crisis. The rest of the time, the business is largely static. Occasionally, a more analytical post will bring in a range of new signups. So will posts that tackle some new frontier yet to be picked up by traditional publications — this month’s story about Dom Hofmann’s blockchain project Loot was a hit, for example. Generally speaking, though, most columns don’t move the needle. In part that’s because …

Churn is real. Platformer loses 3-4 percent of its paid customers per month. To grow, it has to replace those customers and then find new ones. The good news is that a relatively small percentage of free subscribers ever have to convert to paid subscribers to make this a viable enterprise. But …

I converted a smaller percentage of subscribers to paid than I thought I would. Guidance I had gotten from Substack suggested I might expect 10% or so of my free subscribers to go paid. Given that 24,000 people had been reading me four days a week when I launched — some for three years — I thought that 10% would be a slam dunk. Instead, it was closer to 5%. That number has grown a bit over the past year, but it’s still well under 10.

One thing that did, help, though, was …

A Discord is a superpower that journalists can give themselves. In April I launched Sidechannel along with seven other independent journalists. (Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg stopped by for an interview.) The idea was to give free subscribers a reason to upgrade, since their subscription would now come with access to a community of smart, like-minded people, as well as some of the journalists working on their behalf.

Other than the stories I mentioned above, the Discord launch was the single biggest thing I did over the past year to convert paid subscribers. And beyond the business benefit, I’ve been struck at just how useful it is to have a Discord for my publication. I regularly get tips from readers for stories; good-faith pushback on things I’ve written; links I should read; and good tweets for the end of the daily newsletter. And all that has happened despite the fact that I generally feel like I’ve invested too little in Sidechannel to date. (More on that later.)

My readers hate interviews

Over the past year I’ve brought readers news-making interviews with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Snap CEO Evan Spiegel, Twitch COO Sara Clemens, Instagram chief Adam Mosseri, and WhatsApp chief Will Cathcart, among others. Because I write a publication closely associated with the tech industry, and social networks more specifically, it feels important to regularly ask questions of the people running those networks. What I’ve learned, though, is that almost no one becomes a paid subscriber because they liked an interview. (It’s possible my interviews are bad!)

I’m not giving up on Q&As entirely, but suffice to say: message received.

II.

And speaking of not giving up on Q&As entirely, here are some of the questions you asked me when I put out a call on Twitter and Discord about Platformer year 1.

How difficult (or easy) is it to get access to scoops and sources now that you’re working for yourself and not for an org like The Verge?

It’s been relatively easy. Before I quit, I reached out to all my beat companies to see if they would still take my phone calls if I went independent. To my great relief, they all said yes. And as you can see from the list of the interviews above, executives are still engaging with me — in some cases, more than they did before. (One reason: There were some editor-in-chief type conversations I was never invited to before this year, because I had never been editor-in-chief of a tech publication before.)

Meanwhile, I continue to have a great backchannel with rank-and-file workers via replies to each day’s edition and the Discord server. My WhatsApp and Signal are both still popping off. I always want more and better sources, of course, but generally speaking I feel good about this.

How free do you feel in terms of selecting the stories you want to cover and your take? Do you feel like you need to conform to what your paying audience expects?

Being captured by the audience is probably my greatest fear about running a newsletter over the long term. This is a real problem with trade publications — when you spend every day talking to a handful of companies, those companies come to sound more reasonable to you than they do to an average person. The good news is that Platformer also has plenty of paid subscribers who are outside the orbit of Big Tech: they’re academics, policy makers, consultants, and concerned citizens, and I regularly hear back from them when they think I’ve missed the mark. Also: a good number of rank-and-file workers subscribe specifically because they want to empower journalism and analysis that pushes their companies to do better.

I think my best shot at retaining real independence is to position myself at the uncomfortable center of all of these groups, and embrace the fact that they will push and pull me in various directions continuously.

One thing that has given me hope is that I often see a surge in subscriptions when I write about more unexpected subjects, as with the Loot example above. That tells me readers are hungry for novelty and don’t want me to stay in one lane forever.

How far in advance do you plan your publications? What’s your definition of balance between timeless pieces (e.g. Twitter should copy from Tinder) vs. trending (e.g. release of communities by Twitter)?

It varies widely. The general idea is to do at least one piece of high-quality reported journalism every week, give it away for free to a mass audience, and surround it with paid posts that are more relevant to people working in the industry. On a good Monday morning, I know what that free post is going to be, and I have some ideas for at least a couple of the paid posts. Generally I found this easier during the Trump years, when every single day was a series of infinite branching catastrophes. I’m still working to find a good rhythm now that we are in the ever-slightly-more-relaxed Biden era.

One thing I struggle with is that if I decided to investigate something, it generally has to be something I can wrap up quickly: every minute I spend reporting is a minute I’m not writing, and I write four newsletters a week. That tilts the balance of the newsletter away from original journalism more than I’d like, and it’s clear that original journalism is the thing that people are most excited to support financially. Reconciling those two things is going to be a focus for me in year two.

How’s it been working more autonomously versus for a publication? Pros/cons?

Pros: I feel like I have more control over my destiny. I own an asset that can grow in value over time. And I love working directly on behalf of readers, and interacting with them daily. Most of all, I love getting to experiment — with the Discord server, for example.

Cons: Having to do bookkeeping and accounting — there is so much more paperwork than there used to be. Not having a copyeditor for the daily newsletter — thanks to all of you who point out typos, which I endeavor to fix as quickly as possible. Most of all, in this line of work you can’t really afford to have a bad few months the way you can at a staff job. (Ask me about my 2017!) The business only works when I’m working.

All that said: it’s less lonely than people assume. I am still besieged every day by phone calls and text messages and emails and Twitter DMs and Discord pings and Zoom meetings. Thanks to everyone who has stayed in touch!

With limited time, what efforts do you prioritize for audience growth? What about for retention?

The only way a Substack grows is through tweets. I am like 85% serious when I say this. I have been featured in various Substack leaderboards, newspaper articles, podcasts, radio shows, and blog posts since Platformer began. The only thing that ever moves the needle is some screenshot of a paid blog post getting 500 likes. I wish I had other obvious avenues for growth, but to date it really feels like it’s Twitter or nothing.

As for retention, I’m still figuring that out. Usually when people unsubscribe and send a note, they don’t say they hated the publication. Rather, they’ve decided to spend less on subscriptions for whatever reason; they found they weren’t reading it as often as they assumed; or they changed jobs and it’s less useful to them than it was before. I can’t be unhappy about any of this, not even a little bit. For the most part, I think the only good retention strategy is to keep doing good journalism.

Is Sidechannel living up to expectations? What were some things you thought it’d be that didn’t happen? What has it done that surprised you?

Yes and no. It’s been great to build a small community of Platformer readers and interact with them every day. Better yet, to watch them interacting with each other in friendly, constructive ways. And I was surprised when people I had never interacted with before showed up in my Discord DMs offering me story tips and advice. For these reasons alone, it has been a good project.

That said, I imagined it as a great, ongoing conversation between independent writers — a kind of public newsroom Slack channel — and that hasn’t materialized. There are two main reasons why: one, these writers are truly independent. Everyone is focused on getting their newsletter out, on spinning up a podcast, on a book project, on whatever. And so there hasn’t been the kind of regular interaction that I first envisioned. This issue was compounded by the fact that two of our initial writers — for excellent reasons, by the way — quit their newsletters within a few months of launch.

I’m long on Discord as a component of the Platformer subscription, but I think it would offer more value if it felt like a true water cooler for indie writers, and had more regular programming to bring you all in. This is largely a question of time management, and finding passionate collaborators.

One other thing folks have observed to me: no matter the Discord server, every channel seems to be dominated by the same few loud voices. None of them are breaking the rules, exactly, but they tend to crowd out other people who might otherwise share their opinions. I basically have no idea what to do about this.

Anything you learned in year 1 you’d want to avoid if you had to do it all over again?

I incorporated as an LLC using Stripe Atlas. Stripe Atlas is a truly fantastic product in the sense that you essentially snap your fingers and, for $500, get a fully formed LLC in return. At the same time, I now pay taxes in both California and Delaware, where Platformer is incorporated, and in hindsight I wish I had just set up shop in California where I live.

Any stray observations?

I think the first wave of writers leaving mainstream publications for Substack has mostly crested. I talked to more than a dozen writers at big publications over the past year who were considering going independent; in the end almost none of them did. It can be a deceptively hard business, particularly if you don’t have some of the advantages I did — a large existing mailing list and a well-defined product being the two most helpful.

At the same time, I wish more journalists would explore this route. (And have been heartened by the local journalists who are trying this, backed by various platforms and media companies.) In my conversations, I was struck over and over again at how little journalists value their own work — in large part, I think, because their bosses have taught them to. Having myself worked at media companies that remind you often of just how easily you can be replaced, and scoff at the idea of even a 2% raise, I get it. But for the right reporter and the right product, the economics of independent life can be phenomenal.

One of the best things about being independent is the flexibility to strike deals. All the big media companies take near-total ownership over your work, making it difficult to do things like start a newsletter, sell a podcast, or get a TV deal. The avenues for extending your work as a journalist are increasing all the time, and it’s fantastic to be able to take advantage of them. (One deal I’ve never taken is to put ads on the site, despite getting offers now nearly every week. Thanks to the paid subscribers who made that possible.)

What’s coming in year two?

My first priority is to continue to deliver a high-quality newsletter four days a week that breaks news, captures the moment, and promotes high-quality discussion about important issues.

But there are two things I know would make Platformer better. One is developing a podcast that connects to the themes of the newsletter but delivers it through audio. The other is hiring someone to help me put the newsletter together each day and free up more hours for reporting, thinking, and writing.

By the time I write my “what I learned in year two” post, I will have either done both these things or have a hilarious story about how and why I failed.

Casey Newton is the editor-in-chief of Platformer, which you can subscribe to here.

Photo of mailboxes by Dave Wilson used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Sept. 20, 2021, 11:19 a.m.
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