Nieman Foundation at Harvard
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Sept. 19, 2023, 12:36 p.m.

In 2020, journalist Casey Newton left The Verge to launch Platformer, a tech news–focused Substack. We previously ran Newton’s wrap-ups of the first and second years of striking out on his own. He just published year 3. Platformer now has two full-time employees — Newton and managing editor Zoë Schiffer — and one part-timer, Lindsey Choo.)

Back in 2021, Newton wrote, “The only way a Substack grows is through tweets. I am like 85% serious when I say this.” Fast-forward to 2023, though, and:

[In] some ways it really is harder to start your own publication today than it was in 2020 — there’s more competition for subscription dollars, for one. And thanks to the death of Twitter, it’s harder to promote your work: you wind up posting the same link to five or six new networks, and collectively get a tenth of the views that a year ago you could have gotten on the bird site.

But lately, wherever I go, I’m telling everyone from the youngest journalism students to the most established veterans to start a little newsletter. You only have to send it out a few times a year if you want, I tell them. Just email friends links to your stories. Maybe throw in a few thoughts about your beat, or links to other things you thought were interesting. And let that list grow over time.


I’m confident that Google will find ways to continue directing streams of traffic to publishers out of sheer self-preservation — the company already faces an antitrust trial over its monopolistic digital advertising business, and if a handful more large digital media companies collapse in the next two years, regulators will have even more ammunition for their lawsuits.

But I don’t know anyone who thinks that the terms for digital publishers reliant on search traffic are going to change for the better. And if you’re a reporter for one of those publishers, you should assume that the pace of layoffs is going to pick up faster than your boss will be able to create new revenue streams to pay your salary.

The defensive reason to strike out on your own, then, is that someday the choice might be made for you. (I won’t soon forget the conversation I had earlier this year with a media CEO who, when I asked which publications he thought would survive the disruption from generative AI, would not name more than five.)

And ads are coming to Platformer:

Over the next year, Platformer is going to experiment with putting ads in the newsletter. Platformer was designed so that most people never have to pay us in order to benefit from our journalism. But at the moment, around 95 percent of our audience falls into this category. And while the generosity of our paid readers has allowed us to grow revenue well beyond my expectations, the limits of the subscription model mean that at our current rate we would likely never be able to bring on another journalist.

Ever since the newsletter began, we’ve gotten inquiries from advertisers about inserting ads into the newsletter. We briefly experimented with a jobs board last year, but discontinued it for lack of interest. This year, we want to see whether we can build a meaningful ad business that could support another journalism job.

I’m the sort of person who pays to remove ads when I can, and so I promise you that we are going to move very cautiously here. We’ll start with one ad in the weekly free edition and see how it feels. It will take us some time to ramp up — we need to publish an ads policy, for example, and chat with potential sponsors — but if you have thoughts on the subject in the meantime, let us know. (Especially if you want to advertise!)

Finally, I continue to think about what else I and Platformer can do to support independent journalism. Maybe someday the newsletter begins making small, angel-style investments in promising journalists who want to start their own businesses. Or maybe we work with a sponsor or a philanthropy to do something similar, and instead of an investment, it’s a grant. I have thought about the best way to do this for over a year, and usually at the end I find that I have basically just reinvented Substack. So I still have some more thinking to do.

(A little back-of-the-envelope math: Platformer has around 155,000 total subscribers; if 95% of those are free, as Newton mentions above, then about 7,750 people are paying, $10 a month or $100 a year. That’s around $775,000 in subscription revenue before Substack’s 10% commission and Stripe’s credit card fees.)

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