Substack, the $650m Andreessen Horowitz-backed newsletter platform that journalists like to
moan talk incessantly about on Twitter, is introducing a new feature. And it’s one that could make traditional media outlets quake in their boots even more than they already are. That’s because the feature allows writers and other content-creators to set themselves up on the platform in a way that is . . . rather reminiscent of traditional media outlets.
The Silicon Valley-based firm’s new feature is called “Sections”, and it allows writers to set up and manage multiple newsletters or podcasts within one main publication. So while you would subscribe to the publication as a whole, you can select which sections of it you want to be sent to your inbox.
We called Substack co-founder Hamish McKenzie at his home in New Zealand and asked him what the deal was. He told us (emphasis ours):
Some writers want to go beyond a single newsletter-style publication, and start to build something resembling more of a full featured publication or even like a mini media empire . . .
I think it will allow for some really interesting possibilities. For an individual writer, you can have these multiple sub-products within your master product. And then for teams of writers, you can start to develop a more newsroom-type of approach, or a news-publication type of approach . . . Maybe you have something on politics for example, and something on sports, and something on religion within the same publication.
One of the criticisms often levelled at Substack is that star journalists, who have built up followings at mainstream news outlets, are now leveraging the reputations old media helped them build. Absent the resources and support of a newsroom these star names, however, can’t do the quality of reporting they once could. This is bad for journalism, some argue, and it’s a fair point.
But there are already very successful newsletters that are the product of a team effort, such as The Dispatch, which has a whole team of staff including editors and fact-checkers, has tens of thousands of subscribers each paying $10 a month. And it seems that Substack is now opening the door to this becoming a norm on the platform.
Why Substack tho?
So isn’t Substack just reinventing the wheel? Why would you set up a publication or “mini media empire” on Substack when you could just set up a publication on, like, the internet? McKenzie told us:
This is a very lightweight, very fast, very affordable, kind of instant way to start a news organisation, where you don’t have to go and hire a bunch of engineers, or a bunch of designers, or a bunch of business admin back-end people to figure out a model and sales operation and figure it all out from scratch.
You could decide to start a newspaper at 8 in the morning, at 9 o’clock you convince your friends to join you, and by 10 o’clock you can be up and running on Substack with a multiple-section publication that you’re already bringing in money from.
You could do that by sort of cobbling together WordPress with MailChimp or some other more sort of techie system, or even just starting your own website from scratch and building your own stack, but there’s a lot more friction in that process. And I’m not saying that Substack is the one supreme way that’s definitely gonna work for everyone, it’s just really interesting when you take the friction down to almost zero.
OK so sure, it’s very quick and easy to set up, and journalists tend to be non-techy types who aren’t very good at practical stuff and can’t be bothered with admin (OK maybe not all of us but definitely this particular Alphavillain). But in the long term, when you’re making the big bucks and when you have a “mini media empire”, surely paying 10 per cent to Substack plus fees (which can amount to over a fifth of revenues), why stay on Substack? Isn’t its whole business model a little short-termist?
McKenzie doesn’t think so. The company is not yet profitable but he points out this is normal for a start-up and says Substack is “building for future potential future of amazing profitability”. It is also, McKenzie says, going to be adding some new features to the platform that could end up enhancing its appeal. One of those is a feature called “Substack Defender”, which includes “pre-publication legal review of individual stories and responses to cease-and-desist letters”.
Another idea that McKenzie is excited about is the idea of a “Rebuttal” button that you can use to disagree with the argument that is made in a particular piece. He feels this would be a more constructive way to engage in debate over a particular subject than “performative quote-tweets”, and suggests it would be more like the way that bloggers would write blogs in response to one another back in the noughties blogosphere heyday.
And this bring us to another element of Substack’s appeal too. Its commitment to free speech and to publishing a broad range of opinions, however unpalatable some might find them, is giving it an edge. When we spoke to Glenn Greenwald about what he liked about Substack, he told us he felt the company had become “this kind of brand that people are eager to support as a cause”. He also said:
You’re in a place specifically designed to foster independent voices, and so the voices becomes more organic and more genuine and more vibrant, and readers respond to that. People respond to, you know unconstrained and truthful perspective, even if they don’t agree with them - they feel like they’re not being manipulated or deceived.
James Ball recently asked in an article in The Observer whether Substack had become a new type of publication that “relies on stoking the culture wars to help divisive writers build devoted followings”. It seems he thinks it might be.
McKenzie says he isn’t “trying to cultivate a brand along any particular ideological line”, and points out that there is a broad range of voices on the platform, which there certainly is. But he speaks passionately about freedom of expression:
We just 100 per cent believe that an incredibly important thing for democracy is free speech, and a free press . . . Freedom of expression and free speech is fundamentally coupled with the idea of a free press, and we’ve created this model on Substack where it’s not based on a master feed, where you delegate your media consumption decisions to some corporation or engagement-based algorithm.
The reality is that in the polarised world we currently find ourselves in, allowing all viewpoints to be heard, and debated, kind of is an ideology in itself.
We are not convinced this will be enough, however, to make Substack the destination for wannabe media moguls. We are not sure how Rupert Murdoch, for instance, would feel about handing over a fifth of his revenues to a third-party platform. We are also not at all convinced that readers’ appetite for subscribing to newsletters can keep up with the pace at which writers are joining the platform.
Traditional media outlets shouldn’t ignore the Substack phenomenon — as we have written before, the fact that a platform can stand out simply by committing to remain neutral should be a lesson. But traditional media outlets can breathe easy, for now.
How long can the Substack party last? - FT Alphaville
Substack’s success shows readers have had enough of polarised media - FT
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