• Will Substack Go Beyond Newsletters? A Company Weighs Its Future. - The New York Times

    Not long ago, Substack haunted mainstream media executives, poaching their star writers, luring their readers and, they feared, threatening their viability. Flush with venture money, the start-up was said to be “the media future.”

    But now, Substack finds itself no longer a wunderkind but a company facing a host of challenges. Depending on whom you talk to, those challenges are either standard start-up growing pains or threats to the company’s future.

    Tech giants, news outlets and other companies have released competing newsletter platforms in the past year. Consumers who loaded up on newsletters during the pandemic began to scale back. And many popular writers left, such as the associate English professor Grace Lavery and the climate journalists Mary Annaïse Heglar and Amy Westervelt, often complaining about the company’s moderation policy or the pressure to constantly deliver.

    “Substack is at a pivot point where it needs to think about what it’s going to be when it grows up,” said Nikki Usher, an associate journalism professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

    The good news for the company, five years old this summer, is that it is still growing. Paid subscriptions to its hundreds of thousands of newsletters exploded to more than one million late last year from 50,000 in mid-2019. (The company won’t disclose the number of free subscribers.) A hiring spree hopes to net more than a dozen engineers, product managers and other specialists. Executives hope to eventually take the company — which has raised more than $82 million and is said to be valued at $650 million — public.

    But to maintain that growth, Substack executives say, the company must offer more than newsletters.

    In practice, that means Substack will be not just a delivery channel for written newsletters but more of a multimedia community. Executives want users to create “personal media empires” using text, video and audio, and communicate with subscribers through expanded comments that could feature GIF images and profiles for readers. This week, Substack announced new tools for writers to recommend other newsletters.

    But as Substack evolves beyond newsletters, it risks looking like another social network or news publisher — which could make it less appealing for writers.

    Ben Thompson, whose tech-focused Stratechery newsletter inspired Substack, wrote last month that Substack has gone from being a “Faceless Publisher” behind the scenes to trying to put “the Substack brand front-and-center,” building up its app as a destination on the backs of writers.

    “This is a way for Substack to draft off of their popularity to build an alternative revenue model that entails readers paying for Substack first, and publishers second, instead of the other way around,” Mr. Thompson wrote.

    Publishing on Substack is free, but writers who charge for subscriptions pay 10 percent of their revenue to Substack and 3 percent to its payment processor, Stripe. The company also offers hefty advances to a small group of writers, whose identities it refuses to divulge.

    Substack has one key difference from most other media companies: It refuses to chase advertising dollars. “Over my dead body,” Mr. McKenzie once wrote. “The antithesis of what Substack wants to be,” Mr. Best said.

    But Substack’s biggest conflict has been over content moderation.

    Mr. McKenzie, a former journalist, describes Substack as an antidote to the attention economy, a “nicer place” where writers are “rewarded for different things, not throwing tomatoes at their opponents.”

    Critics say the platform recruits (and therefore endorses) culture war provocateurs and is a hotbed for hate speech and misinformation. Last year, many writers abandoned Substack over its inaction on transphobic content. This year, The Center for Countering Digital Hate said anti-vaccine newsletters on Substack generate at least $2.5 million in annual revenue. The technology writer Charlie Warzel, who left a job at The New York Times to write a Substack newsletter, described the platform as a place for “internecine internet beefs.”

    Substack has resisted pressure to be more selective about what it allows on its platform. Employees of Twitter who worried that its content moderation policies would be relaxed by Elon Musk, the world’s richest man and the platform’s largest shareholder, were told to not bother applying for jobs at Substack.

    “We don’t aspire to be the arbiter of saying, ‘Eat your vegetables,’” Mr. Best said. “If we agree with or like everything on Substack, that would be falling short of what a healthy intellectual climate looks like.”

    Substack makes it easy for writers to break away, and defectors have a fast-growing collection of competitors waiting to welcome them.

    #Edition #Substack #Newsletter #Modération

  • Substack : how the game-changer turned poacher | Digital media | The Guardian

    Substack has marketed itself aggressively to people such as Roughol as a new type of tech company, one that will let writers build their own brands and communities. The company offers software to help people set up free or paid-for newsletters and promises the people creating them that they can write what they want and that they own their own mailing list and can take it with them if they leave.

    Initially, everything was great: Substack’s interface to make newsletters was much more intuitive than Mailchimp or other rivals and the company seemed keen to be friendly to small independent outlets such as Borderline, but then Substack started courting big-name writers and, with it, controversy.

    Reports earlier this year revealed Substack has offered six-figure advances to a number of US writers to leave traditional media and go it alone on its platforms. Many are making more money than they ever did in traditional media, but concerns are emerging about what Substack is now, exactly. Is it a platform for hosting newsletters and helping people discover them? Or is it a new type of publication, one that relies on stoking the culture wars to help divisive writers build devoted followings?

    The result of all this is that Substack finds itself in the middle of an identity crisis. Is it a cool online tool to help people outside legacy media build and write newsletters? Is it a publisher picking the journalists of the future? Or is it some combination of the two – and how much editorial control does it claim?

    I don’t feel convinced that Substack has come up with something that is fundamentally new

    Douglas McCabe, media analyst

    Given its team offer some writers massive advances, while leaving others to work entirely off their own merits, they are making very similar hiring choices to those made by traditional editors. The company is also hoping investors value it as a fast-growing tech company, rather than as a dowdy old media company reliant on a large staff of journalists, web developers and back-room employees.

    Substack rose to prominence among numerous rival newsletter services by positioning itself as a friend to people trying to set up solo media brands. The company takes a relatively small commission and to position itself as truly creator-friendly, it even started launching funds to help independent publishers tackle lawsuits.

    But the bid to capture big-name writers changed the nature of the service. Where once Substack was a software tool, it started to become a brand in its own right, persuading big-name columnists to defect from traditional media and launch on Substack, perhaps changing how Substack itself was perceived.

    If a company is talent-spotting for journalists and cherry-picking big names to offer them guaranteed minimum salaries of five or 10 times what most reporters could hope to earn, at what point does it stop being a technology company and start being just another new media outlet?

    #Substack #Médias #Journalisme #Newsletters

  • Substack: five of the best from the niche newsletter platform | Culture | The Guardian

    Writers have embraced Substack to cut out the middle man. The result is an eclectic library of anything and everything
    A woman at a vast, futuristic library.
    Substack has taken the best elements of its predecessors to create a home for writers craving control and readers who want their words straight from the horse’s mouth. Photograph: Fred Dufour/AFP/Getty Images
    Shelley Hepworth
    Shelley Hepworth
    Sun 27 Dec 2020 16.30 GMT

    Last modified on Mon 28 Dec 2020 00.21 GMT


    Substack is best known as the newsletter platform that lured several well-known writers and journalists away from established news outlets this year.

    Glenn Greenwald, Matthew Yglesias and Andrew Sullivan, formerly of the Intercept, Vox Media and New York Magazine respectively, have all jumped ship to sell their work directly to subscribers via the service.

    Incorporating elements of Mailchimp and Patreon, Substack has variously been hailed as the future of the media industry, a home for writers who don’t want to be edited, and a place where those who have already made a name for themselves find success.

    This is called a magazine. https://t.co/9KyGkVvPY3
    — T. Greer (@Scholars_Stage) November 15, 2020

    The site boasts more than 100,000 niche newsletters about every subject imaginable. Below is a small selection of some of the best, compiled from the recommendations of friends, colleagues, random tweets and my own sleuthing.

    #Substack #Blog #Newsletter #Journalisme

  • The Substackerati, by Clio Chang - Columbia Journalism Review

    (Substack = Uber for journalism)

    Newsletters go back at least as far as the Middle Ages, but these days, with full-time jobs at stable media companies evaporating—between the 2008 recession and 2019, newsroom employment dropped by 23 percent—Substack offers an appealing alternative. And, for many, it’s a viable source of income. In three years, Substack’s newsletters—covering almost every conceivable topic, from Australian Aboriginal rights to bread recipes to local Tennessee politics—have drawn more than two hundred fifty thousand paid subscribers. The top newsletter authors can earn six figures, an unheard-of amount for freelance journalists.

    (...) They have a system, created by a former employee named Nathan Baschez, that measures a Twitter user’s engagement level—retweets, likes, replies—among their followers. This person is then assigned a score on a logarithmic scale of fire emojis. Four fire emojis is very good—Substack material. Best and McKenzie will reach out and suggest that the person try a newsletter. The four-fire-emoji method turned up Heather Cox Richardson, a history professor at Boston College, whose Substack, Letters from an American—political with a historical eye—is now the second-top-paid.

    (...) “Substack is not the sort of thing that is going to create a sustainable next phase, but it can open the door (...) “GoFundMe can help us see things we’re not seeing and put money where it would not go,” Schneider said. “Of course, we don’t want a GoFundMe society.”

    (...) as you peruse the lists, something becomes clear: the most successful people on Substack are those who have already been well-served by existing media power structures. Most are white and male; several are conservative. Matt Taibbi, Andrew Sullivan, and most recently, Glenn Greenwald—who offer similar screeds about the dangers of cancel culture and the left—all land in the top ten.

    (...) It’s a bit of a brain twister: Substack, eager to attract customers over Mailchimp or WordPress, has begun to look like it’s reverse engineering a media company. But all the while, its founders insist that they simply provide a platform. By not acknowledging the ways in which they are actively encouraging (and discouraging) certain people to use Substack, and the ways they benefit monetarily from doing so, they obscure their role as publishers.

    (...) As more journalists embark on independent careers, the need for support infrastructure, beyond Substack, will become increasingly urgent. Labor organizing, the traditional method for making an industry more equitable, will have to adapt to the new conditions, especially as more and more industries embrace the independent-contractor model. Accountability is harder when the company you work for refuses to acknowledge what field it’s operating in. Yet people like Peck are still workers, even if they lack a boss.