This is a follow-up to my Substack And Medium: The Difficult Battle For A Future In Journalism essay from this weekend.
“After the better part of a decade chasing audiences from platform to platform, I set out to build a strong, direct connection to an audience that wants to hear from me, and that I can reliably reach no matter how many likes, upvotes, or retweets any individual post happens to get.”
— Casey Newton, The Verge
I wrote my column on Thursday night not knowing that The Ringer would be publishing a feature with a similar theme. Actually, several others have as well. For me, the idea had more to do with where I stood currently with regards to both media platforms and how they aimed to help journalists such as myself and why their best intentions left me wanting more. My conclusion in that story was that both are flawed, Medium more so than Substack and that a new system for journalism needed to be built. Government’s have to step in and view media as an integral part of helping to inform society at large. Will this happen? I doubt it. The arts are always neglected or they’re controlled by massive media conglomerations whose sole purpose is to bend information how they see fit. Rupert Murdoch anyone? Post Media here in Canada isn’t much better. In the hands of a few, we’re left with minimal opportunity and way too much manipulation.
All this leads me to Justin Charity’s column.
From The Ringer:
For more than a decade, Facebook and Twitter have hosted a series of revolutions in mass media. The former wrecked the old business model for newsroom journalism and stoked global panic about political misinformation in the process. The latter corralled journalists, activists, and consumers onto a raucous liveblogging platform which has, for better or worse, laid bare the biases, processes, and pressures which drive so much editorial judgment at media institutions beholden to the favor of an algorithm.
These tech companies helped turn reporters into personalities, and they’ve empowered those personalities to challenge those institutions both internally (as employees who command audiences beyond the employer’s own pages) and externally (as independent writers who now compete with full-staff publications for paid subscriptions). Facebook and Twitter spent the past few years swearing (before Congress!) that they’re platforms, not publishers; they don’t want to micromanage political speech. But now — despite their better judgment — they’re getting into the web newsletter business.
Newsletters may seem somewhat niche, not worth the attention of multibillion dollar corporations. But the business has been buzzing for the past year or so, with Silicon Valley company Substack leading the most successful — and controversial — enterprise. Substack has raised more than $17 million in venture capital and signed several high-profile journalists to high-dollar contracts in order to further popularize the platform, which nets its most successful writers hundreds of thousands of dollars per year.
So there are a couple things to process here. Most notably is the reality that both Facebook and Twitter are coming for Substack. This is good and bad. The good is that writers such as myself will have another platform to grow their brand and audience, even if it means dealing with the devil who killed news media these past 16 years.
Facebook has over 2.5 billion users. Its reach is staggering. A newsletter run by them could be enormous, especially if it employs a similar interface of discovery that Medium is currently built on. Even still, opportunity or not, it’s not as if Facebook woke up one day and decided to grow angel wings and help the journalism industry. And it’s not as if Substack is a huge money maker. Only a select few are profitable on its platform. So it begs asking, why even offer newsletters at all?
It’s easy. Similar to Substack and Medium, Facebook is looking to prey on the desperation of journalists. Get them on board, analyze all the content they’ll generate and then sell it to companies for ad dollars.
Compared to Instagram or TikTok, Facebook could use a jolt of energy. Having a new reason for writers to use the platform, one I suspect won’t cost them much to set up is a total no brainer. Similar to how they stole Stories from Snapchat, why not pilfer from a small startup like Substack and offer the same service for free? It costs writers 10% of their earnings to use Substack. Facebook not making money off of this won’t matter. The data they’ll gain will easily pay for itself. Substack should be worried.
Then there’s Twitter buying the newsletter app Revue back in late January. Definitely nowhere near as dominant as Facebook, Jack Dorsey’s neglected child (he loves Square so much more) has jumped into this fray for many of the same reasons. They have the audience, albeit smaller. Twitter needs this bump, probably more so than Facebook really. I doubt it will do much to grow their active user base, but again, similar to Facebook, what’s the harm in trying? There is none.
How both iterations play out here will be fascinating. Will they take cuts of subscription revenue? Will writers have full control over their content and promotion? Will both lose interest in newsletters over time?
It’s still too early to know and I have my doubts. But again, if writers have more opportunity to grow their careers, even if it’s with these two, then I’m all for it.
From The Verge:
The historian Heather Cox Richardson is the most successful individual authors on Substack, on track to earn more than $1 million in subscription revenue this year. Many of her subscribers come from her Facebook page, which has 1.4 million followers. For most of us on Substack, newsletters offer a way to monetize our Twitter followings. But if you’re a Facebook executive, you look at Richardson and wonder whether you couldn’t help more people monetize their Facebook pages.
The carrot in front of the horse. Optimism lies in wake.