How I’d rebuild print media
I write all these late at night these days, so expect editing errors. I have a newborn.
Last week, I wrote about how the New Zealand news media, mired in crisis, could reinvent itself by forsaking the ad-based business model. In this post, I dive into more detail for how to make this all happen at scale (and not just in New Zealand).
The simple version goes like this:
Build a niche publication on Substack and make it successful
Then build a network of niche publications on Substack that are mutually reinforcing and can share resources
Cut writers in on the action
Do more fancy stuff that brings in more and more money over time
Watch this turn into a vast new global ecosystem
The detailed version starts with this subheading:
Do it all on Substack
Yep, pretty obvious I would say this. But Substack is what I know, and I know it works. Plus, I helped start this company for a reason: I believed this model is right. Sorry for the extended explainer that follows, but it is a necessary primer.
Oh, wait. A caveat: these are all my personal views. I haven’t discussed any of this post with anyone else at Substack, and they don’t know I’ve been working on it. If I say crazy things, it’s my fault entirely and should not reflect on my company or colleagues.
Anyway, here’s why Substack is worth consideration.
Subscriptions: Subscriptions are good because you only get paid if your readers believe you’re doing good work. You don’t have to worry about reaching a mass audience, so you can focus on maximizing trust instead of pageviews. Meanwhile, since you’re exclusively serving readers instead of advertisers, your subscribers are more likely to trust that you have editorial independence and intellectual freedom. (See: Matt Taibbi, Judd Legum.) Also, selling ads sucks.
Email: When you publish a post on Substack, it gets published on your Substack website and sent to your subscribers by email. The web version helps bring in new readers, and the email version goes to people who trust you enough to let you into their inboxes. Email isn’t owned by any one company, so you can reach your readers reliably without intervention by an aggregator. It also comes to you, so you don’t have to remember to keep checking a website. It’s a quiet space far removed from the tumult of social media, and there’s an email app icon on everyone’s mobile phone home screen, so you already have a claim to your readers’ most important digital real estate.
Integrated system: In Substack, everything lives under one roof. You publish your posts, accept payments, and manage your subscriber list all in the same place. From the outside, maybe this doesn’t seem like a big deal. From the inside, this seems like a big deal. As the platform, we do all the science on what makes a successful subscription publication, taking into consideration such questions as:
How does a reader experience your publication for the first time?
What’s the most efficient way to turn a new reader into a sign-up for your mailing list?
What’s the most efficient way to help that sign-up become a paying subscriber?
What’s the relationship between each post you publish and your eventual revenue?
What’s the best price to charge?
What kinds of posts should be free and which ones should be only for paid subscribers?
Are colored links good or bad?
(The answer to the last question is yes.)
Once our genius scientists figure out the best answers to questions like those, our genius developers then bake that intelligence into the product, so that you, the genius writer, will do the right thing by default. We are attempting to build a product that is so good that you will make money from your writing even if you have no clue about business, technology, or link-coloring. Just type into a box, hit “publish,” and wait for the cash to fling itself at you.
Flexible paywalling: A pretty interesting one, I reckon. You don’t give people a limited number of free articles they can read each month. You don’t put everything behind the paywall. Instead, you decide what’s free and what’s paid on a story-by-story basis. This way, you can strategically use great free stories to reach a large audience so that some of those readers ultimately decide they’ve gotta pay to get the posts you’ve decided are only for paying subscribers.
Zero startup costs: Substack is free to use. We only make money when you make money, by taking a 10 percent cut of subscription revenue. This very strongly makes us want to help you make gobs of money. You don’t have to invest in technology, design, or a team. You can start publishing immediately and then scale accordingly.
Network power: Substack is now quite widely known, so people already understand how it works when they encounter your publication. In fact, many of your readers may already be subscribed to a different Substack publication, which means they can pay with a single click (since their credit cards are already in the system). Meanwhile, Substack can take all the knowledge it has earned from seeing thousands of publications (successful and otherwise) and use it to increase the chances that your publication will succeed. Over time, this network power will increase. For instance, we haven’t even started on discovery. Imagine if Substack were as good at helping people find great things to read as YouTube is at helping you find things to watch.
Ownership: Yes, with Substack you’re building on a platform. But it’s not like most platforms you know. There’s no “lock-in” other than your continued satisfaction. You can export your mailing list and all your content at any time, and you own all the copyrights.
Okay, it’s time for another subheading.
First go small, then go big
When we started Substack, we focused first on building a product that worked for one person and one person only: Bill Bishop, publisher of the Sinocism China newsletter. (It was a lucky bet, since he got to six figures of revenue on the day of launch.) We then took what we learned from building for Bill and developed a product that worked for a handful of other writers – and then many, many more writers.
This was a critical phase in Substack’s development because it made us feel the writer’s pain at every point of the publishing process and gave us direct, real-time feedback from someone whose livelihood depended on us being competent. It helped us figure out what Substack would be.
The next-generation of news publishers should do the same. Start small, then go big.
Start with a single niche publication on Substack. One community, one writer (ideally, yourself). Figure out what makes it work. How many times a week should you publish? What’s the best way to define your publication? Who, exactly, is your audience? Why do people pay? What messages are most effective at convincing people to subscribe? Are you making something people want?
Give yourself a year to figure this out. If you fail, well, you tried your best. But if you succeed? It’s game on.
If you can make that first publication profitable – a relatively low bar since your only major expense is the writer’s salary – there’s a reasonable chance you can do it for a different publication. If you started with a newsletter covering City Hall, perhaps now you can cover local business, or the local pro basketball team.
Unlike with a newspaper, you’re not aiming for a large general audience that will appeal to advertisers. You’re looking for small, devoted audiences – people who really care about the subject matter, and at least some who are hungry enough for this coverage that they’re willing to pay.
This dynamic brings into play subject-matter publications that might otherwise have been difficult for a newspaper to go deep on, such as the business of Hollywood, politics in women’s sports, the intricacies of decentralized finance, and, um, “immanent prophetic events that will trigger the End of the Age.”
If you can do one profitable publication, you and another talented writer can probably do another. And then another.
And then why not ten more?
Or a hundred?
A platform within a platform
We’re not even three years into Substack’s tender young life, so it is, by definition, a fledgling ecosystem. What we’ve seen so far is a long list of individual writers who have been well supported by the readers who believe in their work. To me, this just feels like the start of it. I’m waiting for the empires to come.
Consider The Dispatch, now the number one publisher on Substack by revenue. The Dispatch is a group of writers who produce articles, newsletters, and podcasts. There are high-profile names in this group, such as Jonah Goldberg, David French, and Steve Hayes. To get full access to everything these writers publish, you pay $100 a year. You can then pick and choose the newsletters and podcasts you’d like to receive by email. The Dispatch has only been at it a few months, but they already have more than 10,000 paying subscribers and at least $1.4 million in revenue (helped by hundreds of people who opted to purchase a lifetime membership at $1,500 a pop).
Most people probably look at The Dispatch as a publication. But it’s really a network. Jonah Goldberg’s G-File is a publication within The Dispatch network, as is David French’s The French Press, and The Morning Dispatch news brief. Each of these publications is led by a writer or a small team of writers, and they share resources, from editing to marketing, provided by the mothership. Everything that The Dispatch has learned about subscription publishing is poured into making each one of these publications successful.
The Dispatch doesn’t offer a la carte subscriptions to the publications in its network, but you can see how that would work. One could subscribe to The G-File for $40 a year, or The French Press for $40 a year, or the Morning Dispatch for $40 a year – or they could get them all for $100 a year. The same approach could work for a network offering publications about sports, business, politics, property, and puzzles.
We haven’t yet built sophisticated bundling tools on Substack, but publishers might drag them out of us. For example, Dan Shipper and Nathan Baschez have seen early success from offering their two business-strategy publications, Divinations and Superorganizers, as a bundle. Those publications, each only a few months old, were already making tens of thousands of dollars and growing well. But by offering them together at a reduced price, Nathan and Dan were immediately able to dramatically increase revenue. Here’s how Nathan (who used to work with us) summed up the experience so far:
Dan and I were both really excited about it, and thought it might be one of our best days, so we predicted we’d get 20 new subscribers from the bundle. In retrospect, it’s kind of embarrassing how wrong we were 😆
In the three days since we launched the bundle, we added 180 new subscribers, bringing our collective total to 828. That’s exactly 800% better than the 20 we had hoped for. Overall, we had 28% subscriber growth in just a few days!
Even without bundling, it makes sense to build a network of publications, since, as with The Dispatch, they can share data and resources. Ten editors could work with a hundred writers, who could illustrate their stories with art and photography provided by the parent organization. The network could have a master homepage and social media accounts through which it promotes the day’s best stories from its various publications. The publications themselves could cross-promote, linking to each other’s work. The parent company could fund ad campaigns to help bring in new subscribers. The best practitioners may even develop machines that profitably acquire subscribers through Facebook ads – spend $100 to get a subscriber who pays $150 over three years, then repeat ad nauseam.
Crucial to all this, though, is giving writers a sizable share of subscription revenue. Writers are the core value providers of this new ecosystem and should be rewarded accordingly. A network might pay a writer a salary and then augment it with a percentage of subscription revenue, as does The Athletic. Or perhaps instead of a salary, there’s just a straight revenue-share agreement.
Some journalism purists might worry about blurring the lines between church and state – keeping the writers separate from the business – but if there’s ever a time and place to rethink those rules, this is it. Besides, the blurring is for a good cause. In the subscription model, revenue increases when readers are happy, not when an advertiser gets more impressions. Writers ought to be motivated by serving no one but their readers, and they ought to be well paid if they are successful at doing so. Incentivizing the writers in this way will increase the likelihood of the network’s success, since it will be more than just a job for the writers – they will have skin in the game. The more they invest, the more they’ll get out.
Some writers, as we’re already seeing with Substack, will (and deserve to) get wealthy. In this world, market rates can more fairly reflect the real value that these writers bring to our culture. With better financial rewards in the system, a larger number of talented people will be attracted to, and stay in, the field.
What I’ve described in this post is mostly an imagining of what a new kind of print media could look like. But this is the internet, so there’s no reason to limit yourself to just text and images. One of the most powerful features in Substack is a simple one: discussion threads. Through discussion threads, Substack writers are turning their publications into communities, giving voice to their readers and letting them connect with each other. Subscribers show up not just to consume, but to be part of something larger than themselves.
Once you have rallied a community around your work (see Nadia Bolz-Weber for a prime example), you can also move into other media, such as audio, video, and live-streaming. There’ll be opportunities to add on new business lines, too, including events and merchandise. Hell, maybe you could sell printed matter as premium items, such as books, magazines, and perhaps even something that looks like a newspaper. It’s not hard to imagine that all these transactions could be managed through a single platform, with no special tech tricks required, and no lossiness in trying to bounce customers from one storefront to another.
All this is what really excites me about what’s yet to come in a new era for print media. There is so much innovative work to be done. We wasted the first thirty years of the internet futzing around with ad optimizations and trying to game capricious aggregators for scraps from their table. The biggest media innovations to come from that era are ones that have effectively put the news media on its deathbed. But the next thirty years can be different. The slate has been wiped clean.
We don’t yet know what’s possible when we start building technology with the explicit goal of creating a trust-based media ecosystem that is as simple, effective, and powerful as possible. To me, that is an exhilarating thought.
If you’re a media person interested in discussing any of these ideas with me, please hit me up on Twitter.