Will Substack exceed ballots? A company weighs its future.

There are things that newsletter writer Kirsten Hahn misses for Substack. They are simply not enough to overcome the shortcomings.

She didn’t like the platform presenting itself as a haven for less resource-independent independent writers while offering six-figure advances to several prominent white men. She did not like the content moderation policy, which allows transphobia and language against vaccines. She also didn’t like earning $ 20,000 in subscription revenue and then giving up $ 2,600 in fees for Substack and its payment processor.

So last year, Ms Hahn moved her We Citizens newsletter into a competitive service. She now pays $ 780 a year to publish through Ghost, but said she still does roughly the same thing in subscriptions.

“It wasn’t very difficult,” she said. “I looked at a few options that people were talking about.”

Recently, Substack persecuted media executives, hunted down their star writers, lured their readers, and they feared, threatening their viability. Fully risky money, the launch is said to be the “media future”.

But now Substack is no longer a prodigy, but a company facing many challenges. Depending on who you talk to, these challenges are either standard pains in starting growth or threats to the company’s future.

Technology giants, news bulletins and other companies have launched competing bulletin platforms in the last year. The number of people who received ballots during the pandemic began to decline. And many popular writers have left, such as English Associate Professor Grace Lavery and climate journalists Mary Anais Heglar and Amy Westerweltthey often complain about the company’s moderation policy or the pressure for continuous implementation.

“Substack is at a central point where he needs to think about what he will be like when he grows up,” said Nicki Usher, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

The good news for the company, at the age of five this summer, is that it is still growing. Paid subscriptions for its hundreds of thousands of newsletters rose to more than one million at the end of last year from 50,000 in mid-2019. The company will not disclose the number of free subscribers. product managers and other specialists. Executives hope to eventually make the company – which has raised more than $ 82 million and is said to be valued at $ 650 million – public.

But to sustain that growth, Substack executives say, the company needs to offer more than newsletters.

In an interview at Substack’s downtown San Francisco office, its co-founders spoke extensively about the “big Substack theory” and the “master plan.” Chris Best, CEO, described the desire to “change the way we experience culture on the Internet” and bring “art to the world.”

“Substack in its fullest ambition is something like this alternative universe on the Internet,” he said.

In practice, this means that Substack will not just be a channel for delivering written newsletters, but rather a multimedia community. Executives want users to create “personal media empires” using text, video and audio, and communicate with subscribers through advanced comments which may include GIF images and reader profiles. This week, Substack will announce new tools for writers to recommend other newsletters.

Jaraj Seti, co-founder and chief technology officer, described a vision for subscribers who gather around writers as concert fans.

“If you just give them a place to get together and interact with each other, there are some pretty cool types of connections,” he said.

In March, Substack introduced an application that consolidates subscriptions in one place instead of distributing them separately by email. This month, the company announced an expansion of podcasting.

“From the very beginning, we intend for the company to do more than just provide subscription publishing tools,” Hamish Mackenzie, co-founder and chief operating officer, told the app.

But as Substack develops beyond the newsletter, it risks looking like another social network or news publisher – which may make it less appealing to writers.

Ben Thompson, whose technology-focused newsletter Stratechery inspired Substack, wrote last month that Substack has gone from an “impersonal publisher” behind the scenes to trying to put the “Substack brand front and center” by building its app as a destination behind writers. .

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

Substack publishing 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 solid advances to a small group of writers whose identities it refuses to disclose.

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

“If, due to greed or error, we enter this game, we will effectively compete with TikToks, Twitter and Facebook around the world, which is simply not the competition we want to be in,” added Mr Best.

This means that Substack continues to rely on subscription revenue. Subscribers pay more than $ 20 million a year to read Substack’s top 10 writers. The most successful is history professor Heather Cox Richardson, who has more than a million subscribers. Other notable writers include the knightly novelist Salman Rushdie, punk poet laureate Patti Smith, and comic book writer James Tinion IV, who won Eisner.

Emily Oster, author and professor of economics at Brown University, who offers conflicting advice on tackling the children’s pandemic, joined Substack in 2020 after Mr. Mackenzie hired her. Its newsletter, ParentData, has more than 100,000 subscribers, including more than 1,000 paying readers.

“Substack has certainly become more of a media landscape than I ever thought it would be,” she said.

But Dr. Oster’s main sources of income remain her teaching and her books; much of her newsletter revenue goes to editing and maintenance services. Most users struggle to make a living by writing exclusively on the platform and instead use their earnings to supplement other salaries.

Elizabeth Spiers, a digital strategist and Democratic journalist, said she dropped Substack last year because she didn’t have enough time or paying readers to justify her long weekly essays.

“Besides, I started getting more paid jobs elsewhere, and it didn’t make much sense to keep putting things in Substack,” she said.

But Substack’s biggest conflict is over content moderation.

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

Critics say the platform is recruiting (and therefore supporting) provocateurs of cultural wars and is a hotbed of hate speech and misinformation. Last year, many writers abandoned Substack for its inaction on transphobic content. This year, the Center for Combating Digital Hate said Substack vaccine bulletins generated at least $ 2.5 million in annual revenue. Technology writer Charlie Worsell, who quit his job at The New York Times to write the Substack newsletter, described the platform as a place for “Internet beef”.

Substack resisted the pressure to be more selective about what your platform allows. Twitter officials, worried that his content moderation policies will be eased by Elon Musk, the world’s richest man and the platform’s largest shareholder, were told don’t worry about applying for a job in Substack.

“We do not aspire to be an arbiter who says, ‘Eat your vegetables,'” Mr Best said. “If we agree or like everything about Substack, it would be less than what a healthy intellectual climate looks like.”

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

Newsletter proposals have debuted last year on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Axios, Forbes and former editor of Condé Nast. The Times made many newsletters available only to subscribers last year. Mr. Worzel moved his Galaxy Brain from Substack to The Atlantic as part of his newsletters in November.

The Ghost media platform, charged as an “independent alternative to Substack”, has a concierge service that helps Substack users transfer their work. Medium has reduced its editorials to pursue a more substaffing model of “support for independent votes”. Zestworld, a new subscription-based comics platform, is called Substack Without Transphobia.

Mr Best said he welcomed the rivalry.

“The only thing worse than being copied is not being copied,” he said.

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