What I learned in my second year on Substack

Two years ago, I quit my job to start Platformer. Last year I told you all how it was going, and to my surprise, it became one of the most popular posts of the year. With that in mind, today I want to reflect on what I learned in year two, and tell you about some of the changes I’m making in response.

When I announced Platformer, I described my reasoning this way: “By going independent I hope to demonstrate that reader-funded reporters can survive and even thrive, breathing new life into a profession that is bleeding out in no small part due to the platforms I cover.”

Two years later, I’m happy to tell you that — thanks entirely to you — Platformer is a growing and sustainable business. When I left my full-time job at The Verge, there were about 24,000 of you reading every free edition. Last year, that number grew to 49,000. Today, there are just under 75,000 of you. And of that group, thousands have become paid subscribers, funding the growing ambitions I’ll share more about below.

I think all this speaks to the need for independent, reader-supported journalism about some of the biggest questions of our age: about the relationship between social networks and the world around them; about how technology ought to be built and governed; and about some of the seismic changes that result from innovation.

I also think it underscores the appeal of this newsletter’s design: one big idea a day, delivered straight to your inbox at a reliable time, without any ads, affiliate links, pop-ups, SEO bait, or any of the other now-familiar features of our digital landscape. Platformer shows up, tells you a few things, and ends. I think the value of this is still somewhat underrated.

But it only works because you show up every day to read, share, and support me. Whether you’re a free or paid subscriber, thank you for making Platformer the best job of my life. Together, I truly believe we’re helping to prove out a new model for independent journalism, and my hope is that many more will take similar approaches in the future. I hope you feel good about that.

Anyway!

What I learned

It’s still a hits business. As was the case last year, most of the moments that drove large numbers of free and paid subscriptions came when I broke news or wrote a piece of analysis that really resonated with you.

Some of the journalism you funded last year:

I broke the news that Instagram was walking back controversial changes to the app.
Along with Zoe Schiffer, I revealed how Twitter’s plans to build an OnlyFans competitor were foiled by its struggles to find and remove illegal content on the platform.
I brought you one of the first on-the-record interviews with a former TikTok policy manager to explain what working for ByteDance is really like.

I’ve also regularly delivered news from inside Twitter as Elon Musk attempted to buy — and then get out of buying — the company, explored the fascinating case of the man who got fired by his DAO, and became one of the first writers to regularly illustrate my newsletter with DALL-E. These pieces really struck a chord with you, and the business grew accordingly.

Despite the fact that most growth is driven by hits, though, medium-performing posts help the business grow as well. They attract enough subscribers to offset churn — I averaged around 3% churn over the past three months — and often inspire some reader to reach out to me with some new idea or scoop that turns into the next hit.

That’s the basic flywheel that powers subscription growth, and it continued to work well in year two.

People will pay you to tell them it’s complicated. Sometimes when I feel like it’s been too long since I’ve had a scoop, a bit of existential dread can creep up on me: Is the work I’m doing here really valuable enough to charge for? (In a related story, I started therapy for the first time this year.)

What I am forgetting in those moments is that people are generally underserved by the commentary and analysis they find online. Most takes (and many reported articles) are still tuned to perform well on Twitter, and as such they tend to emphasize fear and outrage above all else. Most people experience a broader range of human emotion than these, and so browsing the Twitter timeline, or the stories produced in order to appease it, often leave us feeling empty: We know there is nuance and complexity there that has been sacrificed in hopes of getting retweeted.

One reason that some newsletters have become successful during this period, I think, is that they are built with different incentives. I write my newsletter assuming you’ll open it whatever it happens to be about that day; I pride myself on writing headlines that, if not exactly boring, at the very least do not over-promise.

On Twitter, each story competes against every other, warping coverage in ways that can undermine trust. But Platformer competes mostly with the other emails in your inbox — a competition that ought to be much easier to win, if only because there are funnier tweets in Platformer than you will find in most emails.

Moreover, because I write several times a week, the newsletter has an episodic format that makes it resistant to the more obnoxious forms of punditry. I don’t have to tell you absolutely everything I think about a particular subject, because I’m almost certainly going to talk about it again in the future. This lets me focus on nuances and trade-offs that folks in the hot-take business might not. (I sometimes joke that the two most common phrases in Platformer are “on one hand” and “on the other,” only at this point I’m not really sure it’s a joke.)

Anyway, let me give you a concrete example of how this works.

Last month I wrote about a tricky case involving a man who said he had wrongfully been accused of sharing child abuse materials. The case had been well covered by The New York Times. But I wanted to add some context, and underline some aspects of the case that I felt were getting lost in the discussion. In the next 24 hours, 29 of you became paid subscribers — effectively giving me a $2,900 raise (before taxes and platform fees) for a day’s work of walking through some subtle questions about tech policy.

That doesn’t happen every day. And some of those folks will churn before the year is over. But I truly wish every reporter could have the experience of getting a raise on the same day they produced something of value to their readers. It’s a powerful signal about the kind of work you want me to do, and helps to guide me to cover subjects that I might have otherwise set aside.

The Biden era is different. I knew Platformer would be a different publication after President Trump was dislodged from office. Trump was a walking catastrophe for both social networks and democracy, and his election had set in motion the series of events that led me to start writing a newsletter in the first place. (The events of 2016 were particularly difficult for one of my beat companies, which at the time was called Facebook.)

It took one failed coup and another year, but we’re firmly in the Biden era now. And while we still have no shortage of national crises, they’re not breaking out at the same chaotic frequency as they were during the Trump years. From 2017 to the start of 2021, I almost never struggled to decide what to write about on a given day. By 2022, though, it started to happen with some regularity.

That led me to explore subjects adjacent to my core focus on social networks: crypto and AI in particular. For the most part, you all came along, even when I was way too credulous (as I was with Axie Infinity). But because I had wedded myself to four columns a week, I often couldn’t manage to do as much reporting as I wanted to.

Unfortunately, I think the coming years will bring us chaotic news cycles more reminiscent of the Trump years than the ones we are living in today. In the meantime, though, I think the moment probably calls for less analysis and more reporting overall. There are moments when you want someone to help you to understand what you already read, and there are moments when you want someone to give you some interesting new things to read about. I feel like we’re in a latter such moment right now, and I need to move Platformer in that direction.

And to that end …

A four-times-a-week cadence has started to feel like a drag on newsletter quality. The most common question I get about Platformer is how I do it four times a week. The answer is that I rely heavily on the reporting of all the amazing journalists out there illuminating various aspects of tech platforms every day. And when the job is mostly making sense of stories you’re already reading about, I find it enjoyable to show up once a day and try.

But in a moment that calls for more original reporting, four times a week can feel oppressive. It doesn’t give me enough time to talk to platform employees, read upcoming books, chase newsmakers for Q&As, and wander down blind alleys.

I want to be clear that what I am describing here is not “burnout.” I love what I do, and if it seemed appropriate for the news cycle, I think four times a week would be the right way to go. But given where we are, I have some other ideas, which I’ll get to below.

You did not really want Platformer to be a jobs board. I was excited to give that one a shot, and it made a little money, but for the most part you were not clicking on job ads and companies were not buying them. I did like highlighting jobs at nonprofits for free, though; I might want to experiment with some other approaches to this in the future.

You do like the Discord, though. Sidechannel never quite lived up to the expectations I had for it as a kind of collaborative newsroom of independent journalists. But a solid group of you show up there every day to drop links, share commentary, and analyze events with me in real time. It has been an incredible resource for me this year, in sometimes unexpected ways — such as when some lawyers who had previously argued in Delaware Chancery Court helped us pick apart Elon Musk’s Twitter lawsuit.

I still think I’ve realized only about 1% of the value of having a Discord server, but this year convinced me that it’s worth investing in.

Substack figured out some new ways to get newsletters to grow. Last year I wrote here that the only way my newsletter grows is when people tweet about it. As of 2022, though, that’s no longer really the case. Substack did two things that were very helpful here.

One, Substacks can now recommend each other, and when you sign up for one newsletter, you’ll be asked if you want to subscribe to another publication that the newsletter recommends. I’m grateful to the dozens of Substacks who recommend Platformer; thanks largely to them, I’ve added 9,000 free subscribers since August 1. At the current trajectory, Platformer should easily hit 100,000 free subscribers within the next year. (Also, you can see all my recommendations here.)

Two, Substack now lets me send paywalled previews to free subscribers. I love having a model that lets me do journalism and send it out for free to anyone who wants it once a week. But sometimes I write something else during the week that I think might cause you all to consider becoming paid subscribers. Paywall previews let me do just that, sending you the top of a story and inviting you to pay to read the rest. I try not to do this too often, but whenever I have I’ve seen great results.

Substack is also experimenting with a referral program: Some paid subscribers of Platformer will soon be able to give away one-month free subscriptions to their friends and co-workers, in hopes that they will stick around longer.

So far, none of these have been a game-changer in the way that, say, launching a Discord server for paid subscribers was for me last year. But they’re steps in the right direction.

What’s changing

So what am I doing with what I learned?

Last year, I told you that I had two goals for year two: to launch a podcast, and to hire someone to help me. Like any good journalist, I blew right past my deadline. But I’m happy to say that both are happening soon.

So:

The podcast is coming October 7. Since February, I’ve been working with The New York Times on a new weekly chat show that will cover tech, business, and our weird future. My co-host is the great Times journalist Kevin Roose, and we’ve spent the past few months exploring ideas and developing something we’re proud of.

Collaborating with the Times and its incredible producers, artists, composers, and other teams has been a career highlight. I could say a lot more about the show, but I’d rather you just listen to it. To that end, the trailer drops next week — that’s when we’ll share the name of the show, by the way — and the first episode will premiere a week later.

I’m moving from four guaranteed text posts a week to three. For the podcast to be as good as it can be, I need to set aside a day during the week to focus on it. The timing feels right to make this change: the news cycle is a beat slower than it was during the Trump era, and moving to three posts a week will give me more time to do the additional reporting I want to do.

The way I’m thinking about this is that my output will basically be the same, but the fourth “post” of the week will be a podcast — one whose editorial interests align closely with what we talk about around here. And that podcast is going to contain original journalism, by the way: we’ll be interviewing newsmakers, Times journalists, and anyone else who can help explain the moment to us.

And so, with that in mind, this week Platformer moves to its new schedule: you can expect posts from me Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday, with the podcast arriving Friday morning. As always, I may write more depending on the news. But I won’t regularly be writing on Wednesdays any more.

I hired someone. For some time now I’ve been looking for someone who can help me summarize the links in each day’s post, to edit my typos and to catch my broken links. I’ve also been seeking someone to help me on the operational side, working to grow the newsletter and business overall.

I’m excited to tell you that I’ve found just such a person — and, as a bonus, this person also does incredible journalism in their own right. I can’t say who it is just yet, But I’m excited to do that very soon — and to share their work with you here over the coming year.

In conclusion

The day I announced Platformer, I said I wanted to create a “tiny media company.” As of this week, that company is now a bit less tiny: paid subscribers are now funding not one but two jobs in journalism, and in time there could be an opportunity grow even further.

From the bottom of my heart, thank you for supporting me these past two years. I truly believe that year three is set to the best yet: more newsy; more multimedia; more curious. If that sounds fun to you, and you haven’t become a paid subscriber, now’s the time. The future is going to be messy, but there’s a lot that we can figure out together.

Casey Newton runs Platformer, where this piece originally ran.

Photo of rural mailboxes by Don Harder used under a Creative Commons license.

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