The Media Today

Of Substack, apps, and strategy

March 17, 2022

Substack, a hosting and publishing platform for email newsletters, took what seemed like an innocuous step last week: it launched a standalone smartphone app. Not surprising, perhaps, since almost every content startup has an app. But Substack’s app is a little different, since the company isn’t offering a service directly to users, but instead is a middleman that stands in between writers and their audiences. Those differences have led to questions about what the new app says about Substack’s long-term business strategy, and whether that strategy is good or bad for the writers who use it. Some of the concern also stems from the fact that Substack has raised over $80 million in venture financing from a range of groups, including Andreessen Horowitz, a leading Silicon Valley powerhouse. The funding has given Substack a theoretical market value of $650 million, but that level of investment can put pressure on companies to meet aggressive growth targets.

Substack’s founders argue that the app is just an extension of the company’s original goals. Hamish McKenzie, Chris Best, and Jairaj Sethi wrote in a blog post on the Substack site that their intention in starting the company was to “build an alternative media ecosystem based on different laws of physics, where writers are rewarded with direct payments from readers, and where readers have total control over what they read.” The app, they argue, builds on those central ideas, in that it is designed for “deep relationships, an alternative to the mindless scrolling and cheap dopamine hits that lie behind other home screen icons.” Among other things, they say the app will amplify the network effects that already exist on the Substack platform, “making it easier for writers to get new subscribers, and for readers to explore and sample Substacks they might otherwise not have found.”

Casey Newton, a technology writer who publishes a newsletter called Platformer (which is hosted on Substack), writes that the app is a symbol of “the moment in the life of a young tech company when its ambitions grow from niche service provider to a giant global platform.” Newton writes that it is possible that the Substack app could help writers build growing businesses by advertising their publications to likely readers (the company says that a person who has a credit card on file with Substack is 2.5 times more likely to subscribe to a new publication than someone who hasn’t). But it is equally possible, he says, that the app “makes publications feel like cheap, interchangeable widgets: an endless pile of things to subscribe to, overwhelming readers with sheer volume.” In other words, an app that serves Substack’s interests rather than those of its newsletter authors.

ICYMI: The biases in coverage of the war in Ukraine

One of the things that made Newton (and others) suspicious of the app is that its default setting only gave users access to their subscriptions via the app, rather than through their email inboxes. Newton called this a “significant escalation of Substack’s platform ambitions,” one that could “potentially shift the balance of power away from writers towards Substack.” After Newton criticized the default setting, co-founder McKenzie said it had been changed so that subscribers could continue getting newsletters via email by default, unless they chose to change the setting themselves. But some media watchers remained skeptical of Substack’s motives. Journalism instructor Adam Tinworth said on Twitter: “I’ve always been very aware that Substack is heavily VC-backed, and that creates pressure to ‘build a moat’ and become a platform. Their new app is clearly a step in that direction.”

In a blog post expanding on these comments, Tinworth wrote that: “it always seemed unlikely the VCs backing Substack would be happy with it existing mainly in an open ecosystem like email.” Media analyst Thomas Baekdal said on Twitter that: “The more I read about this, the worse it is. I would be less concerned if it was more universal, but my advice to independent publishers is to ‘get out’. Own your audience, don’t be just another channel on someone else’s platform.” Freelance media analyst Esther Kezia Thorpe said the default app setting that Newton mentioned reminded her of the kind of lock-in some writers and journalists have complained about with Medium, a publishing platform founded by former Twitter executive Ev Williams that also offers subscriptions. “If I was a Substack writer, that email toggle would have me running for the hills,” Thorpe said.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

As Newton points out, while writers and platforms like Substack often have competing goals, it is theoretically possible to imagine a world in which the app serves readers and publishers equally well, and still gives Substack enough revenue to satisfy the growth targets of its venture capital backers. However, it’s also easy to see how the conflicts between all of those different goals could turn out badly for writers who use the platform. “Platforms act in their own interests first, and almost always exert more pressure and control on creators over time,” Newton says. Co-founder Best joked that an evil version of Substack “might open the app not to your chosen newsletters but to the most viral posts of the day,” Newton said, adding that “it’s easy to imagine other things Evil Substack could do, but I won’t tempt fate by writing them down.”

Here’s more on Substack:

  • Commoditized: Ben Thompson is a technology analyst who writes a newsletter called Stratechery, which he publishes and distributes himself. The Substack founders have said Thompson was the inspiration for them to create the company, which they hoped would allow others to replicate that independent publisher model. In a recent edition of his newsletter, Thompson said that if he was a publisher using Substack, he might not appreciate the app, “because my content is being commoditized to just another item in a Substack-branded feed.” As a business analyst, however, Thompson said the move makes sense, because Substack “was never going to grow into its valuation as long as it was allowing individual publishers to capture all of the value they generated.”
  • Local news: Rachel Leingang and Hank Stephenson are the co-founders of the Arizona Agenda, a local newsletter about Arizona politics that is published on Substack. They were among the recipients of the platform’s $1 million investment in local journalism, which the company announced in June of last year. In a recent post on the Nieman Journalism Lab website, they described the progress they have made in building a paying audience for their newsletter. “We don’t have bad news to share about how it’s going,” they wrote, “but it’s not great news either. It’s just…news.” Leingang and Stephenson said they saw significant growth in the first six months, but since then it has slowed to a trickle.
  • Competition: When Substack raised its most recent funding round of $65 million, the founders said they planned to use the money to pursue the same goal they had when they created the company in the first place, which was to “build an alternative media economy that unlocks the full potential of the internet and gives more power to writers and readers.” But they may also have been eyeing the competition: both Facebook and Twitter have launched subscription features that allow users to easily create newsletters and charge money for them. Twitter’s is based on the acquisition of a startup called Revue.
  • Substackerati: Clio Chang wrote about Substack for CJR in the spring of 2020, and asked whether the company had created a more equitable media system, or just replicated the flaws of the old one, by seeking out primarily writers with an established following, rather than making its platform more diverse. Looking down the lists of most popular Substack writers and publishers, Chang said, “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.” In the end, she asks, “will it replicate the patterns of marginalization found across the media industry, or will it help people locked out of the dominant media sphere to flourish?”


Other notable stories:

  • Reuters had an exclusive interview with Marina Ovsyannikova, a former editor at a Russian state broadcaster, who recently hijacked a news show by appearing behind the anchor with a sign protesting the war in Ukraine. Ovsyannikova “said the harrowing images from Ukraine had jolted her own childhood memories of growing up in Chechnya, the southern region torn apart by war after the breakup of the Soviet Union,” Reuters reported. The former editor said: “I absolutely do not feel like a hero. I really want to feel like this sacrifice was not in vain, and that people will open their eyes.” Ovsyannikova said she was taken to a police station and fined the equivalent of $280 for her protest.
  • Facebook reported that it removed a “deepfake” video of someone pretending to be Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky. In the video clip, the fake president asked Ukrainians to put down their arms and surrender to Russian forces. “The deepfake appears to have been first broadcast on a Ukrainian news website for TV24 after an alleged hack,” according to The Verge, a hack first reported by Sky News on Wednesday. The video shows an edited Zelenskyy speaking behind a podium declaring that Ukraine has “decided to return Donbas” to Russia and that his nation’s war efforts had failed.
  • As the war in Ukraine rages on, Russia is “ramping up one of its most powerful weapons: disinformation,” the Guardian reports. “Social media companies are scrambling to respond. False claims about the invasion have been spread by users in Russia as well as official state media accounts. Russia frequently frames itself as a  victim and has pushed disinformation including that the US was providing biological weapons to Ukraine.” Experts say the response from platforms like Meta, YouTube, and Twitter “has been haphazard and lacks the range and scope to tackle sophisticated disinformation campaigns. And even when policies exist, observers fear they are poorly and inconsistently enforced.”
  • In a upcoming podcast with Jon Favreau, former New York Times digital culture writer Taylor Lorenz, who recently joined the Washington Post, talked about how she feels the Times didn’t support her when she was the target of online harassment. “I don’t want to single them out, because I think this is probably true of every legacy media organization,” Lorenz said. “But they’re like ‘Oh, we’re sorry to hear Tucker Carlson is targeting you, but we’re not really going to do anything to help protect your online reputation,’ and then also ‘Why are you being so controversial that Tucker Carlson is mad at you?'”
  • Many people in the West seem optimistic about Ukraine’s ability to dominate the “information war” unleashed by Russia’s invasion, Mother Jones writes. “Writers in the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Politico, and the Financial Times, and at among as many as a dozen other publications have written stories eagerly declaring that Ukraine the winner.” However, not everyone agrees with this rosy assessment. “A lot of the people who are saying ‘game over’ are looking just in their own circles,” said Elise Thomas, an Australia-based disinformation researcher and open-source intelligence analyst for the Institute of Strategic Dialogue, a London think tank.
  • Russian president Vladimir Putin’s moves against US tech giants prior to the invasion of Ukraine laid the foundation for his ongoing attack on free expression, the Washington Post reports. “Russian agents came to the home of Google’s top executive in Moscow to deliver a frightening ultimatum last September: take down an app that had drawn the ire of Russian President Vladimir Putin within 24 hours or be taken to prison,” the Post says. Google and Apple both removed the app, which was designed to aid Russian dissident Alexei Navalny. “Titans of American technology had been brought to their knees by some of the most primitive intimidation tactics in the Kremlin playbook.”
  • Justin Smith, the former chief executive of Bloomberg Media, talked on Tuesday about the new media startup he recently co-founded with former BuzzFeed editor and New York Times media columnist Ben Smith. According to a report in the Times, the new venture “will be named for a word that is the same in dozens of languages [and] will recruit English-speaking journalists from countries like India and Singapore.” Justin Smith also said during the interview, which was sponsored by the Harvard Business School Club of New York, that “the era of the foreign correspondent is over.” The Smiths are seeking tens of millions of dollars in funding for their new venture, and this week announced that they have hired Gina Chua, a former senior editor at Reuters, as executive editor.
  • Emerson Brooking, a senior fellow with the Digital Forensic Research Lab, writes in a piece for Tech Policy Press that “for those studying how the Russian invasion of Ukraine is reshaping technology policy, Meta’s decision last week to temporarily permit calls for violence against ‘invading Russians’ will stand among the most consequential episodes of the war.” That decision by the company shows how public distrust of Western social media platforms can rebound, Brooking argues, and also “provides a window into the impossible decisions that confront Meta and other technology companies as they try to write wartime content moderation policy in real-time.”

Related: Brent Renaud, Yevhenii Sakun, and the grave dangers on the ground in Ukraine

Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.