A couple of weeks ago I wrote about what had changed about blogging of late, and more importantly what hadn’t changed. In the meantime I’ve seen a few more items on the topic. In a conversation with Nilay Patel at Verge, Substack CEO and co-founder, Chris Best said:
These past few months in particular have really accelerated for Substack. What was the beginning of that and has that tailed off? Or is it still accelerating?
It’s really funny because everyone has this impression that Substack has somehow leapt to prominence in the past few months. And to us, it feels like we’ve been steadily working and growing for the past three years. We’ve been putting in that effort, we’ve been helping writers every way we can, and it has been plugging along and growing geometrically. And COVID accelerated things a little bit, but didn’t fundamentally change it. I think we’ve just hit a size now where people are starting to notice.
As I noted in my post the discussion about how creators can and should get paid for their work is now going full bore. I’m not sure anything below changed my mind but I think for completeness sake I wanted to pass them along.
To be clear, I am rooting for the folks over at Substack — it’s not as if any of the people still in legacy media are doing anything other than complain while they wait for the guillotine. Whatever the future of the media industry is, it is going to be found by startups experimenting with the new and the bold. “As a former media guy,” I told Pompeo, “I would like my industry peers to survive and thrive and do well, and I think Substack shows them the way.”
Even if Substack proves simply an updated blogging service with an uncomplicated tollbooth, it still represents improvement over the “tip jar” financing model and reader appeals that revealed the financial weakness of all but the most famous blogs.
This might be Substack’s most important service. By explicitly asserting that good journalism and commentary are worth paying for, Substack might help retrain web audiences accustomed to believing information is free.
Clio Chang at CJR is skeptical that any model of journalism built on the back of venture capital can be sustainable. Chang writes:
Even if you accept that premise, there remains a broader question—one that the industry at large will have to answer—as to whether venture capitalism, driven by the pursuit of high returns on big-bet investments, is, at its core, antithetical to the project of journalism.
Mark Hill at Wired is concerned that anyone looking for high quality content, whether it be from established sites like the New York Times or upstart Substacks, a content budget can quickly get used up. Hill writes:
Unless readers are willing to spend a lot of money—and substantially more than they spend on watching videos—it simply won’t be financially viable for them to consume a lot of internet content. Not coincidentally, a lot of internet content won’t be financially viable, either.
One of the most frequent complaints I get from Abnormal Returns readers is when I link to something behind a paywall. As noted above we have all been trained to not explicitly pay for much on Internet, especially news and commentary. I do my best to find legitimate, non-paywalled versions of articles and posts, but at a certain point the well runs dry.
One way around this immediate problem is form of content bundling. The story of modern business can be told as one of bundling and unbundling of goods and services. Substack has been to-date in the unbundling business. It will be fascinating to see if (and when) the re-bundling occurs.