Substack Cofounder's Plan to Rebuild Print Media

created Apr 21, 2020

Naturally, the Substack cofounder, Hamish McKenzie, believes that Substack is a solution. The post is self-serving, but his ideas and thoughts about the news industry were interesting.

And it's sad and pathetic that his post did not generate more discussion among journalists. At least that's my assumption, based upon the lack of attached discussion for the Mediagazer link.

The attached discussion area only contained these four tweets with two of them produced by Hamish.

Ben Whitelaw / @benwhitelaw: “We haven't even started on discovery. Imagine if @SubstackInc were as good at helping people find great things to read as YouTube is at helping you find things to watch. ” ...
Mark Little / @marklittlenews: “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” by @hamishmckenzie ...
Hamish McKenzie / @hamishmckenzie: In this new ecosystem, readers from all kinds of communities can be more deeply served, by writers who can do well financially while retaining full editorial integrity and intellectual freedom. I'm excited to see it emerge. ...
Hamish McKenzie / @hamishmckenzie: These colliding crises will cause deep pain for the news media. But I am a media optimist. In these times, I see an opportunity to start over, with ads out of the way. A new ecosystem can flourish. ...

The media whines about the demise of the ad-based newspaper industry, but they rarely advance viable solutions. The newspaper industry would prefer to blame instead of innovate.

Hamish proposed ideas for starting over, which is what's needed at the local level, but his plan seemed to attract little attention, at least according to Mediagazer.

Excerpts from Hamish's post:

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).

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.

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.

Obviously, using the subscription model, no ads, and using email do not require content producers to use Substack.

More from the post:

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.

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.

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.

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?

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.

I did not know the following about Substack. It's an interesting idea, especially since I managed a small, local message board for over 16 years. In my opinion, local, digital media startups could maintain its own message board or community site for subscribers/donors/members, hosted at their own domain name, such as

Media orgs should not outsource anything. If local media orgs want to syndicate their content or snippets of their content to the silos AFTER their content has been posted to their own domain names, then that might be fine. But local media orgs should use the social media silos to encourage silo users to visit the media orgs' own websites directly.

Most social media silo users use Facebook and Twitter like some info geeks used feed readers. Of course, the silos can do more than act like feed readers. The problem is that the silos use algorithms to control what the users see in their "feeds." We don't have that problem if we used feed readers or subscribed to email newsletters.

Local, digital media startups can use the silos to build interest because the media startups should not rely on advertising. The local media startups need to prove that they are a useful, community entity, and the local media startups need to encourage people to subscribe or donate to the media org.

The local media startups should promote the fact that its ad-free, tracking-free. The local media orgs respect the privacy and security concerns of its readers, subscribers, and donors. The local media orgs need to produce websites that use humane web designs. Lightweight, fast-loading, easy to use websites should be a tech focus for the local media orgs and not an insignificant afterthought.

With the majority of media websites using horrific web designs, it's seems like the media orgs don't want users to access their websites. If seems like the media orgs want users to access the media's content on the silos, or the media orgs want users to download the media's native mobile apps.

Journalists need to take an interest in how their companies designing websites for subscribers and donors. The Toledo Blade ... forget it. The Blade's website is so bad that it should be arrested.

More from Hamish:

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.

He didn't blame Craigslist, Google, nor Facebook for the newspaper industry's self-inflicted problems. He proposed ideas that could help NEW local media startups.

In my opinion, his best advice for doing something new was: "First go small, then go big."

Start small and move slow and steady. If successful, then slowly expand. If still successful, then slowly expand again. And so on.

Trying to do everything from the start could be disastrous if a sustainable funding model does not exist.

Local journalism will exist in the future, hopefully. Local media orgs ARE needed in the future. But in my opinion, local newspapers will NOT be a part of the future local media landscape.

The newspaper industry's historical baggage, especially its love for ad-based business models, and the industry's senseless blaming of others for its own lack of innovation make the newspaper industry incapable of existing in the coming years.

The skills of journalists will continue to be needed in the future. These skills don't go out of style when our technology changes. Interviewing, researching, writing, editing, recording, photographing, illustrating, etc. have been used for decades, and those skills will continue to be needed well into the future.

But instead of using manual typewriters, the journalists have used different tools in recent decades, such as desktop and laptop computers and now smartphones. And instead of print newspapers, the stories are published to websites, email newsletters, and podcasts.

The skills needed to produce investigative stories change little over time, but the delivery mechanisms for the content changes. I don't know if the newspaper industry has ever learned this.

Even today, it seems that stories in the Blade are abruptly ended as if the online version of the story matches the "print" version, which would be absurd. The newspaper industry still uses the reverse pyramid, which I like. Print stories have to be wedged together next to ads like a puzzle. If a story is too long, then the bottom paragraphs are cut off. The story is not re-edited to make it shorter, since not time exists for that because the org needs to get the next day's print product ready.

Throughout the aught years, the Blade's website displayed stories that matched the print product, which made NO SENSE. The web versions should have contained the original stories before any were cut to make fit the print product. The web versions should have contained photographs not used in the print product. The web versions can obviously contain links to additional information, hosted on the Blade's website. The web versions should have been so useful that it would encourage people to read the website more over the print product.

For some idiotic reason, newspapers made their websites mirror their print products for too long. The newspaper industry treated the two mediums as being identical. From the late 1990s to at least the early teens, the newspaper industry failed to exploit the web's superiority over print.

Fictional conversation that should have occurred in the year 2,000, 20 years ago.

During the early to mid aught years, Blade subscribers may have organically chosen to use the Blade's website more than the print product because the website contained more information. But the Blade, like many newspapers, chose not to make their website a better product than the print newspaper, which was a huge failure by the newspaper industry.

In the aught years, the Blade, like most newspapers, continued to base its organization around 20th century thinking. It's primary focus was still the print product. The web was secondary, almost token.

The printing press. The broadsheet format. Decisions about what stories appear on the front page, above the fold. The deadlines, timelines, and schedules all based around the next day's print product. None of this exists with the web.

Web reporters still have schedules and deadlines, but it's not the same deadline as with other stories, since web stories can be published whenever they are ready.

We don't need more whining from the newspaper industry. We need local entrepreneurs and a public willing to pay for useful, local information.

And we should not be guilted or shamed into funding local media. It's up to the local media orgs to make themselves useful and worthy of being funded.

Payment could be through subscriptions, donations, memberships, whatever works to sustain local media orgs.

Technological Darwinism or evolution squashed the print newspaper industry. Over the past 20 years, the people associated with the newspaper industry have done a disservice to the public by failing to recognize this technological evolution in the 1990s and for failing to adapt and innovate significantly in the aught years.

In the 1990s, the newspaper industry's arrogance convinced itself that it was immune to the coming technological changes. By the mid-1990s, the signs were obvious, but the newspaper industry wore blinders.

Today, media people whine about the news deserts that exist in many areas of the U.S. Predictably, they blame Big Tech, which is denying reality.

I blame the newspaper industry for the news deserts. The newspaper industry's failure to adapt 15 to 25 years ago enabled the news deserts to form over the past 10 years.

Today, if a local newspaper is still holding A1 meetings to discuss what stories appear in the next edition above the fold on the front page, well ... Hello, Facebook, our new overlord.

I would not be opposed to some kind of print product, produced by a local, digital media startup that had me as a subscriber or donor. Maybe the print product could be an add-on purchase.

Why do we need a print product produced daily? We don't.

The Blade closed down its own printing press around five or so years ago. But in January 2019, the Blade still printed a newspaper daily. Then in February or March of 2019, the Blade reduced its print product to five days per week. Earlier this year, the Blade reduced its print product to three days per week.

I would prefer that a local, digital media startup focus on stories that are not time-sensitive. I prefer reduced quantity and more longer, nuanced, investigative stories that would take longer to produce. Maybe only one or two stories are produced daily if that many. And maybe a print product could be offered in book or zine form that is produced weekly or monthly.