Earlier this month, newsletter startup Substack, which allows editors to launch their own paid newsletters, announced reaching 1 million paying subscribers.
Sub-stack, which has attracted renowned journalists and writers to its platform, now faces competition from Facebook, Twitter and traditional media companies make their own forays into premium newsletters.
Marketplace host Kai Ryssdal spoke to Chris Best, co-founder and CEO of Substack, about his company’s role in content curation, the evolution of the media industry, and the content of its inbox. email. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Kai Ryssdal: I have an embarrassing number of not only newsletters, but also unopened and unread newsletters in my inbox, and I need you to help me understand why we need more in this world.
Chris Best: Don’t be embarrassed, this is a completely normal situation. The problem people have today is not, “I don’t have enough to read,” it is, “I have little time to devote to all the things that are close to my heart. How can I better distribute my attention? One way to do this is to have a direct relationship with writers you trust. It’s asking someone to organize some of your time.
Ryssdal: What is your company’s job in conserving these writers, isn’t it? Because there has been some criticism from Substack about, you know, letting whoever wants to say what they want – and I don’t want to get into all the slippery slope of First Amendment moderation and the problems Facebook and Twitter have – but what’s your job in this framework of trust?
Better: So we see our job and the fundamental benefit of our platform as empowering writers and readers. So while, you know, if you go to your Twitter feed or your Facebook feed or your various kinds of attention monster social apps, they’re trying, like, to decide for you what to see. While the whole idea of Substack is to give power back to writers and readers. We take a very strong stand in favor of press freedom and letting writers and readers decide for themselves how to build these relationships.
Ryssdal: These writers, however, must – and, look, the renowned writers on Substack, you find that they do very well, in dollar terms – but they also have to be their own marketing department and their own finance team, and they have to work on some other stuff besides, oh, I don’t know, write, you know?
Better: Yes, our goal with Substack is – as a writer we can tell you that we will do anything for you except the hard part. We kind of want to create a platform that makes the rest of these things as easy as possible and sort of fades into the background, which doesn’t mean you don’t have to do any marketing. or those things, but we like to want to do it on autopilot as much as possible.
Ryssdal: About that “fade into the background” thing: Substack, the company, you know, pops up in the news every now and then, and I wonder what you think about your company being a part of it. of history – setting aside free advertising – but your business is history, as opposed to the writers and what they do.
Better: You know, we always try to put the writers at the center of the story, because we think the writers are the heroes of the story. At the same time, you know, if there is, as long as there is blame, we’re willing to take some of the blame sometimes, aren’t we? We created Substack knowing that we were running into a lot of trouble, so we accept if people have opinions on Substack.
Ryssdal: You are not a media guy, are you? You are a tech guy. How did it happen, that you are running what is basically a media business now?
Better: I’m not sure I would classify Substack under the media business category. I think we are –
Ryssdal: Truly? Tell more about it.
Better: I would say we are almost what makes a million media businesses flourish. The advantage of Substack is that each writer essentially has their own media company. They are their own independent thing. They own their audience, they own their work. The way I got here is that I have always believed that what you read matters. It shapes the way you think, it shapes your worldview, it shapes who you are, and therefore good writing is inherently valuable. And I’ve always been kind of a tech and product nerd, but I was trying to write an essay on this thing. I was like, “Writing is valuable, I should write. »And I sent it to my friend Hamish [McKenzie], who is himself a writer, and it was during my conversation with him that the idea of Substack and its ethics were born. I think you need the fusion of these two to create something like Substack.
Ryssdal: Writing, as you have surely discovered, is difficult. But look, on this “good writing has value” thing: what is the role of your business in ensuring that writing on Substack is valuable? You know what I mean?
Better: The way we think about it is that our job for the readers is not to go up to them and say, “Hey, these are the kinds of things you should read”, right? Our job is not to go up to you and say, “Hey, you got to eat your veg.” We are going to give you the tools to make this decision for yourself in the best possible way, and if people choose to read things that are not the things we would choose for them to read, I actually agree. with that . I think that it’s good.
Ryssdal: Alright, so I started with my inbox confession. How many email newsletters do you have in your inbox?
Better: I’m an inbox-zero type, so I delete them. I cannot read them all.
Ryssdal: Oh, well listen, we can all delete, man, come on.
Better: [Laughter] Well, don’t just leave it there! Don’t tell yourself you’re going to go back, because you aren’t.
Ryssdal: That’s right, you absolutely are not.