The Week That Was

Why Isn’t The Fine Print on Substack?

Here are the three reasons why we decided against using Substack — and a response from Substack co-founder Hamish McKenzie on why we should reconsider

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When The Fine Print launched last September, one of the many people I sent our first issue to was Substack co-founder Hamish McKenzie, with whom I had exchanged emails on various topics over the years. His reply was quick: “Cool! Why on earth is this not on Substack, though?” I have been working on an answer to that question ever since but never wrote it all down. This week Substack introduced a new app, which is a reader for Substack newsletters and RSS feeds, and encountered a lot of pushback from Substack writers and others who thought it signified the company is prioritizing its needs as a platform over those of its newsletter writers. In his smart take on the new Substack app, tech writer and Substack leaderboard regular Casey Newton wrote that he saw glimmers of hope that the new app would do the one thing that people in the subscription newsletter business want most: help them find new subscribers. “It is possible that a successful Substack app could help writers build growing businesses by building features that advertise their publications to likely readers.” He added, though, “it is equally possible that an app makes publications feel like cheap, interchangeable widgets: an endless pile of things to subscribe to, overwhelming readers with sheer volume.”

That latter part, especially, tracks with the decision process we went through last summer when we picked the publishing tools for The Fine Print and decided that Substack was not the best fit. We ended up with a combo of Pico for managing subscriptions and payments (via Stripe), Mailchimp as the email service provider, and WordPress for the website. There are alternatives for each of these, all of which have their pros and cons. But, generally, this “roll your own” tech stack of linking up various services (each of which charges a separate fee and comes with its own set of technical headaches) provides the basic functionality a subscription newsletter needs to get up and running and is not too technically daunting. 1 Especially since we’ve had Rex Sorgatz to guide us through it all. (Thanks, Rex!) Another platform I considered and quickly dismissed was Ghost 2, but with Substack’s quick success in becoming the proprietary eponym for a subscription email newsletter, I gave it the closest look. And here were the three reasons I decided against using Substack:

1. No Killer Feature

Substack is the simplest all-in-one solution for setting up a paid email newsletter. They are well-financed and have an ample technology team keeping everything running on the backend. If you’re a solo writer or a small organization that only needs a paid newsletter to go out, Substack is probably the best choice out there. That was the basic gist of Discourse Blog’s decision, as I read it, to give up Lede (an offering from the digital consultancy Alley which sets up the same WordPress/Pico/Mailchimp stack we’re using in exchange for a hefty cut of all revenue forever) and return to Substack: “We think it’s the perfect fit for where we are in this stage of our development: a platform that works out of the box and takes care of all the extra stuff so that we can concentrate on giving you the best possible blogs, and features.”

But here’s the thing: Substack doesn’t do anything that the alternatives can’t. And it’s also unclear how much Substack wants to be a publishing tool versus a social network. This is a common dilemma for developers of publishing software. WordPress has toyed with a social reader app, too. Tumblr once imagined itself as a general-purpose CMS. For a publisher, large platforms can offer network effect benefits around social discovery and amplification. But, often, as with Facebook’s Instant Articles and Google AMP, those benefits aren’t worth giving up control and flexibility lost by adopting someone else’s platform. So the question becomes: If Substack is just a tool, why do you need Substack?

There is one thing that Substack does offer new publishers that no one else does — Money. Its Substack Pro program has so far given millions to individual writers as a one-year salary advance as a way to jumpstart their subscription businesses. If their Brinks truck backed up to The Fine Print’s Bushwick HQ, we would happily switch to Substack and put the capital to good use. But those are one-time cash infusions, and it’s still too early to tell whether many of those writers  will be able to continue making a living after their Substack Pro deals expire. It’s a strategy that $82 million in venture capital financing can afford. And I’d argue that it’s the most important product differentiator they’ve come up with so far.

2. Missing Features

There are, however, a lot of things that Substack can’t do that email service providers like Mailchimp can, primarily in customizing designs. The Mailchimp editor is one of the most infuriating tools I’ve used as a digital journalist. Still, it offers far, far more control of the look and feel of a newsletter than Substack, which allows only modest customization. And, when a paid newsletter is the primary product a startup offers, this feels very problematic because Substack limits the ability to create a distinctive publication. This is not uncommon for platforms. Every YouTube channel and Facebook article share and Twitter Revue newsletter and LinkedIn post look pretty much the same. That’s what platforms do: They try to build tools for the widest possible user base. For individual writers who have “brands” they want to monetize, that’s probably okay. But it’s a big problem for anyone trying to build an editorial brand from scratch. Which gets me to the third and biggest reason The Fine Print didn’t launch on Substack…

3. Substack Isn’t a Good Place to Build an Editorial Brand

Most of the people who have succeeded on Substack have been individuals with big followings from other platforms, whether it be Twitter or a New York Times column. The experiences on Substack for publications produced by editor-led teams have been much spottier. For a while, Substack’s poster child for the latter kind of effort was The Dispatch, founded by a group of NeverTrumper conservatives led by Jonah Goldberg, which called itself “a new type of media company” when it launched on Substack in 2019: “More than just a website, The Dispatch will be a network of newsletters and podcasts, with email serving as the primary form of distribution.” They seem to be doing well, but perusing its Substack-powered homepage, it doesn’t resemble a publication so much as a collection of disparate parts. By comparison, The Bulwark, another NeverTrumper conservative publication, has taken a hybrid approach after first launching as a podcast: It publishes free content on a website powered by WordPress while it uses Substack to run its paid “Bulwark+”subscription tier. Just because no one has built an editorial brand on Substack yet doesn’t mean no one will. There are people, like Hollywood news site The Ankler, who are trying. But it’s an uphill struggle to build a brand on a big platform.

Which brings me back to the Substack app: Many have tried and failed to build a single newsreader app to rule them all. It’s like an enchanting desert island encircled by shipwrecks: Digg, Flipboard, Texture, Apple News+, Feedly, Medium, Marissa Mayer’s Yahoo strategy, to rattle a few off the top of my head. The problem they all have had, in my humble opinion, is that extreme media fragmentation has made it impossible to build a walled garden big enough to encompass the entirety of a large audience’s news needs. Or, put another way: No one has figured out how to compete with the scale of the biggest platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Google. Yes, everyone says they’re suffering from information overload, and I believe this has created massive opportunities for niche publications (like, ahem, The Fine Print). Still, no one has figured out how to solve that problem at scale. I think Substack’s new app will face the same fate: It might get embraced by a small segment of enthusiasts, but it won’t be the primary way a large audience gets their news — or even the Substack emails they subscribe to.

Since this started out as a reply to Hamish McKenzie, I asked him if he had any response, and he graciously wrote back…

Your reservations about Substack are reasonable and I can understand why it might seem like the roll-your-own approach makes more sense for The Fine Print. But I think there are some important considerations that you may have overlooked.

On the “No killer feature” point, I’d contend that the simplicity of Substack is underestimated. One of the key things about Substack is that it is an unlocker of potential energy. We have attempted to build the platform so that it takes care of everything except the hard part (i.e. the writing/journalism). If you don’t have to worry about the tech stack, the design, the business model, admin, or even considerations such as the optimal design for a signup page or where a subscribe button should be placed, then you are free to spend all your energy on the thing that matters most: the work itself. This is a massive advantage for anyone who is starting a media business. It lets you start instantly, move fast, adjust quickly, experiment, and get real-world contact with your work and theses for minimal (to zero) cost. That’s a really powerful leg up. The difference between spending 20% of your time on non-journalism work vs 5% may well be the difference between living and dying (as a business; let’s not get too melodramatic).

But aside from that, Substack does have a lot of features that others can’t claim. For example, we handle all customer support for Substack publishers. If someone has a problem logging in or paying for a subscription, we take care of those requests on the writer’s behalf. There are some useful subscription tools, too, that are sometimes not taken into account. For example, with Substack you can easily offer complimentary subscriptions, gift subscriptions, group subscriptions, founding member tiers, free trials, self-serve discounts, special offers for students, special offers for specific subsets of your mailing list, the ability to pause and unpause subscriptions, and free previews of posts. You can make your comments section available only to paid subscribers. You can do subscriber-only audio and video, supported natively in the product. You can do invitation-only Substacks. You also benefit from network effects that might seem minor but are really important over time. For example, if someone’s email address is already in the Substack system, it just takes one click for them to get on your mailing list. If their credit card is already in the system, they’re 2.5x more likely to pay for your publication than without it. There are reader profiles, where people can list what they’re subscribed to so that others might also fall in love with those publications, and leaderboards and platform-wide search. These things add up. And of course, we are only scratching the surface of what’s possible with discovery.

On the question of customization, it is true that Substack doesn’t facilitate infinitely customizable design options. We do allow for several layout themes and font choices, and you can use images, logos, banners, and theme colors to ensure that your publication has a distinct aesthetic – but generally, if you are placing a premium on customizing the visual brand of your publication then Substack may not be the best choice for you. On balance, however, we think writers are better served by first figuring out what best serves their audience – by striking on the right voice, tone, outlook, editorial niche, publishing cadence, community engagement, types of stories that resonate – and then giving further thought to aesthetics. In the vast majority of cases, the brand aesthetic is something you have to earn the right to worry about. The more important and more difficult work is in first proving that you have something of value to offer a readership. These principles apply, I think, whether you’re an individual writer or a team with editors and reporters under a masthead.

Finally, you say that the Substack app has little chance of becoming the one newsreader to rule them all. Maybe that will turn out to be true! I’m not sure that’s our aim, though. The Substack app is useful even if you subscribe to only one writer on Substack. Its simplest goal is that it presents you with a nice, distraction-free space in which to read your favorite writers. It’s an alternative to your inbox – just with no Promotions tab or spam folders or random Gmail truncations. If people use it just to follow their favorite Substack writers, we consider that a big win. And if they then wander over to the Discover tab and find other writers to fall in love with, that’s even better. We don’t mind if they don’t use the app for anything more than that.

Anyway, thanks again for asking for my thoughts. I don’t expect to change your mind any time soon, but I hope you will at least keep Substack in mind as a possible future home for The Fine Print. I think it would make a lot of sense, save you a lot of headaches, and maximize your growth and revenue potential. And once you’ve done that, maybe we can send the Brinks truck to Bushwick.

Some of the excellent media reporting you may have missed in The Fine Print…



All Over But the Managing Editor Decision

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Back to Fashion at The New York Times Style Section

By Sara Krolewski

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A Radical Takes Over at The Nation

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1: There are, however, a fair number of firms out there charging aspiring publishers pretty onerous fees and taking big chunks of revenue in exchange for setting up this basic tech stack. I understand their business model, but the standard terms they charge are near exploitative, especially for the micro-scale publishers they’re targeting as customers.


2: The first reason that I didn’t go with Ghost is that, while it offers built-in email and subscription management, which is great, it doesn’t allow you to do much of any customization of its newsletter template. Like “no changing the link color” level of no customization. They do, however, offer the CMS as open-source software, so it would be technically possible to go in (or, in my case, ask Rex to go in) and code a custom template. But here’s the thing: if you were to do that, you would be in effect forking the CMS, which would create a giant headache anytime they released an update. But, I hopefully thought, it’s a new exciting platform! Maybe this is just their early growing pains, and new features will be added later?! Then I read this Mark Stenberg story in Adweek about their product roadmap and decided Ghost was not the platform I wanted to build a business on: “The [founders] have also decided to self-impose a 50-person cap on headcount, so the size of the staff never grows so much that it distorts the company culture. If Ghost expands so rapidly that it is unable to support its customers with 50 employees, the nonprofit will raise prices, making their product too expensive for the lower end of their user base, thus keeping the business manageable.” Yikes!