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AMA with Substack and Matt Taibbi about a new business model for journalism
180 points by internet_jockey 7 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 153 comments
We’re Chris Best and Hamish McKenzie, the founders of Substack (YC W18), and Matt Taibbi, a journalist and author who has written four best-sellers and is a contributing editor to the Rolling Stone. Substack is a tool that makes it simple for a writer to start a paid newsletter – but we’re also experimenting with other models for online publishing. For instance, Matt is using Substack to serialize a novel called The Business Secrets of Drug Dealing: Adventures of the Unidentified Black Male, which you can see here: https://taibbi.substack.com.

Matt has so far published six chapters in the book. The serial is an experiment for him, too, but even when it’s done he intends to keep publishing his independent work through Substack. We thought it might be interesting to bring Matt into a Hacker News discussion about this model, other things that might be tried, and the state of online publishing generally.

Last time Substack was involved in a discussion here on HN, we got a ton of great feedback (https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=16326411). We’d love to hear your thoughts about online publishing and how tech can (or cannot) help journalism!

I've been wondering about the "one man band" publishing outfits based on daily blog posts or newsletters or whatever. Some literally have one person behind them (Stratechery, Timmerman Report, as well as some of the examples on your website) while others have an editorial lead, an editorial assistant, and a small business team (Endpoints). Over the years I've seen founders of earlier blogs and vlogs burn out after nonstop, sustained effort to keep engagement up and churn down. What happens when founder fatigue hits the newsletters, and a mere week-long break won't cut it, and there is no editorial backup like in a traditional newsroom? How have the founders of your earliest paid newsletters handled this?

I also have an observation to share: Having attempted a paid newsletter before on the topic of industrial IoT using other tools (Mailchimp + Chargebee) I found that moving people from free to paid is a huge challenge. The cost to readers has several elements: the subscription cost and the time cost, because when people pay they are also making a commitment to read, which takes time out of their already extremely time-constrained days. What sort of advice do you give to newsletter creators about making this transition and convincing their free readers to sign up for the paid tiers?

Good luck with your experiment.

Good questions.

To answer the burn-out point: I think this is something writers have to take into account when they're starting their publishing businesses. Running a publication is definitely a demanding exercise and it is often under-estimated. That said, I think Ben Thompson, for example, handles this problem well: he makes it clear to Stratechery's subscribers that he regularly takes some time off to recharge, and he lets them know well in advance when he's going to take a break.

This is one of the areas we hope Substack can be helpful in, actually. We are building up a knowledge base of best practices, informed by the people who are publishing with our tools, so we can help all kinds of writers succeed. Part of the advice we offer relates to content strategy, pricing, cadence, etc, and part of it relates to less tangible stuff, like how to manage your own time and expectations.

And yes, converting readers from free to paid is a huge and unending challenge! We focus a lot of our effort on solving this very problem. One small piece of advice we offer is for a writer who is contemplating going paid to clearly signal the transition in advance to their readers, then give them incentives to subscribe early – like a special charter price, for instance. More broadly, Neil Cybart from Above Avalon shared some useful thoughts on the subscriber model recently. This comment stood out:

"Going from a scenario in which all content was public to one in which only a fraction of content is public can be jarring. Most sites have handled this transition by keeping content free and instead giving paid subscribers a very marginal amount of exclusive content. In essence, sites are treating subscriptions and memberships like donations. This is not sustainable for or attractive to subscription-based models."

What Neil is saying there is that it is better to set the expectation that the bulk of your content be available only for paying subscribers.

Matt, What is your take on how Journalism might be some sort of Platform Cooperative (https://platform.coop/), where leadership is subject to the user community - either subscribers, journalists, or both. Even non-profits can be a problem in this regard if the board of directors is locked. Should Journalism focus on maximizing investor return?

Would Substack think that perhaps they could get investor "exit" to a community of journalists or subscribers rather than to Google or Facebook buyout? For example, https://www.stocksy.com/ In this model, investors might sell to a cooperative structure and get a note payable from a percentage of net revenue.

Chris from Substack here not Matt. The great thing about the Substack model is that it is a big financial opportunity. We help writers get paid, and we take a cut of that so that we're aligned.

What that means is that if we are successful, we get to build a sustainable company that does this important thing.

Former magazine/newspaper editor here. (Disclosure: I briefly worked as a copy editor at a Rolling Stone sister publication, but never met Matt.)

One potential criticism of this sort of subscription business model is that it increases the echo-chamber effect, where people only subscribe to writers whose opinions they agree with. How do you answer that criticism?

I think the exact opposite is true. The problem with the “one click free” universe of tons of free content is that the reader naturally will search out - or be sought out, by algorithms - material he or she agrees with. That consumer takes less time to investigate alternative views and has less patience - something less mentally taxing is just a click away. When you pay, you’re making a commitment, and I think people both have higher expectations and are making a more reasoned, careful choice. We’ll see how it goes, but I think the subscription model is more likely to produce cool/experimental material than any model that tries to game Google/FB algorithms

One thing I'd add to this: the algorithm actually selects for stuff you agree with or hate. So sometimes instead of an echo chamber you get a war chamber, which I'm not sure is better.

We think that people should choose what they read. Stepping back and thinking about what you want to subscribe to -- instead of doing one more scroll -- helps.

>So sometimes instead of an echo chamber you get a war chamber, which I'm not sure is better.

I think the "war chamber" basically reinforces the echo chamber. You never see the reasonable people within the camps you hate, you only ever see the most ridiculous, most absurd shit the internet has to offer that inhabits that camp.

I noticed this a lot during the whole GamerGate thing. It's like those people had just been seeing endless streams of tweets and Tumblr posts from verbally abusive (or more often, satirical and sarcastic) feminists and strung them together to create a narrative about being "under siege." Never mind that what they were seeing was not at all a representative sample of the group they're talking about, it's their idea of what the group looks like and there's no way to recalibrate them once they dig in.

Exactly. This is an emergent consequence of 1) prioritizing "engagement" and 2) the mechanics of "retweet with comment"

This can happen on social media even if almost everybody would prefer that it didn't. The way to fix it is to change the rules :)

Have you been in contact with any of the independent publications that were dumped by Medium last month (see https://www.cjr.org/business_of_news/medium-publication.php)? They really harmed a lot of indie publishers doing good work. Your product might be a good fit.

Thanks for the suggestion. Yes, we've given a lot of thought to that.

Hi Matt, thanks for taking questions. You've been around media since its "olden" days and have had success on a variety of traditional and online platforms. How does Substack -- or more generally, newsletters -- compare to other ways you've tried to self-publish, such as blogging? Both in terms of finding/engaging an audience, to the creation/production process.

So I started my career in "traditional" journalism, working for a nice little newspaper called the Moscow Times, but the problem there was they wouldn't let you write with humor or break certain formats. So I quit and ended up several times self-publishing by putting out newspapers, which is hilarious in context -- these days people just need to type something and upload it, but we used to have to painstakingly design every page, create huge metal plates, print off them, make giant stacks of newspapers, distribute them (I've even done the distribution on my own, in cars), just to be "self-published." Also I had to sell ads back in the day! With the internet came blogging, which is obviously much simpler but the problem, again, always comes back to representing a larger financial outlet, not wanting to clash with an editor or advertisers over material, having to haggle over what to write about and when. Substack is basically just the writer and the reader and it's very painless. I think in the future you'll see a lot of writers and media personalities breaking off and using this kind of format.

Hi Matt, this is something that has interested me for personal and professional reasons. I've see a range of solutions from podcasting, youtube channels, self publishing, patreon, and independent companies (thinking TPM and their subscription model). It seems like a lot of the problem is the ad based revenue model, and the absolute bottom falling out text ad pricing combined with the unsuitability of video format to deeper/long form journalism. So I am happy for this. But as someone here noted, discoverability seems weak and - more generally - media benefits from networking effects. To not go on too long:

1. Presuming you buy into the networking argument, is Substack going to do any curation to ensure that the "Matt Taibbi" brand isn't hurt by "random crank pushing chemtrail mind control" content on the same site? That may be a bit extreme, but the same general phenomenon as FBA 3rd party seller counterfeiting hurting all sellers there or how Forbes blogs have gone downhill.

2. Is Substack going to enable cross-publishing to push content to other destinations/media? It's seems like it will be impossible to acquire the same number of eyeballs that is possible on ITunes, et al for audience acquisition.

(random HN commenter opinion)

“Networking” and “cross pollination discovery of authors and readers” == community.

Community and free speech works with balanced diversity, where no one group can overwhelm another’s speech, especially during early childhood phases of a community’s development, before norms have emerged for the community to defend itself against threats external or internal.

Diversity of what?

Opinions ? Facts ? Beliefs?


We can have diversity of hate speech. That would obviously be bad right?

In case I’m being overly obtuse - my point is that we are not allowed the generality of previous thinkers she. Discussing free speech and human communication.

Diversity is a great term, but it’s too broad since all positions(intersect)contexts are not equal.

We do not have the ability to touch upon ideas in some Newtonian or conceptual space. We have to very much work on them with human brains and their limits and weaknesses.

So when we say diversity - what diversity do we mean? Otherwise it’s the same as political speech where they want equality/growth/fairness and so on.

Community means a limited, bounded context, by definition. Language, speech and norms are community specific. There are geographical and, thanks to the internet, non-geographical communitites.

To provide a contrived response to your contrived example, diversity of historical and fictional hate speech could be appropriate in an academic community focused on those topics.

To connect the topic to this AMA, many communities will emerge among the writers and readers of Substack and they will change over time due to audience growth and feedback loops within and between Substack communities.

Diversity of what?

Opinions ? Facts ?

1. How scalable is the pivot to subscriptions and how does it effect democracy? 2. Can the news-media organizations continue with the kind of pre-internet organization that they continue to do? What are the changes required? 3. What does a news-media organization look like in the age of hyper connectivity and real time information exchange? How is it different from the pre-internet news organization? What is the new model that you're proposing?

So just to take on some of this -- the big problem with the old media model is that old media made its money on distribution. When you bought a newspaper you were mostly buying the expense and time they put in to making and delivering the news to you (the trucks, the paperboys, the newsstands, etc). Or you were advertising on a local TV station that had a quasi-monopoly with one of the few FCC licenses in an area. With the internet media firms no longer were really controlling distribution. Today 75% of the news comes from two distributors, Google and Facebook. So media has to figure out a new way to survive. People in the business have pored over this problem for decades. I don't see any way that it works without subscriptions. Any ad-based model is going to result in denuded clickbait-style coverage. The advantage the modern system has is that basically anyone can garner a large audience overnight, provided they're good at what they do. There's no middlemen, which means reduced costs, which means an opportunity for more independent reporting. We'll see. I'm guardedly optimistic and hope that companies like Substack will take off.

I can give the Substack take on this.

1. We think it's very scalable. The value of attention has flipped - you used to get bored and need to fill your time, now your time is the last scarce resource, so it makes sense to pay to use it more wisely. We see early adopters doing this happily now, but we think it will become the norm.

We also think it will be good for democracy. The incentives of ad supported social media encourage clickbait, cheap outrage, and hyper-partisanship. Subscriptions reward thoughtfulness and deep value.

The one thing I worry about is too much exclusivity. If we landed in a place with really high subscription prices and only the privileged few getting access to good information that wouldn't be ideal, but that is avoidable.

2. Mostly they will have to change. Some will be successful.

3. The new model is readers paying writers directly. The difference at internet scale is that you can reach everybody in the world, and therefore you can be more successful with a much more specific topic/audience. Also because of software, you can start doing it as an individual writer in an afternoon.

Can't readers just unsubscribe if they disagree with whatever the writer is saying? This just changes who pays the bills. Ultimately, I think the writer will cater to their audience with subscriptions being a far stronger signal than clicks. I don't see how this is better for Democracy, but I'd love to be proved wrong. We need better access to better news, not more paywalls.

Have you finished the whole novel already (and just publishing chapter by chapter) or are you writing and changing as you go?

Also, this might make more sense for non-fiction work but what are your thoughts on letting a book evolve over time? So the writer updates and changes the content as s/he learns new things (and obviously lets readers know when edited).

I would say we're more than half done. We still need to power through a big chunk of the story. It's kind of a high-wire act but we're both enjoying it.

I think letting a book evolve can have varying consequences. In reality you want it all to be stylistically consistent. But you can't publish 200 pages, see a problem, and change it on the fly. (Dostoyevsky appeared to do this in "The Possessed," changing from first to third person and back). On the other hand, the pressure of having to meet deadlines might make it more intense. So it could go either way. A lot of great, great books have been serialized and a lot of them had an hard-driving feel to them (In Cold Blood, I think, wss one, as were the Fear and Loathing books).

The Idiot is also famously muddled largely because it was written for serialization and he left himself a bunch of loose ends he could pick up if he didn't know what to do with the story.

Hey Matt, I've been a reader since the days of the Exile. Just digging into your new book on Substack thanks to this thread!

Chris and Hamish: do you plan to introduce a discovery option (like the App Store) for people to find who is on Substack, or are you expecting the writers to market their work independently?

Re discovery: Yes!

We want the writers to succeed, and while it's ultimately up to them to write something good enough that people want to subscribe, getting discovered is something we can help with.

Having a place to feature them will help with this (though it's less important right now than e.g. helping free posts get shared.)

In fact, we have a super basic version of this that we wrote in 20 minutes here: https://www.substack.com/discover but we have a ton of plans on how to make it better - most importantly by focusing on the author & publication as the key element rather than the post.

What business relationship, if any, exists between Mr. Taibbi and Substack?

Matt is a publisher on the Substack platform. We take a 10% cut of his subscription revenue.

Because he is an established author, and we're really excited about this new format of serialized fiction, we have also been putting extra product development and publicity effort behind his publication. We think of this as Doing a Thing that Doesn't scale, as in http://paulgraham.com/ds.html

Thanks for answering! Does Substack compensate him in any other way besides tailoring features to his work?

On Substack, readers pay writers directly. The writers are independent. We take a cut of the subscription revenue, which is the same in this case as for others.

We think this aligns our interest with the writers interest, the same way that the subscription model aligns the writer with the reader.

Ok, so he's not a partner or advisor or anything like that? I guess I'm just curious about the level of the endorsement you're getting here. Thanks again for answering these questions!

Nope, just an awesome writer using our tools.

Follow up, how does Substack improve on what Patreon is doing?

...and how is it worth twice as large a share as Patreon takes? (10% after the payment processor's fees, vs 5%)

We think Patreon is awesome. It's a great general purpose tool for supporting creators, and the fact that it is so successful shows that people are willing to pay for stuff they value.

Substack is focused on letting writers start their own publication - top to bottom - with subscriptions as an integral part.

To add to Chris's point (this is Hamish), I think Substack is just really simple. As a writer, I like the idea of not having to think about building and designing my own site, or coming up with various payment and rewards tiers, so I can focus almost all of my time on writing.

Question: Why is the price of a subscription significantly higher than the price of a book? Serious question. I read the first chapter and found it quite interesting and I have been considering subscribing, but one of the main reasons that I did not subscribe was that it seemed like the price would end up being much higher than the price for a book. I do like the fact that most of the money goes to the author.

Well, you'll probably end up getting two books over the course of the year, or something on the order of it -- This book is likely to be finished by September, and then I'll be starting on something new (I have a couple of projects I'm working on now). So over the course of 12 months, it will work out to be quite a lot of stuff. Thanks in any case for taking a look.

I appreciate your response. I will think again about subscribing. I would love to get hooked on books the way that I seem to get hooked on mediocre television like Game of Thrones and Westworld. I think it would definitely be better than reading the news every day.

As someone who reads a lot of serialized content with a wide range of professionalism, what guards are in place to protect users from an author dropping a serialized work that is supposed to have a clear end prior to that end being reached?

That is, if I'm reading a book in serialized form from Matt Taibbi (as an example) that I feel invested in the outcome (in this case both figuratively and literally), and Matt decides he's got better things to do 80% the way through the book, what's to keep him or any other author from walking away at that point?

As a consumer, it's bad enough when I'm left in this situation when there's been no money exchanged (such as a series cancelled with the plot mostly unresolved). If I've actually been partially responsible for the funding to that point, I will not be a happy person if that happens.

In what says does Substack incentivize authors to complete serialized work like this, or at least leave it in a state that is somewhat appropriate?

Every time I see a comment like this, I think of http://journal.neilgaiman.com/2009/05/entitlement-issues.htm... .

It should be an even exchange: you pay for the product as it is, not as you want it to be. Yes, when real life intervenes and the 12 novel epic doesn't get completed because the author dies (R.I.P. Robert Jordan) that is a bummer, but even then I find it very confusing when people go "I'd rather not even start reading until the entire thing is done" (and personally I think Sanderson's end to the Wheel of Time was very nicely done: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Wheel_of_Time).

To the degree that the world of modern software and release early, release often have trained people to expect a constant treadmill of content I think that is a net negative: if you're worried about the author's pace stop paying and resume when they are done. "what's to keep him or any other author from walking away at that point?" sounds like you expect him to be chained to his desk until his output meets your expectations.

"As a consumer, it's bad enough when I'm left in this situation when there's been no money exchanged (such as a series cancelled with the plot mostly unresolved)." just sounds incredibly entitled.

The idea that getting substantial recurring revenue helps put the author in a position to deliver, and avoid the "popular thing gets canceled" effect.

The relationship is between the reader and the writer, and the writer puts their reputation behind what they're doing. We see our job as to give them options if unexpected issues come up - pausing subscriptions, partial refunds, or whatever is necessary.

Having seen a number of professional authors recently not quite fall into this, but something similar, in which they get a few books into a series and either lose interest or don't know how to continue, I'm very interested in specialized incentives that could be offered to provide assurance to consumers and keep authors aligned.

For example, an opt-in program where authors allow Substack to keep keep a portion of the monthly revenue until some criteria are hit or some time period passes, whichever is first. For example, if each month 50% of the author's cut is paid out to the author, and the other 50% is kept and paid out in installments based on the number of content posts delivered compared to the author's target. For example, it an author plans to release 4 content posts a month, and their cut is $100 each month, they would be paid $50 for the month, and $50/8 per post after that for that month, so within two months they should get the full amount. After two months there would be an equilibrium and the full amount would be coming in ($50 for current month, $25 for each of the two prior months).

Now, I'm not seriously proposing that exact system, but an opt-in system such as that (with some variation on time frames, etc) which could be have a specific tag would go a long way towards making me feel like I'm investing in something that has a future when I pay, because let's be honest, some authors have been able to coast on a good reputation and some beloved prior works for a long time without needing to put out anything in the same vein. That's their prerogative, but at the same time I'm at the point in my life where time is at a premium, and money is less so than when I was younger, and if I'm going to invest the time and effort into a serialized work, I want to do as much as I can to make sure I'm doing so in something that will see an appropriate end.

Hi Matt, do you see any potential for serialization to make a comeback by utilizing a platform like Substack?

I hope so. Serialization was such a huge thing for writers once upon a time. In particular it was a medium that encouraged experimentation and allowed writers to be compensated better for unusual work. It's how a lot of American detective writing got its start -- the fast pace of work like Dashiell Hammett's "Continental Ops" stories was built around the immediacy of periodical publishing. If you're writing that kind of prose as a book, it has a different style. The periodical form helped create that unique, suspenseful, fast format. My hope is that in the internet age -- when people are reading more as a whole but maybe reading fewer books -- that a serial web formal will help create a literature for readers of this era, just like magazines like "Black Mask" helped make a literature for the twenties and thirties.

What tools do you use to do your work? What tools/processes are essential to your workflow?

My father, who is also a reporter, used to have one important tool, a rolodex (for those too young to know, this used to be a rolling phone card file). Every night he came home and did a thing he called a "phone attack," where he randomly called all his sources -- not for stories, but just to touch base, chat, listen to what's going on in their lives. This is basically all you need to do to be a good reporter, maintain a lot of relationships with people in different walks of life. It's hard work but very rewarding. If you don't have people with their ears to the ground, you're lost. So like my father I try to regularly stay in touch with all sorts of people, and never to call a source for a favor if I haven't recently called socially, or just to check in. People hate feeling used.


I have really enjoyed your books and all your articles over the years, especially about banking, corruption, and the financial crisis. i am curious if you have read the book 'The Chickenship Club) [https://www.amazon.com/Chickenshit-Club-Department-Prosecute...] and your thoughts on it?

So I'm embarrassed to say that I haven't read that book, but I imagine I've read almost all of Jesse's articles from that time period, as we were both covering essentially the same story. Along with Gretchen Morgenson of the Times, Jesse was one of the first reporters to start asking the question of why no one from the crisis era went to jail. I gather from the title alone that he traversed a lot of the same area I did in "The Divide," which was significantly about the pusillanimous Justice Department not wanting to take on complex financial cases. Jesse is a great reporter so I will definitely check it out.

Interesting project! I'm wondering: does Substack have a proposal to put editors into this new workflow? Editing seems like an essential part of the process of good journalism or any kind of writing that would be missing in this model.

As a writer who has worked with a number of great editors over the years: I agree. In the short-term, the best writers will recognize the value of having an editor and factor that expense into their business models. Ultimately, I'd love to see an ecosystem evolve where editors can sell their services to writers who want to improve their publications. I see that as a pretty exciting opportunity for a platform like Substack at some point in the future.


Especially given Matt's recent experience getting caught up in a #metoo whirlwind, how do you think about creating a new business in publishing with two white cis male founders and a marquee journalist from the same background (doing a story that invokes the race of a non-white person in its title no less?) Do you think that the struggles of SV/VC culture to accomplish its stated goals in the area of diversity pose a particular challenge to a startup focused on publishing?

Thanks for your time, and best of luck! Forrest

Very not-white third founder from Substack checking in (North Indian, born and raised in Japan)

To address the question, one of the main benefits of our model (removing advertising from the equation) is that communities aren't incentivized to expose themselves to as many eyeballs as possible

From that lens, you can see how not trying to maximize eyeballs/clicks can be great for diversity. It's totally fine for them to find the people who care deeply about the community's purpose without being watered down by the outside majority. To me that allows all sorts of unique communities to emerge and be financially supported in a way that ensures their survival

Thank you for the answer, despite the sometimes chilly HN climate around pluralism. I hope you’re right, that’s definitely a plausible scenario.


Great idea. I would focus on specialty media. Think things like banking regulations, utility work, law reviews, etc. I think there is pretty strong willingness to pay in those markets and the credibility of the individual authors may carry more weight than magazine brands. Giving those writers a bigger cut might also attract them to the platform. Clearly you need to think about an advertising model here but those are the types of markets I would try to compete in - not serialized fiction.

Thanks. We agree that there is definitely a promising market in those fields, too.

Thanks for doing this. So, why newsletters? Why not RSS?

Clearly Axios and others are showing that email is better. Why do you think this is? How do you think this will develop in future?

Not from Substack, but the answer is that people reliably look at their inboxes and open the emails.


That said we have (basic) RSS support as well for those that prefer it, and it's on our list of things to improve.

Hi Matt, have you read Graeber's "Bullshit Jobs: A Theory" yet? It has an interesting perspective on what drives the trend to minimize pay for writers.

Have you considered integration with any of the voice control devices like Alexa? The text-to-speech interfaces aren't really quite good enough yet to handle arbitrary complex content without jarring breaks in the listening experience, but I think high-quality serialized content presented in audio form could be an interesting option, particularly given the recently improved payment support in Alexa.

I make my living running ad-supported websites/newsletters. I always like the idea of getting away from ads, and relying on direct support from my audience. I am good at building email lists.

My business model currently depends on the predictability I've developed with the ads on my site. Do you have any advice for transitioning away from an ad based newsletter to a subscription service?

Clear and honest messaging to your readers about why you're doing this and what the benefits will be for them. Also: let's talk? You can email us at hello at substack dot com

Will Substack be strictly a written newsletter platform or will it allow a hybrid approach including picture, audio, video, comments, etc. ?

We'll definitely look for ways to make the product better for readers and writers.

You can already add pictures. We are testing comments for paid subscribers on a couple of publications (you heard it here first!) And that other stuff is definitely interesting.

What will not change is that the experience for the reader will stay really simple - Sign up, and everything you need shows up in your email. Also the model will stay focused on letting readers pay writers directly for high quality content, because that's the magic.

Why did Substack choose the subscription model? Have you considered the micropayment model instead? Personally, I would much rather pay a small fee for each article I read (provided you remove all the barriers to payment) rather than pay a monthly subscription. I'm curious about the pros and cons of each option

I think micropayments don't work.

Even if you make payment as completely frictionless as possible, there is still the mental overhead of deciding to pay. As the dollar amount gets smaller and smaller, the "pain of deciding to pay" becomes a higher fraction of the total pain, and the economics don't make sense. Plus, if you just charge for each click or whatever, you get the bad incentives of clickbait back.

Subscriptions are great because you only have to make one (big) decision. Subscribing to individual writers is great, because the thing you are deciding is do you like/trust/want to keep reading this writer, which is something that people actually do have strong feelings about.

As distribution has become free, the value of content has been driven to zero. But now the value of curation -- of reading somebody you trust -- gets higher. That's what people are willing to pay for.

Those are excellent arguments. That's how I read fiction. Whenever an author I like publishes a book, I buy it.

But that's not how I read journalism. Many years ago, I subscribed to the local paper, The NY Times, and a few magazines. Now I browse forums and Google stuff.

I like many writers. So many that I can't imagine committing $x per week to each of them. As you say, paying per article leads to clickbait. But somehow, I'd like more flexible access to multiple writers.

I buy that. I think some people will subscribe to an individual journalist that they really like, or covers something especially important to them, but others may need some kind of federation/bundling in the long run.

I'd prefer to see a world where that happens bottom up -- writers choose to band together with other writers they trust. But we'll see :)

> I'd prefer to see a world where that happens bottom up -- writers choose to band together with other writers they trust.

I love that idea!

What has it been like switching from non-fiction to (semi)fiction? How did it change your writing process?

It's completely different and fun. This is kind of an in-between change for me. Oddly enough working with my anonymous partner has been a real help -- my own natural voice is probably wordier and slower on the page, but he has a great natural narrative voice and gets to the point a lot more quickly. So trying to replicate his voice, I think, has made the material different and more fast-paced than I could have done on my own. It's been a blast, the most fun I've had writing in ages.

Not a question, but feedback. I was intrigued at the concept of subscribing to a serialized deep-cover investigative story.

Then I saw that this is a novel, and my interest evaporated. Not because I don't read fiction, but because I don't want to read fiction that way.

Maybe read the first chapter and then decide? ;)


I'm guessing substack is a high volume email sender, do you guys use an API or in-house tech for that? Any interesting stories about keeping your mail out of spam filters/your IPs off blacklists/Nigerian princes from starting newsletters?

We are, and it is an interesting problem!

I don't want to get too deep into the details here other than to say at a product level we're focused on being respectful with the access we get to people's inboxes. We hate junk mail as much as everybody else, and being good citizens is necessary (but not sufficient) to deliver lots of email.

As a writer who goes after very powerful people, how does that affect your work in terms of these financiers/banks trying to pressure you or your employers. Are tools like Substack designed to help writers stay independent?

I think that's definitely going to be a major motivation for journalists going forward. The media landscape is becoming more and more rigid and it is becoming harder to challenge certain points through the old networks and newspapers. So having reporters be financially independent would be huge for investigative reporting, which is one of the areas that has been cut the most in the new era of clickbait media.

Another thing -- what Substack is trying to do is to solve a problem that has existed in media forever. Writers of all types have always been compensated in an indirect, convoluted way, by publishers who get some or all of their revenue from ads. This forces writers to address audiences through layers of middlemen who may or may not want to meddle in the material. The Substack model could end both direct and indirect censorship.

This is definitely part of our motivation for making Substack. When readers pay writers directly, the writers are accountable to those readers, and not e.g. advertisers.

From an investigative journalism standpoint, hypothetically, do you envision soft releases to your paid subscribers followed by syndicating(?) the greater story to traditional outlet?

>The Substack model could end both direct and indirect censorship.

There will come the inevitable time when Substack will be pressured to censor/boot content creators for all of the usual reasons, especially if it becomes the home of a new investigative journalism model. Does Substack have any particular commitments/limits regarding content?

I like to think the paywalled feedback loop between creators/readers can help isolate controversial journalism topics from drive-by scrutiny by provocateurs of all politics.

Matt, What is your favorite investigative piece you've written?

Wow. I would say -- let me just back up and say that generally the job of investigative reporting is mostly about getting up to speed as quickly as possible about really complicated topics, and then communicating what you've learned in readable prose in as short a time period as possible. So the biggest challenge is when you have the hardest, most complex subjects. After the 2008 crash I was given a general assignment to explain what happened, and since I knew nothing about Wall Street, I basically had to learn about ten years' worth of financial practices in the space of maybe eight weeks. Those early stories about Goldman and AIG were both thrilling and terrifying because it was so much to digest.

Another fun one (in retrospect) - I don't know if this is investigative journalism exactly, but I was once involved with what in hindsight was a very crazy caper: a Russian newspaper called "Stringer," for whom I worked occasionally, had a contact who was willing to sell them a week of wiretapped phone calls from Putin's chief of staff, Alexander Voloshin. I ended up doing the writeup of that story. There were some minor improprieties exposed in the transcripts, but nothing world-shaking. Still, I was so terrified about publishing it that I left the country. And when I returned, I was detained at Sheremetyevo airport for hours. It turned out the problem was an unlamented passport page. I thought I was going to prison forever.

Have you considered having a Kindle edition periodical? Frankly I find it much more comfortable to read long pieces on my Kindle than on my computer or on a phone or tablet.

What's the best way to discover substack content? substack.com doesn't have search or browse functionality as far as I can tell.

We're working on this! Right now most people discover through the author's networks, and from people sharing free content.

We made a super basic discovery feature (that's just chronological free posts) here: https://www.substack.com/discover but we need to make that a lot better now that the home page is starting to get appreciable traffic :)

What genres currently are outperforming cryptocurrency newsletters?

Honestly, we are seeing a lot of strength in the crypto newsletters on Substack and we love them. There are plenty of genres that are out-performing some of them – from absurdist humor to bankruptcy industry coverage to foreign policy – but the truth is that the writer matters more than the subject. People subscribe to writers they trust. Those reader-writer relationships are key in this world.

Does Substack allow po - I mean, erotica? Asking for a friend.

Just posting to say I miss the TARFU report.

I miss it, too. Alex is one of my favorite people on earth.

Im a subscriber to Matt's book. I generally like this delivery model- and feel like for his case the model works. There are 2 chapters available for free as well as some additional information around the project. Payment was pretty low drag and so far he has delivered in a very timely manner.

My struggle with this model is with other folks who may not deliver with such professionalism or decide that their inner thoughts deserve a paywall and a fancy click bait hook. Are there any safeguards or thoughts put into this?

Thank you for subscribing!

The main protection is that it's really hard to get people to pay you money if you don't have evidence of substance. It's harder to make paybait than clickbait.

That said, it is definitely an issue we will have to navigate carefully.

This isn’t a new business model and plenty of people and organizations already charge money for newsletters or subscriptions for content.

There’s been plenty of academic papers from economists focusing on journalism detailing the issues, but put simply: There’s two ways to monetize, 1) Ads where businesses are the customer, 2) Pay per use (one time or subscriptions) where the reader is the customer.

The problem with subscriptions is that it disfavors the poor and massively reduces audience, which in the case of journalism and news the poor are arguably in most need and end up disenfranchised by editors and journalists because the need to write articles to please their upper and middle class customers (think the Economist for example).

The problem with ads on the Internet is that content can be copied and exfiltrated at no cost, so it’s difficult to prevent syndication of the content elsewhere (why RSS is not more successful, for example)

Substack doesn’t fundamentally fix anything with the problems of a subscription-based business model, even though it looks like a good product.

I like your analysis of the "problems" from an industry perspective. Here's the user perspective:

(1) The problem with subscriptions is that it's unfathomable to subscribe all over the place. I live in New Jersey, so I'm not going to subscribe to the LA Times even if they have some great coverage of a particular topic.

(2) The problem with ads is that they are INSANELY annoying to see all the time. Period.

My company, reallyread.it, is going to be uniquely positioned to make "pay per use" (aka just reading something) a reality. It's the Holy Grail for all of us: Spotify for News - one premium subscription that unlocks everything, everywhere. We're on it. ;)

How did you guys settle on "Substack"? I only ask because Substack is a really well known handle for one of the most prolific Node ecosystem contributors, and I feel like you guys are going to run into a lot of SEO pain dealing with that.

We subscribe to the pg take on naming. We went through a couple of options we like, and Substack was the one we could get the .com for. It's a Stack for Subscription publishing. We didn't realize about the node developer with the Twitter handle; hopefully it's different enough that it's not a pain for either of us.

See http://www.paulgraham.com/name.html

slikts 7 months ago [flagged]

So you couldn't be bothered to google for the name? It's not just their Twitter handle; they've published some of the most popular npm packages of all time under it; there's who knows how many millions of users.

You knew what you were doing, there's no way you haven't done your research before taking that name. You also knew that YC always had a culture of developers and you still went through with it... alienating the developer community. That said, there's still time to make it right... You could probably give the domain name to the "real" substack and find a new and probably better, name.

substack isn't a startup, it's a human being. Regardless of something being pg's "take", that doesn't make what you've done here ethical, or good for the ecosystem, or good for your company. (Separately, if you don't have the .com OR the twitter handle, change your name)

Change your name, how about?

slikts 7 months ago [flagged]

Or is it that you googled and decided you can just take over someone's identity because they haven't registered a .com. It's not like "substack" would be a thing outside of it.

They haven't taken over an identity. A simple disclaimer on the landing page is sufficient to explain the situation, which is that no company is responsible for every current or past or future naming conflict. There's something something about naming being hard.

I got excited I was about to read an AMA with substack.

It also sounds too techie-sounding for the average writer, versus something like "TinyLetter". Though I guess they're used to it with things like "blog", "Tumblr", and "pod/vodcast"

This is the first I’ve heard of Substack.

I thought I recognized that name and then I remembered....there’s a developer[0] who has written many packages on npm[1] with the same name: substack

I’ll have to check this out just because of the name :)

[0]: https://github.com/substack

[1]: https://www.npmjs.com/~substack

Just to avoid any confusion: we are not affiliated with James Halliday, the developer who uses the Github/Twitter handle substack.

(Though now that I look at it, I definitely respect his work, especially minimist)

> especially minimist

Substack also wrote browserify, which changed the way people write JavaScript.

slikts 7 months ago [flagged]

Are you going to add this disclaimer to everything you do now, or is the idea to just take the name over with your capital? It's their name that they've established by being a prolific, well-respected developer; it was also the only search result for it before you appeared, because it's a unique name without an another established meaning. There's no explanation for why you'd choose it outside of not doing due dilligence or just lack of morals.

That's ridiculous. A new platform for journalism can't share a name with a popular Node developer? Even actual trademarks only apply across a category of similar products.

So, for example, "Ruby fibers" are not chromium-doped alumina abrasives. And indeed, one might see both on HN :)

slikts 7 months ago [flagged]

You jump to arguing legality, but morality comes before that, or should anyway, particularly because it's a company vs an individual.

That is some pretty extreme jumping to conclusions...

slikts 7 months ago [flagged]

Yet you don't mention an alternative explanation.

This was confusing, I thought this was an AMA with James Halliday.

Not the kind of trash I want to see on HN: https://www.google.com/amp/s/m.huffpost.com/us/entry/us_59f7...

> On October 27, Aimee Levitt published a piece in The Chicago Reader with the apt title “Twenty years ago, in Moscow, Matt Taibbi was a misogynist asshole—and possible worse.” Taibbi and Mark Ames were co-editors of the the English language gonzo, semi-satirical, semi-muckraking expat newspaper the eXile, where they engaged in sophomoric pranks, non-stop partying, and, if their own words are to believed, constant sexual harassment.

Comparing an errant tweet to Taibbi’s ouvre of misogynist dreck is pretty shameless apologism.

> fell from grace this October after controversial passages from an old book he’d co-authored, The eXile: Sex, Drugs, and Libel in the New Russia, resurfaced and were spread online.

God forbid we judge someone based on a book they published (oh, and the magazine it was based on).

Well, after the introduction, the article is a detailed explanation of how his work was actually a satire of a specific culture of misogyny.

Was Jonathan Swift an advocate for cannibalism in your eyes as well?

Consider Googling for "the rule of goats".

Haha, that's a pretty funny line , I haven't seen that before.

However if it's a representation of a hardline anti-irony/satire stance we will have to agree to disagree there. I'm all for holding accountable people whose bad behavior has gone ignored in the past but I don't think that extends to what is (to me and many others) purely artistic expression.

There's two questions at play. The first is whether or not there's any veracity to what's been written. The Paste article strongly suggests there isn't. The second is what the actual writing suggests. Even if Neil Strauss (for example) had fabricated virtually everything in The Game, the Rule Of Goats still very much applies, because The Game depicts its brand of goat-fucking favorably.

I don't have an answer for The eXile, but I get why someone would have a problem with it regardless of what Ames and Taibbi actually did.


The following isn't phrased how I would put it, but seems apt anyway:


I am amused that the typo is from "Huffington" rather than "Chicago Reader".

You’re lowering the bar here. If he actually did those things, he should be in jail. I didn’t say he should be in jail. Writing those things, which he undoubtedly did, is an indicator of being a misogynistic asshat. Which isn’t enough for jail, but surely enough to warrant our contempt and distance.

(I’m also not saying we should censor him. That’s different than giving him a platform.)

> Writing those things, which he undoubtedly did, is an indicator of being a misogynistic asshat.

That depends entirely on context and intent, doesn't it? As called out in one of the articles on this very subject, as the creators of South Park misogynistic asshats for writing characters that behave in this way, when it's done as satire and to lampoon those that actually act in that manner? That's what the defenders are contending, and what at least some reporting is saying female employee(s) at the time are stating.

If you think the counter-arguments don't hold up, that's one thing, but so far your arguments seem to ignore all the points raised in the Paste magazine article. I'd be interested in what you think about them, since it didn't seem to sway you at all.

I simply don’t find Taibbi’s post-facto rationalizations credible. Consider, for example, his gendered attacks on female journalists who called him out: https://www.thelily.com/vices-edgy-culture-created-a-place-f...

Is that dedication to staying in character? Or is it an attempt to whitewash conduct that was acceptable in that time and place, but is considered unacceptable today, in an attempt to avoid damaging one’s reputation? I can’t see it as anything but the latter.

> Consider, for example, his gendered attacks on female journalists who called him

That was during the same period where they were doing the magazine, which is supposedly then doing a character. Wouldn't that be the characteristic response?

> Is that dedication to staying in character?

I'm not sure it's all that dedicated, it was at the same time as when they were doing that.

> ? Or is it an attempt to whitewash conduct that was acceptable in that time and place

It was during that time and place, not later. At least, I assume you are talking about this:

The Times of London’s Anna Blundy also received scathing write-ups by Taibbi after she wrote articles about the state of women’s rights in Russia. Taibbi said one of her pieces “oozed such obvious bitterness and desperation that it might as well have been a perpetually unanswered personal ad in the back of Sagging Breast Weekly.”

That was in 1999. Look, I don't know whether the whole satiric performance art explanation is true or not, but given what appears to be very specific behavior that appears to be limited to the scope of that time, and eyewitness people at that time (which would have been the victims if the behavior was true) that say it specifically was satire, it seems at least plausible to me, and I don't really have feelings about him one way or the other.

It sounds a little like you've fallen into a confirmation bias loop. You accepted and internalized some very negative information regarding him, and now any evidence presented by him in his defense is easy to dismiss because of your preexisting negative assessment, whereas if all the information was presented at once a more neutral impression might have been reached (I know this sounds presumptuous, I'm not trying to be, but this is a pet idea of mine for a while and I may be seeing it because I'm interesting in it).

That said, even if it is true that it was all satire and does not reflect his personal views, the vigor with which he went about degrading others for that satire does leave a bad taste in my mouth. It's entirely possible he's not a misogynist, but is (or at least was) a colossal asshole.

As an aside, it strikes me as odd that we as a society seem to have very mixed ideas about crimes and taboos and forgiveness. Sometimes it strikes me that we're more willing for forgive a murderer than someone that said harsh words and hurt feelings. Oftentimes I suspect that can be chalked up to the murderer asking for forgiveness and repenting, but I'm not sure that really works in the case of cultural taboos. Denial still has very many negative consequences now, but while admission and (truthful) repentance might sate a large number of detractors now, I suspect many multiples more people would see that as something to rally around against the person.

To some degree, the current climate of accusations reminds me of what I've read of McCarthyism and the red scare. Accusations are all that's needed to end careers. If in the 1950's and faced with an accusation that you attended a few communist meetings a couple decades earlier, is it ever a better idea to admit it than deny it? Denying it has a chance of you coming out somewhat intact, but admitting it may immediately ruin you in multiple ways, regardless of how involved you were or your current beliefs. This comparison obviously breaks down in certain ways, to greater or lesser degrees bases on the people and groups involved and their goals, and how problematic you view communism in that area generally. I'm really bringing it up to focus on the how accusations were used then, and may be trending towards being used now. I think the vast majority of accusations so far have been leveled rightfully and the punishments meted out deserved, I'm just a bit worried that a cultural moment for good will slowly be hijacked for personal gain and petty grievances.

I appreciate your protective feeling for HN, but you're simply wrong about Taibbi. We could lose 90% of our journalists, those whose efforts are primarily focused toward sticking to their assigned scripts, and we would be both better-off and better-informed. Taibbi is not among that 90%. HN is also not about sticking to the script.

In addition to all of rayiner's points (which I agree with), I think you vastly overrate Taibbi's journalism. Just because he attacks a lot of things you happen to be against, it doesn't make him a good journalist. He routinely exaggerates the facts, gets his economics wrong, and is otherwise misleading in his writing.

Wow, if only there were some forum in which these issues might be addressed, where you could write precisely the problems you've found with his reporting rather than blanket smears that mean nothing to anyone without all the background you're imagining we have. Perhaps it would be a forum in which Taibbi himself would be likely to see those specific complaints, and could if he chose respond in some fashion that might be educational for all of us...

Or, I guess we could use the opportunity to police his literary style.

ps. I'm giggling now because I'm thinking of all the journalists whose economics have been "right", and the number of days over which that has been the case...

You didn't in any way address what Harry or Rayiner said. You just "giggled" at the suggestion that anyone might have legitimate problems with Taibbi's reporting on its own merits.

Dude just look at the words. I was giggling at the idea that we should get economics advice from journalists. I certainly don't get mine from Taibbi.

From Harry, we have:

He routinely exaggerates the facts, gets his economics wrong, and is otherwise misleading in his writing.

For discussion's sake I'll stipulate to the middle clause, but if the first and last were so "routine", someone in this entire thread would have given a single concrete example, which I or anyone else might "address". If such an example had appeared while Taibbi was still hanging around, he might have responded. Didn't happen. Instead we have this tedious whinging about how terrible his literary style is. The writing in question was clearly satirical to me in '99, and it hasn't grown any less clearly so since then.

You won't like all comedians. You won't like all musicians. You won't like all artists. You won't like all journalists. Tastes differ, and this ham-handed attempt to police tastes in journalism on HN has not succeeded.

The script is protecting sleazy men because they’ve made some contribution we value. That’s not a script we should stick too.

Why isn't this thread hidden?

So moral purity is a requirement for notable achievement now?

rayiner 7 months ago [flagged]

Not being a misogynistic isn’t “moral purity” it’s the minimum standard of decency. And nobody is saying Taibbi hasn’t had notable achievements. I’m saying I have no interest in seeing someone like him do an AMA on HN. And as an audience member, I certainly don’t want my friends knowing I have an account and post to a site that’d let someone like Taibbi do an AMA. He can go be notable somewhere else.

There's a spectrum between purity and total asshat. Its disingenuous to imply anybody wants them to be perfect. Just not total scumbags maybe?

Sure, but if we judge everyone by their worst actions I'm sure we can implicate a large swath of people who have ever achieved anything. I find Taibbi's work interesting and I would prefer not to deplatform people for actions unrelated to their work. We have a court system for punishing people. While I think it's entirely reasonable not to support someone or their work on moral grounds I would prefer others not to make that decision for me.


masfjo 7 months ago [flagged]

This was already debunked dumbass

Please don't post this way, regardless of how bad another comment may be. Even if you're right (as in this case I believe you are), it damages the container here.

If you'd please read https://news.ycombinator.com/newsguidelines.html and follow the site rules when posting here, we'd appreciate it.

The excerpts linked from reddit are stuff that was published in the Exile. Are you saying they’re fake?

Can I get a link to the debunking?


Seems like he has been able to win legal settlements to get publications to retract or correct:

The Nation: https://twitter.com/mtaibbi/status/963869669076688899

Newsweek: https://twitter.com/mtaibbi/status/977984283024424961




Keep in mind they literally have 0 accusers, and when the women they worked with were interviewed they all had 0 complaints, and even at the time of publishing the book was categorized as satire. The name "The Exile", IIRC, refers to the fact they were a satire of the piece of shit Americans that Ames and Taibbi witnessed coming to Russia as the USSR was falling in order to ravage the country in its moment of weakness.

Next let's confront Steven Colbert on his past as a right wing nutjob.

His wiki[1] says "Women portrayed in the book have gone on record to defend Taibbi, stating that none of the sexual harassment portrayed in the book ever happened."[2]

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Matt_Taibbi

[2] https://www.pastemagazine.com/articles/2017/12/the-destructi...

Alright. The Paste Magazine piece is enough to raise doubts for me. I deleted my comment.

Thanks for the links, everybody.

"Raise doubts" is a bit stingy. Here is what one of the allegedly-harrassed women had to say (in the Paste article): “These claims that Matt would do this stuff are ridiculous,” she said. “I left The eXile because we started dating, and Matt was worried about impropriety. He didn’t even ask me out at work! Matt is a fundamentally decent and kind person.”

The smear seems to me to have been completely refuted on the facts, and there's a second issue: if it hadn't been, there's no way those mainstream publications would have retracted it en masse (especially not given the social climate around that topic). When was the last time they all did that? It's practically a magic trick to get them to do that.

Matt and substack, do you think privately-owned media platforms could be disintermediated by blockchain type solutions, linking producers to consumers without a middleman?

Hello I am CEO of a Texas NPO and doing research for a nationwide initiative to advocate for parents to test their minor children without the child's knowledge for drug use. Would you consider donating a copy of this fine work in-kind and allowing us to quote it with citations on a national scale? Also, I love the business model! Steve Morrow MBA MA

> to advocate for parents to test their minor children without the child's knowledge for drug use

This seems kind of overbearing. Why do think this is something important to advocate for?

Brand new account, -4 Karma. This is spam.

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