Substack founders dive headfirst into the culture wars

One day last June, Patti Smith opened her laptop, wrote a short message to the thousands of readers of her Substack newsletter, and hit Send. “I’d be grateful for any song suggestions you think I could try,” she wrote. “Have a good weekend!”

Smith began using the rapidly expanding, increasingly influential and sometimes controversial email publishing platform in March 2021. The coronavirus had put touring on hold and Smith was working on The melting, sort of a diary about life in the COVID era, when someone at Substack reached out. Smith was intrigued. Instead of continuing with a print job that would not see the light of day for another year or two, he decided to publish The melting in Substack in real time. He signed one of the company’s “professional” deals, Substack’s equivalent of a book advance, and on March 31 sent out his first newsletter, offering readers a “diary of my private pandemic” as well as “reflections.” weekly, fragments of poetry”. , music and reflections on any subject that passes from thought to pen”.

Thirty-eight emails from Substack later, Smith reviewed the feedback on his request for song covers. A reader suggested “Pauper’s Dough” by Scottish musician King Creosote, né Kenny Anderson. Smith found the song on YouTube and instantly fell in love with its slow, whiny melody and lyrics, which he described in a later post as “a poem to the people, the salt of the earth.” He listened to her over and over again, memorizing the words and singing them as if they were his own. Luckily, Smith was due to perform in Anderson’s home country for the opening night of the COP 26 Climate Change Conference in Glasgow. Four months after discovering Anderson through his Substack, Smith took the stage with him in the dark at Glasgow’s Theater Royal. “I started crying,” he told me. “We sang the song together and it was very moving. That was a real Substack moment.”

Smith shared this story with me to convey his unwavering support for Substack, which turns five this summer, half a decade after debuting with the promise of “hastening the advent of what we’re convinced will be a new golden age for publishing.” Since its founding, in tandem with an industry-wide pivot to digital subscriptions, Substack has aggressively pursued that goal, making it a media darling and a Silicon Valley rising star. More recently, the company has found itself on the front lines of the culture wars. Its laissez-faire approach to content moderation, sometimes giving voice to objectionable figures pulled from other platforms, has made Substack a lightning rod in the debate over free speech regulation. But even amid bursts of negative media coverage, Substack has maintained a large and loyal user base, and there’s no sign of an exodus.

Smith, for his part, sees his self-titled newsletter as a kind of petri dish of what the medium can be. In addition to his serialized memoirs and various other writings, Smith uses Substack for audio messages, poetry readings, and photography. He opens his laptop at night and shoots impromptu videos, inviting fans into his white-walled room. In February, for Smith’s paying subscribers ($6/month/$50/year for unlimited access), he hosted a live performance from Electric Lady Studios, singing classics like “Ghost Dance” and “Redondo Beach.”

In its early days, Substack primarily targeted a select group of Internet-savvy writers and journalists, attracted by the promise of monetizing a direct relationship with their readers. But as it morphs from a niche publishing concern into a heavyweight startup mentioned alongside Twitter and Facebook, its user base is proliferating accordingly. “I really like my Instagram, but it has specific boundaries, and this was something new,” Smith said. “It makes me feel like in the movies, where you see the reporter going to the phone booth and calling in her story. I feel a bit like that.”

A year and a half ago, In a column published in the pages of this magazine, I suggested that Substack “feels like a player who could be on the cusp of the big leagues.” Since then, Substack has raised an additional $65 million in venture capital, bringing his total funding to $82.4 million, led by mega-company Andreessen Horowitz, and his valuation to $650 million. His head count is about 90, up from 10 at the start of the pandemic. In November, the company, based in the financial district of San Francisco, offered a small glimpse into its otherwise opaque revenue, saying it had surpassed 1 million paid subscriptions to Substack’s top 10 publications. of which, out of hundreds of thousands, they collectively generate more than $20 million a year. (Substack typically takes 10 percent of a newsletter’s revenue, but individual offers vary; some writers take a lump sum in exchange for giving up 85 percent of your subscription dollars.) In addition to Smith, Substack has been joined by several other literary lions (Salman Rushdie, George Saunders, Roxanne Gay, Chuck Palahniuk, Joyce Carol Oates), which has also begun to attract celebrities of different stripes (Padma Lakshmi, Nick Offerman, Dan Rather, Edward Snowden, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). In February, President Joe Biden bypassed the long line of print reporters clamoring for a meeting and offered one instead to Heather Cox Richardson, the noted history professor who became Substack’s most widely read writer last year. . Substack also seems to have influenced the strategy of major traditional news brands, such as the atlantic Y The New York Times, who have been building their own newsletter portfolios and, in some cases, competing for talent with Substack. They’re not in Mark Zuckerberg territory yet, but that seems to be the point: Someone who’s friends with co-founder Hamish McKenzie told me he once said Substack would be the next Facebook.

When I asked McKenzie about it, he didn’t recall making the comment, but he also didn’t shy away from laying out the company’s ambitions. “We’re not here to build a little boutique business and just hope for the best, and hope that Google doesn’t crush us one day, or that Amazon doesn’t crush us one day,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is build a real alternative to the attention economy.”

McKenzie, a 40-year-old New Zealander who lives in San Francisco with his wife and two children, is Substack’s de facto ambassador to the media. Slender and neat, McKenzie grew up in a rural farming and wine country, where his father worked as an atmospheric scientist and his mother was a high school language and culture teacher. At the University of Otago in southeastern New Zealand, McKenzie pursued journalism, which took him to the University of Western Ontario in Canada for postgraduate study. In 2006, he moved to Hong Kong and worked as a freelancer before helping to create the Hong Kong edition of Time is over. Two years later, he joined the American woman who would become his wife, Stephanie Wang, in the United States, eventually landing a reporting position at PandoDaily, the now-defunct tech news website. “It seemed very, like, ‘I want to shake things up,’” recalls Paul Carr, Pando’s former editorial director. “You could tell he had great ideas.”

At Pando, McKenzie’s coverage of Tesla and SpaceX caught the attention of a publisher who approached him about doing an Elon Musk book. With no direct line to the elusive billionaire, McKenzie went to Musk’s dietitian mother’s personal website, found an email address for her and reached out for advice on how best to approach her son. “To my horror,” recalls McKenzie, “he just forwarded that email directly to Elon”—arrested!—“and then Elon had his PR person call me right away.” Musk, coincidentally, was familiar with McKenzie’s work and agreed to a call, except he wasn’t interested in being involved in a book. “Have you ever thought about becoming a company?” he asked McKenzie, who met with Musk about a job at Tesla. McKenzie tried to convince Musk to do a book anyway, but he got nowhere. In his place, he became a writer for the Tesla communications team and stayed for over a year before heeding the siren song of his Musk project. crazy mode, that he left the company to write in 2015. Musk was not yet involved, but McKenzie shared the manuscript ahead of publication. “It wasn’t smooth sailing,” McKenzie told me.

while working on crazy mode, McKenzie took a part-time job doing communications for the Kik messaging app, where he befriended Chris Best, the company’s CTO. Best, a 34-year-old computer expert who grew up outside of Vancouver, co-founded Kik in 2009 when he was finishing up a systems design engineering program at the University of Waterloo in Ontario. In early 2017, Best left Kik and decided to take a sabbatical. “I started writing,” he told me. “One of the things that was on my mind was, hey, I think our media ecosystem has gone crazy! And I basically wrote an essay or a blog post or something.” Best shared the article with McKenzie and asked for comment. “He lamented the state of the world and how it led to this growing divide in society, and how the things that were rewarded were cheap outrage and fiery wars,” recalls McKenzie. “I was like, ‘Yeah, this is correct, and everyone who works in the media knows these are the issues. But what nobody knows is how to do something about it. What is a better way? What is a solution? ”

His solution turned out to be Substack. “We were both readers of Stratechery,” Ben Thompson’s influential and largely paid newsletter on the business of technology and media, says McKenzie, “and we thought, ‘Yeah, the model works great. We are both happy subscribers, paying subscribers of Stratechery. Why don’t more people try it?’… It was simple enough to be compelling and convincing to me that it was worth trying.”

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