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Building an Alternative Media Universe
My interview with Substack co-founder Hamish McKenzie.
After running my newsletter for a few months, I spoke with Substack co-founder Hamish McKenzie about how the platform came about and where he sees it going. McKenzie, who started out as a journalist, discusses the troubles of Facebook, the future of media, and what journalists can learn from gamers. “There’s not that much difference in my mind between a Twitch streamer and a writer,” he says.
David Kushner: How did your experience as a journalist inform the idea of Substack?
Hamish McKenzie: I continue to see everything through a journalist eyes or through the writer's worldview. And [Substack co-founder] Chris Best was really interested in the higher level thinking around the incentive structure that underlays media and how that had gotten into this broken state with the attention economy. Online advertising had given rise to these machines like Facebook and Twitter and YouTube. They had created this certain dynamic in the media ecosystem, and he wanted to change that.
I was totally onboard with that and realized that is the thing that needs to change for the world to get better. But I was also very concerned about the future of journalism and the future of journalists. Could writers continue to have livelihoods? Could being a writer, could being a journalist, even be a job anymore? The outlook in 2017, when we started out Substack was dire. It hasn't improved that much. Substack has changed a little corner a bit, but it's not very big.
David Kushner: When you say dire, in what sense do you mean?
Hamish McKenzie: Newspapers shutting down, journalists being laid off, newsrooms contracting. It’s this barbell effect. The global digital giants like the New York Times and Wall Street Journal are going to be fine. The very niche publications at the other end, especially in the trades, are going to be kind of fine. But then there's the other ones in the middle, especially in local news and cities and towns around the world. In 2017, there was no hope on the horizon. There was no clear answer for how any of these things were going to be saved or revived. It was just people who were in despair. I think a lot of people still are extremely worried about this. It just seemed we are going to see the whole structure around media burn. And we'll be left instead with a social media dominated world - a Facebook-dominated world, a Twitter-dominated world - that had an entirely different effect on how we think together and work together as a society.
“Substack could have failed in the womb. We were not harboring grand illusions about what was going to happen.”
David Kushner: How did you think creating Substack would address those problems?
Hamish McKenzie: Well, lots of people felt this despair or feel like their media experiences are kind of broken. They’re not having a good time reading stuff on the internet anymore. But no one really knew the solution. We felt that it wasn't going to be Facebook changing its algorithm to just the perfect degree, or the perfect government regulation coming along to fix it. We felt we had to change the rules entirely and play a totally different game. We could create an alternative media economy that may ultimately be small. Substack could have failed in the womb, it may never have gone anywhere. We were not harboring grand illusions about what was going to happen. We saw what was possible, but the idea is to create this different media economy based on trust where the financial model is predicated on direct payments and subscriptions, rather than off of advertising.
David Kushner: So this was going to be a different approach to the creator economy. What companies were you looking at for inspiration?
Hamish McKenzie: We thinking about Patreon. Patreon had kind of changed the culture a little bit and proven that people were not only willing to, but were happy to pay to support the creators they love directly. That was never a given. For a long time people were like, "Well, no one's ever going to pay for content on the internet." Then Spotify and Netflix kind of proved that was wrong. And then no one sure that anyone is going to pay an individual on the internet for producing culture, and then Patreon proved that wrong. But another success example that predicated Substack and has been an inspiration to a larger degree is Twitch. Twitch has a mix of subscriptions and tipping features and power features for the super supporters. One of our early angel investors, who continues to be an investor, is Emmett Shear, who’s the CEO of Twitch. He said that he saw Substack as a kind of Twitch for journalists. So we felt that maybe the timing was right with the internet. It had never actually been before, so that something like Substack could exist and succeed and grow.
David Kushner: That’s interesting. What does Twitch for journalists mean to you and what do you take from Twitch's success?
Hamish McKenzie: It's not a perfect metaphor. Substack is not just journalists. It's all kinds of writers, podcasters and creators. But for me, it meant that there are these kind of culture makers who produce stuff that people love to be engaged with. The people who are supporting those culture makers feel like they have a real relationship with the person. It's not “I have this loose affinity with a brand,” or “I'm looking for this kind of broadsheet of information or a bundle of content that will just inform me. I have this rewarding relationship with someone who I've grown to trust over time or grown to love over time.”
In the Twitch context, it's someone who's streaming. You watch and play video games and they talk and they demonstrate their personality and the community gathers around them. The Substack context is someone who's writing often. There’s not that much difference in my mind between a Twitch streamer and a writer. These are both people who are making and sharing culture and creating this shared experience of culture where communities can gather and find the thing that really scratches their itch.
"An advertising model has consequences, and some of them are really bad. It creates a monarchy where a few kings have tremendous power."
David Kushner: How have the recent controversies surrounding Facebook brought what you're doing at Substack into a greater relief?
Hamish McKenzie: Substack is very fortunate to have been born when it was born. Because, we get to learn all the lessons of the first wave of the internet. One of the lessons is that an advertising model has consequences, and some of them are really bad. It creates this kind of monarchy where a few kings have tremendous power. And those kings are the people who have aggregated the audiences and they can decide where attention and money gets directed. Because they have that kind of ecosystem that's based on engagement, they incentivize these behaviors and this content that is not necessarily fully in the interest of human well-being.
And so these incredible machines create these really compelling experiences, but they create the kind of experiences that are addictive and sort of dopamine-maximizing. Those experiences can feel like something you want and they can activate certain parts of your brain that are really stimulating, but it's not necessarily the kind of experience that you would seek out had you had time to sit down and design your life the way you wanted to live it.
So what we think when we see Facebook going through this stuff is, for a start, it's a bit of sympathy they're going through. It's an incredibly difficult position to be in. They've created something amazing. And now trying to figure out how to work their way out of these problems that few people saw coming. And on the other hand, we're like, "Well, this is kind of the environment that we're building Substack in opposition to.” We've learned that the attention economy can be really bad and we want to create something better where people can have better experiences on the internet and can have a better way to feed their minds. So we're kind of are thankful to be starting at this point where we get to build with the lessons of the past in mind.
"I see Substack as being a massive expander of the media ecosystem."
David Kushner: How can lesser-known writers build audiences on Substack?
Hamish McKenzie: The first thing is that it's hard to build a media business. It shouldn't really be easy. It should be something that requires commitment, time and energy. And you don't just get it for just showing up. We share and make resources to help maximize the chances of success in building the media business and to help accelerate that process of going from zero to 100. And so that comes in the form of the resources that we have at Substack.com/resources, programs like Substack Grow, where we have a sort of a bootcamp-style course to help people get the best practices and advice for growing an audience from scratch and then grow in their business beyond that.
We have fellowships we've done in the past and we'll continue to do where we get groups together and give them the resources they need to succeed.- things like access to Getty Images and access to design support, in some cases, connections with editors and access to healthcare and legal support. We're using this pilot program to learn as much as we can, as fast as we can, to scale it out to many, many thousands of writers so it can have a true impact. But in terms of how Substack evolves, we hope to be able to help people build audiences independent of social media anyway. That is an interesting challenge for Substack to look at, because we don't want to just create this massive traffic machine that is going with the lowest hanging fruit based on engagement. For example, if we have a trending tab like Twitter does, or we allow people to sort of a mass, huge audiences by saying the most divisive stuff on a platform, then they'll create negative effects.
We're taking more considered steps to help people discover Substack and help people grow their audiences, such as giving everyone on Substack the ability to have a profile where they show off what they subscribed to. They choose to share their subscriptions. And then when someone clicks on their face in a comment section, for example, you'll see the things they're subscribed to. And you're like, "Oh, this person who made this really smart comment, is subscribed to this bunch of writers that I haven't heard of I'm going to go check these out." And on each Substack can have a blog roll effectively, a list of recommended links that they choose to share.
And through this kind of peer-to-peer recommendation network, we hope that people can find new audiences and people can find new writers to fall in love with. At the moment that work is all nascent and it's not really driving a ton of discovery, but we see a lot of opportunity there that we're going to continue to build out. It would be a failure for Substack if the only way to grow your Substack audience was through social media. That would be counter to what we're trying to build here. And so we are really motivated to crack the code on that.
David Kushner: What’s your vision of Substack five years from now? How will it fit in with the larger media landscape?
Hamish McKenzie: I see Substack as being a massive expander of the media ecosystem. It's not like Substack is going to subsume The New York Times. The New York Times is going to be there. People can build new media operations on Substack. There are newsrooms that are operating on Substack. You look at the likes of The Dispatch or The Bulwark or Arc Digital. There are people like Barry Weiss and Roxane Gay who are highlighting other voices and bringing in other contributors to their networks on Substack.
I think in the next five years, we'll see these new kinds of empires forming based on the Substack model. And I think we'll see a lot more types of creators succeeding who wouldn't otherwise have found easy entry into the media ecosystem: writers and podcasters and video makers and community managers and cultivators who were left under-exploited by the previous system, because there are a fewer opportunities in the previous ecosystem. I think we'll see much more of a network effect in Substack, where you can benefit from being a writer in a Substack network because of the connections to other writers in the network and the collaborations you can do.
Readers get benefit as well because they can more easily move between worlds in Substack and explore new publications and have different kinds of reading experiences than they would outside of the ecosystem. That kind of amounts to an alternative media universe with different laws of physics than the one that dominates now, which is the attention economy. I think it can go some really exciting and expansive places.
To read more of my feature stories, as well as posts from my longform project, Masters of Disruption: How the Gamer Generation Built the Future, please subscribe below. Thanks!