Casey Newton’s Deep Skepticism Of Twitter Replacements & Getting More Comfortable With Substack’s 10% Take Rate
My daughter knows Casey Newton as the ‘watch pro wrestling and eat chicken wings’ friend. She is not wrong. But beyond the bond of those shared pleasures, we also have a long — and mostly agreeable — relationship rooted in his coverage of the technology community and my participation in said industry. When I last interviewed Casey, back in 2017, he recognized there’s a “natural, & healthy, tension between myself & the people I write about.” So with that context, here’s another FIVE QUESTIONS with Casey Newton.
Hunter Walk: Hi Casey and welcome back. I think you’re the first person I’ve interviewed twice on this blog. The biggest personal change since our 2017 discussion is your founding of the tech newsletter Platformer (which everyone should subscribe to). Ahead of its launch we’d spoken quite a bit privately about going indie and I’m so glad you took that path. In hindsight what did you underestimate and what did you overestimate in terms of initial challenges?
Casey Newton: This is kind of a dodge, but the truth is that the launch went mostly to plan. I had the benefit of a big mailing list that I took with me, and so when I turned on payments Platformer was ramen-profitable basically from day one. It took me about six months to climb back to my old Verge salary, and right after that I launched my Discord with some other writers and that led to a big spike in revenue. Most of the discourse around independent journalism centers on how hard it is, and leaving my old perch was certainly scary, but in the end it worked out great.
I mean, there were many small annoyances along the way — finding a bookkeeper, and an accountant, and interacting with the California Franchise Tax Board, to which I always seem to owe some amount of money no matter how many times I’ve paid my bills. And I did find myself missing the feeling of being in a newsroom from time to time, though I continued to have access to The Verge’s slack as a contributor and that helped me feel less lonely.
Often when people ask me how Platformer going, there’s an edge of fear in their voice, as if they expect me to say that I’m barely holding on. But recently I hired my first employee, so I’m hoping some of that dissipates.
HW: In our previous discussion you talked about measuring journalistic success in two ways: impact and audience. Is that still how you think of your job?
CN: Those are still the two biggest ways. But increasingly I’m thinking about measuring success in terms of sustainability and expansion.
In recent weeks, we’ve seen layoffs at Gannett and the Washington Post, and Protocol shut down completely. Those journalists aren’t losing their jobs because their work isn’t valuable — it’s because they’re chained to unsustainable cost structures.
Platformer is designed to weather a lot of the storms that my previous employers got caught up in — downturns in the ad market, the rise of a buzzy new social app, or pressure from investors can’t really trip us up. (We don’t currently have ads or investors.) We just have several thousand paying customers who like what we do, and that number is up 50 percent year over year.
Our number of subscribers could stay flat or even decline precipitously and we could keep doing the journalism we’re doing indefinitely. And speaking for myself — I probably would!
Anyway, “continuing to operate” might sound like a low bar, but the longer I stay in media the prouder I am of the fact that we have.
The other measure I have now is my ability to fund more journalism through hiring. Earlier this year I brought on the great Zoe Schiffer as managing editor, and in just a couple months she has helped us break scoop after scoop.
I never want Platformer to grow bigger than a handful of people. But the fact that Platformer readers are now supporting multiple journalists in their work is a milestone I’m proud of.
HW: Substack, which you use for Platformer, says to not think of them as a newsletter company, but more broadly as part of a creator oriented shift in media. As one of their valued customers, what do you want from them in the future? Before you started Platformer we debated whether their 10% cut would force you at some point to seek cheaper alternatives. How do you think about that value prop now?
CN: I feel better about the 10 percent than I used to. In part this is because I write about platforms like Apple and Meta that insist on taking 30 percent; or YouTube, which takes 45. If nothing else Substack is cheap by comparison.
Another reason I feel better about it is because the company figured out an actual growth mechanism this year: when you subscribe to my newsletter, Substack will show you three of the other publications I recommend and invite you to subscribe to those as well.
When Substack introduced this feature on April 12, we had 57,135 free subs. As I write this eight months later, we’re about to hit 100K.
So that’s the good news. The bad news is that these subscribers don’t really convert to paid. But still, lots of them do open the newsletter, and eventually I suspect Substack will start an ad network, split the ad revenue with us, and the 10 percent fee hurts even less.
All that said, it continues to be strange that the better you do for Substack, the more expensive it gets. There aren’t many businesses like that, and I would like to see them offer more perks to top writers over time.
HW: Let’s talk Twitter, with an old school Newsweek-style Conventional Wisdom, up down sideways
Twitter 2.0 ⬇️ This company generated $5 billion in revenue last year. Within two weeks Elon Musk was telling the new team the company might go bankrupt. Twitter has always had problems, but now it’s in crisis, and its CEO has consistently made the wrong decision after being presented with the right one.
Elon Musk ⬇️ I had basically no opinion about the guy before he took over the bird app. But then I started talking to all the people whose lives were suddenly in upheaval thanks to his various layoffs and purges, and my opinion of him lowered significantly.
Jack Dorsey ⬇️
‘Free Speech’ ⬆️ People mean a lot of different things by this, but at the very least I think we’re having a louder public conversation about the importance of free expression than we’ve had in a long while, and I do think that’s good for us in some ways.
Verification ⬆️ If you ever wondered why platforms should verify some users — and very much not verify others — boy have you gotten a great lesson in that over the past few weeks.
Mastodon/Post/Etc ⬇️ Dead on arrival. I’m still waiting to see the first good Mastodon post. God help us.
HW: One other update from the last five years is you’re part of an improv comedy troupe! Talk about that here and plug where people can see you perform.
CN: A few years back I realized that I didn’t have a good answer to the question “what’s going on outside work?” I am a giant ham, and so my roommate at the time suggested I try improv. I went to a class and never looked back.
We organize shows roughly every six weeks in San Francisco, and recently started performing with another troupe that’s scary good. (We bring in a stand-up as well, and something I’m really proud of is that we pay them for their work!) Some folks have come to see us a dozen or more times.
Before I moved to San Francisco I fell in love with the city because there was so much weird, fun, funny stuff in the city that you could just stumble across if you walked far enough. Doing these improv shows is my little way of building the San Francisco I want to live in.
The best way to find out what we’re up to is by following our Instagram!
Thanks Casey! If you’re not doing so already, please subscribe to Platformer.