What I’ve Learned In A Year On Substack
This thing is for real. The incentives are right. And the community is the key.
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About a year ago, I decided to take a leap and go independent. I had just released Always Day One and was eager to expand on ideas in the book and continue reporting and writing wherever my curiosity took me. Looking back, I had no clue where this all would lead. I knew I loved emailing readers and figured having some distance from the news cycle might help me build a differentiated product, but that was about it. This was before a parade of big-name writers left their newsrooms and turned “Substacking” into a verb.
Today, I feel so lucky to do this work and write to you each week. To mark the moment, I thought I’d step back and share what I’ve learned over the past year:
This is for real You can do serious, sustainable journalism through Substack. Without a major media brand, sources still trusted me to break news on an FTC funding crisis, a Facebook executive’s memo on security, the inner workings of the Microsoft board, and more. Big Technology is now well over 10,000 subscribers, just hit 150,000 podcast downloads, and reached a record number of unique email openers last week. The business is healthy and advertisers are happy. It’s working.
Email’s incentives are healthier than social When you write for social media, the incentives tell you to be provocative, stoke outrage, and play to biases. Email’s incentives are much healthier — they tell you to build an audience. Cooler heads prevail in the inbox, and cheap shortcuts don’t work. If you thought I was trying to make you mad to get you to share these emails, you’d probably ignore them or unsubscribe. I know I have to earn your opens, and the best way to do that is by consistently providing new information with appropriate nuance.
Substack won’t replace mainstream news organizations Nor should it. The two are compliments. Established news organizations have the resources to put multiple reporters on investigations that solo newsletter operations couldn’t imagine. Newsletters, for their part, can poke at mainstream organizations’ blind spots, leading to coverage that otherwise wouldn’t have existed. The two make each other better. Don’t believe the catastrophists on Twitter.
Advertising or subscriptions doesn’t have to be a choice It’s astonishing that some in the media business maintain orthodox views on advertising and subscriptions. You have to pick one, they say. Why not both? Advertising brings value to readers and supports the broad distribution of news. Subscriptions create a bond between news organizations and readers — you become the customer — leading to greater alignment. In year one, Big Technology was entirely ad-supported (thank you to our sponsors!). In year two, it’ll continue to run ads and turn on subscriptions, blending a mix of subscription-only and free stories.
This isn’t for everyone Writing a newsletter for a living is hard. It requires enthusiasm for the work and the business, a commitment to consistency, a tolerance for uncertainty, and the ability to stomach unsubscribes. The degree of difficulty is why we’re seeing the number of reporters going to Substack tail off after an initial boom. If you can make it work though, it’s awesome.
Life is better with great partners I’ve been fortunate to work with some great partners at CNBC, Medium, RedCircle, and Substack over the past year. Being a solo entrepreneur can be lonely, but it’s been a blast working with the terrific people at these organizations.
Community, Community, Community The best part of my day is when I hear from you, whether it’s in the replies to these emails, on social media, or directly in my inbox. And I think many of you will get along well with each other! I’m going to make building this community a significant focus for Big Technology, looking for ways to bring us together online and off moving forward. Let me know if you have any suggestions!
Meet Big Technology’s Headline Sponsor: Flatfile
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Who Will Pay To Protect Tech Giants From Rising Seas? (NPR)
We feel climate change acutely here in the Bay Area, with our five seasons: Winter, Spring, Summer, Fire, and Fall. Now, as sea levels rise, some of the tech giants’ corporate campuses are in danger of flooding over time. NPR looks at this issue with a visually compelling piece that uses maps and property records to show where big tech campuses are vulnerable. The piece also asks, if (when?) the floods come, who pays to protect the properties?
Twitter, Facebook, Google among major companies changing return-to-office plans amid delta variant spread (CNBC)
Speaking of Silicon Valley campuses, it doesn’t seem like they’re getting back to normal anytime soon. This week, Facebook, Google, Twitter, and LinkedIn all rolled back their return to work policies as worries about the Delta variant accelerated. These companies led the charge in the move to remote work early on in the pandemic, and now they’re not taking any chances. Back in 2020, it seemed aggressive when they told all employees they could work remote till summer 2021. In retrospect, it’s remarkable that the date was too aggressive.
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This week on Big Technology Podcast: Regime Change In Cuba, Through Internet Access? — With FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr
FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr wants to provide internet access to the people in Cuba so they can document and share the abuses of their government without censorship. Commissioner Carr, who rose to his rank after initially serving as an FCC intern, joins Big Technology Podcast to discuss his plan, how the technology would work, and the ethics and advisability of accelerating regime change by providing internet access to a population.
You can listen on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Tips, Comments, Ideas?
Send them my way. I read every response.
Thanks again for reading. I’ll see you after Labor Day, or on the podcast next week.
I think you might be understimating how big outrage and provocation are on Substack? Alex Berenson is their fastest growing and now one of their biggest publishers; similarly most of their top writers in politics are getting their new readers by outrage-bating on Twitter. It's great that you're avoiding that, but it's not an inherent property of the medium!