This week, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg granted a rare, live, hourlong interview to a tech journalist, where he revealed the company’s plans for a slew of new audio products. Normally, such a scoopy, wide-ranging interview would be a coup for the media company that landed it. But in this case, there was no traditional media company: The interviewer was Casey Newton, who writes a Substack newsletter called Platformer, and the setting was a new Discord server that Newton and seven other independent writers have created called Sidechannel. A thousand people—paying subscribers to at least one of the newsletters—tuned in.
It was the latest milestone in Substack’s ascendance as a platform for high-profile journalism. The company’s rise, punctuated by a venture capital round that valued it at $650 million, has been fueled by an influx of well-known commentators formerly employed by major media outlets such as the New York Times, Vox, and BuzzFeed. Some are lured by the editorial freedom, others by the cash on offer, which for top writers can hit seven figures. Several outlets have lost their biggest names to Substack (though not always unhappily); Slate and New York recently lost their star advice columnists.
In his interview with Newton, Zuckerberg framed Substack, along with audio and podcast platforms, as part of a bright future in which individual creators thrive unencumbered by traditional media gatekeepers. Substack’s biggest investors, the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, feel the same way: They’re banking on a future for journalists that doesn’t leave much space for editors, copy editors, fact-checkers, or even much of a business side. Mostly just writers, a technology platform, and a whole lot of revenue to split. [Continue reading…]