“I guess there’s something about newsletters that bugs me, and I can’t put my finger on it,” writes Robin Rendle and asks the big question: why publishing on the web is still so hard that people want to publish newsletters. You want to read it, because the presentation is fantastic!
I came across this opinion piece about the role of social media in the demise and subsequent rebirth of blogging, a topic not unfamiliar to readers of my blog. It credits Twitter for providing a platform that allows for interactions similar to those that distinguished early blogging communities. And at least in a superficial way, that’s not wrong, I guess. But there is a wide gulf between the impulses that drive social media and the “why” of blogging. And the author completely overlooks the latter in his eagerness to report that, after many bloggers were wiped out, some elements of the activity formerly known as blogging survived. (Fact check: classical blogging continues to flourish in all corners of the Internet.)
As I have noted a time or two, blogging and the behaviors it inspired were the genesis of many contemporary activities on the Internet. Yet, despite this, we still seem unable to fully appreciate what was at the heart of blogging — that thing that makes so many of us nostalgic for its heyday, even as we tweet until our thumbs ache. And this brings me to my long-standing quibble with the media establishment: why can’t they recognize significant changes until it is too late?
Marc Weidenbaum, a music enthusiast and founder of Disquiet.com, expertly captures the distinction between blogs and social. “Social media expects feedback (not just comments, but likes and follows),” he writes. “Blogs are you getting your ideas down; feedback is a byproduct, not a goal.” In other words, one is a performance for an audience, while the other is highly personal, though others may end up finding it interesting. Weidenbaum also admirably points out the difference between blogs and all the suddenly ubiquitous newsletters. “And newsletters = broadcasting,” he says. “Blogging is different.”
Bingo. By the way, for this exact reason, I recently decided to rethink the whole notion of my newsletter. I realized that it is just a way to get my words, as I wrote when I announced some recent changes, “from my computer to your inbox in order to spare you the trouble of coming to my website.”
The main reason media stalwarts couldn’t understand blogging is that they couldn’t see beyond their all-too-familiar containers and distribution mechanisms. They were too entrapped in their dogmas. The author of the opinion piece that kicked off this post offers up a telling account of his own transition from blogger to an employee at a legacy media company.
“A key lesson I learned from my new colleagues was that we couldn’t cater to our regular readers the way many classic blogs did,” he writes. “Our salaries were supported by advertising. To make the whole project financially viable, we needed a lot of readers. Practically speaking, that meant bringing in a lot of new readers.” In other words, the company couldn’t conceive of any game other than the one it was already playing.
This problem persists. Rethinking news requires a complete reconsideration of media, what it means, how it gets consumed, and how it gets distributed to those who want it. Even now, the media establishment is so stuck in text that they can’t fully see the extent to which we are transitioning to a world of primarily visual media.
For the future of media — including blogging — look to YouTube, Snap, TikTok, and Instagram. By the way, the content on these platforms is often created and engaged with in a spirit much more analogous to that of traditional blogs than anything you’re likely to see on Twitter. A whole generation has grown up with cameras — and front-facing cameras at that. Smartphones make it so much easier to create daily logs (What else are “stories” on Snap and Instagram?). The behaviors on these platforms will define the media consumption of the future. They are already reshaping the present.
Let’s take music journalism as an example. You are unlikely to stumble upon any new music through a traditional music magazine or even on many traditional music blogs. Instead, people are finding new musical acts on TikTok. “Mainstream music journalism is largely uninterested in promoting discovery, focusing instead on blanket coverage of superstars and seemingly endless traffic-grabbing lists — which may buoy an existing reader base, but often fails to capture newer, younger music fans,” reported (ironically) Rolling Stone. “Enter the upstart music blogs of TikTok.”
TikTok’s rise as a taste maker for music (and culture) is just the evolution of (news) media away from the written word model. Magazines, radio and late-night television shows helped with music discovery before the social era. Blogs came next, by their human curation. Individuals as taste makers and cultural deejays was a trend that became stronger with YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. And TikTok is the newest evolution for a generation that lives at the network speed.
And a generation growing up on the beat of the network wants their news in TikTok-style packaging. The future of media and news is a combination of visual, virtual, augmented, and metaverse realities. It is not a matter of if, but when. I am not saying that the traditional media formats won’t have a role — but they will have to compete with a different reality.
Back when media companies were making a mess of the blogging world, they were hamstrung by their failure to understand and appreciate the “why” of the activity they were seeking to replicate. As they slowly key into the world of visual media — and inevitably attempt to stuff it into their preexisting boxes — let’s hope they don’t make all the same mistakes again.
June 7, 2021. San Francisco
Weekend is usually for catching up on newsletters that end up in Feedbin. Today, I am catching up on Galaxy Brain, the newsletter from Charlie Warzel. He quit his gig at The New York Times, joined the exodus, and became part of the Substack revolution. Like all of you, no doubt, I wondered why anyone would leave a mega-platform like The New York Times. Instead of some sanitized bullshit, Warzel addressed this directly the introduction to his newsletter:
The last two places I worked were big, polarizing brands, which also meant that a huge chunk of my readers on a given story were there because they wanted to use what I’d written — usually just the headline — as ammunition in a culture war battle…..And if I’m honest, it’s burned me out and left me feeling grim about the role of mainstream media.
If, as he suggests, he is tired of being part of the audience chasing machine and wants to make a decent wage writing about the Internet, then he has already taken the step in the right direction.
Still, despite what you might have read on the Internet, your Substack newsletter won’t make you a millionaire. During the blogging boom, for every Ariana Huffington, there were plenty of others who didn’t waltz into the sunset. This edition of the media makeover isn’t going to be any different — but the success of the one percent, among which Warzel may very well end up being, is what keeps everyone aspiring for those kinds of spoils.
I am hopeful that, with the Substack revolution, we will soon see a decline in PR-influenced technology journalism, or what some have labeled as access journalism. This is the real opportunity for the new independents. If they do their job well, then we should see more information that is not approved or sanitized become public.
Access journalism is a dangerous game to play. With technology becoming “big tech,” media relations has become “media management.” Facebook utilizes its very sophisticated set-up to blunt and diffuse any adverse reporting on their company. A time-tested strategy used by Facebook has been “access” to CEO Mark Zuckerberg. In the past, it used to be an on-stage appearance at a conference. These days it is an appearance in Clubhouse or in Sidechannel, a Discord server set-up by independent writers that have turned to Substack.
If you work for a prominent publication, then getting an interview with the CEO of Facebook or Twitter is necessary. That is the best way to get the maximum attention for your story. It doesn’t matter if the executives don’t have anything meaningful to say. They are simply blowing smoke up everyone’s bum with their words, and as a writer, you have to make it all seem important. It is not.
However, when you are working on a specialized newsletter focused only on a few thousand paying subscribers, you can free yourself from such games. You are writing just for your readers — especially for those who are willing to put their dollars behind their attention.
It has been a week since Charlie started writing a newsletter. I have read three of them — the latest installment featured him outlining why he is skeptical of Facebook’s courtship of creators. If he continues on this track for another fortnight, I am likely to become a paying subscriber.
April 25, 2021, San Francisco
Lately, I find myself admiring HEY World, a new tool from the makers of the collaboration platform Basecamp. Here’s how it works: If you use HEY, their (paid) email service, you can write an email, send it to a specific address, and publish it for the world to see. The published email is distributed to readers, … Continue reading HEY World makes what’s old new again with blogging.
A few months ago, there were rumors that Twitter had made an offer for Substack, the hotter-than-jalapeños email publishing platform. If so, it looks like they got turned down. Instead, Twitter bought Revue, an also-ran, Netherlands-based email publishing company. Many in the technology press believe that Revue will allow Twitter to compete with Substack and … Continue reading Twitter vs Substack