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