This week, we hear from Casey Newton, founder of Platformer. He was previously The Verge’s long-time Silicon Valley editor, where his newsletter The Interface grew to 20,000 subscribers. Now, he’s gone solo with his own paid Substack newsletter Platformer. He talks to us about what made him decide to take the plunge, how his first week with his new newsletter has gone, and what a Platformer podcast model would look like. He also discusses where he sees platform regulation ending up after more than a decade of covering the tech giants, and shares the first steps he would take to fix them if he was put in charge.

In the news roundup the team discusses whether coronavirus will have a long-lasting impact on trust in journalism. We also discuss the sale of Quartz, Stylist’s move away from being a free magazine in favour of distribution through Ocado, and how one Arkansas title reduced churn to 1%. Pod save the Queen.

See the full transcript here, or highlights below:

On what pushed him to go solo

I had come to believe in the value of the thing I was making. When I talked to people at the companies I covered, it seemed like it was valuable to them, too. And so I asked them, “If I were doing this on my own, would you still subscribe?” And enough people said yes, that I thought it would be worth a shot.

What I’m still thinking through is, what else can I give people who have become paid subscribers? There are lots of things that I want to do, starting with community threads. Unlike my previous newsletter, there will be a home on the web where people can discuss the subjects that I cover.

Defining Platformer’s coverage

My old newsletter, The Interface, it was sort of a pun on the idea of a thing that existed between Facebook and the world. One of the reasons I wanted to change the name of it was I wanted to signal that while Facebook will continue to be one of the pillars of my coverage for a really long time, what I’m really interested in is just the idea of platforms as the defining force in our life. It feels like whenever I go online, it’s all anyone is talking about.

So I thought, can I, in my own way, create kind of a ‘paper of record’ for platforms? And what would that look like?

The response to launching

I feel so fortunate. [The response has been] honestly so moving. You put yourself out there, and you really do feel naked. I’ve been giving this thing away for three years for free. There’s no telling how valuable people find it until they actually fill out a form and contribute.

The day that I announced I was leaving The Verge, it should have felt like a really exciting day. But honestly, mostly it just felt very scary…but then by the time I’d woken up the next day, so many people had subscribed, that I knew I was going to be good into next year just using the revenue that readers had already contributed. That was a really emotional moment for me and made me feel like my suspicion that people really wanted an alternative to the technology coverage that they were reading every day was right.

I’m now a little shy of the first thousand subscribers, and I’ve also hit 30,000 free subscribers, which is fantastic. My honest goal is to convert about 10% of that free list, and then see what else that enables me to do.

Plans for a subscriber-only podcast

I think the idea of podcasts accessible only to members is really interesting. I had done one run of 12 podcasts at The Verge and enjoyed the experience, but it was also really hard. It taught me just how difficult it is to scale a podcast.

So one of the things that I’ve been thinking about is almost looking at it from the opposite standpoint of, instead of how can I grow my podcast as absolutely big as possible, how can I offer a really cool podcast that will feel valuable only to the people who are subscribing to me?

It turns your basic podcast logic on its head, but might make the membership feel more valuable, and hopefully more attractive.

Joining forces with other journalists

I do think that there is going to be a lot of collaboration [in the future]. Something that I have been thinking about a lot is YouTube, where influencers collaborate all the time. It’s one of the main ways they grow their audiences.

We haven’t seen any journalist collaborations like that. But they seem really obvious and interesting to me. I can imagine a relationship where I’m bringing in a star reporter on the TikTok beat or the Amazon beat…to build out that ecosystem a little more. And from there, we could figure out bundles, we could figure out special collaborations, we could work on a podcast together.

I don’t think it rolls all the way back to becoming a publication. One of my jokes is, I don’t want to work in a newsroom any more. But I’m really interested in a Scooby gang, like, five or six people who get a mystery van and drive all over solving platform mysteries…it seems like there’s a lot of really rich potential there that enables the individual journalists to pursue their own aims on their own schedule, while retaining some of the things that we liked about working in newsrooms.

Where platform regulation will end up

It certainly feels like we are headed toward a moment of significant platform regulation, where maybe the United States finally takes some action… But something really important is happening in the meantime, that I think still doesn’t get enough attention, which is called the ‘splinternet’, the idea that the internet is fracturing into zones.

So where I think this is all headed is a much more fractured internet, which will really limit the global ambitions of some of our platforms. And that will just be a fascinating story to watch unfold.

Key stories:

News in brief:

  • Stylist is working with Ocado on its return to print. It will now be £4 per quarter, but the digital subscription is for the weekly mag. Half of its 400,000 print run is now being distributed by Ocado, and Chief Exec Ella Dolphin has said they won’t go back to being a free title.
  • Quartz is back up for sale just two years after being acquired by Japanese company Uzabase. It’s likely to fetch less than they bought it for, after its subscription model proved disappointing. Uzabase say the economic fallout from the pandemic is pushing them to seek an exit.
  • The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette has managed to reduce churn to a “phenomenal” 1% with what we think is a bizarre strategy…cutting print and sending iPads (and an in-person training course in how they work) to its subscribers. They acknowledge it’s an expensive method, but say that the iPad subscribers have a far higher lifetime value.
  • The New Yorker has seen record ticket sales on its virtual pivot. Last year’s in-person New Yorker Festival pulled in 20,000 attendees over 50 events. They’ve surpassed that number this year, although they’ve declined to say by how much (and also ticket prices are 60-75% lower for sessions).
  • Laurene Powell Jobs is cutting back on her journalism investments, and has cut ties with Pop Up and California Sunday Magazines. Her philanthropic organisation Emerson Collective has said they don’t invest in journalism for the money, but this seems to be a pandemic-driven economic decision.
  • Google is on the verge of striking a deal to pay French publishers. As a result of endless lobbying by French publishers (backed by a government that has historically been very strong in protecting French language interests) Google has progressed talks and is working on a deal which would include acceptance of the neighbouring right (snippet tax), as well as French publisher’s inclusion in its licensed News Showcase.

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