Interviewer: Esther Kezia Thorpe

Esther: What gave you the final push to go solo with your own newsletter Platformer?

Casey Newton: I think that I had come to believe in the value of the thing that I was making. And when I talked to people at the companies that I covered, it seemed like it was valuable to them, too. I asked them, if I were doing this on my own, would you still subscribe? And if so, would you pay for it? And enough people said yes, that I thought it could be worth a shot.

By that point, my Twitter following had cracked 100,000, which was a 10 year project that had finally come to fruition. And I thought it was worth a shot, because ultimately, I only needed about 1000 of those people to become paying subscribers in order for it to become a pretty good journalism job.

And when you were looking at going solo how did you, I don’t want to say ‘design’ your paid offering, but it did you want to offer paid subscribers something extra? Or was it just a case of saying, actually, I want you to pay for what I’m doing now?

Yeah, so I had the fortune of being able to copy other people before me. And the main person who I have been stealing from is Ben Thompson, who writes a very popular newsletter that’s well read in Silicon Valley called Stratchery. And his offering was, I’ll send you my publication once a week for free, but if you want three more updates during the week, you’ll have to pay.

I really liked how that kind of split the difference. So you are making some of your work accessible to everyone, but for people to whom it was really important, and who depended on it to do their jobs, you would ask them to pay a little bit. And so that was where I started.

Where I’m still thinking through is, what else can I give people who have become paid subscribers? And there are a lot 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. So that’s something that I’m going to ramp up very shortly.

And then beyond that, I think the idea of podcasts accessible only to members is really interesting, and something I’m pursuing now.

I was going to ask if you’d considered podcasts!

Yeah well, I had done one run of 12 podcasts at The Verge and enjoyed the experience. But it was also really hard, and it taught me just how difficult it is to scale a podcast.

And 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, it’s how can I offer a really cool podcast that will feel valuable only to the people who are subscribing to me? Which I think turns your basic podcast logic on its head, but might make the membership feel more valuable, and hopefully more attractive.

That’s really interesting. It feels like a backwards approach, but actually you’ve already got the audience. So why would you need to build that any further?

Yeah. And I mean, I think that you can imagine both things working right. I can see a very popular, free podcast driving a smaller number of subscriptions to a paid newsletter, but I can also see a really popular newsletter driving subscriptions to a podcast. So I think a lot of different things will work here.

Yeah. So what does Platformer look like? Because The Interface very much evolved from being sort of general platform news to, you ended up becoming an expert on that intersection between platform and government. Are you planning to do the same thing with Platformer?

Yeah, I think so. You know, the way that I think about it is, when I started, even though The Interface always had a broader view than just Facebook, I was really operating it as the newsletter of a Facebook beat reporter. And one of the things that I discovered was a lot of problems in platforms just happen to Facebook first, or they were noticed at Facebook first, and then eventually, we would discover similar dynamics playing out everywhere else.

My old newsletter, The Interface, it was sort of a pun on the idea of a thing that existed between Facebook and the world. And so one of the reasons why I wanted to change the name of it was, I wanted to signal that while Facebook will continue to be one of the probably 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, right? 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?

And so what your days going to look like now, because I know at The Verge, you did quite a few big investigative feature pieces. Are you still going to be able to do that early on, or is that a little bit further down the line?

I think so. With me, features are something that I enjoy doing, but it has to be the right idea, and frankly, I’m just not that proactive in finding them. Earlier this year, I had the ability to get a hold of some internal recordings inside of Facebook for the entire summer. And I just thought, ‘Oh, well, that’s going to be a great feature once I can tie all of that together.’

Whatever my next feature is, it’ll probably look much different than that. But I do want to do them.

One of the things that I’ve told my members is, I want to be an independent journalist, supported by my readers. And I do think that means going beyond the day to day and taking some bigger swings. And I want members to feel glad that they were supporting that work.

So I’m going to look for those opportunities, and we’ll see what happens.

You aren’t the first, but you definitely won’t be the last to make a move like this. So if lots of others in your space ended up doing the same thing, do you think you’d end up joining forces? And at that point, are we back at kind of a publication?

Well, I do think that there is going to be a lot of collaboration. Something that I have been thinking about a lot is YouTube, where influencers collaborate all the time. It’s one of the main ways that they grow their audiences. We haven’t really seen journalist collaborations like that. But they seem really obvious and interesting to me.

My publication links to the work of dozens of great journalists, and there are a handful of characters who are appearing multiple times per week, right? And so even though their journalism is appearing elsewhere, on Platformer, in a weird way, they’re these kind of pseudo correspondents for it. So I can imagine a more intentional version of that relationship where I’m bringing in a star reporter on the TikTok beat or on the Amazon beat to maybe do a little bit of journalism, maybe just do a Q&A, but kind of build out that ecosystem a little more.

And from there, I think we can figure out some other interesting things. We could figure out bundles, we could figure out special collaborations, we could work on a podcast together.

I don’t think it rolls up all the way back to becoming a publication. One of my jokes is, I don’t want to work in a newsroom anymore, but I’m really interested in a Scooby gang, like five or six people who get in a mystery van and drive all over solving platform mysteries. That sounds really cool to me. And all of those people might be supported in their own ways. Maybe we would share some costs; maybe we would share an editor or maybe we would share a designer.

But it just 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.

One of the other things about going individual is that – and I’m sure you’ve come across this a bit already – is that you’re not just a journalist, you’ve got to do all the marketing, you’ve got to do subscription management, analytics… Are you ready for that? Has doing The Interface built you up to the stage you’re confident with that?

We’ll find out if I’m ready for it! I don’t have an accountant yet, and I desperately need one, so that’s something that I’m going to be working on tomorrow. There are definitely some questions involved. But I guess I just fundamentally believe that they will be manageable.

We live at a time when, honestly, thanks to the technology industry, a lot of problems that used to be really difficult in business have been abstracted away into a few clicks of a button. When I went to start Platformer, I used a service called Stripe Atlas, where I paid $500 and filled out a couple of forms, and a few days later, I had digital documents from the state of Delaware affirming that my business had been created. I had an employer identification number. And I mean, it was like magic.

And I think if you look at every layer of the business stack, whether you’re looking at legal things or accounting, there are services that help with that. So it may be that I’m being very naïve here. But I’m also talking about a relatively small business and I’ve just convinced myself that it’s going to be manageable.

Do you have any particular set subscriber goals or anything? Or are you just going to see how the next couple of months go?

Yeah, for me, I think getting to…I’m a little shy of the first thousand subscribers. So that’ll be a milestone.

You’ve only just launched so that’s good!

Yeah, so that’s good. And I’ve also hit 30,000 free subscribers, which is fantastic. Basically, what the newsletter folks will tell you is, if you get 10% conversion on your list, that’s considered good. But not excellent, by the way, it’s like maybe like a solid B or B+ outcome.

If I can convert 3,000 subscribers, that’s an incredible job. That’s an amount of money that almost no one in media would pay, and it does free me up to do some of the things that I’m really interested in around podcasting, around potentially hiring someone.

So I think my honest goal is to convert about 10% of that free list, and then see what else that enables me to do.

Well to have done even a third of that, when you haven’t actually officially launched the paid version yet is pretty good going!

Yeah. I feel so fortunate. I mean, it is honestly so moving, right? 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. And so it’s been so tremendously heartening.

The day that I announced that I was leaving The Verge, it should have felt like a really exciting day. But honestly, mostly, it just felt very scary. It sort of had that bad dream feel of like, ‘Oh, wait, did I really do this? Are they really actually cutting off my email address, like, can I go backward?!’

But then by the time that 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, I was going to be able to make it into 2021 just fine.

And 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. So I hope it continues in that direction.

You’ve written about platforms for years, and lots of people in publishing have blamed the platforms for basically ruining media. What’s your take on that?

So I think platforms have all sorts of negative externalities, and it’s one of the main things that I write about in Platformer. I try to poke holes in them, and I try to link to other journalists who are exploring their limits.

But I have also become suspicious over the years of what I call platform determinism, which is the idea that platforms are uniquely responsible for all events in the world. And that if anything has even one tie to Facebook, or Twitter or YouTube, then Facebook or Twitter or YouTube must be wholly responsible for it.

I think I started out as maybe one of the more strident critics of platforms, but over the last three years, I’ve moved to the centre. In part, I think that’s because more reporters sort of became platform hawks, and platform determinists, and I just kind of receded a little bit toward the centre, because I’m less convinced that they are as responsible for as many events uniquely as some people think.

But at the end of the day, we are relatively early into the era of platforms. The academic research on it is somewhat limited, it’s somewhat contradictory.

And frankly, that’s the whole idea of the publication is, do you feel really affected by this stuff? Do you work on these platforms? Well then, gosh, we have a lot of questions that we need to answer. And so let’s go do it together and let’s approach it with scepticism, but with an open mind, and see what we can find out.

On that note – and I do feel sorry for you writing a newsletter on platforms when literally the news is full of it at the moment – but if you think about even just this year, there’s been a tonne of stuff at the intersection of platforms and governments. Trump’s just been able to ban TikTok whenever he decides, I’ve seen stuff about the regulatory pressure hotting up even today on Google and Facebook. Where do you think this is all heading?

It is sort of the question, right? It certainly feels like we are headed toward a moment of significant platform regulation where maybe the United States finally take some action, although I just wrote my column yesterday about how after 16 months of investigation, the Democrats and the Republicans still can’t agree on what to do about any of these platforms.

But something really important is happening in the meantime that I think still doesn’t get enough attention, which is what is sometimes called the splinternet; the idea that the internet is fracturing into zones. We used to have the Western internet, and then we had the Chinese internet, and that was it. And now there’s a European internet that has some very different rules, there is an Indian internet that is developing some different rules. China and other Asian countries are adopting rules very similar to China’s, and then you have the American internet, which still kind of has this Wild West feel about it. But as we saw with the president trying to ban TikTok, that is a very Chinese-style approach to regulating the internet.

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.

So if Facebook suddenly can’t operate in, say, Europe and Australia, it loses huge portions of its market.

Completely. They’re at huge risk right now of being banned in Turkey because they just refuse to place a local representative there and open an office there. It’s an authoritarian regime, and I think they rightly assume that, you know, their service could be used for spying on dissidents, or other authoritarian uses. And so, Facebook could be banned in Turkey.

And it is not hard for me to imagine another Western company banned. I mean, you look at how politicians in the UK or Australia talk about Facebook, and I can see one of those politicians successfully implementing a ban.

So I think all of those risks are really real and will probably be one of the defining stories of the next 10 years.

I always assumed the West was quite open with that sort of thing, we’d never ban anybody, and then the Trump TikTok thing happened and I could suddenly see a scenario where actually the UK would be forced to ban them as well. And it would just end up that it was suddenly going the other way, and you just think, what’s happening?!

Well completely. And what I suspect would happen, by the way is, say, a western country bans Facebook, there will be another platform that springs up there that will probably have a lot of the same dynamics.

And we will realise that it was not that one company or another was a uniquely malevolent actor, but that the internet just creates certain environments that have a lot of benefits, a lot of economic benefits, a lot of benefits to individual users, right, my job is impossible without the internet. But they have some some drawbacks, too.

And so one of the things I try to do in Platformer is try to focus people on the underlying issues, rather than always making it about like, well, is Facebook evil, is Twitter evil, and so on.

In a perverse way, could this splinternet end up actually solving some of the monopoly problems?

It is such an astute question, and I think the answer is yes, actually. I want to write about this at some length, but I’m just somebody who believes that Facebook is too big, for example. I think YouTube is too big. To me, when the CEO can’t really properly understand everything that is happening on the platform, the platform is probably too big.

And so the idea that these things might get shrunken by a splintering internet, but might become more governable, as a result, I’m not sure is a bad outcome. So that’s something I have a close eye on.

And if you were put in charge – I don’t want to say as President – but if you ended up in charge, and you were given the job of fixing platforms, where would you start, and why?

Well there were some really good recommendations that were in the House report, which came out this week. And what I liked about them was, what they really did was they sought to restore competition to the marketplace,. If you want to compete with Facebook, if you want to compete with YouTube, it’s really hard.

So one thing that I’d love to see agencies do is to presume that mergers by these dominant platforms are anti-competitive until proven otherwise. So you wouldn’t be able to see a Facebook acquire an Instagram. It tried to acquire Snap multiple times, this would sort of put the brakes on that.

And I think just by stopping them from acquiring these young competitors, we would reintroduce a lot of competition into the marketplace, and there would be a lot of benefits from that.

I’d love to see some rules around platforms not being able to preference their own services. If you search for a restaurant on Google, you’ll get Google’s inferior results above the Yelp results. And I think consumers would benefit from having access to better results there and not just see the Google results by default.

And then I think some rules around making services compatible with their competitors. So remember, you used to be able to create an Instagram account, and it would show you all of the accounts of the people that you follow on Twitter. They got rid of that, but it’s actually one of the things that helped Instagram grow a lot in the early days.

So I think just by introducing some of these tactics that would reintroduce competition to the marketplace, we would probably have an internet that we liked better.

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