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Elon Won’t Save “Free Speech” by Buying Substack

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Upon waking on Wednesday morning to find out that Elon was “open to the idea” of buying” Substack on Wednesday I felt somewhat compelled to air my views via the medium of a Twitter thread. Which I promptly did.

Twitter threads, however, have their limitations, so I’m expanding on my thinking in long form by reposting the thread below with a few supplemental personal remarks (highlighted with asterisks) accordingly.

FYI: Elon’s comment came in response to this Tweet by Wall Street Silver:

My thread began thusly:

1/ Does Elon know that Substack won’t disclose if it’s profitable or not? Which basically implies that it isn’t.

*Substack’s profitability is an important consideration because Twitter itself is already (to use Elon’s words) “in the fast lane to bankruptcy”. Since Substack is a private company we don’t have much insight into their financials. What they have publicly revealed thus far, however, is not indicative of profitability.

As this Times story noted on December 12:

“Substack, which carefully selects the metrics it opts to share publicly, now has more than 1.5 million paid subscriptions. Its top ten newsletters collectively generate more than $25 million in revenue, before commission. But a spokeswoman for the group declined to clarify how many paying people were paying for these subscriptions, or which newsletters comprised the platform’s top ten. She also declined to confirm its valuation after its 2021 funding round. Asked whether the companywas profitable, Best deferred the question to the spokeswoman, who declined to comment.”

It’s fair to assume that were Substack highly profitable it wouldn’t be delaying funding rounds until the market was more accommodating to high-growth zero-profit businesses again or laying off staff. We might also assume we would have heard about it by now, because profitability makes for good PR.

2/ Substack just isn’t the solution to “free speech” that people think it is. Only a handful of authors can earn a professional living on the service. Its open-ended nature also means it’s difficult to ascertain what sort of quality you are getting.

3/ Substack is a bit like Uber for journalists. Lots are tempted to jump ship [*to join the site] – attracted by the idea of independence and being able to work when they want. Unlike Uber they get to set their own rates. But too many fail to anticipate their true cost base or scaling losses.

4/ When I was trying to determine my path to independence last year I was put off by what was at the time Substack’s reluctance to support journos who wanted to start branded businesses that aimed to grow into scaled-up operations. They were not keen on white labelling their service.

5/ I’ve noticed that since then they seem to have changed their policy (of discouraging brands to reside on their own domain name). A number of operations seem to be being white-labelled now. But even then they seem bound by the same exact templating and style.

*Substack allows you to add your own logo and refine some of the settings, but overall  – in terms of design – it’s very clearly regulated. That’s not a problem per se, but it does make it harder to differentiate yourself. WordPress offers more optionality. That said, had Substack been more open to white-labelling back in Q4 2021 when I was talking to them I might have gone with them. Using WordPress has probably proved more cost effective in the long run, but any savings I’ve generated have benefited from helpful barter arrangementas and come at the expense of my attention and bandwidth. Ironically, the design optionality I so craved hasn’t even been maximised by me. My website’s look and feel was cobbled together on an amateur basis to get a “minimum viable product” going, and I’m still waiting to generate enough revenue to invest in a professional redesign.

6/ What we need is a platform for professionals only. One which allows small newsroom operations and independents to compete with MSM on a broader level by applying self-regulatory standards and identifiers, that allow like-minded groups to share core resources.

7/ I see this as a cross between a guild, a union, a law chambers system and a babysitting app like Bubble. An entire support system for pro journalists that can remain open-ended providing pro journalists make their biases, standards and priors known thru affiliation first.

8/ I want to build such a system, mainly because I know it would have helped me as an indy/freelance journalist. I’ve started a discord server for journalists (and non-journos) who might want to get involved. I think it’s a really big opportunity [if it’s done right].

9/ The problem is journos are naturally non-collaborative and distrustful of other journalists (or anyone) telling them how to improve their media system. It’s a massive game theoretical challenge which has resulted in the industry being left behind in the dark ages in many respects.

*I find it somewhat absurd, for example, that no-one has yet created a tool or a platform that helps freelance journalists manage their invoicing or terms and conditions/contracts. The system I envisage would provide for a collectivised system, which would force publishers to take the terms and conditions of journalists rather than the other way around. The more noted the journalistic gild is for good practice and quality work, the better the terms they would be able to establish with publishers.

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