Substack built a framework for how platforms can support creators

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Substack built a framework for how platforms can support creators

The paid newsletter startup Substack made a recent announcement that it’s launching a fellowship program for independent writers. Those who get chosen for the program will receive a monthly stipend, as well as “coaching and support in areas that will set them up for long-term success with the subscription publishing model.”

I actually think this has the potential to be an important move for Substack and could possibly be emulated by other platforms. One of the biggest challenges for aspiring professional newsletter writers is that they need, at the very least, several months of runway to build up a strong base of non-paying email subscribers before they can attempt to monetize their audience. This runway will differ depending on the individual writer and niche, but I would suggest that you shouldn’t even debut a paid subscription until you have at least 10,000 free newsletter signups.

But here’s the problem: the average middle class creative simply doesn’t have the capital to spend 40 hours a week for six months building up their audience. Instead, they’re forced to operate their newsletters on the side, hoping that they have enough energy left over after they come home from their day jobs to spend time on their writing.

So you can think of this fellowship program as a miniature form of venture capital investing. Substack sees lots of potential for writers on its platform, and by providing an initial revenue base to get them going, these writers have the runway to truly scale their operations. They benefit from the stipend and support, and Substack benefits because it’ll take its cut of all future subscription revenue the writer generates.

It’s a model that I wish more platforms would copy. Imagine if the folks at YouTube spotted a creator who makes really original content but has only grown their channel to 10,000 subscribers, and then consider how a monthly stipend could go a long way toward helping that filmmaker grow their audience into the millions. The same could be said for most platforms that support independent creators, from Medium to Patreon to even Facebook Watch. Given how much money and support the platforms throw at mainstream media companies, it’d be nice to see them support their own homegrown creators for once.

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What it takes to build a bootstrapped podcast network

If you listen to the podcast Startup, then you’ve heard host Alex Blumberg go into exquisite detail about the trials and tribulations of launching a VC-funded podcast network. In earlier seasons, we got a firsthand look at what it was like to pitch venture capitalists, hire talent, and grow the business. In the final season of Startup, Blumberg walked us through Spotify’s $230 million acquisition of Gimlet.

But what about bootstrapped podcast networks that don’t have access to millions of dollars of venture capital money? How do they get off the ground and scale? To answer these questions, I spoke to Jeff Umbro, the founder of the Podglomerate. We talked about his early mistakes in trying to partner with shows for his network and why it can be incredibly difficult to monetize a show with a small audience. Check it out

Another Twitter feature that its power users will hate

Twitter is rolling out a feature called Topics. Instead of just following individual users, people will now have the ability to follow, well, topics like Entertainment, Sports, and Fashion.

Why is it doing this? One of the constant struggles Twitter’s faced in growing its user base is developing features that will attract non-power users. As a self-described power user myself, I’ve spent years tweaking my Twitter timeline just so. For instance, when a user I’m following is too trigger happy about retweeting praise of their own work, I’ll go to their profile and switch off my ability to see their retweets. I’ve followed all my favorite journalists, podcasters, and YouTubers. I’ve followed the elements of Weird Twitter that make me laugh and a fair number of meme accounts. I have my Twitter timeline just the way I like it.

But casual users don’t have the time or inclination to hunt down all the best accounts that fit within their interests. They come to the platform, test it out, and are chased away by the cacophony of mediocre content you see if you just follow well known celebrities and brand accounts. Twitter’s new Topics algorithm, supposedly, will cut through this cacophony, surfacing the very best tweets in a category from both mainstream and niche users. You only see a Lebron James tweet if it’s actually interesting, and you also get to see tweets from the funny NBA meme account that only has, like, 10,000 followers.

It's worth noting that Medium switched to a topics-based following system years ago and I didn't really like the results. The topics were too broad and filled my feed with a lot of bland content I had absolutely no interest in reading.

For instance, I'm interested in tech news, but only a narrow sliver of tech news, but that didn’t stop Medium from bombarding me with stories about the iPhone and every flavor of tech startup I cared absolutely nothing about. Or when I chose to follow "social media," it started surfacing social media marketing 101 stuff that had no bearing on my life. There’s not a day that goes by when I don’t miss the old Medium, the one that actually surfaced content from the people I followed.

The good news is that, unlike Medium’s foray into topics, Twitter’s version will be completely opt in. The power users get to keep what they hold dear, and maybe, just maybe, Twitter can finally start growing its user base again.

Slate’s podcasts now generate over 50% of its revenue

Slate is doing a lot of interesting experimentation with trying to create synergies between its podcast operations and its text-based reporting. [link]

A new traffic firehose for publishers

It's amazing how easy it is for large platforms like Google to casually toss publishers gargantuan loads of free web traffic. [link]


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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at For a full bio, go here.