Casey Newton on Leaving ‘The Verge’ for Substack and the Future of Tech Journalism

Sarah Jeong talks to Newton about the details of his deal, subscription journalism, and what makes email such a good media format

Image for post
Image for post
Casey Newton

Casey Newton, The Verge’s longtime Silicon Valley editor and the creator of The Interface newsletter, is leaving the publication to start a newsletter on Substack called Platformer.

Newton, who started at The Verge in 2013, has published more than 570 issues of The Interface since it launched in October 2017. The newsletter currently boasts more than 20,000 subscribers. The Interface usually follows the themes of content moderation, disinformation, and the negative effects of social media on society. The focus is frequently on the omnipresent and ever-controversial Facebook, but the newsletter also covers companies like TikTok, Apple, Google, Amazon, and more.

During The Interface’s run, Newton also published multiple investigative pieces about the working conditions for platform content moderators, two of which were nominated for ASME awards.

I interviewed Newton over Zoom about the pros and cons of going independent, the economics of subscription models, and what Substack means for the future of journalism.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Sarah Jeong: Congrats! What does your new newsletter look like? Is it going to be called The Interface? Are you bringing over your subscription base?
Casey Newton:
I am changing the name. When I began this process, it was with the assumption that I would not have access to the IP or the email list.

When I started The Interface, it was kind of a pun on Facebook — it was sort of like between Facebook and the world. And now that I’m writing about more platforms, I wanted to lead into that.

I’m calling it Platformer — it informs you about platforms. But also in video games, a platformer is one where you jump from platform to platform, and to me, that’s the defining quality of modern life. We go from Twitter to Facebook to YouTube and back.

I’ll be able to take my mailing list with me when I leave. I’ll remain a contributing editor at The Verge, and you can expect more columns and features from me there in the months to come.

When did you make the decision? When did Substack manage to seduce you away?
I have been talking to Substack — just about their company — basically since they started it. They had approached me last year with a pretty compelling offer to jump. At the time, it just didn’t feel like the right move.

But a year later, the pandemic came along, and it just changed a lot for me. I sort of realized that I could do a ton of my job from inside my house. I could do all this digital reporting and could maybe even work on some new and different things because I had all this extra time on my hands.

It’s sort of like you’re in jail, and you have nothing but time to think about what you’ll do on the outside. That’s sort of how I felt during the pandemic. I turned 40, and… Substack just did some interesting things. They’re really helping writers build communities, they’re helping readers discover new writers, and some writers are having this incredible success out there on their own.

So that was one set of factors. Another factor was just that I’ve been a journalist for 18 years now. The entire time, I’ve been nervous about what’s going on in the ad market. First I saw the web come along and disrupt the print newspapers I was working for. Then the platforms came along and disrupted the digital properties I was working for. Along the way, thousands of really talented journalists lost their jobs. I always wondered if there were alternative business models we could explore, and if they were successful, could we help figure out more sustainable, replicable models for journalists to snap their fingers and create their own jobs?

Because if we could do that, we could get more journalists working, we could have a much more diverse journalism community than we have today, and we’d have these publications that are not dependent on advertising. That could lead to some interesting creative possibilities.

It was sort of a swirl of all those things. It led me to say you know what, let’s just try something.

I’m glad we’ve cut to the heart of this. I haven’t been a journalist as long as you have, but we’ve both been around the block — I’ve spent time freelancing, in digital, in the legacy print papers, and so on. We both know that the benefit of being at an institution is health insurance, legal assistance, and editing. How much of this are you about to get from Substack?
Not a ton. I’d say that legal is about the biggest protection they’re offering, and it’s very significant. They’ve said they’ll spend up to a million dollars in your defense, and when you’re writing about potentially litigious companies, that matters a lot. Of everything Substack offered me, that’s most important.

On health care, they’re offering me a small subsidy for a year. But more important to me, they’re just helping me figure it out. They’re hooking me up with a company that’ll help me choose from some plans, and I’ll just be able to log into a website and click some buttons and it seems like I’ll have health care. Which, as someone who is not good at managing the bureaucratic aspects of my life, is really appealing to me.

Something I would say is that I didn’t want to lean too hard on Substack offering me a bunch of services, because if I’m reliant on Substack for the thing to work, then it’s not really working in the way I envisioned. The dream to me is that I find some subset of the people who subscribe to my newsletter today, who like it and want to support it, and I can just pay all my bills with their generosity, and we can just go out and do good journalism that way. It needs to work that way if it’s really going to work.

What does this deal look like? I assume they didn’t just say, “Hey, come here from the Verge, with a stable salary and health insurance, and you can make your own money by putting up your own shingle.” What was their pitch?
To some extent it was just kind of “control your destiny.” It was also “give yourself uncapped upside.” There is a ceiling to how much any media company will pay you. I have to say, Vox Media always treated me super well, and I have zero complaints about how they treated me. I think they were always very generous to me from day one. But again, there are limits.

When you look at the economics of newsletters, there are opportunities that are bigger for some writers than any media company can match. If you can find 10,000 people to pay you $100 a year, you’re making $1 million a year. No one in media is going to pay you that unless you’re the anchor of a popular news show or something.

I’m not going to get to 10,000 subscribers anytime soon, but if I can work toward that over time, not only will I be in a position where I’m doing well for myself, but I’ll be in a position where I can create media jobs. I can hire someone to go out and do more reporting. I can hire an editor. I can hire a graphics person. I can start to — in this tiny, tiny way — rebuild a little of what has been lost and figure some things out for the future. That just seemed like a really cool bet to make. Maybe I can actually start a tiny media company out of this and do some really cool stuff.

So, in a way, you’re replicating what once was.
In some senses, yes. A lot of what I do is replicating the logic of a trade publication. I write really in-depth industry news at the intersection of government, which makes it slightly different from the average trade publication. But the people subscribing to it are people working on the communications teams, people who work on the policy teams, even executive teams. The groups who want to understand how their companies are being perceived day to day.

So, that’s just kind of a trade publication. But trade publications have big traditional newsrooms. They have all those legacy costs, and I’m not going to. I’m one reporter against the world, but if I can do a good job of curating the most important stories of the day, write some analysis, generate tips, turn those into big feature stories—which will, by the way, run outside of my publication; I’ll freelance those somewhere else—then it starts to look a little bit different.

The other way it looks different is you are building a community. And that’s something I’m really at square one about. I definitely include reader feedback in a lot of my newsletters, but I’ve never tried to cultivate it as a community where I’m, like, starting a Friday thread where people can jump on and debate the issues of the day. And I really want to see what is in that community, what they want me to report on. That feels really interesting to me and kind of different from what has come before.

So, feature stories. The Trauma Floor, your investigative piece about Facebook content moderators, was nominated for an Ellie. You say you want to keep doing feature reporting, but one of the things about features, as we both know, is that investigative reporting takes a lot of up-front costs, and publications usually have to bear those costs. Do you anticipate any tension with trying to do investigations without having the backing of a large media company?

Yeah, potentially. There are definitely things media companies do for writers that I’m giving up. The ability to hop on a plane, stay in Austin for a week at SXSW just to check it out — those things are hugely expensive. So that is something I’m going to have to figure out. At the same time, if you look at the kind of reporting I’m doing, it’s focused largely on the geographical area I live in.

Even in a time when we are allowed to meet up face-to-face once again, I’m still going to be physically close to people I’m writing about. That’s something I have going for me. You know, another thing I would say is if other writers pursue this model, I wouldn’t be surprised if we just saw more partnerships with publications. Like maybe I get a hot tip; I go to a publication and say, “I wanna work on this thing. Would you be willing to share expenses with me?” And maybe we can figure something out.

Do you see the big guys going away? We’ve seen the rise and fall of several different enterprises. But do you see some of these existing things going away or evolving? It sounds like you see your own future as working in tandem with existing models.
My hope is we figure out a third sustainable, attractive business model. We know that subscriptions for big newsrooms work. Like, for the New York Times and Washington Post, that works. We know if you’re a big, scaled-up ad business on the web like Vox Media, we know that works. That generates a lot of revenue and will continue to.

What we don’t know is if you’re a writer with a following, can you use that to build a sustainable career in journalism? The question is will the influencer economy be relevant to journalism at all?

And I think so. We have a generation of kids growing up right now who are used to buying merch from their favorite YouTubers, tipping their favorite TikTokers, subscribing to Patreons, backing Kickstarters.

And you just look at that swirl of things, and you think, gosh, if there’s a subject that’s really important to me, particularly if it’s related to my job, like the work that i’m doing every day, and I feel like there’s a person who just gets it better than anyone else does, and they’re going to bring me some fresh news and analysis three or four times a week, that might be something I’m willing to pay 10 bucks a month for.

Again, the economics are good. I only need to find 2,000 of those people to have a really good job. I only need to find 1,000 of those people for it to be a better salary than the vast majority of all journalists in America. So I think you’re going to see more writers finding out that they’re wasting their time on Twitter. Once they have enough Twitter followers, they might have some new opportunities open to them.

But again, it’s a question mark. We have to see if it works. And that said, it absolutely is working for people like Emily Atkin, Judd Legum, Andrew Sullivan, Anne Helen Petersen. These people are making it work. And it gives me a lot of hope.

There’s a kind of irony here, right? One of the things that we tech journalists make fun of is how many subscription models there are for every other media form — Netflix, Spotify, all that stuff. We all joke about how we’re just going to bundle everything and get cable again. Do you foresee bundling yourself with Anne Helen Petersen, and then we just get another digital property?
I do think that bundles are in this future, 100%. I think a question to ask is: Is it more likely that everyone will keep an à la carte price for their product and figure out some kind of bundle with other writers (who they’re either good friends with or they have some kind of subject-matter relation to), or does somebody do Netflix for Substack?

If you talk to Substack, they’ll tell you they do not want to do Netflix for Substack. They don’t think it’s good for the writers. By the way, I think all their writers would agree with them. Nobody wants to be fighting for their share of $9.99 a month. But will somebody try that if this thing becomes successful? Yeah.

And then it’ll be like anything else where you look at the math and see where the math is better. I’ve had one person tell me that bundles only work when it’s all or nothing. Like cable worked because you had to get cable to get anything. And I’ve had other people tell me that à la carte pricing is the thing that makes bundles work because that’s the source of all the new customers for the bundle. You find your superfans who love you, but then you tell them, by the way, spend an extra two bucks a month and you can have this other thing that’s really cool. Then, all of a sudden, that other person is getting this incremental revenue.

To me, that really is the frontier that we have to figure out. And I don’t know how it’s going to shake out.

How will you cover Substack if Substack’s own moderation issues become part of your beat?
I’m gonna cover the hell out of them. I write about platforms; Substack is a platform. Platforms have pretty predictable dynamics between the creators who operate on them and the executive teams. And content moderation is an issue, monetization is an issue, discovery is a huge issue. If Substack succeeds, all that stuff is going to come its way. And it’s gonna be stuff that I’m covering very closely.

Do you see any problems coming your way with covering Substack? Even if Substack doesn’t give you trouble about it, do you foresee conflicts of interest and so on?
Obviously I’m going to have to disclose anything that I’m getting or have gotten from Substack in the past, just as part of my coverage. One of the Substack founders, Hamish McKenzie, worked in journalism, and one of the things that appeals to me about the platform is that one of the three founders just knows this world. So I think they’re going to be relatively well prepared to start getting those questions.

Even if it’s not about the platform per se, a lot of people are on this platform, and their work might also become the subject of this newsletter.
I think that’s true. I think right now, Substack feels like infrastructure, and so it doesn’t seem like there are hard questions about it. It’s almost like saying, “Cloudflare is doing a lot of DNS for some of the companies you’re writing about. How are you going to approach writing about Cloudflare?” It’s like, well, they do DNS for a lot of people; I don’t know how relevant that is to me. But I think as they add features, if it starts to feel more like I visit Substack dot com and here are my Substacks but they’re promoting these other Substacks… I don’t know how it’s going to evolve, but you can see a world where it feels like an actual publication rather than infrastructure. And that’s when I think all those questions become more pressing.

I do think it’s going to happen. But I kind of honestly don’t know to the extent they want to be infrastructure and the extent to which they want to be like, you know, everyone’s homepage for news.

A couple years ago, you mentioned to me that you thought the future of the internet was email. Do you still think that?
I think email is the present. We’ll see how long that present endures. I feel like in media, you’re always having to go find your audience again every six months. But email has been remarkably stable.

I think we live in a world where the default content discovery action is scrolling with your thumb. And — this observation is Ben Thompson’s — email is the only feed you’re already checking that I can insert myself into for free. So it has been a very popular spot for people who want to do media, because you can do really in-depth, high-quality content in a feed that people are already checking. As long as that remains the case, then I think it’s a really good media format.

To say more obvious things: I can reach you directly. I don’t have to chase you on Twitter. I don’t have to chase you on Facebook. I don’t have to hope that my story appears below the Google search box. You and I made this deal that I’m going tell you stuff, four days a week, at 5 p.m. Pacific, and you’re just going to be reading it until it’s too much and you unsubscribe.

And I love that model. It’s so real. Every day, I send out my newsletter, and 20 people immediately unsubscribe. [Laughs] And it’s like, I’ve just decided to lean into it. I’m not gonna cry because it’s over—I’m gonna smile because it happened and thank you for the time you spent with me. And then I’m going to try to find some new subscribers.

It blew my mind when Caity Weaver did that piece in the Times looking at the royal family Instagrams, and it turned out one of the hallmarks of an account with fake followers is that it never loses followers when it posts. Because organic growth is that you immediately lose followers as soon as you post.
[Laughs] It’s so true. It’s brutal, and it’s real.

You’ve always been one of the more optimistic tech journalists I know. It’s been interesting to have you write a newsletter about one of the darkest sides of technology in the present era. How are you feeling about tech right now?
It’s funny—I think in 2017, because of everything that had happened in the 2016 election, I felt like I had become one of the more consistently critical journalists about the platforms that I cover. And I feel like in the years since, people have become so much madder at platforms that I was then that I actually look like a centrist compared to most folks.

Once journalists figured out that you could get infinite retweets by typing “Facebook is bad” into a box, it totally changed the tenor of the coverage. I think Facebook has done a lot that it has to answer for, but rather than write one sweeping take about a company every day, I would rather investigate some facet of the platform.

I think these platforms are literally too big for us to understand. I think the only way to understand them is to try to take a bunch of different cuts at it. There will be time to say all the criticism that needs to be said, but I also think we have to think hard about the world we’re trying to build.

There are already countries that have used the threat of fake news to eliminate vast swaths of free speech on the internet. We are living potentially during the collapse of American democracy. And I do not want to live in a world where I cannot speak my mind on the internet, even though me having that right means that a lot of horrible things are going to get posted. So, I want to be really careful as I think through my feelings about that. And I don’t want to ever reduce that down to “this platform sucks because there was a bad post on it.” I would say that is the level at which the mainstream discussion of speech and safety issues is now taking place. And I think that’s bad.

Do you think there’s anything good about tech right now?
Yeah! I think individual creators being able to monetize directly is frickin’ dope.

Written by

Sarah Jeong is a journalist and author, previously at the New York Times, the Verge, and Vice Motherboard.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store