The media isn't as powerful as who you follow online
Day one of our Rethink the Future Summit.
Welcome to the first day of Rethink the Future, a virtual launch summit we’re hosting March 6th-10th, 2023.
Today we’re speaking with, the head of publisher relations for Substack. She believes we’re in the middle of a seismic shift for the media industry. People just don’t follow brands anymore, they follow people. As a result, large media conglomerates are rapidly losing readers as social media profiles gain followers. In this video, Sophia discusses what are we moving away from, what are we moving to, and what the future of the media will look like.
Click the video above to watch or read the complete transcript below.
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Elle: I think Substack has a very fascinating model, because it moves away from the idea that we're following a media company or brand and it moves towards the idea that we're following a specific person or writer, which I think the internet, in general, has moved towards. It’s less, “here’s what Fox says about Elon Musk,” and more “I just follow Elon Musk on Twitter.”
Sophia: I'm old enough to remember the first days of Facebook and Twitter. There was this urge to connect, right, and there was excitement about connecting and connecting with people you were typically separated from. Even with celebrities you felt that you were hearing it from the horse's mouth, that they're unfiltered, that they can say whatever they want. I think Ashton Kutcher was one of the first people who made Twitter famous and brought many people to Twitter. You had this illusion of direct access to this person,
It also helped many people become celebrities because their words were amplified—they had an audience they did not have before. Now, we're moving towards a better model, an evolution. We still want to be connected, we still want to be part of a community and a network. But what Substack does is it allows you to curate your own attention and be part of the communities you choose. To follow the consciousness that you want to feed your mind with. Here, it is a substantial connection, it is a meaningful connection. It is felt both from the writer—and I use writer as a universal term here, because we have podcasters, video, filmmakers—but that connection between writer and reader becomes meaningful. We remove the illusion that you're connected to them, you're actually meaningfully connected to them.
Elle: Can you speak to the popularity of Substack? Is this a working model? I think we still have this idea that The New York Times is super prestigious and these media outlets that have been prestigious for hundreds of years still have that prestige. Are people following people the same way that we think people are following media?
Sophia: I think so. It’s part of the reason Substack has staying power. It is is a five-year-old company at the end of the day and perhaps initially in the public consciousness, it was more connected to the outsiders, right? It's for those writers who don't exactly fit anywhere in the establishment and they kind of go off and do their thing and find their crowd. I like to think that, in essence, every writer is kind of an outsider because they have their unique voice and their unique consciousness and what substack allows them here is the space to to fully manifest that.
One of my favorite examples iswho wrote 36 paragraphs on bluebirds. I didn't know that I wanted to read 36 paragraphs on that bird, but I did. It was this beautiful meditation and I was very conscious that that piece would not have seen the light of day anywhere else.
But here, it turns me back into the reader that I always was, but that I had lost somewhere along the way. So I don't know if it's in terms of prestige for me. In my mind, that word has an old connotation to it. Whereas this new thing is actually prestigious because, at the end of the day, what do writers want? They want to be read. And to actually see your readers rewarding you directly with paid subscriptions, it's not just satisfying in a self-actualization way, it's actually a very prestigious thing that commands respect.
Elle: I think that is definitely true. I’ve seen Substacks that have interviewed Elon Musk, I've seen Substacks that have interviewed Michelle Obama. There's a reason why some of these influential characters would reach out to a specific journalist and trust them with their story and their quotes. And maybe not necessarily trust The Atlantic or something, where you just don't know what they're going to do with your voice.
Sophia: President Biden was recently interviewed by, that was his choice. So I agree. And I've seen it many times.
Another example is whenpassed away during the World Cup, his widow chose to tell the story, because many rumors started circulating. She chose to put the statement out on his Substack, and then that piece was picked up by news agencies, but she had control over the narrative as she should have. So it is a matter of trust. And trust is a big thing. And a big part of our philosophy. This is an economy of trust, more than anything else.
Elle: That makes so much sense. You would rather hear a story from the person who actually said it, than from a third party. Even when I Google something, it is crazy how you can find 10 pieces of media that are getting their information from the same press release and using the same quotes, it just loses that potency. I think of LeBron James breaking his NBA scoring record, and just hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of pieces written about that and wondering what Kareem Abdul-Jabbar would think about that—there was so much conjecture. And then to seeget on his Substack and write “What I Think About LeBron Breaking My NBA Scoring Record,” you're like, well, yeah, I'd rather read that.
Sophia: It's more powerful, right? Because you trust it. It is actually from the man himself. I find, even giving interviews, sometimes the nervousness is not so much about what I'm saying in the interview, but what is going to end up out there, right? You can isolate one tiny little piece and write the story that you want to write. So I think writers feel that constantly, and here they can just talk to their readers directly.
Elle: Do you think we will continue in this direction? I know during the pandemic, when there were a bunch of media layoffs, several of those journalists did move to Substack to start their own publications. And then we saw publications start newsletters—The Atlantic developed a newsletter program, The New York Times developed a newsletter program, suddenly you could follow a writer at a publication. There was certainly this early feeling of “okay, something's working here.” Everybody's starting to copy your model. Will newsletters be the continued trend in the future?
Sophia: Imitation is the best form of compliment, but I still think there’s something about the authenticity that's missing there. Because you are very conscious that you're subscribing to an Atlantic newsletter—you're still subscribing to a publication rather than a person. There's a different feelig when this person is actually independent. They answer to themselves and their readers because the salary is being paid by the reader directly, it's not generated by an organization. So I think the authenticity that people feel when they subscribe to a writer and reward them is not because the writer hides behind a paywall. The reader wants to signal to the writer that they want this to keep going, that they want to do their bit to keep this going. And the only way a reader can do that is to give the writer $5 a month, $50 a year—most people spend more for a cup of coffee every day, depending on where you buy your coffee from so. Really that's what people are paying for. And, and that kind of intimacy cannot be replicated by other models.
Having said that, yes, it is very successful. And that's why people are copying it. And, you know, if more writers benefit from this, all the better will they can keep on copying.
Elle: I want to go further into the funding model. A lot of these publications are getting their revenue from either a parent company that has interest in where that influence lies, or an advertising funding model in which you cannot say any word against an advertising sponsor. Substack is just reader-supported.
Sophia: Our whole philosophy is that we're trying to build a better model for media, and a better kind of economic engine for it. So advertising revenue—first of all, when times are hard in the economy, that's the first thing that goes away. Here, writers can depend on the readers. Every single writer’s dashboard shows an exponential revenue growth model, right? It works like social media in terms of that you will get more followers over time as you do it. But people are going to become your paid subscribers at the same rate. So your revenues just keep going up, and your readers are giving you a raise constantly.
The other thing is that it creates a true sense of freedom and independence for the writer. That freedom can take many forms, but I think in essence, it's creative freedom. It allows them to really do whatever they want. It's not just about saying whatever they want. When writers asked me the golden strategy, the hardest thing to get them to understand is that the more they are themselves, the better it’s going to work. Because people are subscribing to their consciousness. If they try to sell something to their readers, they see through that and they're not going to reward it in the same way. But then it clicks and they realize, “wait a minute, all these people are here for me. They want me to keep talking to them. They want my thoughts on any specific topic,” that liberates them completely.
That's when it really starts working and they know that they don't need to depend on anything else except their own creativity. It’s just the most delicious freedom.
Elle: That makes sense. If you think in terms of “I'm a journalist working for this publication,” then I have to adhere to a certain brand and voice and have to adhere to a certain niche. Whereas if you think about how social media operates, it's like, “oh, I'm following a specific person, and all the things that they do, and that encompasses not one niche, but a lot of different things.” So there is this kind of freedom in that. In a way, you are making media more like social media.
Sophia: Yes, and no. For me, social media is kind of like being out there in a public square yelling. You have all these followers, but they're not necessarily there for you. You are conscious of an audience beyond the people who are following you. And I think that’s an interesting psychology—it's kind of like being out there talking vs. people coming into your living room. It's different. And it's your rules that they have to abide by. You have complete control over the space and how you curate and nurture your community. So there is a difference between knowing that your subscribers are there for you on your Substack. Rather than, they're on Twitter or they're on Instagram, they're following a bunch of other accounts. And, you know, just another tweet.
Elle: You're talking about how I could be on Twitter and see somebody else's tweet that I don't follow, but I'm not going to receive a newsletter from somebody's substack that I don’t follow?
Sophia: Yes, and to expand on this idea, social media is where I go to waste my time. Whereas Substack is where I go to invest my time. I will mindlessly scroll through my feed, and I don't really care if Twitter shows me your tweet or someone else's. I just have some dead time to spend, and I'm just going to mindlessly scroll. But it doesn't mean I'm there for you, even though I follow you. On your Substack, I will go and invest some time, I will carve out some time to read what you have to say, to engage with your words thoughtfully, and with your ideas and perhaps contribute through a comment, or read what other people had to say in your comments. Some commenters might become some of my favorite ones, and I agree with them or even have a different take, or they kind of they take my thought somewhere new.
Elle: I think it's because social media is just showing a glimpse, whereas when you're following a writer you're reading a 2,000-word or 4,000-word piece, you're going to be invested more than you are if you're just scrolling. But you do have an app, and there is a robust commenting section. So there is this way to interact that is similar to social media. I think I subscribe to more than 60 Substacks and I read them in the app via the feed. So there is at least momentum towards a more community-driven thing.
Sophia: Absolutely. And our motivation is to create an ecosystem of writers and readers,just building on a better currency. And we think trust is the best currency you can have as a reader, I already trust you as a writer, I trust your mind, and I would be interested in being exposed to more things through you if you are willing to recommend them to me. You're feeding my mind. I think Substack hopefully is evolving in ways where we're becoming more and more creative about making these connections, and helping both writers and readers grow, both actually and metaphorically. It's just about continuing to develop all these ways where people can connect with each other and make a vibrant ecosystem. We're definitely continuing down that road.
Elle: I think about the progression from print media, where you get the newspaper daily, you get a physical book at Barnes and Noble. Then things move online, but you're reading in a web browser, or via email, maybe you just follow news directly on TikTok or Twitter. Now it's kind of everywhere. I’m going to read some things via print, some things via web browser, some things in my email or on social. But there hasn’t felt like there was one cohesive way to read until Substack came out and I had this way to read. Where do you see the progression of reading going?
Sophia: Hopefully, we will provide writers with one place where they can consolidate everything in one. That's what writers have been asking for. One of the biggest kind of challenges for writers is how do I funnel all these audiences that I've built everywhere else, here. Especially when, elsewhere I depend on algorithms where I have to dance to the tune of that algorithm. So many people who use Instagram or TikTok ask, “what does the algorithm want me to do? I have to do it!” Hopefully, we're going to solve that problem.
There are still so many ways in which we can evolve. And the great thing is that we are evolving with our writers.
Elle: Are you seeing a difference in a generational sense? Do certain generations prefer to read in certain ways?
Sophia: Initially I thought something like Substack would be more for people of my generation, who are craving to move away from the noise into something more substantial. But, even the people that I work with, some of them are in their early 20s and I'm actually seeing that there's even even even greater hunger there for something better than they're consuming currently—I think that's very heartwarming.
One writer that comes to mind iswho has a huge TikTok. I think she is 21 but the way she speaks about her subject is exactly like that. And she earns a substantial revenue from her writing. To do that at that age is incredible.
Elle: I follow her and she's fascinating. She has this huge following and it has been interesting for me to watch because it's a different way of thinking about the world. She writes in all lowercase letters, she isn't very big on all the grammar that has been hammered into me. Her use of emojis, and her use of language as a way of sharing her entire stream of consciousness, including things that I would think no one would share publicly. It’s a new form of speaking with somebody. It's almost like having a conversation with a friend. It's very informal.
And she has grown like this huge audience super fast. And they're all young too. And to watch what they write in the comments, and with their emojis, and their lowercase letters, and all their thoughts and feelings and emotions, it's a very interesting way of writing, it almost feels like a new form of journalism emerging, because it's not this rigid one thing that I've followed throughout my career.
Sophia: It’s a very stylistic choice. She spoke to, one of the Substack founders, on his podcast about this.
When I met her, I asked her whether it was on purpose and she's very business savvy. She knows exactly what she's doing and she knows what she wants to do as a writer. So it's a style, and I think it's fantastic, and it is working for her perfectly. Again, that takes me back to kind of the creative freedom that you have here. She can experiment with that, she can experiment with a form, people respond to it and reward it.
Elle: All of that would get edited out if I wrote for any publication.
Sophia: Completely. Or they're going to ask for changes that might kill the magic.
Elle: I think that's really cool from the perspective of where the future of media is heading. Because it doesn't have to be one thing, it doesn't have to follow all these rules that we've made up. In news media, you have to show no bias and seem like you're equally coming at it from both sides. But on a lot of subjects, people do have an opinion, they're actually thinking them through. “I think this but that necessarily isn't true.” It allows us to be more like how we are in real life, as opposed to how we’re edited to be.
Sophia: I love when writers tell me how much their readers teach them. I see them getting into these conversations with their readers—they think on the page or they change their minds, or then it can lead to another piece, a conversation that they had with their readers led them to this other thought. This is where the conversation is happening. Writers are reading and commenting on the writers that they love on Substack—sometimes the comment is an entire essay in and of itself. So I can see this beautiful network of discourse blooming.
One example is, who has a fantastic Substack. And she doesn't have social media, she doesn't have anything else. She writes these tremendous pieces which I cannot imagine seeing in mainstream publications and the other day, responded in another gorgeous piece. That's really cool.
Elle: Before it was like, “I've researched all of this, this is what I think, here's a polished clean piece on what I think.” And then everybody gets on Twitter and has a hot take about it because they can only react in a certain amount of characters. So they hot take disagree or hot take agree. But on Substack, people will respond with huge long comments, or with their own essays in response. It allows room for context. It’s interesting as a writer because you can write this thing and be like, “here are all the thoughts I've thought,” and then somebody else can come in and be like, “Ok, but that's not true because of this, this, and this, and here are some more books about that.” And then I go read those and I’m like “dang it I was wrong, I have to write another post!”
Sophia: You said something that it's very important, and it actually connects to the funding models. The hot takes on Twitter or on other places. It’s in Twitter’s best interest to give you a hot take, and amplify it, because the more engagement it gets, the more people get angry—that's how they maximize revenue and engagement. It's usually when something makes you really angry, that it gets kind of amplified. And the end result is a bunch of angry people walking around hating each other, instead of what you just described. Perhaps you were wrong about something, and we're all wrong at some point.
In my previous life, I was a finance and business editor. And I was lucky enough to see Paul Samuelson, one of the great economists, give his last public talk. After he heard him speak, a young economist in the audience said: “your views on inflation were completely different in the past, and you've changed them. Paul Samuelson said, “It's absolutely okay to be wrong, what's wrong is to stay wrong.” And that never left me. I think it's such great advice.
It’s about expanding your consciousness and changing your mind, what a beautiful thing. It means some kind of evolution happened and now you know something you didn't know before. Substack is creating that space where we can all meet, but in a good way, in its best form. So it's about uniting rather than dividing and separating in order to profit.
Elle: I think that's why so much of the internet sphere has felt so vitriolic—the only space available for us to have conversation is in hot take form. It’s almost impossible to have a conversation that way—there’s no room for nuance. You can write a 4,000-word piece and then get it wrong and then have to write another 4000-word piece. And you're continuously evolving your point as you have these conversations. Most of America is not red or blue. It's in the middle. And to have a space where you can express the middle and be like, “I'm still thinking about either side of these things.” It makes more sense.
Sophia: Exactly. Right now I'm in the San Francisco office—I am usually in New York—and it's so nice to be here because one of the evils of remoteness is that I have this Zoom time with someone and it's very constrained to 30 minutes, and I don't have context, and I'm missing a lot of their personality. I’m missing the person, I just have this once slice, and then my imagination will fill in the blanks for better or for worse. Whereas when you're in person, you see a full range. You see everything. And your imagination doesn't play these, these games.
I think that's the difference between a tweet and a Substack. It’s very different to see it in such short form—it's probably missing all the context. If I go on Twitter and write something just because I thought it was funny and stupid, and just made an offhand comment, no one is sitting next to me and realizing that I'm with a bunch of people, and we had this whole other conversation, and we're all drinking a little bit of wine. You're missing everything, you know?
Elle: That's so true. This context is so important when you're having conversations online, and that was missing until recently. Do you have any parting words on the future of media and where you would like to see it go in the future:
Sophia: I hope Substack gives writers more agency over their careers and their paths and more control and ownership of their work across the board. And I hope that continues. It's a good path to be on and I think incredible writing is going to result from it.
The media isn't as powerful as who you follow online