Platformer’s Casey Newton on leaving Substack and surviving the great media collapse

Today, I’m talking with Casey Newton, the founder and editor of the Platformer newsletter and co-host of the Hard Fork podcast. Casey is also a former editor here at The Verge and was my co-host at the Code Conference last year. Most importantly, Casey and I are also very close friends, so this episode is a little looser than usual. 

I wanted to talk to Casey for a few reasons. One, the media industry overall is falling apart, with huge layoffs at almost every media organization you can think of happening weekly, but small newsletters seem to be a bright spot. So I wanted to talk about how Platformer started, how Casey got it to where it is, and how much farther he thinks it can go. In particular, I wanted to talk about whether newsletters can replace the journalism that’s going away and where Casey thinks the limits of his kind of business are after running it so successfully for several years.

And then, I wanted to talk about Substack, which started out by promising a newsletter revolution that would create a new kind of journalism. Instead, the company seems beset by financial problems inherent to its business model and has faced an ever-increasing number of content moderation problems — including most recently, when the company’s decision to allow Nazis to monetize on its platform pushed a number of its customers away, including Casey and Platformer.

Casey was in the middle of this particular controversy — he covered it in Platformer as he was deciding to switch from Substack, and you’ll hear him make a convincing argument that Substack’s founders actually relish the fights they’ve gotten into over moderation and that the company is more ideologically driven than he expected.

And you’ll hear him talk about the economics of leaving Substack — switching to rival email platform Ghost actually saved Platformer quite a bit of money, and he’s run the numbers on how valuable Substack’s vaunted recommendation system really is. I think you’ll find them surprising.

This episode goes deep, but it’s fun — Casey is just one of my favorite people, and he is not shy about saying what he thinks.

Okay, Casey Newton of Platformer. Here we go. 

This transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Casey Newton. You are the founder and editor of Platformer, also one of the most notable Verge traitors of all time. Welcome to Decoder.

Hey, Nilay, thanks for having me.

I’m really excited to talk to you. I want to talk about Platformer. I feel like understanding how a successful small newsletter business works is very important in 2024 because the other thing I want to talk to you about is that the rest of the media industry is exploding, and it feels like there’s a real connection between those things. And I’m also curious for your thoughts on how on earth we can maintain a healthy media ecosystem because, right now, it doesn’t seem like any of the people in charge know what to do.

So if you and I can save the media by the end of this episode, I think we will have done the world a service.

Let’s take a crack at it.

Yeah, I think we should give it a shot. So let’s start with Platformer. I feel like I just need to [disclose that] Casey and I are very good friends. This episode is — I’m worried it’s going to be real loose. We’re going to do our best. But Casey used to work at The Verge. You had a newsletter at The Verge. I will just tell everyone this: I love it when I’m no longer responsible for managing my friends, and I’m very proud of Casey for starting Platformer, just on a personal selfish level. I don’t have to worry about Casey. Now, I can just send him DMs.

Very true. I’m out of your hair.

But you were at The Verge. You had a successful newsletter here called The Interface. It was about platforms and democracy. You saw this opportunity to go take that elsewhere. Talk about that decision really quickly, and then I want to check in on how Platformer is doing now.

I can talk about it a bunch of different ways, but one is in the way that I have always tried to manage my career defensively. I used to work for a newspaper, and then the web came along, and it disrupted newspapers, and I basically had to find a new job. Then the web was thriving. The early days of Vox Media, I was like, “Wow, there’s this huge, amazing new opportunity here.” And then the social networks came along, and they started to eat the web a little bit. And I thought, “Man, I love what I do so much. If I want to be able to do it forever, what is the way that I could have the maximum feeling of sustainability?” And I just started to think more about maybe going out on my own and, instead of asking the CEO of a media company to pay me, asking readers to pay me directly.

The second important thing was, it was 2020. It was basically the middle of that pandemic year. I had never been living more cheaply in my entire life. I was buying groceries twice a week, living in Kara Swisher’s cottage, and I truly was never going to spend less money. And I thought, “You know, I have a little bit of savings. I could try this thing, and if I fall super hard on my face, I can at least make it like six months, but if I’m ever going to start a company, now’s the moment.” So it was the combination of those two things that led me to jump.

I bought a pickup truck in that year. I had a very different reaction. I was like, “What’s the dumbest pickup truck?”

We all process that trauma in different ways.

So you leave, you start Platformer. A big part of the story is this is also the Substack moment, and we are going to end up talking about Substack and your reliance on them as a platform. That relationship has come to an end, but there was a big reliance on Substack as a platform in there. I feel like when you started, you understood that you were reliant on a little bit of Substack largesse, and you were on the rocket ride with them as a platform, and that relationship and that dynamic really changed, but what was it like at the beginning?

It was really exciting. Substack itself had been inspired by a couple of newsletters that I read religiously and inspired me: Ben Thompson’s Stratechery; Matt Levine’s Money Stuff in Bloomberg. Substack came along and said, “These folks writing newsletters seem to be really successful” — particularly Ben, also Bill Bishop, who writes a newsletter called Sinocism about China. They had clearly built pretty amazing businesses writing their newsletters, and Substack came along and said, “Well, what if we just made that easier for anybody?” So anybody who wanted to take a crack at this could plug into some simple-to-use infrastructure, have some great software that emails your reporting, your analysis, out to as many people who will subscribe, and Substack would take a 10 percent cut of that and build a business. 

And as I was considering my options in 2020, Substack really was the best. It let me move very quickly. It basically took care of the entire design process. Around this time, Substack was also giving advances to writers to entice them to leave. I wound up not taking an advance, but it did help me financially with a couple of things. It paid for a designer to create the Platformer logo that we still use today; it gave me a healthcare subsidy; and more importantly, just helped me figure out how to get healthcare as a freelancer, something I had never had to do before. And probably the most important thing was, it said, “If you get sued by a litigious person, we will protect you for up to a million dollars in legal fees.” And I was like, “Wow, that is the thing that could just maybe sink me right away if I go independent.” The combination of those things made me say, “Hey, why don’t I go for this?” And like I said, it was pretty exciting.

I want to come back to those things because those are things that de-risk a small business, particularly healthcare, and then if you’re in the media, someone mad sues you out of existence — those are existential risks on a personal level and a media business level. I want to come back to them and how you’re thinking about them now that you’re more established and you went to the platform Ghost. 

But you start with Substack. Substack is giving out these deals and with various terms to various writers. The idea is all these writers will start small businesses that will grow to big businesses. Substack will take 10 percent of those business’s revenues, and they’ll have a huge platform business. And you look at that from the outside and you say, “Okay, that’s a SaaS company.” You’re Mailchimp.

But even from the beginning, Substack thought of itself as something very different. And I think that self-image of Substack is what led to the current, “Oh, boy. There are a lot of Nazis” controversy here. I feel like I’ve talked to Chris Best a lot. Famously, on the show, I asked him, “Why aren’t you going to moderate the racists away?” He did a horrible job of answering that question by basically saying, “I’m not going to.” You could see it early. “Oh, you’re going to have to deal with this.” How did it get from there to, “Oh, it boiled all the way over, and now a lot of prominent people are leaving our platform”? 

I think, at first, I considered the way they would talk about the company as mostly marketing and branding. They did talk about it from very nearly the beginning as a corrective to the world created by social networks, that they were going to do less moderation. They wanted to be a place for the free exchange of ideas. They were going to take a really light touch with moderation.

And because at the time, they really were just a SaaS company, like you say, it didn’t stress me out too much. I use a lot of infrastructure that is also used by horrible people, and so I just wasn’t too pressed about it. I also assumed that if they had a problem that got worse and worse and started to threaten their business, they would grow up. Because what have we seen over and over again, Nilay? These companies often start in this similar position of, “Well, we don’t want to get involved.” Eventually, they have to get involved, and they start to do content moderation.

I want to come back to that coming to a head and them choosing to grow up or not grow up and you leaving. But I feel like no one ever talks about act two. There’s act one, which is “We started a band in a garage,” and there’s act three, “I’m Casey Newton, the founder and editor of Platformer, and I host Hard Fork.” Act two is the hard part. No one ever talks about it. How did that first year go? How did that second year go? You hired Zoe Schiffer, you have a third person on staff now. What was that ramp like for you?

Mostly, it has gone great — although, in basically every way, it did not go totally according to my expectations. As you mentioned, I had been doing a newsletter at The Verge. I had been writing it five days a week. Vox Media was incredible to me. I was able to take my mailing list with me when I left. That gave me a huge head start. That’s something a lot of other folks who start newsletters don’t have. I was convinced that I would basically flip a switch after I started Platformer, 10 percent of my readers would subscribe, and I would be thriving. And it is true that enough people subscribed basically right away that I could breathe a sigh of relief and feel like, “Okay, this is just my job now.” But it’s also true I was not making as much money as I had been at The Verge, and so that meant I had to go and figure out what the business was.

I would say what I learned over that first year in particular was, the business really is scoops, and this cuts both ways. The good thing about it and that I want every journalist in the world to take into their heart is, if you break news, people will pay you money. And if you’re doing it in a newsletter that you own, there is no limit to the amount of money that you can make. That is basically the single most empowering thing that I’ve learned about journalism since I started Platformer

The way that it cuts both ways, though, is there are a lot of days when I don’t have scoops. In fact, most days, I don’t have a scoop. And when it has been a bit of a dry spell and you’re just not getting anything, it can be scary because something else you learn in this business is that your customers will churn. There is somebody who will pay you $10 to say, “Hey, great scoop.” And then they will unsubscribe from you once they realize that they don’t actually want to spend three or four days a week with you in their inbox.

The part of you that had to be entrepreneurial, and you have always been very entrepreneurial, you’ve always been driven to be like, “What is the future of the business I’m in?” — that seems like the thing that keeps most people from going and starting a newsletter business. You want to write a newsletter, you want an audience, you want to be a reporter, you want to get scoops. That is one type of very focused work. You need to figure out what your audience wants and grow a business and do email marketing and all the rest of it is a very different kind of work. How are you balancing the two?

I overestimated for a long time how many other people were going to want to do this because, to me, it felt very simple. It was like, “Well, if you love journalism and want to do it forever, and you want to live the life that you want financially, you now have more tools to be able to do that than you have ever had before.” Everything I’m doing today, I could not have done in 2002 when I left college. Or if I was doing some version of it, it would look radically different.

I think what I underestimated, though, and I say this with true love and affection and empathy, is most people just want a job. Most people want to go to an office or stay at home, and they want to do their work, and they want to not think about it, and they want to be able to buy a house and raise a family, and I want that for everyone who wants it. I truly do. I just became convinced that there was not going to be the world that I lived in anytime soon, and so I was just going to have to approach it differently.

Yeah, I often say that my ideal job is being an overpriced features writer at The Verge. That would be great if I could just do that, but I need The Verge to exist to do that. And so management it is. And if The Verge is stable, then at least a lot of other people can be features writers at The Verge.

The piece of the puzzle where you had to balance your time, it led to you writing a little less, and then you hired some people and you were able to write more. I guess that comes to the classic Decoder question here, and it’s very funny that I’m asking you this question. I don’t know if the audience can tell, I’m very amused by the fact that I’m interviewing my friend on my own podcast here.

I’m excited about it. I feel very flattered.

It’s just very funny to me. How is Platformer structured? How does it work between the three of you?

I own Platformer. A couple of years ago, I did hire Zoe Schiffer. She has the title of managing editor, and because we are so small, like many very small companies, people wear a lot of hats, where, in any given day, I’m doing a little bit of reporting, I’m probably writing a column, I’m probably responding to some reader emails, maybe doing a little bit of customer support. Zoe is doing the same thing. 

The work balance and load just changes as the problems change. We’re in the middle of this platform transition that I’m sure we’ll get into. That has created a lot of customer support issues, and Zoe has been amazing at just grabbing that problem with both of her hands and wading into it. But the nice thing about being two full-time employees is that everything is just a conversation between two people who have a lot of trust in each other.

I don’t have to do a lot of culture building and rallying around the vision because we both have a pretty good sense of what the vision is. We could just wake up each day and say, “Okay, well, what do we tackle?”

I think that’s the ideal way to work. You have a tiny group of people, maybe not more than three or four even, who all intimately know each other’s strengths and weaknesses and what we’re trying to do, and we’re just going to go off and build it. But to do anything more ambitious, you need more scale. Is that on your mind? “Oh, I should scale to 10 people or 15 or 50.”

I go back and forth on this all the time because I have had moments in my career when I was at The Verge of being a manager and taking a step back from reporting and writing and working with people. And as you remember, I really didn’t like that. And in fact, there was a moment where I considered leaving The Verge and going to work for a tech company because an offer came out of nowhere. And fortunately, after I sat with it, I realized, “I don’t want to go work for a tech company. I just don’t want to manage people anymore.” And you were wonderful to me, as you always were as my boss, and created a role for me where I could report and write again. At Platformer, there is that similar tension of, “Well, the business is doing well enough that we think we could hire another person.”

As somebody who’s very nervous about the state of media, I would like to get a lot more money in the bank. I don’t think most media businesses work by wanting to have someone’s entire salary in the bank before they hire them, but that’s basically how I think about it. I do think that we could get there with Platformer this year, but I’m trying to spend a lot of time thinking about, “Okay, well, what does it mean when that person shows up? What do I actually want them to contribute to the business?” One of the amazing things about hiring Zoe was that she joined right when Elon [Musk] was buying Twitter. She broke and helped me to break a bunch of stories about that takeover, and that generated hundreds and hundreds of new subscriptions for us at Platformer. And for a very tiny media company, that is important that the people that you are hiring are creating the conditions for you to be able to continue paying them.

I understand why a lot of reporters don’t want to be in that position. I think you and I both wanted to live in a world where reporters could just roam free, write whatever they wanted, and it would all just work out in the end. And I think for a long time, it did. I think we’re now in this worse world, where, in order for the media businesses to work, whatever you’re reporting and writing, somebody has to want to pay you $10 a month or $100 a year to read it. So I’m happy with the state of things for us, but I also acknowledge this is not the ideal state of tech media.

Yeah, it’s interesting. There’s an incentive mismatch there that I hadn’t even thought about until you brought it up just now. Famously, as Casey knows, and probably a lot of our listeners know, we keep our traffic metrics under lock and key at The Verge. So reporters don’t know their page views. We don’t set goals about page views. It’s a bunch of tech reporters. They can figure it out if they want to. It’s not Voldemort, but we just don’t talk about it a lot because I do want reporters to go chase their curiosity and be personalities. 

And that is actually the thing that keeps us insulated from platform and algorithmic dynamics. The Verge is just The Verge. It needs to be the thing it is. And that’s my belief: that a great media property is confident in itself. Platformer is very confident in itself. But there are two of you, and you’re saying that you need to generate subscriptions with your work, and it feels like that is page views in a different way. And that works when it’s two people, and it might be very different when it’s 10.

I think so. I think a 10-person business is just very different. I don’t think Platformer will ever be 10 people. Certainly not in its current configuration. I started, first, because I wanted to have a home for my own writing and reporting. When it became possible to bring someone else on and do reporting in a similar vein, we did that. I can imagine that scaling up to maybe four or five people. I’ve sometimes talked about it as a Scooby gang. That’s basically as big as I think it can be, but I want it to feel consistent. And also, I don’t want to have a website where we’re publishing 10 stories a day because, at that point, again, I’m just a manager. That’s not what I want to do. I want to write and report.

So again, you’re catching me in just the middle of a thought process that is not finished yet, where I would love to be able to create more jobs in journalism, but not that many more. And I’m still not exactly sure how they fit into what I’m doing. So if you have any thoughts on the subject, I’m all ears.

Well, we’re going to fix media by the end of this, so let me work them up.

Here’s the next big Decoder question. It’s the brand, so you got to do a good job. How do you make decisions? What’s your framework for making decisions?

In a way, I feel like I have a classic entrepreneurial answer, which is that I mostly am trying to scratch my own itch. I grew up reading a lot of media products that I loved, and I live in a world where I see almost nothing that reminds me of that. I don’t see stuff that has big, beautiful design. I don’t see a lot of stuff that goes super in-depth, that feels like it has a lot of nuance. I see a lot of stuff that feels like screaming and like it’s trying to manipulate me into feeling an emotion about everything.

A lot of the way I make decisions is, like, what feels good to me — a person who grew up on the internet that I grew up on, and what would be a media product that served that person? And that winds up informing a lot: what we cover, how we cover it, why I hired the people that I hired. So yeah, I think it kind of starts there.

So this brings me to the recent big decision that you had to make, which is you left Substack, you went to a platform called Ghost. You took a little bit more control of the business. That whole drama started with an article by Jonathan Katz in The Atlantic titled “Substack Has a Nazi Problem.” There are no shades of gray in that one. That’s the title, and it is true. Substack has a bunch of Nazis on its platform.

I asked Chris Best on the show a long time ago, “Are you going to moderate Substack if there’s overt racism?” And his nonanswer was very revealing. They’re just not going to do it. How did you react to that Katz article in The Atlantic, and how did that drive you to leaving Substack to go to Ghost?

Well, at first, I wasn’t too concerned about it. In part, that’s because I went to college with Jonathan M. Katz, and he was the cartoonist for the college newspaper when I was the editor. So most of my memories of Jonathan Katz are just trying to get him to finish a cartoon on deadline. So when I heard that he had some thoughts about Substack, I was like, “Well, that sounds like Katz. He’s always been a bit of a pain in the ass.”  

But in the aftermath of the article — and I’m teasing Jonathan a little bit, the article was very good — around 250 Substackers write this open letter to the company just basically saying, “Hey, are you going to let literal 1930s Nazis operate on your platform?” And it’s here we should say that Substack had changed a lot between 2020, when I joined the platform, and the end of 2023, when this whole controversy unfolded.

The main way that it had changed was it had added all of these features that are familiar from social networks. They had built a Twitter clone called Notes that just let anybody go in and paste links. It’s algorithmically ranked. You never know what you’re going to see. It’s not just the stuff that you’re following. They had also built their own recommendations engine. They’d started sending out a weekly digest of, “Here’s some Substacks you might like.” 

Why is that important? Well, it meant that, all of a sudden, if there were Nazis on the platform, Substack was no longer pure infrastructure, and any platform or post could end up next to any Nazi post, and we would all just be swimming in the same sea together. In the aftermath of these Substackers sending this letter out, on December 21st, Hamish McKenzie, one of the co-founders, puts out this statement. And what he says is, in effect, “While we don’t like Nazis, we are not going to hide away from the fact that they exist. We’re not going to demonetize them. We think the best way that you fight Nazi ideas is through debate. And while we do have certain guidelines around removing certain things, that’s our policy.” And it really took me aback. And that was the day when I thought, “Okay, I actually have a problem.”

The Hamish response was really interesting because Substack wants to be infrastructure. That response, to me, reads as, “Well, we’re just Cloudflare. We’re just AT&T. We’re in the background just giving people the core tools they need to be on the internet, and it is unfair and inappropriate for you to ask us to do stuff.” And then they have an app in the App Store. And then there is a Substack brand that is associated with the “intellectual dark web,” about which you can think whatever you want. 

But it is an editorial brand, and Hamish himself comes from the world of editorial. And I think he has to understand, “Oh, there’s a vibe to Substack that is opposed to the quote, unquote mainstream media and social networks and all this other stuff.” I read that statement, and I was like, “You are trying to thread a needle that cannot be threaded.”

And it feels like they’re still insistent that they’re going to figure out how to thread that needle, and I am wondering if you think they ever can. My belief is that they cannot, and their insistence that they can will lead to disaster after disaster over time.

I think they tend to be very dismissive of all of these controversies. They have weathered previous controversies about some very anti-trans folks on the platform, anti-vaxxers on the platform. And I think that they see these as a series of relatively minor moral panics that have not ultimately mattered to their business that much. One of the main things that I learned during this whole process — at least I came to believe — is that Substack is much more of an ideological project than I had given it credit for when I joined the platform in 2020. I had thought, in 2020, “This is a startup like most of the other Y Combinator startups I’ve ever written about. They tried to make something people want. They’re trying to grow at 10 percent a week, and they’re trying to become billionaires.”

What I learned as this whole thing unfolded in December and January was that some huge part of these guys, I have to believe, actually enjoys being part of a culture war, and they like fighting it, and they like arguing for their particular side of the culture war, even if it winds up polarizing their entire user base and driving a lot of their users away. So if you want to know what is something that surprised me during this whole process, it was that.

That thing about driving your users away, you’re not just a user of Substack, you were a customer. And if you just think about how Substack makes its money, it’s a handful of whales and then a long tail. You have some publications that have hundreds of thousands or millions of subscribers that are paying 10 bucks a month or a dollar a month, or whatever it is, but they’re generating a lot of money, of which Substack takes 10 percent. And then you have a lot of publications that are just free, that send one email a month to no one, and that is completely subsidized. And it feels like driving away your whales just destroys your business. The part of the company that is ideological is willing to burn it all down, even if their customers are driven off the platform.

Yeah. And you and I had talked about this over the years. Neither you nor I have ever been able to figure out what is Substack’s long-term play because, you want to talk about perverse incentives, the more money you made on Substack, the more expensive it was to remain there, but the level of service remained exactly the same. And so, if you thrived on the platform, Substack’s bet was always, “You will be making essentially so much money that you will not even notice the fact that we are taking 10 percent, but our network that we’re going to build is so powerful, and it’s going to drive so much paid conversion, that that is how we will keep you forever.” 

I don’t think that makes that much sense, but I also don’t think it was a terrible bet. I think it was at least worth running the experiment. But yeah, now you’re in this moment where people like me are looking around being like, “You know what? I don’t actually need to be here.” And we’ve started to leave. That problem of people are always incentivized to leave Substack once they get successful, it just gets bigger.

Was that network ever valuable for you? I feel like Substack started, and it was the best way to monetize a big Twitter following that had ever existed because Twitter had never figured it out on its own. And that was great. And then there was a moment when Twitter was in decline and Substack’s internal referrals were working, and then that started to decline. Was the network ever really valuable enough for you to think twice?

I’m so glad you asked this question because I have been spending a lot of time thinking about it, and there was one very tangible way where yes, the network was valuable, and that was in adding free subscribers to Platformer. So when I took my mailing list from The Verge, it was 24,000 people. When we moved from Substack to Ghost three years later, it was about 176,000 people. In the last year alone, Platformer added 76,000 free subscribers. I would love to tell you that was because we broke so much news last year, but that’s not actually what happened.

What happened was Substack built this recommendation product where, if you started a Substack, Nilay, and then hopefully you recommend my newsletter, the second that someone subscribes to you, before they’ve necessarily even read anything you’ve ever written, Substack shows this little pop-up that says, “Hey, Nilay also likes Casey’s Substack. You want to subscribe to that one?” The box is already checked, and you click “Okay,” maybe because you want to subscribe to my newsletter, maybe because you’re just trying to get the pop-up to go away — maybe you have no idea what’s happening. My point is, Substack is growing newsletters through dark patterns.

Yeah. That’s a social network pattern, through and through.

I’ve heard from so many people in the aftermath of all of this saying, “Casey, I want to leave, but the network, the network.” I’m like, “Trust me, go check out the paid conversion that you are getting from all of these folks who are signing up for your newsletter. It’s probably not going to be that much.” I ran the numbers, which I never should do because I’m bad at math, but I did run the numbers at the end of 2023, and as far as I can tell, despite adding 76,000 free subscribers to Platformer through this dark pattern on Substack in 2023, we ended up net 200 paid customers on the year. So, in other words, we basically stayed flat for the entire year despite adding 75 percent to our free subscriber base.

So look, when you dig through the numbers, you’ll also find that there are a lot of people that bought an annual subscription to Platformer because their credit card was already on file with Substack, and Substack made it a heck of a lot easier, and maybe those people never would’ve bothered getting their credit card out of their wallet to enter it into Platformer. So I’m sure all of those cases existed, but I can tell you when I was thinking about what is it going to cost me to leave, I thought, “Well, I’m definitely going to grow a lot slower on the free side in 2024, but it’s quite possible that I’m going to monetize just as well or better.” 

You brought up credit cards, which is interesting. You very notably transparently played out your process with Substack. You published that you were going to go meet with Substack’s executives. You were not allowed to talk about what you were, but you were like, “Look, I met with them. I’ve come to the conclusion they’re not changing. We’re leaving.” 

And then you said something in there that I think a lot of people took exception to, which is, “I’m going to ask Stripe,” which is a payment processor, “if this is okay with Stripe.”  And people took exception to it because Stripe is an infrastructure provider. They do have terms of service, which are stricter than Substack’s, which is fascinating that they don’t allow you to use Stripe for racist things, but they’re supposed to be the infrastructure provider. Why did it occur to you to talk to Stripe, and how do you feel about that backlash to that comment?

I accept the criticism. I think it’s fair to criticize me on this point. I don’t think people fully believe me when I say this, but I truly did reach out to Stripe in a spirit of journalistic inquiry. And my question was exactly what you just raised. Stripe has a set of terms of service that says, “This kind of thing is prohibited.” As far as I could tell, before I met with the founders, what they were saying was, “If you were a literal 1930s Nazi and you survived the end of the Third Reich and you have a Substack, you can monetize it.” That was my reading of Hamish’s statement, and I thought it was worth going to their payment processor and saying, “Hey, are you cool with the fact that this customer is doing this?” And I think that that was worth doing.

And Stripe never got back to you, from what I can tell.

There was a little bit of back and forth, but the net result of it was that they never really had to weigh in on anything specific because a lot of the stuff that I had sent into Substack, Substack did remove, and so on and so forth.

And now Casey’s on Ghost. 

And now I’m on Ghost. I will say that I talked to Alex Stamos from Stanford, who is somebody who I look to on these content moderation issues, and he was basically like, “It’s not fair play to go after the payment processor because, practically speaking, they’re almost never going to have any awareness of this stuff. So you generally shouldn’t go after them.” Again, I accept the criticism, but am I sorry I asked Stripe about it? No.

Yeah, I was legitimately curious. The last question I want to ask about Substack, and then I want to talk about Ghost and where things go from here. Because Substack is an ideological project, the people who participate in it need a villain, and then they can say, “The mainstream media is out to get us” or “This is what they don’t want you to hear” or “They’re mad because we’re going to replace them.” I’ve heard all this stuff about The Verge for a long time from YouTubers. There’s nothing I love more than when people call The Verge the mainstream media.

I remember when it didn’t exist. It’s like, “Thank you for saying [that], I made it,” is basically my reaction to that. But that discourse needs a villain, right? It needs something to point at that it is in opposition to. Otherwise, it doesn’t work, and the thing that it is in opposition to is crumbling. And I’m just wondering, do you think that will fade as the actual mainstream media begins to crumble? Because it seems like the center of that movement is defined in opposition to something that is going away. And I don’t know what the new center will be, except for being a 1930s Nazi.

I think there will always be an elite. I think that the fundamental nature of that conflict is that there are a bunch of, let’s face it, mostly rich white people who want to complain about what they see as the forces that threaten them. And so, they go up against the elite, and that manifests as a lot of criticism of the mainstream media. But even in a world where the mainstream media is much more fragmented or much smaller, there will still be mainstream figures that they can throw tomatoes at. What we find over and over again… you look at somebody like Libs of TikTok. Libs of TikTok’s whole job is just to make up new main characters to try to target for harassment, so I think that sort of thing is just going to continue.

Alright, you had your choice of platforms when you decided to leave Substack. One thing you have said to me, which you hint at here, was you realized all those other choices were cheaper, that Ghost and WordPress or whatever would just be cheaper to operate on than the fees that Substack was charging you. How did you decide to pick Ghost?

We looked at three options. One was just a complete roll your own stack, get your own hosting provider, get your own email provider, stitch it all together with a bunch of services. That felt really complicated. I also felt like it would put me in the position of being a full-time IT person in addition to the other roles that I have at Platformer. Some people were saying, “Dude, if you’re running your own website, you’re going to face DDoS attacks. The website is just going to go down at random hours of the day, and that’s your problem now.”

So that was one reason why I didn’t want to do that. The other reason was putting that stuff together would’ve taken time, and I was motivated to move pretty quickly. So we didn’t consider that option that seriously. Although, I will say, it remains maybe the ultimate destination of Platformer, assuming that the platform that we’re on has enabled us to get what we want. The other two that we looked at more seriously were Beehiiv and Ghost. Beehiiv is spelled probably worse than any other startup in the world: it’s B-E-E-H-I-I-V.

If you know a worse spelling of any startup, message me, I haven’t heard of one. But they were super nice people. I was actually really impressed with them. I was really impressed with their product. They were super friendly to us, so we had a really, really great time chatting things through with them.

But man, they’re also a venture-backed email startup, Nilay, and I just felt so burned by the Substack experience, and I thought, “I don’t really know the guys that run this that well. I don’t really know who their investors are that well. I don’t know what kind of pressures they’re under. I don’t know how good their business looks. I don’t know how they might change the terms on their creators in six months or a year.”

And I just thought, “Even though this has some really nice features and is actually cheaper than the option that we wound up going with, I can’t do it.” So we kicked that one aside. That left Ghost. Ghost was interesting to me for a number of reasons. One is it’s operated by a nonprofit. It is open-source software, so anyone can use it for anything. It is infrastructure, and yes, that means that Nazis can use open-source Ghost to make websites.

Similar to WordPress, Ghost also has a hosted version called Ghost(Pro). You pay them money, and there, the terms of service are more serious. So, John O’Nolan, the CEO of Ghost, committed to me that they’re not going to let any Nazis — literal 1930s Nazis — use the Ghost(Pro) service to build websites. Just by saying that, that meant that Ghost was a better home for Platformer than Substack was. 

And then you look at everything else. They have a free concierge service. We sent them some emails, gave them access to a few things, they built us a new website. They ported over our entire mailing list. They ported over all of our customer relationships from Stripe. They did it over a weekend. And in some very real sense, the only difference between me being on Substack and me being on Ghost is that I type into a different box now, and I save 10 percent of my annual revenue.

So that was basically why we picked them. And yes, there are some tradeoffs, and yes, there are some risks, and I’m happy to talk about them, but that was why we made the choice.

So you go to Ghost. Ghost is not providing you with legal support. I assume they’re not helping you get health insurance. How do you figure that stuff out?

I was really hoping, if I got sued, I could just call you and just be like, “Nilay, what do I do?”

I used to be a lawyer. My wife is still a lawyer. We’ll have Becky talk to you.

I mean, if I could get Becky to help, that’d be great. No, I mean, you buy libel insurance is the answer. I mean, there are products in the market that solve this problem. Doesn’t mean it’s not still a risk to the business. It is for anybody, even if you have libel insurance. But something you learn in business is that there’s a lot of big, scary problems, and the answer to them is, “Well, you just buy a product,” and so that’s one of those.

Yeah. I feel like for people who might just be starting, the idea that I need to go buy libel insurance and health insurance and all this other stuff is terrifying. Do you think that will hold people back from starting businesses like this?

Yes. I mean, one of the things Substack was good at back in the day was trying to figure out every single reason why you wouldn’t join Substack. This was something that they actually deserve a lot of credit for, and they realized it was healthcare, it was legal, it was, “I don’t know how to design a website.” And they just started chipping away at that stuff. Eventually, because their business is not really thought through, they had to stop offering all these services because they essentially couldn’t afford to have them and still meet their valuation, but they were solving real problems, and that is a reason why I think fewer people will go into this. I mean, I should say that really the only reason I was able to do this was because I had a great job in media that let me grow a big audience and save money, and very few people are in that position, and so that’s just something I feel very grateful for and wish everybody had access to.

So you’re on Ghost now. You said there might be some future where you do rule your own stack. Does that seem like a likely future, or is that just in the back of your head, “I need to be prepared for it”? 

I think it depends if I can ever convince you to come make websites with me. Because if you would, then yes, I would just have you help me do that.

I really like making websites. That’s why I still work at a media company. We run the last website on earth.

That’s right, you do. God, you should make a Verge T-shirt that just says, “The last website on earth.” I think it would be a big seller.

This is a very inspiring story. Casey is very entrepreneurial. He works at a website that was one of many venture-backed websites in 2011. You leave, you start your own company. Zoe is amazing. She’s an amazing reporter. You break a lot of news, you have a lot of impact. You get the podcast with the Times, you’re doing all this stuff. You just signed a distribution deal with our old colleague Josh Topolsky, who now runs something called Sherwood Media at Robinhood. Congratulations. You have a thriving little media business.

But the question I think I continue to come back to is, can you have enough of those to replace the media across America? Can you have a Platformer for, I don’t know, Statehouse coverage in Madison, Wisconsin? That feels like the thing that has not actually happened.

I think the answer is no, and it sucks. It doesn’t feel good to win a game that feels like it doesn’t have that many winners. The media is a business that we want to have lots and lots of winners, and I think, in a lot of ways, we were better off during a time when most Americans could get most of their information for free just by visiting websites without having to log in and without having to do a paid subscription. I think it enabled more coverage, more kinds of coverage, riskier coverage, more investigations.

There are some real limitations to what I do. Most of the stuff that I do, if it takes longer than a day to do, it’s really hard for me because I write three columns a week, which puts some real limitations on what kind of reporting I can do. That’s actually one of the reasons why I hired. I was like, “Okay, well maybe we can share this burden a little bit and give ourselves some more time to report.”

But in terms of how do you get from the thing that I’m doing to a healthy tech press corps, the only answer that gives me any optimism is not actually what I’m doing at Platformer, although I think there’s probably some version of this would work for some number of people. I get really inspired by what I see at Defector at 404 Media, these collectives of really talented journalists who maybe raise a little bit of money, maybe just raise some from their friends and family, come together, collectively own the business, build an authentic relationship with their audiences using social media, monetize that well enough, and do it really sustainably.

And while I don’t know if you can rebuild the press corps that we had in 2011 that way, I think you actually can have a much bigger press corps than we are otherwise going to have in three or four years.

So those are interesting publications because they are very different than Platformer. I will say this reductively about Platformer, you know I love you. You know I love Platformer. Platformer is a trade publication.

Its audience is executives at tech companies, and within that, the people who work at trust and safety and in government at tech companies. And that’s a very lucrative audience. You’ve picked the right group of people there. You go to other places… And then there are other businesses that are doing well. Axios is a trade publication for DC professionals. There’s one I read all the time called Fierce Wireless, which is just for telecom professionals.

Is it for gay telecom professionals? Fierce Wireless, yes, honey.

Oh my god, Casey. That’s the end of the show, everybody. We had 20 minutes left, but we’re just going to run ads from now until the end of the hour.

I got to look up this Fierce Wireless.

But trade publications, they do well because people need information to do their jobs, and that’s lucrative. You go to consumer publications, like The Verge is a consumer technology publication, I’m competing with a bunch of YouTubers who are free. You go to sports, I think Defector is doing really well, but you look at The Athletic that the Times bought, and The Athletic’s ambition was, “We’re going to replace every local newsroom in America because people will pay for sports.”

It worked out for The Athletic in that they sold to the Times, and I don’t know if it has worked out for The New York Times, which is fascinating to consider. Is there a tension there between “Okay, a bunch of trade publications can work, a bunch of very targeted, hyper-specific interest publications maybe can work” but the broader news audience is not going to pay? And that seems very dangerous because TikTokers exist and YouTubers exist, and you can just fill your media diet with free stuff.

Yeah. Here’s where I will gas Platformer up a little bit. So one of the things that I took from Ben Thompson was, he makes one edition of every week free, which means that he gets to reach his full mailing list. Ben has no ads in his publication. He sends out really, really smart thoughts to a lot of people every single week. And it’s the sort of thing that, before he helped to invent this model, people really were not getting that information for free. Platformer is the same way. We publish three times a week now. But really, almost all of the biggest scoops we’ve ever had, we have sent out for free to as many people as we’ve had.

Other people have done something similar. Judd Legum writes a newsletter called Popular Information. It’s kind of a progressive newsletter, he writes a lot about politics. And while Judd has a paid version, he makes almost every edition free, and then he just asks his readers, “Hey, did you value this? Consider supporting me, and that will enable me to keep doing this,” and that’s been hugely successful for him.

So I think that there is a lesson in here that even the trade publications, even these things that feel small and fringy, they can do high-impact work. They can send it out to a huge audience. I was shocked when I started looking at the numbers. Platformer is getting a million visitors a month and has for a long time. It’s just two people writing. That feels pretty cool to me. So I think that there is something there. Again, I realize we’re still kind of nibbling at the margins of the problem, but I do want to say, that’s not nothing.

Do you worry about the problem where all the real information, the real reporting, goes behind paywalls, and liars and conspiracy theorists just are free? That’s a dynamic that I see across every platform right now.

Yeah, and I worry about it more in politics and national news than I worry about it in tech. But yes, that’s a real problem. And we should say, other countries have come up with one really good solution to this problem, which is publicly funded media. And I realize that that is probably a nonstarter in the United States for the foreseeable future. But when you look, countries that invest in public media, whether it’s the UK with the BBC or Australia has pretty good public media, their democracies are generally considered stronger by political scientists.

So we know that news is never going to pay for itself. It never really has. It has only typically made money as part of some bundle that people are mostly subscribing to for the games and the cartoons. So nothing about the internet is going to change those dynamics in ways that favor us as journalists. And so I think we need to do a combination of inventing new stuff but also borrowing from what we already know works.

Inventing new models is really important, I agree with you. This is happening in the context of the old model getting completely upended by generative AI on one side but basically the end of distributing webpages by every platform on earth, including Google Search, which, when that domino falls, there is no more web business.

So the platform era, distributing webpages was a great business for a lot of people for a long time. Facebook would distribute your webpages. Twitter would, to some much smaller extent, distribute your webpage. Snapchat, for one brief, bizarre moment, had a news business embedded in it. And the idea was you would make news, you would put the link on Facebook, Facebook would boost it, tons of people would come in, and they would see a display ad or something, and all the platforms are the same way. Then, Facebook pivoted to video, stopped displaying webpages, everybody knows all the rest here.

The last thing where you can get an audience to go to a webpage is Google, and it just feels like Google is going to turn off the spigot at any minute. And we are watching businesses collapse around us as that traffic source dries up. And then importantly, as advertisers realize they don’t want to buy banners and boxes on webpages when they can just buy whatever slice of the TikTok audience, to do whatever happens on TikTok.

Is there coming back from that? I say that out loud and I, again, run the last website on earth. I feel like there are some things to invent there that maybe help, but it feels like no one else is inventing stuff. Do you see any recovery from that disaster, or is that, “We need to burn this down so we can grow a new kind of forest?”

I do really worry that yes, that that forest fire sweeps through and kills a lot of stuff. That’s not even a prediction. We’ve already seen it. As we’re recording this, The Messenger is shutting down.

And that was explicitly built on old Facebook strategies. I think everybody was like, “That’s never going to work.” In less than a year, it didn’t work.

The only surprising thing about it, I think, is how quickly it collapsed. But yes, if, when it started, they had asked me and you, “How is this going to fail?” we would have explained it, whatever. Something you and I have talked about for a long time is that there is a difference between an audience and traffic. And if you want to talk about The Messenger in particular, no disrespect to the many talented journalists who worked there — I met one of them just the other day that seemed great — The Messenger only ever had traffic. 

I understand, if I were trying to build a big, scaled-up ad-supported business, of course, I would want the maximum number of pages. How else are you going to build an ad business? But it’s unquestionable to me that media companies became too reliant on Google and didn’t spend enough time thinking about their product and about how do you build something that people are going to seek out and have an authentic relationship with.

Something that I’m proud of about Platformer is I truly believe that everybody who reads it, at least in their inbox, knows that they’re reading Platformer. I think most people who are reading news through Google Search have no idea what they’re reading, and I don’t think they care. And I think it’s really hard to build a big media business that no one cares about.

On the business side of most of these media publications, you just have people who do not have very good editorial instincts. In our business, for very good reasons, we separated the editorial people from the business people. That did a lot of good for the integrity of our businesses. But I also think it has been a catastrophe for the industry overall because you have these buildings full of people who don’t understand each other’s problems well enough to help each other build something successful.

So, while I will say, this creates some challenges for me. Platformer started an ad business last year, but we had to come up with a set of ad policies. We had to decide, “You know what? We’re actually not going to take any advertising from anybody we cover because we think that that would be bad for our business,” but other media businesses don’t have to make that same kind of tradeoff because they’ve just separated those two things out.

So there’s all tradeoffs here, but I feel like I have a much better sense of who my audience is and what they want and how I can fulfill that and how I can get them to pay me than the folks running The Messenger did.

Yeah, the difference between audience and traffic is something I think about all the time. You have to go build an audience, but the thing that keeps most people from building an audience is distribution. You can very quickly go build an audience on an algorithmic platform, or what feels like an audience, and then the platform shifts and you have to start over. This is the story of every YouTuber and why they burn out.

It makes everything the same. If you took the top 50 people on any platform and looked at the stuff they make, I feel like you would have more similarities than differences in terms of structure and form and how things are formatted.

I look at the stories about Mr. Beast doing 50 different thumbnails on a video, and I’m just horrified. Maybe I shouldn’t be. He’s much more successful than we are at doing the thing that he does. But it’s like, “Oh, you are just constantly in a conversation with someone else’s algorithm.” The part where you’re like, “I’m going to build an audience,” it seems like email is still the only distribution pipe that doesn’t dramatically affect what you make. Do you see any others, or is it still email?

Well, if we want to get really futuristic here, the reason that email is a really stable platform is because it’s built on a protocol, and it’s a protocol anyone can build on. It’s not controlled by any one person. One of the most exciting things in tech, and I know you’re excited about this, too, is the fact that we’re building these new open protocols. ActivityPub is one. The AT Protocol, which is what Bluesky is built on, is getting much less attention, but I actually think is super interesting and worth debating on its own terms, too.

We’re going to have them on very soon, too, actually.

Awesome. They’re also going to be on Hard Fork next week, so tune in to that.

You’ve got to plug your podcast a little bit.

This podcast itself is an open protocol, a merging of Hard Fork and Decoder.

That’s right, that’s right. So what is cool about these protocols? Well, if they work out, it is going to be the case that, as with email, no one platform controls them. Users are going to have a lot more control over what they’re seeing. And if you’re a publisher, maybe you’re able to devise ways where you can build an audience, reliably serve that audience — not just feel like you’re surfing algorithm changes forever. And you’re able to build something a little bit more substantial there. So I do think that, after a long winter, the attention of, in particular, the developers and the nerds that you actually need to care about this stuff is turning back to protocols, and I do think that we are going to see good progress there this year.

Yeah. I’m very excited about that. I think I’ve mentioned on this show, but I’ve mentioned on The Vergecast plenty of times, we are going to do some federated stuff to The Verge in order to preserve our status as the last website in the world, that’s my goal. What’s interesting there is that the platforms themselves are taking some dips into it. You mentioned Bluesky. Threads is going to support ActivityPub, but there’s a tension in there, too. Adam Mosseri, who runs Threads, has openly said, “Look, we’re going to have news here, but that’s not the point of this. No news please.”

It doesn’t seem like links travel on Threads. Threads is a self-contained kind of experience. Twitter used to be a place where you would distribute news, and now it is called X. I’m told it is a video-first platform. I don’t know, man, I don’t know what’s going on there. But the big platforms feel like they’re getting more and more self-contained. They’re more and more about individual user behaviors, or maybe a handful of big creators, and they’re not about supporting companies — or explicitly not about supporting news, in the case of Threads. Do you think that we end up with a parallel infrastructure or a parallel ecosystem of news companies, or is the audience still on platforms? You talk to the platform executives a lot more than I do. How are they feeling about that split?

I think what you said is true. They just don’t see the news as ever being hugely important to them, at least in terms of how many visitors do they have, how much engagement are they getting, how much money are they making. So I think news is going to be a little bit of an afterthought, but I think that they also just have a reason to offer APIs that publishers can take advantage of. They have reason to create monetization schemes that publishers or individual creators can take advantage of. I think it can probably work well enough that something is able to thrive there. So I think the media is always going to have to be sort of tugging on their robes, begging them to help us out. But they all also read the media, and we do have influence over what they do, and I think we can keep using it.

Yeah. And it’s funny how the billionaires of yore cared and thought it was their public service to just lose money on the media for a while. In this class of billionaires, they’ll lose money on the side, but they won’t actually solve the problems with the companies they run to make it work. There’s a real discrepancy there. Jeff Bezos would be like, “I need The Washington Post to make money,” and it’s like, “Have you thought about building some distribution for these webpages?” And there doesn’t seem to be a connection there. It’s fascinating to me.

I mean, I think if they thought that there were more opportunity in media, they’d probably spend more time thinking about it. Media is just a really hard problem, again, because it mostly just never has paid for itself. I don’t think any of these billionaires have any brilliant ideas for how to reverse that problem. My wish for the billionaires is instead of trying to find some old legacy publication like The Washington Post or The Atlantic and taking that over and trying to help it lose a little bit less money, they would go out, and they would find more Defectors, and they’d find more 404 Medias and say, “What could you do with $5 million a year?” And see if we could see the ecosystem with a bunch of new media startups with really talented people, because I think they get a lot more bang for their buck than they would by trying to rescue some 150-year-old publication.

I actually think part of the instinct that drives the “We’ll fix legacy media” is one: they wish they were on the cover of those legacy magazines. I think there’s more to that theory than anyone wants to truly admit. And two: it comes back to what you were saying, which is you want to make a thing that you like. A bunch of people are looking at the algorithmic media and saying, “This is garbage. What if I just get in there and meddle with the editorial a little bit?” And then they get in there and they meddle with the editorial a little bit, or they tell the big newspaper, “Be more centrist,” or whatever they think they want. And it turns out, that doesn’t play on platforms, which they run, and then it doesn’t go well. And the problem is not the editorial product; the problem is the distribution environment that forces the product to be this other thing.

And I’m hopeful that we’re in the moment where that cycle is breaking. I’m also very worried that that appears to be the moment the cycle is breaking: in the middle of what promises to be a very contentious election year. And I am wondering… literally the purpose of Platformer is to cover platforms and democracy, so I want to end by just asking the bigger question. It is going to be a very contentious election year. Do you think our media ecosystem, our social media platform ecosystem, are we ready for it?

I’m worried. We’ve already seen these cases where generative AI has been used to create synthetic versions of Joe Biden’s voice making robocalls. I expect we’re going to see a lot more of that sort of thing. I think we’re going to see more layoffs in the media industry that’s going to mean less coverage of some of these big issues. 

I think the national election will still be covered really aggressively and really well. I worry about the down-ballot races, and if you’re running for state senate or attorney general in some state and somebody creates a deepfake of you, is there going to be anyone in the media to come to the rescue and say, “Hey, this person is getting a raw deal. They never said that thing.” That’s the stuff that I worry about the most. We’re predisposed, as journalists, to always train our attention on the biggest thing, but there’s going to be all these medium and small things that we used to rely on the local media for, and to some really tragic extent, that just no longer exists.

So this is one of those things where it’s like we need the whole of society thinking about this. We need a public investment in media. We need philanthropy to address this problem. We need entrepreneurial young journalists to start their own newsletters and see what kind of contribution they can make and find an audience, but we’re in for a really tough period. And if you’re listening and you wonder how you can help, I mean, subscribe to something, truly. It does matter. It does help. And that’s one way that you can show that you care is by supporting media that means something to you.

It feels like all the platform companies have talked about knowing that generative AI is a problem. There’s a bill now. Because there were deepfakes of Taylor Swift on X, now there’s legislation. There’s a whole story in there. There’s a 10,000-word PhD thesis about that exact cause and effect, but there’s legislation now. Do you think the platforms are going to do anything to tamp down on the deepfake problem, the generative AI problem?

Yeah. I think they’re going to have to. Platforms don’t want porn on them for a lot of reasons, but one of them is, if you let it on, it just takes over everything, and that’s not the environment they want. Keep in mind, I write about platforms and democracy, but mostly what I’ve learned is that they’re just digital shopping malls, and so they have to get rid of this stuff. So they’re going to do a pretty good job of that. I think the issue is, we have all of this, what they’re starting to call unsecured AI, so this open-source AI, and you can still create these images, and there probably just are going to be places on the internet where it can be shared.

We know it can be shared in Telegram, for example. There’s basically going to be no content moderation there. I’m still skeptical that X is going to do meaningful content moderation, despite hiring a hundred people and patting themselves on the back about it until they broke their arm, so that’s the kind of place where I worry about it. But what I think of as the respectable platforms —  the Facebooks, Instagrams, TikTok — yes, they’re going to move aggressively, but there is still real harm that is going to be done.

The last question, a lot of people listening to this are probably thinking about the chaos that various industries are in. Is this still a good time for people to go and set up shop on a platform like Ghost or Beehiiv or Substack even and enter this independent media fray?

Because it felt like the window that you leapt into it was the window. You nailed that timing, and that window was open for a while, and it feels like the window… You know, windows open and close, and it feels like it is riskier than ever right now. A lot of people got laid off, they might be thinking about it. Do you think there’s opportunity there still?

I’ve always thought that, in media, to succeed, you need a combination of an editorial insight and a distribution insight, and I think that I was able to land both of those things when I left with Platformer, and my distribution insight was that email was just a better way of keeping in touch with an audience. But also, and I didn’t realize this at the time, I was able to take advantage of Twitter because I did have a relatively large audience there. I was able to blast out every edition to a fair number of followers. Those people became subscribers. That was really important. I just don’t think that part is particularly true anymore, that you’re not going to be able to get the same bang for your buck on Twitter. Promotion of your stuff across social is much more diffuse. It’s weaker. You have to publish on five times as many platforms to get maybe 50 percent of the impact.

But at the same time, Nilay, when I started Platformer, one of the thoughts I had was like, “All I need is a thousand people to pay me a hundred bucks a year, and I have a pretty good job; 2,000 people is an amazing job; 3,000 people, that’s more than anyone will ever pay me.” And the internet is still big enough, and there are enough amazing readers out there that they will create that job for someone. As much as we talk about the struggles of the media industry, look at how many people are thriving on YouTube. Look at how many people are thriving on TikTok or on Twitch. People who have been able to create lives beyond their wildest dreams, just having fun online. That is still happening at the same time, and it is often not people who are doing amazing public interest journalism, but the basic dynamics are still there.

Children are growing up in a world where they are paying for Twitch streamers, and they’re paying for YouTubers, and they are buying merch. And I fully believe those people are going to continue to come to you, The Verge, Platformer, and so many other websites, and say, “Yeah, here’s your hundred bucks. This means something to me.” So that is a dynamic that is putting the wind at our backs, and it is one of the reasons where, if you can nail that, have a good editorial idea, and manage your cost structure, then truly, I do believe the world is still your oyster.

Okay, that’s a great place to end it. I do want to say that reporter Casey would’ve never said the words “manage your cost structure.”

Cost structure is really important. Nobody wants to say, “We need to build media businesses that don’t have dedicated HR and accounting departments,” because that seems really disrespectful to your HR and accounting department. And yet, if you have three people at your newsletter, do you need HR? Do you need in-house counsel? Probably not. So one of the paths forward is just rethinking some of that stuff.

So if you have an HR complaint for Platformer, don’t call anyone. Just walk away, your head hung low. That’s great. That’s the kind of business I want to work for. The fact that I know the two of you is, I’m just guessing, it’s going to be fine.

Casey, this has been wonderful. Thank you so much for being on Decoder. Tell the people where they can find you.

You can find Platformer at, and you can find Hard Fork wherever you get your podcasts.

But listen to Decoder first.

It comes first alphabetically, so just sort alphabetically.

And that’s how you should pick. That’s right. So after Nilay confuses you about his stuff, if you just want it in plain English, come over to Hard Fork. We’ll tell you the real story.

Alright, look, ActivityPub is the future. That’s it. That’s Decoder. Thank you so much, Casey.

Decoder with Nilay Patel /

A podcast about big ideas and other problems.


By 111 Tech

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