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BenWeisslerSecondEssay 5 - 04 Jan 2021 - Main.BenWeissler
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Substack and the Future of Journalism

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-- By BenWeissler - 20 Nov 2020
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-- By BenWeissler - 20 Nov 2020 // 2nd draft 4 Jan 2021
 
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The Times, They Are A-Changin'

 
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A spectre is haunting news media — the spectre of email newsletters. But does it matter?
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News media in the late 19th and 20th centuries developed under a certain set of conditions. Journalism during that era was a costly, capital intensive enterprise: foreign bureaus, expensive telegraphy / newswire networks, printing plants and raw material inputs, and vast distribution networks to get newspaper from plants into readers’ hands. The internet and zero-marginal-cost distribution of digital goods changed all that, sweeping aside those historical conditions and rendering the old modes of production and distribution obsolete.
 
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Newsletters are just one among many methods of delivering news, piggybacking on a technology (email) that predates even the web. The New York Times, for example, delivers news to readers in print format, on its website, in its mobile app, and via dozens and dozens of email newsletters. But the reason newsletters are now generating splashy headlines and think pieces has little to do with the format per se. The buzz is really about a change in the underlying business model of news: a move from advertising to subscription revenue, and from large, well-capitalized newsrooms to solo journalists and writers striking out on their own.
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Much of the turbulence in news media over the last twenty years is the continuing fallout from that change. Most media organizations responded to the internet by embracing (or more charitably, capitulating to) an advertising-based “surveillance capitalism” model. They have lived and died by this model’s dictates: an insatiable need for eyeballs; listicles and other junk keyed to go viral; and a dangerous dependence on social media platforms to generate traffic. As a result, most news today is buried under a mountain of ads and spyware, both metaphorically and literally. A few “national brands” (NYT, WaPo) have managed to thrive and are tacking back into a digital paywall / subscription strategy, all while local journalism undergoes a mass extinction-level event.
 
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In the last year, there’s been an exodus of high-profile media figures leaving traditional outlets and setting up personal newsletters. Andrew Sullivan left New York Magazine. Matt Taibbi left Rolling Stone. Glenn Greenwald left The Intercept. Matt Yglesias left Vox. All decamped for Substack, which is quickly emerging as the dominant newsletter platform — offering writers “an array of tech tools” to help manage their newsletters and taking a 10% cut of subscription revenue in return.
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In the midst of this ferment, the meteoric rise of Substack, a newsletter company, has occasioned some introspection about the future of journalism. Substack is facilitating the disintermediation of traditional news publishers, and that warrants careful attention; in a way, the direct connection of reader and writer is the long-heralded “disruptive” potential of the internet finally coming to fruition on journalism's doorstep.
 
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Why is Substack and the newsletter resurgence noteworthy? Anyone who cares about building a vibrant public sphere, reducing the amount of misinformation, and healing America’s deep partisan schism should take an interest in the way news is produced and consumed.
 
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How Newsletters Became Popular

The explosive growth of newsletters can be understood from two sides of the market: from the perspective of people who make news, and from the perspective of those who read it.
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What It Takes to Break a Story

The creation and distribution of news — that is, timely information about what is happening and how to understand its implications — is a complicated undertaking. This remains true, even when news is a bitstream rather than a physical newspaper. Can alternative models of journalism, whether fully “anarchist” in nature or “disintermediated” la Substack, ever accomplish what the New York Times does every single day?
 
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The Writer's Perspective

Sullivan, Taibbi, Greenwald, Yglesias: there is easy narrative here about the departure of contrarian political voices from media outlets that are becoming less and less hospitable to dissenting views. It is no coincidence that these outlets are currently engulfed in fiery internal debates about their missions as news organizations. Do they exist, as conceived in the “liberal” tradition, to dispassionately report news while exposing readers to a wide range of opinion? Or should these outlets shine a spotlight on wrongs and work towards a better, more equitable society? The New York Times’s publication of an op-ed by Republican Senator Tom Cotton (and the resulting fallout) is probably the most notable recent example. But there are many other examples.
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Before turning to this question, it is necessary to dwell on some features (social and economic) of newsmaking which make it a tough nut to crack:
 
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But stepping back from these squabbles, there is another story here about news media's ailing economic health. Newspapers employed almost 500,000 people in the mid-1990s, down to just 150,000 today. There is a phenomenon called “elite overproduction” — the fierce competition among qualified college graduates engaged in a game of musical chairs, vying for a dwindling number of media seats — which some believe explains the intense media infighting. Local news is in shambles. And meanwhile, the digital media companies (BuzzFeed? , Vice, Vox, etc.) that were lauded just 5-10 years ago as “disruptors” and thought to represent the future of journalism, have been forced to cut staff, while the old guard swoops in to pick remaining talent off the bones. In the face of this bleak media outlook, why wouldn't an enterprising writer strike out on her own? And particularly if you are a “star” commentator who already has a large following, what’s stopping you from becoming rich off the “tens of thousands” of subscribers willing to pay you $5 (and up) per month?
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  • Coordination issues: News requires a large team of collaborators, especially in the case of original reporting vs. “personal” writing (commentary and the like). The newsroom of yore provided journalists with a range of different services, both front-office and back-office. Some of these services (health care, legal protection) can more easily be unbundled and provided to standalone writers, while others (fact checking, copy editing) are more bespoke and harder to pool.
  • Temporal issues / delayed gratification: “shoe-leather” reporting can take lots of time (months) and lots of deep investigation to develop. Writers of course need a living income during this fallow period. What is needed, then, is a way of inducing readers to continue paying writers for work when the “payoff” lies far in the future (or indeed, when the reporting is a deadend and the payoff is destined to never arrive).
    • On the other end of the temporal spectrum, fast-breaking news presents its own coordination and payoff problems. Stale news, even when it is only one day behind, is dramatically less valuable than fresh news.
  • Professionalism: covering big national stories requires full-time dedication to the journalistic enterprise and a wealth of journalistic experience (if not formal training). While “citizen journalists” can — and should — help extend news coverage to local matters, national stories (and unfortunately, access journalism) depend on the Maggie Habermans of the world. (Moreover, so long as, e.g., the White House press pool requires formal credentials, we shouldn’t expect professionalism to decline in any material way.)
  • Talent development: new writers need an environment of support and apprenticeship to launch their careers. The “disintermediated” Substack model complicates this: established writers who attract large audiences of paying readers can afford to strike out on their own, while newer writers who are still building their reputations cannot support themselves this way.
 
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The Reader's Perspective

From the reader's perspective, the newsletter format presents several attractive features:
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One takeaway from the above is how collaboration and collectivization provide a solution to these problems. If collectivized, writers can easily work on big stories with each other. Collectivization also means that writers can bundle their work, so that readers receive a continuous stream of news they are willing to pay for (even as individual writers put in the months of legwork needed to track down a story). Collectivized environments also make the development of professionalism and talent more likely.
 
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  • Newsletters offer a feeling of intimacy that is missing from the plain web. Email simulates a one-to-one connection between writer and reader. A newsletter is a respite from the “noise” of social media. And it provides a more curated experience than the overwhelming firehose of content published by, e.g., the New York Times.
 
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  • Newsletters promise depth, not breadth. If a reader is really passionate climate change, zoning policy, or bitcoin, that reader might rather pay to hear from writers with expertise in those areas, versus paying to bankroll a whole group of journalists covering topics they care less about.
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Is Substack the Answer?

The presently existing alternative models of journalism — whether anarchic or “disintermediated” — are only partially responsive to the demands of newsmaking outlined above. As such, the ability of these alternatives to truly reshape journalism is limited, at least until further changes are made.
 
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  • Except for the print newspaper, an email is just about the most “tangible” a news product can get in today’s day and age. If I’m going to pay for other people’s thoughts and writings, I may well feel that I receive subjectively more value for something that is pushed directly to my inbox, versus content that exists "somewhere else" on a subscription website.
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Wikinews (a sister project to Wikipedia) is an admirable attempt at “anarchic” journalism, but its failures demonstrate the limitations of this model. Wikinews is written by a corps of unpaid amateur writers (with weak credentialing). With no semblance of professionalism or talent development, the results are predictably weak: Wikinews’s original reporting publishes a rather anemic collection of 3-5 articles per month, often of low quality and niche interest.
 
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Where We Go From Here

The success of Substack shows that readers are hungry for a model of news distribution that at least mimics decentralization, a model based on trust and connection instead of impersonal algorithms. But of course the idea of a one-to-one connection between writer and reader is a fiction. In the newsletters becoming popular today, there is a silent third: Substack. As long as Substack is interposed between writer and reader, collecting “browsing history, search history, and interaction data,” there can be no true anonymity of reading. And with Stripe, Substack’s payment processor, and Gmail (the endpoint where most of these newsletters will be read) in the mix as additional intermediaries, you can truly bid anonymity farewell.
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The disintermediated model (Substack) — a mixture of professional and semi-professional writers cultivating direct relationships with paying readers — has some promise to it, and the provisioning of “institutional” services (like health care and legal protection) to writers is one key to Substack’s apparent success. As many have noted, Substack seems particularly well suited to “personal writing” and commentary. But Substack, as currently composed, will never deliver great original reporting so long as it is oriented toward lone writers rather that collaborative / collective work. Seen in that light, the fact that "few of Substack's newsletters publish original reporting" is less a temporary embarrassment of the platform than an intrinsic limitation of its individualistic model.
 
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There are many unresolved questions and causes for concern. The Substack manifesto includes a promise to never sell the data it collects and to never accommodate ads in its publishing system. But can it really deliver on that promise? Ads and sponsored content have already begun “creeping” into many Substack newsletters. It remains to be seen whether open-source alternatives to Substack, like Ghost, will take root. And the overall effect newsletters will have on media is unclear — will deep investigative reporting that was once (in a sense) subsidized by the readership’s interest in more trendy or prurient topics suffer as op-ed columnists leave for Substack?

Although newsletters are clearly “hot” right now, what happens as second- and third-order effects play out? As the number of newsletters I’m subscribed to multiplies, I find the idea of a centralized recommendation system — perhaps a newsfeed — to help focus my attention, more tempting. As I pay more and more writers for their separate perspectives, I start to wish for a bundled newsletter — maybe something resembling a newspaper. And if we end up reproducing social media and the New York Times, did the newsletter really matter all?

The point is the effort to pay the creator directly, disintermediating the publisher. The point is not that the writers are abandoning the publishers: it's that the publishers—by moving to the subscription model by erecting paywalls—while also seeking revenue through interoperation arrangement with the platform companies pillaged their relationships with the people who did the reporting, writing and editing. The journalists, on the other hand, need what I said in the 20th century 21st century creators would need: a sustainable audience, that is, a readership that will voluntarily pay what the creator needs in order to make what they both value in the way the journalists want. This is what I meant in the conclusion of Anarchism Triumphant in 1999 in suggesting that music and journalism would be next affected by the changes in political economy resulting from the shift to zero marginal cost goods.

Despite the big industrial problems of making and distributing press artifacts in the pre-digital world, these are now zero marginal cost items made by a small number of people: reporters and editors have always been the tiniest fraction of the labor force of a newspaper. That means direct payments to creators are efficient for both authors and readers. That stays true when they assemble into co-ops at any scale.

I think your best route to improvement is to cut the descriptive material moderately hard: we can assume that your readers know the terrain, and there are plenty of things you can cite to for the detail, including Anna Wiener's excellent piece this month in The New Yorker. That gives you more room for analysis, so that instead of ending with a rhetorical shrug you can deliver more for the readers.

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Of course, the choice is not really a simplistic one between Wikinews and Substack on the one hand, and the New York Times on the other. Other models, like the non-profit newsroom will have an important role to play. (ProPublica comes to mind as a non-profit doing impressive journalism, albeit one that’s been forced to incorporate advertising.) Nor is it even really a “choice” to begin with. There is no reason to expect that conventional news publishers will simply die off, nor should they. Certain of them have built up large reservoirs of public trust and have carved out hallowed positions in our cultural-political understanding (e.g., “paper of record,” “The Gray Lady”) — all that will not disappear overnight.
 
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In a way, all of this has happened before and will happen again. The built-in advantages that FOSS enjoys over non-anarchic software has not meant that propertarian-based software goes away outright. A burgeoning music scene based on self-recording and self-release does not immediately drive a stake through the records labels’ hearts. Coexistence is the name of the game, in software, music, and journalism. The flourishing of alternative models, like Substack, is a welcome development even if those alternatives do not immediately revolutionize the news industry.
 

BenWeisslerSecondEssay 4 - 30 Dec 2020 - Main.EbenMoglen
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 Although newsletters are clearly “hot” right now, what happens as second- and third-order effects play out? As the number of newsletters I’m subscribed to multiplies, I find the idea of a centralized recommendation system — perhaps a newsfeed — to help focus my attention, more tempting. As I pay more and more writers for their separate perspectives, I start to wish for a bundled newsletter — maybe something resembling a newspaper. And if we end up reproducing social media and the New York Times, did the newsletter really matter all?
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The point is the effort to pay the creator directly, disintermediating the publisher. The point is not that the writers are abandoning the publishers: it's that the publishers—by moving to the subscription model by erecting paywalls—while also seeking revenue through interoperation arrangement with the platform companies pillaged their relationships with the people who did the reporting, writing and editing. The journalists, on the other hand, need what I said in the 20th century 21st century creators would need: a sustainable audience, that is, a readership that will voluntarily pay what the creator needs in order to make what they both value in the way the journalists want. This is what I meant in the conclusion of Anarchism Triumphant in 1999 in suggesting that music and journalism would be next affected by the changes in political economy resulting from the shift to zero marginal cost goods.

Despite the big industrial problems of making and distributing press artifacts in the pre-digital world, these are now zero marginal cost items made by a small number of people: reporters and editors have always been the tiniest fraction of the labor force of a newspaper. That means direct payments to creators are efficient for both authors and readers. That stays true when they assemble into co-ops at any scale.

I think your best route to improvement is to cut the descriptive material moderately hard: we can assume that your readers know the terrain, and there are plenty of things you can cite to for the detail, including Anna Wiener's excellent piece this month in The New Yorker. That gives you more room for analysis, so that instead of ending with a rhetorical shrug you can deliver more for the readers.

 

BenWeisslerSecondEssay 3 - 21 Nov 2020 - Main.BenWeissler
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META TOPICPARENT name="SecondEssay"
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 -- By BenWeissler - 20 Nov 2020
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A spectre is haunting news media — the spectre of email newsletters. But does it matter?
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A spectre is haunting news media — the spectre of email newsletters. But does it matter?
 Newsletters are just one among many methods of delivering news, piggybacking on a technology (email) that predates even the web. The New York Times, for example, delivers news to readers in print format, on its website, in its mobile app, and via dozens and dozens of email newsletters. But the reason newsletters are now generating splashy headlines and think pieces has little to do with the format per se. The buzz is really about a change in the underlying business model of news: a move from advertising to subscription revenue, and from large, well-capitalized newsrooms to solo journalists and writers striking out on their own.

BenWeisslerSecondEssay 2 - 20 Nov 2020 - Main.BenWeissler
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META TOPICPARENT name="SecondEssay"
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It is strongly recommended that you include your outline in the body of your essay by using the outline as section titles. The headings below are there to remind you how section and subsection titles are formatted.
 
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Paper Title

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Substack and the Future of Journalism

 -- By BenWeissler - 20 Nov 2020
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Section I

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A spectre is haunting news media — the spectre of email newsletters. But does it matter?
 
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Subsection A

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Newsletters are just one among many methods of delivering news, piggybacking on a technology (email) that predates even the web. The New York Times, for example, delivers news to readers in print format, on its website, in its mobile app, and via dozens and dozens of email newsletters. But the reason newsletters are now generating splashy headlines and think pieces has little to do with the format per se. The buzz is really about a change in the underlying business model of news: a move from advertising to subscription revenue, and from large, well-capitalized newsrooms to solo journalists and writers striking out on their own.
 
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In the last year, there’s been an exodus of high-profile media figures leaving traditional outlets and setting up personal newsletters. Andrew Sullivan left New York Magazine. Matt Taibbi left Rolling Stone. Glenn Greenwald left The Intercept. Matt Yglesias left Vox. All decamped for Substack, which is quickly emerging as the dominant newsletter platform — offering writers “an array of tech tools” to help manage their newsletters and taking a 10% cut of subscription revenue in return.
 
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Subsub 1

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Why is Substack and the newsletter resurgence noteworthy? Anyone who cares about building a vibrant public sphere, reducing the amount of misinformation, and healing America’s deep partisan schism should take an interest in the way news is produced and consumed.
 
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Subsection B

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How Newsletters Became Popular

The explosive growth of newsletters can be understood from two sides of the market: from the perspective of people who make news, and from the perspective of those who read it.
 
Added:
>
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The Writer's Perspective

Sullivan, Taibbi, Greenwald, Yglesias: there is easy narrative here about the departure of contrarian political voices from media outlets that are becoming less and less hospitable to dissenting views. It is no coincidence that these outlets are currently engulfed in fiery internal debates about their missions as news organizations. Do they exist, as conceived in the “liberal” tradition, to dispassionately report news while exposing readers to a wide range of opinion? Or should these outlets shine a spotlight on wrongs and work towards a better, more equitable society? The New York Times’s publication of an op-ed by Republican Senator Tom Cotton (and the resulting fallout) is probably the most notable recent example. But there are many other examples.
 
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Subsub 1

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But stepping back from these squabbles, there is another story here about news media's ailing economic health. Newspapers employed almost 500,000 people in the mid-1990s, down to just 150,000 today. There is a phenomenon called “elite overproduction” — the fierce competition among qualified college graduates engaged in a game of musical chairs, vying for a dwindling number of media seats — which some believe explains the intense media infighting. Local news is in shambles. And meanwhile, the digital media companies (BuzzFeed? , Vice, Vox, etc.) that were lauded just 5-10 years ago as “disruptors” and thought to represent the future of journalism, have been forced to cut staff, while the old guard swoops in to pick remaining talent off the bones. In the face of this bleak media outlook, why wouldn't an enterprising writer strike out on her own? And particularly if you are a “star” commentator who already has a large following, what’s stopping you from becoming rich off the “tens of thousands” of subscribers willing to pay you $5 (and up) per month?
 
Added:
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>

The Reader's Perspective

From the reader's perspective, the newsletter format presents several attractive features:
 
Changed:
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Subsub 2

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  • Newsletters offer a feeling of intimacy that is missing from the plain web. Email simulates a one-to-one connection between writer and reader. A newsletter is a respite from the “noise” of social media. And it provides a more curated experience than the overwhelming firehose of content published by, e.g., the New York Times.
 
Added:
>
>
  • Newsletters promise depth, not breadth. If a reader is really passionate climate change, zoning policy, or bitcoin, that reader might rather pay to hear from writers with expertise in those areas, versus paying to bankroll a whole group of journalists covering topics they care less about.
 
Added:
>
>
  • Except for the print newspaper, an email is just about the most “tangible” a news product can get in today’s day and age. If I’m going to pay for other people’s thoughts and writings, I may well feel that I receive subjectively more value for something that is pushed directly to my inbox, versus content that exists "somewhere else" on a subscription website.
 
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Section II

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Where We Go From Here

The success of Substack shows that readers are hungry for a model of news distribution that at least mimics decentralization, a model based on trust and connection instead of impersonal algorithms. But of course the idea of a one-to-one connection between writer and reader is a fiction. In the newsletters becoming popular today, there is a silent third: Substack. As long as Substack is interposed between writer and reader, collecting “browsing history, search history, and interaction data,” there can be no true anonymity of reading. And with Stripe, Substack’s payment processor, and Gmail (the endpoint where most of these newsletters will be read) in the mix as additional intermediaries, you can truly bid anonymity farewell.
 
Changed:
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Subsection A

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There are many unresolved questions and causes for concern. The Substack manifesto includes a promise to never sell the data it collects and to never accommodate ads in its publishing system. But can it really deliver on that promise? Ads and sponsored content have already begun “creeping” into many Substack newsletters. It remains to be seen whether open-source alternatives to Substack, like Ghost, will take root. And the overall effect newsletters will have on media is unclear — will deep investigative reporting that was once (in a sense) subsidized by the readership’s interest in more trendy or prurient topics suffer as op-ed columnists leave for Substack?
 
Changed:
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Subsection B

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Although newsletters are clearly “hot” right now, what happens as second- and third-order effects play out? As the number of newsletters I’m subscribed to multiplies, I find the idea of a centralized recommendation system — perhaps a newsfeed — to help focus my attention, more tempting. As I pay more and more writers for their separate perspectives, I start to wish for a bundled newsletter — maybe something resembling a newspaper. And if we end up reproducing social media and the New York Times, did the newsletter really matter all?
 


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BenWeisslerSecondEssay 1 - 20 Nov 2020 - Main.BenWeissler
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META TOPICPARENT name="SecondEssay"

It is strongly recommended that you include your outline in the body of your essay by using the outline as section titles. The headings below are there to remind you how section and subsection titles are formatted.

Paper Title

-- By BenWeissler - 20 Nov 2020

Section I

Subsection A

Subsub 1

Subsection B

Subsub 1

Subsub 2

Section II

Subsection A

Subsection B


You are entitled to restrict access to your paper if you want to. But we all derive immense benefit from reading one another's work, and I hope you won't feel the need unless the subject matter is personal and its disclosure would be harmful or undesirable. To restrict access to your paper simply delete the "#" character on the next two lines:

Note: TWiki has strict formatting rules for preference declarations. Make sure you preserve the three spaces, asterisk, and extra space at the beginning of these lines. If you wish to give access to any other users simply add them to the comma separated ALLOWTOPICVIEW list.


Revision 5r5 - 04 Jan 2021 - 21:14:44 - BenWeissler
Revision 4r4 - 30 Dec 2020 - 14:44:15 - EbenMoglen
Revision 3r3 - 21 Nov 2020 - 14:54:56 - BenWeissler
Revision 2r2 - 20 Nov 2020 - 22:15:57 - BenWeissler
Revision 1r1 - 20 Nov 2020 - 14:32:57 - BenWeissler
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