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Substack: the future of news – or a media pyramid scheme? | Media

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Since launching in 2017, Substack has been touting itself as a “better future for news.” Their offering was simple: email newsletters with an option for subscribers to pay monthly fees for content – like Netflix for newsletters.

If you have something to write and a list of emails of people who want to read it, the thinking goes, there is nothing stopping you from making a living on your own. With a healthy Substack email list, freelancers are no longer beholden to flakey editors; staff reporters no longer have to be insecure about layoffs; small media companies no longer anxious about a tweak to an algorithm that would send them into oblivion.

All that the company asks for in return? A 10% cut of subscription dollars.

Substack’s vision is proving enticing. In the past 12 months, several high-profile journalists and writers have left jobs to go it alone with Substack: the New York Times’ Charlie Warzel, Vox’s Matthew Yglesias, New York Magazine’s Heather Havrilesky.

The number of poets, essayists, hobbyists, cooks, advice-givers, spiritual guides who charge a modest amount for their newsletters is growing. In a year when US media lost thousands of newsroom jobs, the company emerged as a seemingly viable alternative for journalists and writers to earn money. But then, over the past months, several revelations about Substack’s policies have led many to question whether it ought to be entrusted with crafting a vision for the future of news.

The controversy began in response to reports that the company was luring writers to the platform through a program called Substack Pro, which offered lump sums of money – as much as $250,000 – for writers to leave their jobs and take up newsletter writing. Some writers were also offered access to editors, health insurance, and a legal defender program.

On the face of it, Substack Pro was simply offering writers the benefits that usually come with full-time employment. But the program was seen as controversial for a number of reasons.

To begin, the cohort of writers selected by the company remained undisclosed. This created an invisible tiered system dividing those who were actively supported, and those who were taking a risk in trying to build their own subscriber base.

According to journalist Annalee Newitz, this made Substack into something of a pyramid scheme. Some anonymous writers were destined to succeed while the vast majority were providing Substack with free content, hoping to one day be able to monetize. As New York Times columnist Ben Smith put it, Substack was surreptitiously making some writers rich and turning others into “the content-creation equivalent of Uber drivers.”

The second and perhaps more fundamental problem with Substack Pro was that it contravened the company’s claims to editorial neutrality. Since launching, Substack has insisted that it is not a media company but a software company that builds tools to help writers publish newsletters, the content of which was none of their business —like a printing press for the digital age. This differentiated the company from social media platforms, which organize content algorithmically to increase engagement, and media companies, which make active editorial decisions about what they publish.

In reality, though, Substack was doing both. They were using metrics from Twitter to identify writers with a proven ability to draw attention to themselves, and then actively poaching them. Substack’s founders, a journalist and two developers, said they wanted to provide an alternative to the instability of digital media companies and the toxicity of social media platforms. And yet, the company was actively choosing writers who had come to prominence through those channels.

Substack was, in other words, skimming the fat off the top of what they called a toxic media environment all while claiming to offer an alternative. In the process, the company inherited some of digital media’s most trenchant issues. After it was revealed that Substack Pro had signed controversial writers Glenn Greenwald and Jesse Singal, a number of Substack writers voiced their opposition. Substack tried to avoid accountability for their selections by maintaining a veneer of neutrality, claiming to merely be a platform not a publisher. They were trying to have their media cake and eat it, too.

The revelations about Substack Pro led to a broader conversation about the company’s content moderation policies. At the very end of last year the company clarified their position: no porn. No spam. No doxxing or harassment. No attacks on people based on race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sex, gender, sexual orientation, age, disability, medical condition. But the company also took the opportunity to assert their commitment to free speech. “We believe dissent and debate is important,” co-founder Hamish McKenzie wrote. “We celebrate nonconformity.”

Some saw this a welcoming invitation in what they perceive as an increasingly “woke” media landscape. Dana Loesch, the former NRA spokesperson, moved her newsletter from Mailchimp to Substack, claiming that the former “deplatforms conservatives.” Writer Andrew Sullivan, who has been criticized for his views on race and IQ, moved his column from New York Magazine over to the newsletter format.

For others, though, Substack’s position on content moderation was alienating, demonstrating that the company had little interest in actively addressing some of the thorny questions about how to host healthy media communities online. Many have decided to leave and take their newsletters, and their email lists, elsewhere.

Of course, Substack Pro represents only a very small proportion of people using the platform to write. Most write brief letters for micro-communities from whom they ask for no payment. There is an intimacy in the newsletter format that is not available on social media. I love receiving the poet and essayist Anne Boyer’s meditations in my inbox every now and then. Likewise the occasional musings and book recommendations from writer and critic Joanne McNeil.

Substack does have an interest in helping these smaller-scale writers level up to taking payment from subscribers, though. Every dollar earned by a writer on the platform contributes to their revenue. For this reason, they have offered no-strings-attached grants, between $500 and $5,000 in cash, to help writers take more time to commit to building an audience.

The concept of creators earning money directly from a cohort of followers is certainly not new; Patreon, OnlyFans, Cameo, Clubhouse all work from a similar paradigm. Digital media might be moving away from a model where creators toil for free, trying to accumulate as many followers as possible and somehow earning a living through ad-revenue or product placement. We seem, rather, to approaching what Kevin Kelly calls the 1,000 true fans principle: if you find 1,000 people who will pay you for what you create, you can make a living as an independent creator.

But the company wants to do more: they want to be the future of news. In this quest, the company has become the nexus for bigger questions that will define the future of digital media. What is the line between a journalist and an influencer? Are readers consumers or fans? How do we create a shared sense of reality in a media landscape comprised mostly of individual writers and their loyal followers?

Despite the controversy, Substack will be part of this conversation.

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Government plans €10m in funding for green and digital business projects

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The Government and Enterprise Ireland are providing two funds to regional Irish businesses in a bid to help them transition to a greener, digital economy.

The Government has today (29 July ) announced it will provide €10m in funding through Enterprise Ireland to projects supporting digitalisation and the transition to a green economy.

The Regional Enterprise Transition Scheme, worth €9.5m, will provide grant funding to regional and community-based projects focused on helping enterprises to adapt to the changing economic landscape due to Covid-19 and Brexit.

Leo Clancy, CEO, Enterprise Ireland said: “The Regional Enterprise Transition Scheme is aimed at supporting regional development and the regional business eco-system, helping to create and sustain jobs in the regions impacted by Covid-19.”

Grants of up to €1.8m or 80pc of project cost are available to businesses. The projects should aim to address the impact of Covid-19 and improve the capability and competitiveness of regional enterprises.

The call for the Regional Enterprise Transition Scheme will close on 8 September 2021. The successful projects will be announced in October and all funding will be provided to the successful applicants before the end of the year.

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A separate funding scheme, the €500,000 Feasibility Study fund, will provide financial support to early-stage regional enterprise development projects.

Launching the funding schemes, Minister of State for Trade Promotion, Digital and Company Regulation, Robert Troy TD said the funds would “help stimulate transformational regional projects to support enterprises embrace the opportunities of digitalisation, the green economy as well as navigate the changed landscape arising from Covid-19.”

Minister of State for Business, Employment and Retail, Damien English TD commented at the launch that the funds would help “build Covid-19 and Brexit resilience and enable applicants to support enterprises and SMEs to respond to recent economic and market challenges which also includes the transition to a low carbon economy, digital transformation and smart specialisation.”

The Feasibility Fund is open to new projects, with grants available of up to €50,000 or 50pc of project cost and will allow promoters to test their project concept and deliver virtual or site-based solutions to their target audience.

Applications for the Feasibility Fund close on 1st October 2021.

For more information and details on how to apply for the funds, see here and here.

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CEOs told to ‘think before they tweet’ after Just Eat spat with Uber | Twitter

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Chief executives are being warned to “think twice before they tweet” after the boss of takeaway company Just Eat Takeaway was told his Twitter spat with Uber threatened to undermine the firm’s reputation.

Jitse Groen this week became the latest in a growing list of chief executives to be rebuked by customers, investors and even regulators over ill-judged tweets.

Cat Rock Capital Management, an activist investor which has a 4.7% stake in Just Eat, highlighted Groen’s Twitter battle with Uber boss Dara Khosrowshahi as an example of outbursts that damaged the brand. The investor said Groen’s tweets had partly led to the firm being “deeply undervalued and vulnerable to takeover bids at far below its intrinsic value”.

Earlier this year Groen had a rant at financial analysts on Twitter, claiming that “some can’t even do basic maths”. He tweeted that he was “amazed how bad these analysts have become … All of them mix up definitions. It’s unbelievable.”

Brand and marketing expert Mark Borkowski said Groen’s case highlighted the difficulty executives face when trying to engage with customers on the platform.

“Everyone sees Twitter as a huge marketing opportunity that can drive a business forward, and it really can,” Borkowski said. “But these bosses must stop and think twice before they tweet, as just one misjudged tweet can send their share price plunging.”

Possibly the most expensive tweets ever sent were posted by Elon Musk, the maverick boss of electric car company Tesla, in 2018. The US Securities and Exchange Commission fined Musk and Tesla $20m each after he tweeted that he had “funding secured” to take the company private at $420 a share. The regulator said the tweet, which sent Tesla’s share price up by as much as 13%, violated securities law. As part of the settlement, Musk was ordered to step down as Tesla’s chairman.

Musk’s tweets continued to anger some investors. Pirc, an influential adviser to shareholders including the UK’s local authority pension funds, last year recommended that investors voted against Musk’s re-election to the Tesla board because his tweets posed “a serious risk of reputational harm to the company and its shareholders”.

Pirc said his controversial outbursts on Twitter had cost Tesla millions of dollars in settlements, but Musk easily won the vote, and has continued to tweet several times a day to his 59 million followers.

“Twitter is all about personality,” Borkowski said. “While Musk’s tweets can be very controversial, they fit with his brand. Twitter is perfect for renegades, mavericks and disruptor brands. It’s much harder for well-established brands with solid reputations, if something goes wrong for them they risk damage to their hard-earned brand.

“People now think that to run a successful business, you have to be on social media and every brand has to have a Twitter account,” he said. “The chief executives see that the bosses of their rivals have a Twitter profile, and they feel they have to have one too.”

Borkowski said some bosses have been very successful at building a presence and personality on Twitter, and using their platforms to promote social issues such as LGBTQ+ rights and the Black Lives Matter movement (as well as promote their brand and products).

James Timpson, the chief executive of cobbler Timpson, this week celebrated passing 100,000 followers on his account on which he weaves photos of his colleagues working in shops with posts tackling tax avoidance and prisoner reform.

This week, he responded to Boris Johnson’s proposal to create “fluorescent-jacketed chain gangs” of people found guilty of antisocial behaviour with a tweet suggesting offenders should be helped into work instead.

Tim Cook, the chief executive of Apple, has won praise for using Twitter to successfully pressure the governor of Indiana into revising proposed legislation that had threatened to allow discrimination against gay people on religious grounds.

Researchers at Harvard Business School and Duke University said Cook “effectively framed the debate using social media at a time when opinions were being formed and the impact went beyond the political”.

Borkowski suggested that before chief executives tweet they should “consider whether they have the personality and temperament to get the tone right each time”.

“There is nothing more inelegant than a chief executive going after rivals publicly on Twitter,” he said.

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It was exactly that sort of behaviour that Cat Rock had accused Groen of undertaking. When Uber Eats announced earlier this year that it would take on Just Eat in Germany, Groen lashed out in a tweet directed at Khosrowshahi, accusing him of “trying to depress our share price”.

Khosrowshahi replied that perhaps Groen should “pay a little less attention to your short term stock price and more attention to your Tech and Ops”. That sparked Groen to reply “thank you for the advice, and then if I may .. Start paying taxes, minimum wage and social security premiums before giving a founder advice on how he should run his business”.

Alex Captain, Cat Rock’s founder, said: “The response should not happen on Twitter. It should happen on a credible forum with the facts, data, and analysis that the company has at its disposal.”

A Just Eat spokesperson said: “Just Eat Takeaway.com has a regular dialogue with all its shareholders and we take all their views very seriously.”



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AWS to retire classic EC2 – the compute service that started the IaaS rush • The Register

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Comment Amazon Web Services has announced the retirement of its third cloud service: the Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud, aka EC2 Classic.

A July 28 post by AWS Chief Evangelist Jeff Barr explains that the service was superseded in 2009 by Amazon Virtual Private Cloud, then again by Virtual Private Clouds for Everyone in 2013.

Barr’s post explains that customers who signed up with AWS since December 4, 2013, couldn’t use EC2 Classic unless they specifically requested it. The bulk of AWS customers will not, therefore, be inconvenienced by the service’s retirement.

Those that do use the service need to be on their toes, because AWS has set a deadline of August 15, 2022 – after which it expects “no remaining EC2 Classic resources present in any AWS account,” and all migrations to something else will be complete.

As a reminder, on October 31, 2021, AWS will disable EC2 Classic for accounts that don’t use the service and stop selling reserved instances. Barr writes that AWS will work with customers to make those migrations as easy as can be.

“We don’t plan to disrupt any workloads and will do our best to help you to meet these dates,” Barr explains.

The AWS man also reminisces about how EC2 became a big hit, fast. “We helped Animoto to scale to a then-amazing 3,400 instances when their Facebook app went viral,” he writes.

AWS has scaled things rather higher since: in 40th place on the June 2021 update to the Top 500 list of Earth’s mightiest supercomputers was a 172,692-core machine that ran for just 24 minutes in the Amazonian cloud.

EC2 was AWS’s third service. It debuted in August 2006, after the March 2006 debut of the Simple Storage Service and the July arrival of Simple Queue Service.

That all three sparked a vast and important change in business computing is not in dispute. Service providers had previously rented remotely-located compute and storage, but AWS made them more accessible and scalable than predecessors. AWS prices were also shockingly low – in a good way – and its services took off.

The Register cannot think of an enterprise computing product or vendor that has not been influenced by AWS and EC2. Makers of on-prem IT have all striven to become more cloud-like ever since EC2 debuted – both in terms of the user experience and by charging for consumption rather than up-front. Whole new software development and deployment practices have emerged to take advantage of elastic resources sold as-a-service.

EC2 has also left a cultural footprint, as the likes of Netflix realized that cloud computing offered previously unavailable possibilities.

AWS brings in more than $50bn of annual revenue, and is widely regarded as the dominant force in cloud computing.

Barr’s post states that AWS will give EC2 Classic “a gold watch and a well-deserved sendoff!”

The service deserves that, and more. ®

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