Casey Newton on what writers can provide their readers

We invited Casey Newton, author of Platformer, to share his insights on what writers can do for their readers during our 2021 Substack On! conference.

Platformer is a daily guide to understanding social networks and their relationships with the world. Today, it has almost 40,000 readers, including executives at Facebook, Twitter, Google, Amazon, Apple, and Snap. Prior to writing Platformer, Casey spent the past 10 years covering Silicon Valley for The Verge, CNET, and the San Francisco Chronicle.

This transcript has been lightly edited for readability. You can watch Casey’s talk in the video below.

Takeaways

  • Do work for your readers. Casey believes that building a successful newsletter is about doing a specific job for people, and doing it better than anyone else on the market. 

  • Read for people. There are more stories out there than people have time to read. By finding the most important content and synthesizing it in an original way, you have the ability to save time for readers.

  • Make math your exclusive content. Incorporating data and numbers can be a useful way of creating original content and makes your analysis stand out from other newsletters.

  • Draw for people. Illustrations allow you to explain complex ideas and concepts, and keep readers engaged.

  • Build a community. By specializing in a subject area, you bring together like-minded people who find value in communicating with others who share the same interests.

  • Do original reporting. Ask questions, think like a journalist, and tell stories that need to be told in your community.


How I got started

I write Platformer, a newsletter about big tech and democracy. I joined Substack in October after spending seven and a half years at The Verge, where I was the Silicon Valley editor. The very best thing I did for myself at The Verge was to start a newsletter called The Interface, and I want to tell the story of how I came to write it, because utility really was the founding principle.

Flashback in time: it was the fall of 2017, and I was massively depressed. My tech writing career up to that point had been mostly writing upbeat access-driven stories about the big social networks – new features they were working on, soft Q&As with executives – and by 2017, none of that felt relevant or interesting anymore. It was clearly not the most important work to be doing, but I didn't know what I should do next.

Fortunately, other journalists had much better ideas than I did. Every day I would wake up and scan Twitter, and I would see reporters at every publication writing incredible stories about the unintended consequences that social networks were having around the globe, and what governments were starting to do in response. Soon enough, I found that I was spending two or three hours a day reading this coverage, but I felt like I was doing nothing with it. This time felt like a waste, but it also seemed like it could be an opportunity.

As I was writing in my journal over a long weekend, trying to figure out what was next, the idea of a newsletter came to me. I started to wonder if I could make use of the great coverage that I was reading – organize it, give it some hierarchy, add some words at the beginning with some analysis or commentary. I took this idea to my bosses at The Verge, and they said, “Yeah, go for it.” At that time, Substack was barely in existence, so I used software from a company called Revue and got to work.

When I sent out the first few issues, which were mostly just links to stories that I thought were interesting, I paid special attention to who was signing up. For the most part, it was other tech reporters and people who worked in public relations and communications at the companies that I was writing about. When I talked to them about why they'd signed up, they told me that they found the newsletter useful.

These were all busy people who wanted to catch up on the day's news, but needed some help doing it. Without my newsletter, they would have to scroll through Twitter all day, slowly destroying their minds. Maybe they were getting some news from Facebook, or maybe they were trying to build a complicated RSS setup. There are definitely some other aggregators out there, but most of them have a broader focus than the narrow niche that I was trying to carve out for myself.

Doing a job with my newsletter

I set out to create the best resource for people who cared about this intersection of big tech and democracy, and then own that niche. While it started out as a list of links, over time I also invested more in original reporting, interviews, analysis, and commentary. That column really became the heart of what I do, even though the links remained super important to the project.

I set out to create the best resource for people who cared about this intersection of big tech and democracy, and then own that niche.

Over the next three years, The Interface attracted more than 24,000 subscribers, and those subscribers gave me tips that turned into the biggest scoops I've ever had in my career. CEOs and C-suite executives from the companies I write about became subscribers too, and they started engaging with me regularly. Ultimately that gave me the confidence to go independent and to come to Substack in October, to sell journalism and analysis directly to readers.

Today, I can tell you that nearly 40,000 people are receiving Platformer at least once a week, and I feel like I've never had such a sustainable job. Over time, my newsletter has become as much about original reporting and analysis and commentary as it is that simple list of links that it began as – but I truly believe Platformer wouldn't be successful without that list of links that I put together each day.

So, if you zoom out a little bit and look at who it seems like is winning on Substack today, it can seem like commentary is the way to win. You look at that leaderboard, and you think the way to win is, “I have a lot of opinions. I'm going to share those opinions every day, loudly at great length.”

What I want to suggest to you is that there is another path forward as you cultivate an audience for yourself. That path forward is doing a job for your readers.

What I want to suggest to you is that there is another path forward as you cultivate an audience for yourself. That path forward is doing a job for your readers. I think so much of your challenge in this period, as you're forming your publication and trying to grow it, is figuring out what that job is and how you can do a better job for them than anything else on the market today.

Job #1: Read for people

I want to go into what some jobs that you can do for people are. One obvious one is that you can read for people. This is what I do. There are so many stories every day about the intersection of social networks and democracy. I'm constantly scanning the internet and trying to find the things that I think are truly important, and then I'm actually reading them. 

Doing the reading turns out to be a superpower that you can have as a writer, because you will find that most people are not doing the reading – at most, they're scanning the headlines. Reading gives you a superpower, because you'll suddenly find that you are much more knowledgeable about the subject than you even had been before, even if this had been a point of passion for you. 

As you gain a sense of the most important subjects of the day and share that with people, you're going to save them time they are going to have to spend on other reading because of what you are doing for them. I just think that's really huge and really underrated.

Of course, it's not enough to just read the internet. You have to make sense of it – you have to cultivate a power of synthesis and a sense of proportion. When you're putting together your newsletter, you can think really hard about the story you're putting in. That's really going to matter tomorrow, next week, next month, or next year.

It's not enough to just read the internet. You have to make sense of it – you have to cultivate a power of synthesis and a sense of proportion.

And then, how do you organize the information originally? I thought I could just put a list of 10 links at the bottom, but I pretty quickly realized that I needed to give that some hierarchy, so I played around with different sections over time.

Currently, I've settled on giving people a list of stories related to governing and stories related to industry – trying to separate out government news from business news. But I also have a section called the Ratio, where I look for stories that have the potential of impacting public opinion in one way or another. 

All of those, I would argue, are doing a job for people. There is so much chaos in the world right now, just such a maelstrom of stories every single day, and people are desperate to understand, “What actually matters to me, and what can I do with this information?” Something as simple as just doing a lot of reading consistently winds up being a really powerful job that you can do for your readers.

Job #2: Do math for people

Now, let's talk about other jobs that you could do for people. A second thing you could do if you wanted is doing math for people. Math is probably the heart of all of the most successful newsletters related to business and finance.

Most companies are required to make regular public filings about their financial performance and their business prospects, and the stock market is basically a daily random number generator that you math savvy writers and reporters can use to break news and make people smarter.

There's a really great thing about math, which is that it produces original data for you. As you're sorting through numbers, you're going to have something that is exclusive to your newsletter.

There's a really great thing about math, which is that it produces original data for you. As you're sorting through these numbers, you're going to have something that is exclusive to your newsletter. A lot of writers find that these kinds of exclusives drive paid signups.

I can't say I do a lot of math in my newsletter, because I'm terrible at it, but this just goes to show you that there are multiple ways to win. If you happen to have a mind for numbers and if you really figure out what the intersection is between that and your chosen area of interest, you're going to have a really powerful newsletter. You're going to be doing work on behalf of another person who hasn't taken the time to do it themselves.

Job #3: Draw for people

Let's talk about number three: you can draw for people.

One of my newsletter inspirations before I got started was Ben Thompson at Stratechery, a legend of the field. One way that Ben has stood out since the beginning is by doing handwritten drawings of concepts like his aggregation theory or content moderation, and while it may look simple to do a great drawing – some of the drawings I see in newsletters are somewhat naive or basic – it requires you to have both artistic talent and intellectual synthesis. 

While it may look simple to do a great drawing, it requires you to have both artistic talent and intellectual synthesis.

Ben provides both. So when you come to that drawing, which isn't in every edition, Ben has done a job on your behalf. He's taken something really complicated, an abstract idea, and he's turned it into something that you can print out and hang on your wall if necessary. And again, as with doing math for people, that's something that is utterly unique to his newsletter. That winds up being a really precious thing that he can put in his arsenal and use to make his newsletter stand out.

Job #4: Build a community for people

You could also build a water cooler for people. One of the great things about newsletters is that they let us write about niches. If you work for a big mainstream publication, as I did for many years, you're always going to be a generalist. One day you're writing about Facebook. The next day you're writing about climate change. The next day you're writing a police story about some terrible thing that happened in the world. 

While that is hugely valuable work, it can prevent you from developing the kind of expertise and authority that writing a newsletter allows you to build. The thing is, if you're interested in a subject, chances are a lot of other people are too. If you can find a subject that is both really important and under-covered by existing publications, you're going to find that you have built a community. 

If you can find a subject that is both really important and under-covered by existing publications, you're going to find that you have built a community.

You will be a lighthouse that attracts people to you, because they have been starving for the kind of original reporting, analysis, and commentary about whatever you are doing. You're going to guide them to you, and they're going to find other like-minded people who they can benefit from communicating with. I think that helping people who work in the same industry or share the same passion as you do is absolutely doing a job for them. 

While we actually see a lot of commentary around this right now – I think people are getting wise to the power and the value of creating communities – we can all do a better job of figuring out how we can cultivate communities around our work. To do that in the spirit of doing a job for those people and understanding who in your reader base would benefit from finding each other through your work. 

We've seen so much of this on Substack, and people will pay for it. Heather Cox Richardson's newsletter has been so successful because it puts a powerful focus on building community and then charging for access to it. So think about community as you're building your publication, and think about it as doing a job for folks.

Job #5: Report for people

The final piece that I would suggest, and the thing that I would ask you to do as a citizen, is to report for people. You can do journalism for people in the United States. Last year we lost 16,000 jobs in journalism newsrooms. Each one of those jobs was someone who was telling stories that probably needed to be told in a community. Those jobs have now gone away, and those stories are not being told.

It's such a fraught moment for our democracy, and I believe we need as many eyes and ears paying attention to as many parts of the world as we can right now. As you are thinking about what your newsletter can do and maybe writing one more op-ed about why some obviously bad thing is bad, I would ask you to think, “What journalism can I insert into this?” 

The beautiful thing about journalism is that you don't need formal training to pick up the phone and make a few calls or to file a records request. You can just get curious about something and ask questions and report back what you find. That is such a powerful tool. If you do that, I think you're going to be surprised at how quickly readers will reward you for doing a job on their behalf.

The beautiful thing about journalism is that you don't need formal training to pick up the phone and make a few calls or to file a records request. You can just get curious, ask questions, and report back what you find.

To end, the story that I just want to share is on that note of what happens when you do reporting for people. Last month, I was the first person to publish a letter written by a Google researcher that ultimately got her fired, and it was a huge national story. Platformer was cited in a letter from Congress to Google, which was wild. More than 400,000 people read that story, and in the 24 hours after I published it, 50 people signed up to become a paid subscriber to Platformer. So I got a $5,000 raise because I broke one story.

That is such a powerful lesson, I think, to all of us about how much hunger there is for high quality news and information. All of us have the power to do it. If you follow these tips that I've laid out, I truly believe you can build an incredible publication that can do real good in the world and that can serve as your full-time job. Opinions are cheap and jobs that feel like work can be tedious, but I'm here to tell you: they can also be extremely rewarding. So good luck to you as you build your publications. The more useful you can make them, the more successful I think you will be.