Medium, Substack, and our collective need for good editors

Facts are good things, and we need more of them.

Sree’s newsletter is produced w/ Zach Peterson (@zachprague). This week, President Biden was asked about the 2024 elections at his first press conference, but not a single question about the pandemic, vaccine rollout, gun reform or the rise in anti-Asian hate.

Scroll down for Read Something; Watch Something; a weekly tech tip from Robert S. Anthony (@newyorkbob), and a special deal for Sunday Note subscribers for Social Media Weekend 2021 (#SMWKND).

TUNE IN: #NYTReadalong - our guest this week is Aimee Rinehart, Deputy Director of First Draft. She was formerly with the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and the Overseas Press Club of America - 8:30 am ET, live or later.

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A couple of weeks ago, I used this space to discuss the subscription-ification of news. A lot has happened since then. Massive layoffs at HuffPo, another “pivot” for Medium, Substack is being scrutinized at a level it hasn’t seen so far, Mel Magazine has been shut down and is looking for a new owner, and there are probably more I’m missing.

These cases are all indicative of the financial health and viability of news and analysis as a product, and things don’t look great. That financial reality, combined with the seemingly never-ending morass of well-funded (privately, of course) right-wing agitprop, doesn’t serve society well—as we’ve seen, especially over the last 10 years.

But the last month just hits different. According to this Casey Newton (@CaseyNewton) report, Medium had 700,000 paid subscribers and something in the neighborhood of $35 million in revenue. These are good numbers! And there was really good work being done by Medium-based outlets like OneZero, Zora, and more.

But, Medium isn’t seen as a journalism platform, the vision for the company is as a tech supplier, and therein lies the problem. Mel Magazine was owned by Dollar Shave Company, private equity has become a major player in the media space, and the odds of Substack starting to mandate that editors have a look at the work of their premier authors before publication is somewhere between slim and none (for now, anyway).

This anecdote from Casey Newton’s piece illustrates it perfectly:

The push into original reporting was rewarded with strong growth in paid subscriptions, current and former staffers said. But journalism was rarely at the center of the company’s marketing efforts. Employees expressed frustration that the company did so little to promote their work, hampering efforts to grow their publications’ brands — particularly during the crucial early months in which readers were forming impressions of them. 

Journalism is not anywhere near the top of the priorities list for most of these companies. Of course, major media companies are trying to turn profits, but there is an underlying, crucial mission behind it all. Venture capital-funded companies tend to be very focused on revenues, profits, scale, and eventual exit - in this case, good journalism be damned.

Substack’s recent attention paid to content moderation doesn’t exactly signal much of a shift from the Medium model.

From the company’s recent post on the topic (beware the comment section—yikes):

We believe in putting writers and readers in charge. Writers own their content and their mailing lists and have full editorial control on Substack. Readers choose for themselves which writers to invite into their inboxes and their minds. And that’s why we have a hands-off philosophy when it comes to censorship.

“Full editorial control” is pretty much where you can stop reading. The rest is basically a re-worked version of everything we’ve heard from other major platforms for years… "we have content guidelines, like about porn and hate speech…” and so on. The problem is that editing, fact-checking, and other core journalistic functions are not censorship. Let’s face it, fact-checking and/or labeling disputed content is both relatively easy and the least that can be done.

But, that’s not going to happen with Substack’s main writers. Jude Doyle (@sadydoyle), a very early adopter of Substack announced a move off the platform and did not hold back on why. The fact is that there some big personalities on the platform, and they generate a lot of money, as detailed in this great piece from Peter Kafka (@pkafka) at Vox.

Substack, Medium, and every other publishing startup are simply that - publishers. They publish content, and they take a very active role in recruiting writers, videographers, entertainers, etc, that they think can make them money. And then they play essentially no role at all once the creators are on board.

While that model is unlikely to change, I think there is a way that Substack could provide editorial functions as a service and build a few…let’s call them “islands of trust”…on the platform. There are a lot of very capable, recently-unemployed editors on the market right now, and Substack (and Revue, Medium, and many many more) could make a backend system to pair editors with publications - many of which I suspect would welcome an editor’s help every now and again.

The revenue-sharing model is already baked into the platform, and pieces that have been fact-checked, edited, and so on would be labeled and promoted as such. I would obviously much rather see these companies make broader investments in creating and promoting journalism, but I’m willing to get there step-by-step if necessary, and I’m realistic about where the money comes from.

There is so much good work to be done, so many powerful people to be held accountable, and facts to uncover, to let quality journalism be drown out by sensationalism, disinformation, and click-bait. These platforms can take steps to improve the things people consume, but I’m just not sure they really want to.

- Sree


Read Something

Amazon has a very serious problem with the way it treats its rank-and-file employees, and there is no good reason to believe the company when it says otherwise. The stories have been there for years now, but this absolutely horrifying report really drives it home.

Tech Tip: OnePlus 9 Series - Serious Competition for Apple and Samsung

By Robert S. Anthony
Each week, veteran tech journalist Robert S. Anthony shares a tech tip you don’t want to miss. Follow him @newyorkbob.

This year has been a mixed one for the tech industry. CES 2021 was all virtual, Mobile World Congress 2021, the world’s largest mobile device conference, will now be a hybrid event, but despite the lack of opportunities for one-on-one hugs and handshakes, the parade of new tech gadgets marches on.

Last week OnePlus, a China-based cell phone maker which has made inroads into the US market since it was founded in 2013, launched two new handsets, the OnePlus 9 5G and OnePlus 9 Pro 5G, both of which measure up well against their competition based on their specifications.

The OnePlus 9 5G ($729 to $829) has a flat, 6.55-inch, 2,400-by-1,080-pixel display (402 pixels per inch) while the OnePlus 9 Pro 5G ($929 to $1,069) has a more sophisticated 6.7-inch, 3,216-by-1,440 pixel (525 ppi) curved display. Both come with OxygenOS software, an enhanced version of Android 11 exclusive to OnePlus.

While these flagship units are less expensive than those from Apple and Samsung, both come well-armed with Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 central processing chips, the most powerful currently available from Qualcomm for Android phones. Both also have stellar photo and video capabilities, starting with camera systems designed in collaboration with high-end camera maker Hasselblad.

OnePlus markets these units as photo and video powerhouses, highlighting their 50-megapixel (MP) f/2.2 ultrawide rear cameras with special Freeform lenses which can eliminate most of the distortion that occurs at the edges of wide-angle photos.

Both have 48MP f/1.8 main cameras, but the one on the OnePlus 9 Pro 5G has higher-end sensor hardware that can capture 4K videos at 120 frames per second. According to OnePlus, Hasselblad helped it tweak the cameras so they capture vibrant but honest colors while minimizing image noise and enhancing night photos.

While these unlocked units are fine for US 4G phone networks, OnePlus notes that their 5G capabilities are evolving—like the 5G networks themselves. According to the OnePlus website, these units will work on T-Mobile and Verizon 5G networks, but approval for use on AT&T networks hasn’t been received yet.

As muscle cell phones go, the OnePlus 9 5G and OnePlus 9 Pro 5G offer admirable capabilities for their prices and are well-supported by third-party case and accessory manufacturers. And they won’t keep you waiting, according to OnePlus: The included AC adapter can provide a full day’s charge in 15 minutes.


Listen to Something

The United States of Anxiety is a great, often very hard-hitting podcast (hosted by Kai Wright @kai_wright) that is perfectly titled. This week they talk about anti-Asian racism, and the episode description sums it up quite well: “We’ve been here before: A time of national stress, Asian Americans made into scapegoats, and violence follows. The community saw it coming. So why didn’t everybody else?” Indeed. Listen here or on all major podcast platforms.

Watch Something

Vaccine tourism, line-jumping, and other nefariousness is hurting people of color across the country. You’ve almost certainly heard of “vaccine hesitancy” in non-white communities, but a good portion of that is almost surely down to people getting their shots when and where they aren’t supposed to. DO NOT DO THIS. Wait your turn and you will get a vaccine, there are (or will be, depending on your state) plenty of doses to go around.

Odds & Ends

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