Conversations with writers who have earned their independence

#011 – How Bill Bishop cut a path from the Tiananmen Square Massacre to the inboxes of America's power brokers

Listen to Episode 11 of The Substack Podcast here


Bill Bishop, author of the Sinocism China newsletter, is special to us. He was the very first publisher on Substack and his immediate success with paid subscriptions gave us the confidence that this whole thing could work. I’ve personally known Bill for 12 years and have long been a reader of Sinocism, which, prior to Substack, Bill had been publishing for five years, first from Beijing and then from Washington DC.

As the New Yorker’s Evan Osnos has said, Sinocism is “the presidential daily brief for China hands.” It’s read by a Who’s Who list of executives, policymakers, diplomats, journalist, academics, and more. In Sinocism, Bishop curates and comments on the most consequential news of the day related to China, recently with a particular focus on US–China relations.

Last year, when Bill started telling his readers that he was going to institute a paywall, I emailed to ask if he’d be interested in being our startup’s first publisher. I was not alone my conviction that Bill would succeed with the paid subscription model. Another of his friends, Ben Thompson of Stratechery, had been encouraging him to go paid, too.  

“Ben helped open my eyes to, ‘Okay, maybe this market is finally at the point where there really is room for an individual, writers or curators, or whatever you call it, who have some following to start building a business,” says Bill. Now, five years since he started “just screwing around” with a blog-turned-newsletter, Bill has built Sinocism into a compelling micro-publishing business.

In this interview, published just as Bill celebrates his first anniversary of joining Substack, we discuss his secrets to building a great newsletter business and his fascinating career, from running video tape for news stations at Tiananmen Square during the 1989 massacre, to co-founding the financial news site MarketWatch, attempting to build a gaming business in boom-times China, and ultimately starting Sinocism.

We love Bill and, after listening to this interview, we’re sure you will too. Enjoy.

Hamish

Photo courtesy of Axios

Listen to Episode 11 of The Substack Podcast here

#010 - How Luke Timmerman created the top paid newsletter in biotech

Listen to Episode 10 of The Substack Podcast here


Luke Timmerman is a veteran biotechnology journalist who decided to launch his own subscription-based publication, The Timmerman Report, because he wanted to create a better incentive structure as a writer than advertising allows. “The advertising based model does influence the kind of content you create,” he says. “I think people are wising up to this now…The ad model just doesn’t reward quality.”

Before starting The Timmerman Report, Luke covered biotech for The Seattle Times, Bloomberg, and Xconomy. Over the years, his reporting became increasingly focused on emerging technologies and new startups. He noticed that these stories didn’t reach as wide an audience as articles on the biggest late-stage companies, but were immensely valuable for those who did read them.

“That’s how I found my place — I followed my nose for stories, and often it led me to stories that weren’t necessarily the most popular, but were super valuable to segments of the readership. And you know, I can actually make a decent business being really valuable to a small group of people.”

In this episode of The Substack Podcast, we discuss the state of biotech, starting a paid newsletter business from scratch, and Luke’s path to sustainability.

It was a fun conversation, and I hope you enjoy listening to it!

—Nathan


Listen to Episode 10 of The Substack Podcast here

#009 – Emma Beals on life as an independent war reporter in the age of ISIS

Click here to listen to Episode 9 of The Substack Podcast


First as an investigative journalist, and now as an analyst, Emma Beals has been covering the rise of ISIS and the wars in Syria and Iraq since 2012. During that time, reporting on the conflicts has become so dangerous that the nature of war reporting itself has had to change. Journalists, now targets in these wars, have increasingly turned to digital tools to augment their reporting.

In this interview, Emma tells me how she has coped with the trauma of losing friends and colleagues in the wars (she has lost count of how many), and why she continues to write about the ongoing tragedy in Syria when many people have simply given up hope. “The hope is very small, but there is space for solutions that are more just than they might be if we don’t do anything,” she says.

Emma, a freelancer, also discusses why she left a quiet life in idyllic New Zealand to pursue a career as a war reporter, why she started a paid newsletter, co-authored with Tobias Schneider, that goes deep on Syria (subscribe!), and why she called out Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey in a tweet that thundered around the internet.

Emma Beals@ejbeals

Journalists report facts, it's not their job to rebut every insane conspiracy theory that's dreamed up as a counter-narrative. We're collectively getting dumber b/c the reality-based 1/2 of the world is being asked to fact-check the fantastical half, at expense of new knowledge. https://t.co/1ALuw4INZ5

August 8, 2018
This interview was conducted by Skype over a spotty internet connection from a studio in Beirut as Emma’s iPhone battery dwindled to zero, but we got through it mostly intact. I trust you will, too.

—Hamish


Click here to listen to Episode 8 of The Substack Podcast

#008 – Judd Legum wants to save democracy with Popular Information

Click here to listen to Episode 8 of The Substack Podcast


A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or Tragedy; or, perhaps both.

— James Madison

Judd Legum founded Think Progress nearly 15 years ago and grew it into a publication read by tens of millions of people. But earlier this summer, he decided to step down from his role as Editor-in-Chief, where he oversaw 40 staffers, so he could start something new.

The goal was to create a newsletter that would explain politics not as a spectator sport, but as an important institution in which we all have a responsibility to participate. He calls it “news for people that give a damn.” The name is Popular Information.

Success in this arena is never likely. After all, hundreds of thousands of people on the internet want to explain politics to you. The vast majority explain nothing to anyone. But somehow Judd has convinced a huge audience to invite him into their inboxes four days a week. Next week, he’ll be turning on paid subscriptions.

In this conversation for The Substack Podcast, my main goal was to understand what gave him the confidence to leave Think Progress, and what hole he sees in the world that he wants Popular Information to fill. We talked about how people consume political information, how our beliefs evolve over time, and why he decided to charge readers directly instead of relying on advertisements or donors.

I hope you enjoy it!
—Nathan Bashaw


Click here to listen to Episode 8 of The Substack Podcast

#007 – Jessica Lessin, founder of The Information, shares how she built a thriving news business against the odds

Click here to listen to Episode 7 of The Substack Podcast


Jessica Lessin was a star reporter at the Wall Street Journal who had built her reputation covering companies like Google, Apple, and Facebook. It was her dream job. Until one day… she quit.

In 2013, she launched her own publication to cover the technology industry, with a focus on scoops and deep reporting. The industry wasn’t exactly starving for outlets at the time – TechCrunch, All Things Digital, GigaOm, and VentureBeat were among the many already competing in the space – but Jessica’s new venture, The Information, had a point of difference: it asked readers to pay for subscriptions, to the tune of $400 a year.

What was she thinking?

At the time, the media dynamic on the web was pulling people towards “more surface-level, less original reporting, faster-turnaround fluff,” Jessica says in this episode of The Substack Podcast. She believed there was a better way.

“There was no way that the demand for quality and deeply reported stories – stories where you’re working multiple sources over very long periods of time – it was clear that demand for that information would go off the charts too, if there was enough of it.”

In the five years since, with Jessica at the helm as founder and Editor-in-Chief, The Information has established itself as one of the world’s leading tech news outlets, with offices in San Francisco, New York, and Hong Kong, and a couple dozen first-rate reporters. It is profitable, has more than 10,000 subscribers (though Jessica won’t disclose exactly how many), and recently started an accelerator to help other budding subscription media startups. At a time when the news business is in crisis, The Information has found an exciting way forward.

This interview is rich with insight and advice from one of the most knowledgeable media entrepreneurs in business today. I hope you’ll find it as worthwhile as I did.

—Hamish

Click here to listen to Episode 7 of The Substack Podcast

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