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The Supercreator Interview: Casey Newton
"Bundling newsletters just didn't seem interesting to me. What I wanted to bundle was the reporters themselves, and find something interesting to do with them."
In Thursday's newsletter, the founder of Platformer dished on the private Discord community he recently launched with seven indie journalists, how he balances hosting a community with writing a daily newsletter and why he's getting more from members than they are from him. Here's our full convo with Casey, who shares how he selected his Sidechannel cohosts, his thoughts on diversity in media and the case against newsletter bundling.
I know it’s still early, but has the response to Sidechannel been what you hoped for when you thought of the idea?
Absolutely. The hope was that our readers would come together, talk, and give us things to think about, and they absolutely have. From our opening talk with Mark Zuckerberg to daily discussions about the subjects we cover in our newsletter, the response has exceeded my expectations.
What have you learned about yourself, your subscribers or independent media in general since launching Sidechannel?
I think there's a lot of appetite for a virtual newsroom. Before now, you haven't really been able to peek inside a newspaper Slack and see how reporters think and talk as they're working on stories. In just the first week, more than 4,000 people logged into Sidechannel. And as much as they're hopefully getting from the co-hosts, we're getting way more from them. They're giving us story ideas, challenging our points of view, and also just making us laugh. A lot of publications gave up on community over the past decade because they mostly just got awful comments from drive-by readers; Sidechannel gives me hope that we can build something lasting between readers and journalists.
Take us behind the scenes: When did you start planning Sidechannel? How did you choose the journalists to partner with? Were you already familiar with Discord or did you experience an intense learning curve?
Basically from the moment I left The Verge, I wanted to find ways to collaborate with other journalists. The challenge is that those of us in independent media are all running our own businesses, and we don't have a natural point of collaboration. One idea people are trying is to bundle newsletters together, but that just didn't seem interesting to me. What I wanted to bundle was the reporters themselves, and find something interesting to do with them.
I had been watching what Ryan Broderick was doing with his Garbage Day server on Discord and felt really inspired by it. Some days, the server is basically writing half the newsletter — or at least suggesting the subjects Ryan should look into. That felt like a perfect expression of what independent media can be in 2021: close collaboration between a journalist and their paying subscribers. I wasn't particularly familiar with Discord, but I learned by paying attention to (and eventually leaning on) Ryan to walk me through it.
As far as finding co-hosts, my criteria were basically: an independent journalist; who has a paid newsletter; who does original reporting on a defined beat; and has established themself on that beat. I started reaching out to co-hosts, and they suggested other co-hosts, and to my delight everyone we got into contact with said yes. We stopped at eight because it was an experiment and we wanted to make sure it worked at that size before adding people.
Why did bundling reporters seem more interesting to you than bundling newsletters?
The idea of subscribing to eight newsletters at once just feels overwhelming to me — it’s a ton of content coming at you like a firehose. Whereas a Discord is just something you can browse at your leisure.
Got it. I wrote an essay last year about the homogenous corporate pipeline that feeds the growing crop of independent upstarts and how this great media migration largely excludes Black and brown journalists. I noticed five of the eight Sidechannel hosts are men and almost all are white or Asian. I’m concerned Sidechannel by design perpetuates this status quo. Do you share my concern? If so, how can Sidechannel, to use a go-to tech-founder phrase, be a “force for good” in this area?
I do share your concern! And I’m glad you raised the issue. Sidechannel can be a force for good in a couple ways. The first is to include Black, brown, and other underrepresented writers as we expand. We talked about diversity a lot before we launched — I give Delia [Cai] and Anne Helen [Petersen] a lot of credit for really pressing us on this — and we agreed that when we expand diversity is our top priority.
The second way is to mentor junior journalists to get them in a position where they can be a part of Sidechannel or something like it. When I joined Substack I asked the founders if we could start a mentorship program, and to my delight they said yes. We recently wrapped up the first cohort for Substack Bridge , and I was able to work with an awesome fellow LGBT creator for several months refining his approach and building his newsletter. I can’t wait to get started with my next mentee.
Finally, Sidechannel is a two-way conversation. It’s not just a place for co-hosts to impose their view of media — it’s a place for readers to push us and expand our point of view. Our collective readership is more diverse than our hosts at the moment, and every day they open our eyes to things we’ve missed and make us better journalists. My hope is that Sidechannel becomes a force for good in part by opening up an avenue for the community to shape our journalism in ways that aren’t possible at most publications.
Have you and your colleagues set any measurable goals that readers can hold you accountable to for increasing the diversity of the co-hosts?
We have, though I don’t think we’re ready to talk about that publicly.
You also write a daily newsletter, which often breaks news and features thoughtful analysis. How are scheduling your time to meet your publishing deadline while also showing up within the community?
By frantically alt-tabbing around all day! It’s not ideal and I’m still figuring out the best way to integrate Sidechannel into my routine. But at past jobs I wasted a lot of time in Slack in between phone calls and writing assignments; Sidechannel has now become a similar place where I go to blow off steam (and chat with readers) in between things.