After seven great years at The Verge, I’ve decided to take a flying leap. Today I’m announcing Platformer, a tiny media company dedicated to covering social networks and their relationships with the world. In this post, I’ll tell you why I think the world needs a publication like Platformer — and how you can help me in my mission of holding the world’s most powerful companies to account.
I’ll start by saying that Vox Media is — by far — the best company I’ve ever worked for. Jim Bankoff is the smartest and most supportive CEO in media, and I’m more than a little sad to be giving him up as a leader. Helen Havlak, Nilay Patel, and Dieter Bohn, my bosses at The Verge, made huge investments in my professional development, gave me unmatched creative freedom, and became incredible friends along the way. Happily, I’ll retain the title of contributing editor, and I look forward to publishing future columns and features with the Verge team.
So why leave?
One, journalism — and the democracy it supports — have suffered greatly in recent years from mass layoffs and under-experimentation in business models. By going independent I hope to demonstrate that independent, reader-funded reporters can survive and even thrive, breathing new life into a profession that is bleeding out in no small part due to the platforms I cover.
Two, years of writing a daily newsletter have convinced me that smart people crave an alternative to getting their news from giant technology platforms. A publication that covers tech companies aggressively, but does not depend on them for traffic or advertising revenue, may be able to see them with more clarity — and report on our entire information sphere with more independence and grit.
I’ve been enchanted by newsletters since I began reading Matt Levine and Ben Thompson years ago. In 2017 I launched a newsletter of my own, The Interface, and in 570+ issues I’ve chronicled the collisions between tech platforms and our democracy.
More than 20,000 tech workers, journalists, academics, and policy makers have relied on it for sharp, even-handed analysis of the issues facing big platforms, along with expertly curated links highlighting top stories about governing and industry. (Also for those good tweets at the bottom of each issue.) My analysis is driven by my own reporting, which features interviews with the relevant players on all sides, and at every level — from the most junior contract workers all the way up to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
Working together, reporters and their readers can shake the industry. Last year, your tips led me to a year-long series on the secret lives of content moderators in America. After I wrote about moderators’ struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health consequences of doing the job, one of Facebook’s biggest vendors quit the business entirely — and Facebook agreed to settle with its workforce for $52 million.
Something special happens when a publication shrinks down all the way to a single reporter’s point of view. The publication feels more trustworthy: you know who the writer is, and where they’re coming from. It promotes expertise: the reporter is free to explore their given subject at great depth, sharing what they learn in an iterative way. And because their publications are about something specific, they can create real communities. Intimate, fascinating, generative communities.
The launch of Substack in 2017 has made turning a newsletter into a business radically easier. It has been thrilling to watch reporters like Judd Legum, Emily Atkin, Alex Kantrowitz, and Anne Helen Petersen turn their journalistic passions into independent businesses. I’m so grateful to be able to have learned from their experiences to date, which have informed and hopefully improved my own tiny media company ambitions.
For the past few months, I’ve been building Platformer, a new publication about tech and democracy. A platformer is a video game in which the character leaps from surface to surface, dodging various obstacles along the way to reaching their goal. That more or less describes my life as a writer on the internet over the past decade. But it also feels like as good a metaphor as any for understanding life online as this decade unfolds.
Platforms like Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and TikTok offer us convenient places to talk, work, and entertain ourselves online. Billions of us spend hours each day hopping from one to the next. But like characters in a Mario game, we occasionally find ourselves crushed under these platforms — or even thrown off them entirely.
Lawmakers are now investigating tech companies’ size, power, and business practices. But because Big Tech is run by a small handful of people, some of whom have near-total control over their businesses, public pressure is often the only immediate lever that society has to push them to do the right thing.
Platformer is dedicated to the proposition that the world’s most powerful companies — and everyone affected by them — deserve a publication that goes narrow and deep. At least four days a week, it will appear in your inbox with everything you need to know about the events, trends, people, and companies at the intersection of technology and democracy. My hope is that it will leave you better equipped to make decisions about products, policies, communications, regulations, and law — whether you're a decision maker yourself, or simply a citizen of our world committed to remaining informed.
To fulfill that mission, I need your help. Anyone can subscribe to Platformer for free, and receive one weekly edition featuring my original reporting and analysis. When I launch October 5, the first two weeks of coverage will be free for all to read.
For the full experience — four issues a week, plus occasional bonus issues — I’m asking you to support me directly, paying $10 a month or $100 per year. If you work at a tech company, I encourage you to expense the cost. Your boss will!
In addition to being able to read Platformer via email and on the web, you’ll get to participate in subscriber-only community threads to discuss the big issues of the day. In the future, I hope to bring you a podcast and live events. My goal is that Platformer comes to feel more valuable to you over time.
And for those who would like to make a ridiculous contribution to independent journalism, Platformer also offers a Mystery Tier, at $100 a month or $1,000 a year. Most perks included within the Mystery Tier are revealed only upon subscription, save for one: for every subscription to the Mystery Tier, I’ll provide 10 free subscriptions to Platformer to people who otherwise would not be able to afford it.
As excited as I am to build Platformer, I know that white people — and white men, in particular are overrepresented in the paid newsletter industry. For reader-supported journalism to have the impact I believe it can on the world, it needs to become much more inclusive. That’s why I’m committing to spending at least two hours a week working with other independent journalists who have started down a similar path, or would like to.
When I told Substack I wanted to volunteer my time, the company agreed to spin up a mentorship program that will connect me and other writers to anyone else interested in reader-supported journalism. I’m particularly excited to volunteer with writers of color and those who, like me, identify as LGBTQIA+. (I'm gay!)
As a volunteer mentor, I’ll share what I've learned, help reporters craft their offerings, and — as I have been proud to do every day in The Interface — promote their work. If that could be useful to you, please get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org.
One of my favorite activities in quarantine has been to watch old seasons of Survivor, a show in which desperate people scheme to get ahead in ever-harsher and more unpredictable conditions. Much of the drama in later seasons involves searching for a coveted hidden immunity idol, possession of which prevents the bearer from being voted off the show.
For the most part, contestants hang onto any idol they find for as long as they can. But every once in a while, a contestant gives an idol to someone else in order to advance their own game. Sometimes this turns out to have disastrous consequences, as the remaining players conspire to vote them out soon after. (Sorry, JT.) Other times, though, giving up an immunity idol has proven to be the only way to stay in the game.
During a time of mass layoffs in the media industry and chaos in the world at large, a job at The Verge has provided me with a tremendous level of security and opportunity. Giving it up during a global pandemic, on the brink of an election that will change the course of history, may prove to be a blunder.
But I can’t stop thinking about a world in which we blow up media companies into their smallest constituent parts — individual reporters, aggressively working their beats, for an audience of paying customers grateful for the work — and allow them to rebuild from the ground up. A world where hundreds of new publications are born, and thousands of journalists are once again employed — in jobs that only their readers can ever take away from them.
I’m ready to find out if such a world is possible, and to do my part to make it happen. And I'm excited to act not as a traditional founder or executive, but as a reporter — bringing you stories of the biggest social networks and tech platforms, and the outsized role they play in our lives.
I don’t know for certain that Platformer will succeed. But I do know we’ll never have the journalism we want until more reporters can start making it on their own terms. This feels like the path with the most heart, and I'm taking it.