I subscribed to Casey Newton’s Platformer last week. It was the first time I have paid for a so called “sovereign writer” since the trend took off last year. There were some fairly obvious motivations for this. First, the quality of Newton’s writing. He’s been covering the sector for quite some time now and that experience comes through. He’s probably a bit more tolerant of platform harms than I am, however, he’s not the acolyte that some would paint him as. He sees the problems they cause, but won’t be drawn into knee jerk reactions either. This later point also means that his access to the leaders in the industry is as good as it gets. They know he won’t fire “gotcha” style questions at them, and, whether it’s right or not, Zuckerberg et al. are under no obligation to talk to anyone. Just ask Parliament.
It was the launch of Sidechannel — a Discord community for paid subscribers — that pushed me into parting with my money, however.
For a long time now I’ve wanted an outlet for my interest in platforms and the impact digitisation has had on the wider economy. Reading about it myself could only take me so far. And while enrolling in a master’s at King’s has been an incredible experience, it will soon come to an end and I’ll lose the opportunity to share papers and debate with people who are interested in the same topic.
Sidechannel may not be quite as intense as the rhythm of research and seminar debates, but it’s in the same ball park. Everyone who is part of the Discord server is paying to be there, so the motivation to get value from it is real. Similarly, the total number of subscribers is in the thousands, not the tens or hundreds of thousands, so there is opportunity for meaningful discourse. What’s more the community an interesting mix of engineers, policy wonks, legal experts, designers and people who are just motivated to learn more about the platformification(?) of life. Conversation often centres around Newton’s writing, but it’s more than a comments thread as subscribers can start discussions too. And, of course, there are the live interviews.
I have been tempted to blog about the sovereign writers / indie journalists thing for a while. I think focussing the debate on Silicon Valley’s desire to undermine the institutions of journalism (however accurate that may be) fails to recognise some of the benefits the trend will bring to the wider journalism ecosystem.
I shall save that for another post, but in the mean time, I will leave you with the thought that the creation of niche audiences, anchored on the rigour of a lead journalist, adds something positive to the media landscape that didn’t exist before. If more journalists of note follow in Sidechannel’s footsteps I’m sure it will bring other readers to the table.