As a freelance writer, Hamish McKenzie used to scrabble together income based on a going rate of 40 cents a word. He was chuffed, he once said, when The Listener would pay him the grand sum of 60 cents a word.
These days you’re more likely to see his name as a subject in magazine articles - rather than as the byline - celebrated for his remarkable rise in the online publishing world as the entrepreneur who co-founded the writing platform Substack, now valued at around US$650 million ($1.1 billion).
The Listener itself this year named McKenzie as one of New Zealand’s Top 100 most intriguing people.
McKenzie lives in San Francisco these days but his back story wouldn’t be out of place as a script 600km south in Hollywood - the Central Otago boy who attended Otago University, became the editor of student magazine Critic, chipped away as a freelancer for various publications before heading overseas (Canada, Hong Kong and eventually the United States) to eventually become a key figure in Silicon Valley.
Along the way, he has worked for Elon Musk, wrote a book about Tesla, and worked at tech news site PandoDaily and messaging app Kik.
At Kik he met Chris Best and Jairaj Sethi and later, with Best (and then Sethi), formed Substack, the tech platform set up especially with a focus on writers.
On the face of it, Substack is an email newsletter platform, but McKenzie’s philosophy runs far deeper.
Substack has lured and attracted hundreds of thousands of top-end and everyday writers, espousing their views on specialist topics. The writers deal directly with their audiences, generating revenue streams in a direct-to-consumer model. It’s essentially put the power back in the hands of creatives, creating mini (and major) communities.
Substack’s growth has been phenomenal - many local writers including business commentator Bernard Hickey, sports writer Dylan Cleaver and filmmaker, writer and former TV3 journalist David Farrier use the platform, while globally it has attracted writers as varied as Salman Rushdie, Margaret Attwood and myriad journalists, broadcasters, entrepreneurs and athletes.
This week, Substack announced the next phase in its evolution - rolling out a new video creation tool which The Washington Post described as Substack taking aim at YouTube and TikTok.
In a blog post announcing the new technology, McKenzie wrote that Substack, now six years old, always planned to extend beyod the written word.
“In its early days, Substack was often described as a ‘newsletter tool,’ but that’s a misconception,” he wrote.
“The core idea behind Substack is much bigger. Substack is about creating a media system that’s based on different rules from today’s dominant platforms. It is about starting a movement away from platforms owning people, and toward people owning platforms. That movement began with writing, but it quickly evolved into much more than that.”
It should have been a triumphant week of PR for Substack - and in many ways it was.
But part of a principled approach to free speech has also led to trouble, with an article in The Atlantic headlined ‘Substack Has a Nazi Problem’.
The Atlantic reported: “The newsletter-hosting site Substack advertises itself as the last, best hope for civility on the internet - and aspires to a bigger role in politics in 2024. But just beneath the surface, the platform has become a home and propagator of white supremacy and anti-Semitism. Substack has not only been hosting writers who post overtly Nazi rhetoric on the platform; it profits from many of them.”
Atlantic writer Jonathan Katz - himself a Substacker - said he had reviewed at least 16 newsletters that had “overt Nazi symbols, including the swastika and the sonnenrad, in their logos or in prominent graphics”.
One Substack promotes the “Great Replacement” conspiracy which inspired the Christchurch mosques massacre in 2019 and other mass shootings around the world.
“Some Substack newsletters by Nazis and white nationalists have thousands or tens of thousands of subscribers, making the platform a new and valuable tool for creating mailing lists for the far right,” reported Katz.
“And many accept paid subscriptions through Substack, seemingly flouting terms of service that ban attempts to ‘publish content or fund initiatives that incite violence based on protected classes’.”
In a post last year, McKenzie wrote: “From the start, we intended for Substack to be a place where a broad array of views could find a home, including and especially those of writers with outsider perspectives. The model, where readers subscribe directly to writers and content isn’t foisted on people in addictive news feeds, makes it possible to take a strong stance for freedom of the press and freedom of expression.”
For his article, Katz quoted another post from earlier this year by McKenzie, saying it implied Subtack’s business model “would largely obviate the need for content moderation”.
“We give communities on Substack the tools to establish their own norms and set their own terms of engagement rather than have all that handed down to them by a central authority,” McKenzie wrote.
In a statement provided to Media Insider, McKenzie, Best and Sethi said: “Substack is a platform that is built on freedom of expression, and helping writers publish what they want to write.
“Some of that writing is going to be objectionable or offensive. Substack has a content moderation policy that protects against extremes - like incitements to violence - but we do not subjectively censor writers outside of those policies.”
Katz wrote: “Still, some decisions seem obvious: If something that bills itself as ‘a National Socialist website’ doesn’t violate Substack’s own policy against ‘hate’, what does?”
Stuff’s Circuit breaker
One of the great challenges of journalism is how you measure the success and output of reporters.
Writing, producing and presenting stories is far different from working in a factory where it’s easy to set, measure and maintain a consistent line of the same product, from doughnuts to door handles.
Journalism is unique in the sense that a reporter might work for days, and sometimes weeks or months, on a story, conducting in-depth inquiries and interviews, only to hit dead-ends or to find that there’s no story after all.
At a time when audiences demand rich, in-depth, accurate and beautifully told stories, it is critical reporters are given the time to focus on their craft - although there’s also an argument that some journalists need to be more attune to their output.
Stuff’s Circuit team - Paula Penfold, Toby Longbottom, Phil Johnson and Louisa Cleave (with contracting help from Terence Taylor) - has long been the envy of many New Zealand newsrooms for the time and resources they are given for indepth investigations. Their output is not prolific, but their work has won multiple awards.
Circuit earned high praise from Stuff’s former leadership team, including owner Sinead Boucher, for many years. But with a new leadership team in place, it seems the work of the unit is coming under more scrutiny.
Newsroom co-editor Tim Murphy reported this week that there are concerns for Circuit’s future.
Murphy wrote: “The programme does not appear to have published any video documentaries this year and it’s understood reforms at Stuff, splitting the new paywalled journalism for sites The Press, The Post and The Waikato Times away from the main site has left the Circuit unit in limbo. Its in-depth journalism examining important public issues is not in synch with the free site’s increasing reach for clicks with lighter, faster material.”
Sources say Circuit already has funding in place from NZ on Air and that this work will take the unit into much of 2024. For that reason, it did not apply for any funding in NZ on Air’s latest round.
It will be interesting to see whether the four-strong unit will survive in its current form, and whether the Circuit brand stays.
Stuff refuses to comment. “Out of respect for our people we do not comment on employment matters,” said a spokeswoman.
From the Facebook machine
An easy mistake to make, we’re sure. Especially when every radio station, publisher and TV company markets itself as the best.
‘Substance over show’: Agency takes aim at awards
A brief stint in hospital for some surgery last week had me contemplating the role and recognition of medical staff. I was extremely well looked after by teams of surgeons, doctors and nurses, all experts in their field, juggling the myriad needs of patients.
Since starting the Media Insider column in March, it’s struck me the sheer number of award events for media, across journalism and broadcasting (the Voyagers, and separate TV, radio, magazine and community newspaper awards); and marketing/advertising (Effies, Axis, Beacons, Pressies and Marketing awards).
That’s 10 big award ceremonies straight off the bat, not to mention the various smaller, specialist media awards.
I’m not sure even Hollywood has this many. Per capita, I’m not sure any industry does.
Now I’m all for a media shindig - and I’ll be among the first to champion the Herald’s outstanding success at the Voyagers (Website of the Year for the past four years and App of the Year for three of the past four years - go team!) but surely there’s a case to rationalise some of these 10 awards to make them a little more eminent and exclusive?
One independent media agency, D3, says it purposely does not enter awards and hasn’t done so for five years.
“These awards, while glamorous, can sometimes distract from the essence of our industry - impactful creativity and strategy. They often breed an environment more concerned with internal applause than with real-world effectiveness,” D3 co-founder and partner Alex Radford wrote in an agency blog.
“Consider the professions that form the backbone of our society - like nursing or teaching. These roles, vital and selfless, rarely receive the fanfare of awards. Yet, their impact is undeniable and far-reaching. This disparity is not lost on us at D3. It highlights a truth we hold dear - true importance and value often exist away from the spotlight of galas and ceremonies.”
D3 says it prefers to spend that time working with clients. “We believe the true measure of our success is not found in trophies but in the growth of our clients’ businesses and the development of our team.”
“Similarly, the funds that could have been spent on award submissions and ceremonies are instead invested in our team. Regular team events, professional development sessions and creative workshops form the bedrock of our culture.
“Our commitment is to substance over show, to tangible results over industry recognition.”
- Editor-at-Large Shayne Currie is one of New Zealand’s most experienced senior journalists and media leaders. He has held executive and senior editorial roles at NZME including Managing Editor, NZ Herald Editor and Herald on Sunday Editor and has a small shareholding in NZME.