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Owning the means of publication: a newsletter strategy for the enshittification age

So everyone’s favourite publishing middleman Substack has unapologetically gone full in on the idea that platforming nazis is the right thing to do because “free speech”, and presumably because moderation is difficult and expensive. This places a lot of publishers – and their readers – in an awkward position if they feel complicit in enabling and enriching the far right. Because Substack doesn’t just send emails – it also provides hosting, commenting and a CMS – moving from the service is inconvenient.

Substack hasn’t yet reached the enshittification stage of making it technically impossible to export posts and subscribers, although there are a lot of moving parts. But the aim of any VC-funded, eat the world service is to make it impossible as you come to rely on it for finding new readers, or for making money.

We only have to look to the example of blogging middleman Medium to see how this might play out. Lure users in with the promise of easy content, subscription and payments management, and then force popular writers who don’t charge readers to erect a paywall.

Regardless, if you’re moving from one newsletter service to another, or you’re starting out, it makes sense to avoid relying on the whims of techbros and rapacious VC firms by owning as much of the publication infrastructure and process as possible. Even if you find an “ethical” service, there’s no guarantee it will continue to exist in five years, or that it won’t be bought out and shuttered by one of the market giants. But how to do this? One of the attractions of Substack is that does all the heavy lifting for you.

Rather than simply encouraging writers to “own” their content, it might be worth exploring the different aspects of managing, writing and sending an email newsletter to see which parts of it are controllable. Then, it might be possible to have a more robust, ethical publication system in place.

The three layers of a newsletter publication system

One way to think about an online publication system is to break it down into three layers. Understanding what these are, how much you can control within each layer, and how they relate, might help writers “own” their content, including a newsletter.

We should recognise that complete ownership is impossible: we’re always relying on a service somewhere. However, by taking control of separate layers as much as possible, we can lesson our reliance on a single service, making our newsletter more robust, and us less behoven to the whims of techbros or VC-funded services.

Layer 1: Infrastructure and hosting

Newsletter posts live somewhere on the internet before they are sent as an email to subscribers’ inboxes. Having somewhere you control for your posts to live is probably the single most effective way of owning your content. If you own your posts you can do with them as you please, before even thinking about a newsletter service.

You’ll need a domain name (e.g. thisdaysportion.com) and some hosting, or what’s commonly known as a website. Which sounds complicated. It can be, but you have options, some more prone to enshittifcation than others, but all preferable to simply signing up for a Substack account.

  • Sign up for a managed blogging service. There are lots of these out there, including wordpress.com, micro.blog and Ghost. If I was to recommend any of these, it would be micro.blog. Their main advantage is that they handle everything, including setting up your domain name. Some even offer a newsletter service, but then you’re possibly jumping from one problem to another. It should be possible to find a service that won’t allow nazis, at least, and you can still opt to use a different newsletter service.

  • Or buy some hosting and a domain name. This is the better option as your only dependency will be the company providing the hosting. It sounds daunting, but most will handle buying a domain name for you as well, and you can be up and running in a few clicks. Choosing a host is a minefield. I can recommend these hosts as helpful, reliable and not funded by venture capital (bonus: you’ll normally get some someone@yourdomain.com email addresses as well):

    • Kualo (midpriced and feature-filled)
    • Fused (more expensive and feature filled)
    • Mythic Beasts (cheap, barebones and who I use at the time of writing).

Layer 2: Writing and managing posts (the CMS)

Once you have a home for your posts you’ll need to be able to write, draft, edit, manage and publish them. To do this, you’ll need what’s called a content management system (CMS). If you’ve gone down the managed blogging service road, this will come with the package. If you’ve bought your own hosting you’ll have to install one, and possibly pay for it.

Again, this sounds daunting, but all hosting companies provide an area you login to and manage your hosting. This will include options to install a CMS by clicking a button and completing a form to provide details such as your website login credentials. It can take less than a minute, and once complete you’ll have a fully functioning website that you can login to and start writing and managing posts.

I recommend two CMSs:

  • WordPress. While you can use a hosted website service called WordPress (known as wordpress.com), it’s also possible to set it up on your own website (sometimes known as wordpress.org because that’s where you download it from). WordPress brings several advantages: it’s the most popular CMS in the world, it’s free, it’s easy to update and it enjoys a large ecosystem of plugins and themes. The downsides are that it needs some “hardening” in order to make it less susceptible to hacking.
  • Kirby. Kirby offers a great editing experience, and it’s inherently more secure and quicker than WordPress. The main downsides are it’s maintained by a single developer and it has nowhere near the volume of plugins and themes.

Layer 3: Subscription and distribution

Unless you’re up for coding your own email distribution system, you’ll need a third party to handle newsletter signups, managing your subscription list, unsubscribes and sending emails.

Broadly speaking, there are three options. Each offers a trade off between convenience and ownership.

  • Use your blogging platform’s newsletter service. As mentioned earlier, micro.blog, wordpress.com and Ghost offer a newsletter option. Whenever you publish a blog post, they can send an email to your subscriber list. They also offer a way to manage your list in your CMS, along with signup forms and unsubscribes. Obviously, this is the most convenient option, but you’re left with the problem of having to export everything if you don’t like any particular part of the service. While micro.blog may provide a more ethical service than Substack, your content and its email distribution are still tied up in the same place. However, there are ways to navigate this problem…
  • Use RSS to send posts from your website to a newsletter service. All blogs offer a post RSS feed. As I’ve discussed before, RSS is the engine of the indieweb as it exposes your posts to other services. Several newsletter providers, including Buttondown and Mailchimp, make use of this feature and offer an RSS-to-email service. micro.blog even lets you post to its social service from your RSS feed, as well as its newsletter service. This brings two advantages:
    • If you want to move newsletter service you don’t have to worry about moving your previous posts as well as they already live on your own website.
    • If you are using a managed website service such as wordpress.com or Ghost you can still use a separate newsletter service via your website’s RSS feed.
  • Use a plugin to manage newsletters on your own website. If you’ve opted to install your own CMS it might be possible to find a newsletter plugin. One of the advantages of non-managed WordPress is its large plugin ecosystem, and there are several well-established and supported newsletter plugins, including MailPoet. By taking this approach you’re removing any reliance on a large, third-party service: everything lives on your own website. The main disadvantages are that you’re still reliant on plugin authors maintaing the plugin, and making sure it’s updated and works with your version of the software you’re running.

If I was to make a recommendation here, it would be to use a plugin for smaller newsletters and a combination of RSS and a third party (probably Buttondown) for anything with thousands of subscribers. If your CMS doesn’t have an adequate plugin, or you’re not hosting your own CMS, take the RSS Buttondown road.

Conclusion (and POSSEing everything)

Hopefully I’ve demonstrated that it’s possible to send an email newsletter while retaining some form of control over your content and the means of publishing it. It is possible to free ourselves from the whims of big tech if we’re willing to resist the attraction of an initially frictionless and cheap publishing experience, such as Substack. I’d argue that setting up your own website is actually fairly easy – especially if you use a service like micro.blog or wordpress.com – and certainly worth the investment if you’re running any decent sized newsletter.

All I’m advocating here is a publication strategy known as POSSE (Publish On (your own) Site, Syndicate Elsewhere), which you can apply to any format, including newsletters and social media. As the name implies, central to this idea is having your own website with an RSS feed – a standardised, well established interface that exposes your content to other services. Once you have this in place you’re controlling your means of publication.