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Delia Cai on Substack, Sidechannel, and the Media Revolution

All that and more in our What Now newsletter.

We meet again What Now readers. Welcome back to our premium, Steward subscriber-only newsletter. Somehow it has been seven weeks since the last time I wrote this newsletter! I’m back with an interview with Delia Cai, who works in audience development at BuzzFeed and is the proprietor of Deez Links, the media gossip and commentary newsletter you might remember having featured a certain website. I spoke to Delia last week to talk about Sidechannel, the new Discord project she launched with a team of independent writers, what this whole “Substack” craze is really all about, and the ever shifting ways of measuring human attention. I have to do this again on Wednesday so stay tuned to see what I come up with!

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The following interview was edited and condensed.

I think Sidechannel is such an interesting evolution of where this past year-and-a half has been going—the newsletter-subscription discourse. What kind of thinking went into using Discord to build a community?

It was really the brainchild, I believe, of Casey Newton and Ryan Broderick and the others. I feel like Ryan especially has had a lot of practice at I think really growing a community around his newsletter. He’s sort of the veteran with Discord and is the one teaching us how to use it.

I love being on Twitter all the time, mostly just to be talking to my internet friends. It’s the tier of people who I want to chat with and hear their opinions but like, we’re not on a texting basis? But Twitter is also such a minefield. And so I think what really appealed to me about Sidechannel and coming together with all these other writers that I really admire, and sort of being able to combine our audiences on this one giant group chat, was that it was a way more intentional and wholesome and constructive place to chat about things, whether it was media gossip—which I just love in any format or forum—or like, I have a channel that’s about Peaky Blinders, because I’m dying to talk to people about that show, but no one in my normal social circles cares about it.

It’s funny, we keep making this joke, “We’re probably an editor and a sales rep away from launching a zine.'” If this were any other time on the internet, that’s what would be happening. I think the impulse towards that is very understandable because that’s just kind of, I think, the model of media that we understand and have been trained to believe is the only way things work. And so this collective—and I mean, I’m sure this is also what you guys are experimenting with at Discourse—but thinking about, what is the potential of a collective of writers that exists sort of between the lines of like, just random freelancers shooting from the hip on Twitter and amassing their own cult of personality and a publication where there’s a star editor, and it needs to achieve a certain level of scale for ads? So I look at it as an experiment. But I think it can be really valuable space, especially for young writers or writers who are new to media—I would have killed to be in a big group chat with all these really plugged-in media folks, especially when I was starting out, because it’s the best way to figure out what’s going on in the industry.

Why do you think there’s been this frenzy in media, from both publishers and platforms, around subscriptions and newsletter products and to an extent, NFTs? What do you think is driving that? Some recent examples being the Times moving Choire Sicha to run newsletters, Twitter launching its own newsletter product. Everyone’s trying to get into the newsletter and subscription game and finding new ways to sell their stuff. What do you feel like is driving that?

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that as social media has taken over our lives in the past two decades, that promise of, all the information you could ever want straight at your brain, 24/7, how could that be a bad thing? And then I think the Trump administration made it an even more stressful proposition. So what a concept to be like, OK, people actually need to limit their information intake for the most part. Social media has just gotten so impossibly noisy and uncivil and just like, a mess. And I think the impulse to kind of retreat from that or opt out of it a little bit, and only invite certain people or brands into your personal inbox, has been a big part of why newsletters are so appealing. The original concept of a firehose of information and news all the time—that’s actually not, I think, what anyone wants. So it’s taking a step back from that.

But I think it’s also coinciding with the idea that valuing things you find online or digitally has just become more of a norm. I think that’s matured from the beginning of the internet age, whether it’s Netflix no longer sending you DVDs, but it makes sense that you would just pay for shows you would see on the TV, but never actually hold, to the idea of paying for online journalism. And I think the idea of journalism is worth paying for even if you don’t get a newspaper has also been exacerbated by the Trump administration. Journalism has been making an increasingly better pitch about why you should actually pay for reliable information. So I think all those factors kind of come through. People are like, “I would pay for a newsletter from someone or a brand that I trust to send me a very curated, finishable amount of information.” I think the value of that has never been more clear. And then when you add in the very easy ways to pay, I think it simplifies everything. Because I think everyone is sort of tired of the Facebook, Twitter model of like, everything is free, but you get so much crap that comes with it.

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