Facebook launches Bulletin, its would-be Substack killer

Note: This was originally published as the daily newsletter for the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

Three months ago, Facebook announced that it planned to offer a platform for writers and journalists to publish subscription newsletters, a product very similar to that offered by Substack, the venture-funded startup that has helped make subscription email newsletters a hot topic in journalistic circles over the past year. Last week, Facebook officially launched its new platform, known as Bulletin, along with a slate of high-profile writers, including author Malcolm Gladwell and sports reporter Erin Andrews. A blog post from Campbell Brown, the company’s VP of global news partnerships, and Anthea Watson Strong, product manager for news, said that Facebook has partnered with “a small, diverse group of voices… some of whom are up-and-coming writers looking to find and build their audience, while others already have “a long history of work and a sizable following.”

In addition to Gladwell and Andrews, the content creators who have partnered with the company so far include Jessica Yellin, a former White House correspondent for CNN; Ron Claiborne, a former ABC News correspondent; Mitch Albom, sportswriter and author of such books as Tuesdays With Morrie; and Tyler Cowen, a high-profile economist and founder of the blog Marginal Revolution. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, said in a Facebook Live audio session held as part of the Bulletin launch that he also hopes to convince local journalists to use the platform in the future. “Part of what I think we can try to do here is make a real investment in local news,” he said.

How the company will decide which local journalists to include was not disclosed, but Facebook said earlier this year that it intends to spend $5 million “to support local journalists interested in starting or continuing their work on our new platform for independent writers.” The company opened up an application process at the time, and said successful applicants would be paid a multi-year licensing fee, and receive other monetization tools and services, but would have to commit to engaging with their audience “through Facebook tools such as Groups, live discussions, and other features.”

Whether Facebook will come under fire for the writers it selects remains to be seen, but its competitor has definitely felt the heat for appealing to — and in some cases, paying — writers who have controversial opinions, or who engage in what some see as hate speech aimed at disadvantaged groups. A number of writers with Substack newsletters have quit to move to other services because of what they say is intolerance towards trans people published by the platform. Under the company’s Pro program, certain writers have gotten cash advances, which they have to pay back from future subscription revenue, and some also get other benefits, including health insurance and legal support.

Substack says it tries to be neutral when it comes to the content it publishes, and that its Pro advances are “business decisions, not editorial ones.” But one of the company’s founders also tweeted “Defund the thought police” after some criticism of its Pro program appeared on Twitter. For the most part, Facebook seems to have done its best to choose writers for its Bulletin launch who are unlikely to be controversial. While there has been some criticism of Malcolm Gladwell in the past for the liberties he takes with the research he bases his columns on, he’s a fairly anodyne choice compared with someone like Glenn Greenwald, Substack author and former Intercept journalist. Of course, the past few years have proven that almost any subject, including sports, can become controversial.

Substack isn’t the only competitor for Facebook’s new Bulletin service. Twitter entered the subscription newsletter game in January, when it acquired a company called Revue, which offers a subscription platform for newsletters (Twitter reportedly tried and failed to acquire Substack last year). Twitter clearly has the resources to compete with Substack, and possibly with Facebook as well, since it has a market value of more than $38 billion. The company said it plans to integrate Revue into Twitter in a number of ways, including allowing people to sign up for newsletters from those they follow, and even paying writers with newsletters in return for converting Twitter users into newsletter subscribers.

Here’s more on Facebook and newsletters:

Golden handcuffs: According to technology writer Casey Newton (whose newsletter is published on Substack), there is a crucial difference between Facebook’s offering and Substack. “Every article I read last week noted Bulletin’s email portability,” he writes. “But an important piece of fine print mostly got left out of the narrative: at launch, and maybe for a long time, Bulletin subscribers are only able to make purchases using Facebook’s own payment platform, Facebook Pay. And should you leave Bulletin, you can’t export those customer relationships.” Substack allows writers to export payment info.

War chest: In April, Axios reported that Substack was in the process of raising a new round of venture funding worth $65 million, which would theoretically value the company at $650 million. In a blog post, the company said that it planned to use the money to expand its program of giving writers and journalists advances (which have to be earned back from their subscription revenues) in order to allow them to quit their jobs and join the platform, as well as more fellowships, grants, mentorship programs, and other resources. The company said it also wants to invest in initiatives to support local news.

Unfair tactics: Facebook says it won’t charge writers anything for hosting their content, unlike Substack (which charges ten percent of revenues) and Twitter’s Revue (which charges five percent). Washington Post tech writer Will Oremus says that this approach “exemplifies a strategy that some critics think should be illegal,” namely undercutting rivals by offering things for free. “The world’s wealthiest companies routinely launch new products free or at money-losing costs that smaller rivals can’t manage without going out of business,” he writes. “Whether that’s an unfair business practice that merits antitrust scrutiny or just good old-fashioned competition depends on whom you ask.”

Other notable stories:

Donald Trump announced Wednesday that he is suing Facebook, Twitter, and Google and their respective chief executives Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey, and Sundar Pichai for banning him from their platforms in the wake of the January 6 raid on the US Capitol. Trump says his lawsuits will make the claim that these services have breached his First Amendment rights, and experts say they rely on the idea that the platforms “took down content under pressure from politicians, thus becoming state actors.” However, some lawyers say such a suit would likely have little chance of success.

USA Today is the latest major national newspaper to launch a pay wall: the Gannett-owned daily announced on Wednesday that it will be launching a subscription plan, asking its readers in a published note to “help support premium journalism.” The paper said that breaking news will remain free of charge, but that readers will need to pay to see investigative reporting, some opinion pieces, and immersive features. There will be three subscriptions for sale, including a digital-only tier, with a price of $9.99 per month after an initial low-priced trial perios; a digital-only tier without ads, for $12.99; and a home-delivery subscription that will include complete digital access, with a rate of $29.25.

Recurrent Ventures, a digital-media company backed by venture capital funds that owns titles such as Popular Science and Drive, is acquiring Mel magazine, a men’s health and culture publication that was recently shut down by its former owner, Dollar Shave Club, according to a report from Axios. The razor retailer funded the magazine for six years after it was created, but announced in March that it was cutting off that funding. Axios reports that about 18 of the magazine’s 24 staffers will be rehired by the new owners.

Kristen Chick writes for CJR about how years of complaints from colleagues and freelancers preceded the recent departure of New York Times photo editor David Furst. The Times editor was “known to undermine coworkers and abuse his position of power over freelancers,” Chick writes. “His conduct was no secret to top editors at the Times: in 2017, multiple employees complained about him to human resources, and by 2018, he was the subject of a probe by Charlotte Behrendt, an associate managing editor and a lawyer who handles discipline in the newsroom and has investigated recent high-profile controversies.”

Inuit leader Mary Simon, a former announcer and producer with the CBC, Canada’s national broadcaster, has been named Canada’s first Indigenous governor-general. Simon is an Inuk from Kuujjuaq, a small hamlet in northeastern Quebec, where she was born to a local Inuk woman and a fur trader father who worked at a Hudson’s Bay Company outpost. She worked for CBC North before starting a career as an Indigenous rights activist.

Gannett has doubled the number of staffers at its product-review website over the past 18 months, in an attempt to compete with Wirecutter, a similar site run by the New York Times, according to a report from the Wall Street Journal. The Gannett site, called Reviewed, is also going up against a similar product-review site called BestReviews, the Journal says, which Nexstar Media Group acquired last year for $160 million.

Juul, the electronic cigarette manufacturer, paid to take over the entire May/June issue of the American Journal of Health Behavior so that it could publish studies (funded by the company) that allegedly show its products help smokers quit, the New York Times reported. The company paid $51,000 to take control of the medical journal, including an extra $6,500 fee to have the subscription journal open access to everyone, and three members of the journal’s editorial board resigned over the arrangement, the paper said.

Twitter has lost the protection it previously had against legal action related to user-generated content in India, the Indian government said in a court filing, because the company has failed to comply with the country’s new rules on digital content, according to a report from Al Jazeera. “The filing came in a case filed by a Twitter user who wanted to complain about some allegedly defamatory tweets on the platform, and said the company was not complying with the new law that requires the appointment of certain new executives.”

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