Audience Engagement Digital Publishing
3 mins read

Substack’s newsletter app: One step closer to becoming a publishing platform?

For some, it’s a convenient way to organise and discover newsletter content, for others, it turns Substack into just another walled garden.

Newsletter company Substack has released a newsletter app on iOS that lets readers view all of their Substack subscriptions in one place.

The app gathers users’ newsletters into a dedicated inbox, alongside a discovery tab that will help readers find new publications.

For some, it’s a convenient way to organise and discover newsletter content, for others, it turns Substack into just another walled garden.

The Substack app

  • Substack announced its new iOS app earlier this month, describing it as ‘like your email inbox, but better’. Rather than landing in a user’s regular email inbox, the app brings all Substack subscriptions into one place, delivering a ‘focused place to read’.
  • The app is primarily geared toward the needs of readers. Discovery features make it easier to find new writers on the Substack platform. And, as well as text, the Substack app also supports background podcast listening; video embeds; and comment threads updated in real time.
  • In its launch statement Substack said that writers will still retain ownership of their content and mailing lists, but that the newsletter app will provide a more reliable delivery mechanism, avoiding spam or promotions folders. It also gives writers access to multiple media formats.

Intentional reading

  • Since it launched, Substack has always positioned itself as an antidote to the attention economy that rewards content creators for attracting eyeballs not delivering value. Its free platform enabled writers to be rewarded with direct payments from readers, and for readers to be able to control what they read.
  • Launching the app, Substack’s founders described it as being like Google Reader, an RSS aggregator that let users curate their own content feed until Google mothballed it in 2013. Co-founder Hamish McKenzie took to Twitter to promote the new app as a way to return to that kind of intentional reading.

Using it makes me feel like a reader again. It’s where I read my favorite writers at their best.

Platform ambitions

The appearance and functionality of the Substack app have attracted very little comment, but that doesn’t mean the launch didn’t elicit strong opinions. Several commentators have written at length about how the app has revealed Substack’s ambitions to become a publishing platform.

Adam Tinworth highlighted the difference between the new iOS app and Google Reader; rather than being a reader for any website or blog, this app is designed for Substack newsletters. It is possible to add third-party RSS feeds to your Substack reader, but it is not a particularly user-friendly process.

The app install initially defaulted to turning email receipt off, stop users receiving Substack by email. Tinworth says:

All of a sudden, instead of being an email service, Substack becomes a content app on your phone or iPad.

Substack changed the default setting, letting users set email notifications later. But the charge of abandoning its friction-free roots in email and switching to a platform play has made some commentators uncomfortable. Ernie Smith of the Mid Range newsletter wrote ‘it puts up a fresh barricade to the openness of the open internet.’ He said:

The problem here is that Substack is finally starting to put up gates on the walled garden it created around the open platform.

Writing on his own Substack newsletter, Platformer, Casey Newton said that if the Substack app only sees mediocre success it won’t change much for readers and writers. But he worries that if the app is a hit it could shift power away from readers and writers to the platform. And he says:

The last time that happened, we got Facebook and Twitter, where it was more or less impossible for writers to make a living.

Newsletter app

This piece was originally published in Spiny Trends and is re-published with permission. Spiny Trends delivers updates and analysis on the industry news you need to stay on top of if you’re running a media and publishing business. Subscribe to a weekly email roundup here.