A song to read by: "The Deadbeat Club," by The B-52's
What I'm reading: "God Spare the Girls," by Kelsey McKinney
Starting over, from the beginning
I know what you must be thinking: “Wow, Mark must really love moving newsletter platforms.”
Well, you are mostly wrong. I will admit that, for some reason, I have always loved the idea of starting over: When I was in elementary school, I used to infuriate my brother because I insisted on restarting our Pókemon Red campaigns nearly every day. Yes, my life with Charmander suited me just fine, but could I be happier with Squirtle? The thrill of the path not taken, as they say!
But, generally, I take no pleasure in migrating my dozens of posts, updating all the links, reformatting all the graphics and performing all the other attendant labor required to move from platform to platform.
When I left Substack, I did so for a variety of reasons, some ideological, some technical — but mostly because I thought I had outgrown it.
I had started Medialyte on a whim, locked in a broom cupboard of a Chicago tinderbox in the early days of the pandemic. After a year of writing, refining my focus and ironing out my needs as a newly christened newsletter moonlighter, I wanted a platform that felt better-suited for the long game.
Substack was my foot in the door, but Ghost would be my forever home.
Giving up the Ghost
However, in my short time with Ghost, I have run into a number of challenges. First, the price. Using Ghost Pro, which holds your hand and essentially takes care of all the technical labor for you, costs about $100 per month.
Given that I had no plans of throwing up a paywall and running advertisements felt like the short road to ethical quagmire, I boiled my options down to two choices: Ask for reader donations or find a cheap alternative.
I quickly abandoned the former option, as the financial gymnastics required for such a solve gave me a headache. (A key theme of my newsletter misadventures is my overarching desire to devote as little time as possible to maintenance or anything unrelated to writing.)
Then, in what felt at the time like a stroke of luck, a reader suggested I try a service, which I will call Poltergeist. For an upfront fee and then $5 per month, the service would essentially “self-host” for me. If you are technically savvy, you can host your own Ghost website for free, but for the rest of us, this hosting-by-proxy service seemed like a godsend.
However, I quickly found out otherwise. By ending my Ghost Pro membership, I had forfeited the Ghost customer service, which had been incredibly helpful. In its place, I had only the single person running Poltergeist, who presumably lived somewhere in Timbuktu, because they only replied to one email a week, at around four in the morning.
So, when I began to have technical problems, I reached out to my liaison, only to be met with silence. In the spirit of bootstrapping, I underwent what for me were some truly herculean technical efforts, combing through my email DSP and coordinating with my email service provider to try and get to the root of my problems.
My Poltergeist guide said, in fewer words, that troubleshooting was not their problem, and my ESP was similarly unhelpful, pointing out that if I wanted to speak to someone on the phone, I needed to raise my subscription tier.
So the problem persisted, and still persists to this day. Despite my number of subscribers growing, only a fixed number of you—1,248 to be exact—have been receiving my emails. I have been unable to solve the problem, and I have run out of patience sitting on my hands while two technical support teams trade my service requests back and forth like a hot potato.
Compounding the issue, I had multiple readers mention that my Medialyte site inexplicably failed to load for them, or that my emails only occasionally found their way to the appropriate inbox, or that the site failed to show up on search. No less than Hamish McKenzie himself pointed out to me that the header bar at the top of my site should stick, not drift down as you scroll.
In short, the number of technical issues, the lack of expedient ways to solve them and the general sense of powerlessness I have experienced in the last eight weeks coalesced into a very strong urge to leave, regardless of how inadvisable such a hasty migration might be.
I should be perfectly clear: none of this fault lies with Ghost. This may be my nostalgia talking, but my stint as a Ghost Pro member was the happiest time of my life. Everything was simple, nothing hurt. But it made no sense for me to foot a $1,200 annual bill to power a free website, and the d.i.y. solutions left much to be desired.
I have spoken with the cofounder of Ghost, John O’Nolan, and I believe he and I would arrive at the same conclusion about my tenure on the platform: It is simply not meant for users like me. Ghost caters to highly technical individuals or those with the pockets to pay others to do their tinkering for them.
I imagine with a day or two of concerted effort I could get to the bottom of my problems, but the whole point––motif alert!––of my newsletter was the writing, the thinking, the interviewing and the joking, not chasing around support teams reluctant to help me because I paid too little.
So, why Revue?
I will admit: I flirted with the idea of returning to Substack. However, I ended up choosing Revue for a number of reasons. First, a few tiny, practical ones: Revue is free, and it takes a smaller percentage cut of subscription fees, should I ever want to monetize.
But here are the main reasons.
I have realized I have less of a need for SEO optimization than I thought. I left Substack, in part, because I knew having a fixed website and domain would help me accrue more web traffic over time.
However, I have realized that I will never flip Medialyte into some sort of standalone publication, so its future SEO capabilities are of little importance. As long as I am capturing emails and able to take them with me wherever I go, I have what I need.
Yes, it would be nice to steadily build my SEO and attract more subscribers via search, but the tradeoff for that, of having to deal with a platform natively built as a blog rather than a newsletter service, was not worth it. I’ll take a small hit to my SEO if it means I get peace of mind and my newsletter list.
Second, Revue is owned by Twitter, and I do most of my distribution on Twitter already, meaning there are nice efficiencies in that department. Soon I will be able to highlight my newsletter on my Twitter page, giving me a double-dip in exposure.
Also, while I do not know this for sure, I imagine Twitter functions like other social media, in that it rewards users who use more of its tools, like Instagram does. So, there is a non-zero chance that by hosting my newsletter on a Twitter-owned service, Twitter gives Medialyte a little boost in visibility.
Plus, call me sentimental, but of all the social platforms out there, Twitter has a track record of being the least untrustworthy. It knows that it owes much of its prominence to its status as a homebase for journalists, so it has avoided shaking the tree too much. Jack Dorsey seems unhinged, but in the fashion of a chaotic neutral. In short, if I had to gamble on one social platform, I would gamble on Twitter.
Finally, variety is the spice of life. I write about newsletters for Adweek pretty frequently, and I have become somewhat of a credible source on the medium. As such, I think it behooves me professionally to have firsthand experience with three of the most prominent newsletter platforms.
While I could have just returned to Substack, I thought I would use this opportunity to learn about another product, giving me a better sense of perspective on the newsletter realm as a whole. I figure my SEO is already shot, so why not have a little fun with it? Nothing will change for readers, except the formatting might look a little less sophisticated.
But ultimately, I have very little to lose and a tiny bit to gain, so why not? Like I mentioned at the beginning, I really do get a kick out of starting fresh.
Some good readin'
— I rarely read sports writing, but this piece perfectly captured the excitement of the last few weeks of the basketball season. (Yahoo Sports)
— I am happy to share that I am a member of the new Zenith Cooperative, a mentorship group for early-career journalists, and we were featured recently! (Study Hall)
— Is it just me or is Harper's having a moment? This piece about why liberals have embraced history, traditionally a conservative field, is so good. (Harper's)
— I have long been suspect of Ziwe, and this piece nails why. (New Yorker)
— This article from Rebecca Jennings is actually about me! (Vox)
Cover image: "Landscape with the fall of Icarus," by Pieter Bruegel the Elder