Deez Interviews: Aleksander Chan, on Discourse Blog’s journey and identity as a newsletter + how “it feels purer” this way

This week’s interview is with Discourse Blog’s Aleksander Chan, who talked to us about launching the political blog earlier this year with his ex-Splinter crew, parsing a new identity, and charting out Discourse Blog’s brand new paid subscription model, which debuted this week. Enjoy!

You and ex-Splinter staffers launched Discourse Blog this spring, just five months after Splinter shut down — how did the idea to band together to make a blog and put it on Substack come about?

The whole thing happened kind of accidentally on purpose. We all kept in touch after Splinter was shut down, texting daily about the news, talking about how we would have covered stories, figuring out what headline we would have used. There was a lot of restless energy, especially once the Democratic Primary started really heating up, which was what we had spent years preparing for and then suddenly had no outlet to talk about what was happening. 

Cut to March, and we kind of on a lark decided to throw some stuff up on a Wordpress site, just for fun. But then the feedback was so positive and welcoming! I was really surprised. That got my editor brain working again, and I started thinking about how we could maybe try and do this thing for real. 

That led us to Substack. We decided to give it an honest go for a few months, see how many subscribers we got, and then decide if we wanted to ask people to pay. It’s been going so much better than I think any of us could have expected. 

When Splinter was still live, there was a lot of discussion about the site's identity — as then-EIC Dodai Stewart explained in 2017, it wasn't just the "new Gawker" or Fusion's non-video side. I'm curious about how you and the team have approached carving out a separate identity now for Discourse Blog.

We still write about a very expansive idea of “politics” and in our voice — aggressive, unsparing, a little deranged, hopefully occasionally funny. A big part of this is going to be deciding, basically every day, what we want it to be, and that’s very liberating. 

But now that our primary delivery method is through email, it’s completely changed how we think about being a publication. We publish significantly less than we did at Splinter, where some days we would publish 30+ posts a day with an eight-person staff, which is insane. We don’t have to do scale and rack up pageviews so we can sell programmatic ads. 

Our audience is much smaller, too, but it’s a passionate audience that actually wants to be there, which is so wild to me. It’s all just...less. We’re doing less! And it’s good, because now we can exclusively do posts we feel good about. It feels purer.No more bullshit posts we have to do to meet our numbers to stay alive. I think it’s a much healthier way to think about publishing. 

Part of these past few months has been all of us unlearning those habits ingrained in us from the start, of constantly feeding a beast that never gets full. It doesn’t need to be this big thing, it can just be small and sustainable. 

What’s your day-to-day like as a co-owner?

We are all equal owner-operators in this venture, and we split the revenue equally. We’re all playing to our strengths, I think, and I also think we really cut down the learning curve by having already worked together. It was really easy to get back into a rhythm again. 

My role is mostly business/operations/strategy — figuring out how and when we make money, how we grow and the things we need to do that, working with media outlets to promote our work (hello!), and all the nitty gritty day-to-day publishing questions, like how often and when we post, what posts are paywalled and which to keep free. 

I do very little editing anymore; that’s mostly Jack Mirkinson, who was the deputy editor at Splinter and is much, much better at editing than me. My days involve a lot of emails, phone calls, emails about phone calls, and living inside Google Docs. It’s a lot of admin! For example, this past week I talked to our accountant about tax stuff (fun!), fleshed out some rollout plans for when we turn on paid, talked to our editors about our story lineup, worked on updates to our About Page, and put together a messaging guide for how we want to communicate the paid subscription launch. Doing all this stuff lets everyone else focus on writing and editing and doing their best work (I hope). 

What I do now is not too, too different from my EIC job. Being an editor-in-chief is a little different from one company to another, but where I used to work (Gizmodo Media Group), all those sites are run very lean (and punched way, way above their weight), so editors-in-chief have to work a lot with every department in the company in addition to setting the editorial vision for their site. 

So I already had experience working with business development and sales teams, and talking to product and tech and engineering people, and understanding the various legal mechanisms to be aware of. We also had really great editorial leadership for most of the time I was there that took time to guide us through everything; I had a lot of autonomy but also full support to grow. I learned a lot about how a media company is run and makes money (and loses money) doing that job. So now I’m just taking everything I learned and trying to build all that up for Discourse Blog (obviously in a very pared down way). There’s still so much I’m learning and doing for the first time, but I feel really fortunate to have learned enough of the basics that I can have useful conversations with all the people you need to be able to talk to to run a publication. 

This week, Discourse Blog is rolling out its paid subscription model. What was the thinking in waiting until now to do so? And do you really think the Substack model will work for a whole staff of writers vs. just one single writer and their newsletter?

We’re really fortunate to have so many successful Substack newsletters to draw inspiration from, like Emily Atkin’s Heated, for when to start charging for subscriptions. And the Substack leadership has been very supportive in that journey as well. 

Basically, the goal is to give people a strong sense of what you are before you ask them for money. That made sense to us, and also gave us an out if we decided we didn’t like the experience — if we hated it, we could stop and not have to worry about all the people who had already paid for a subscription. These first few months have also given us the time to really find our groove in our new world. 

And that’s the question, right, whether we can make enough from this to support ourselves? We’re going to find out. I mean, there are definitely Substacks running right now that are fully supporting their staffs, but that seems like an outlier at the moment. I think our ambitions are appropriately modest at the moment — like, no one is thinking we’ll all be making our Splinter salaries again. (But God, wouldn’t that be nice?) Right now we’re just hoping to make enough for everyone to get a few hundred bucks a month. I consider it a success the second our first subscription comes in. We’ve been surprised every step of the way so far, and we’re definitely open to being surprised again. 

Finally, what are three recent editions that you think best represent what Discourse Blog has to offer in the political journalism scene? 

Who Gets to Be Free Right Now? By Samantha Grasso

Chuck Schumer Is a Clown by Paul Blest

They Can't Even Fire Us Right by Jack Crosbie 

Don’t forget to follow @aleksnotalex on Twitter and subscribe to Discourse Blog here.

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