On Serving Two Masters: Old habits die hard.

April 2, 2023

In 2002, I quit The Boston Globe to move Economic Principals, my Sunday column in the newspaper, to the Web. Those were the early days of online journalism. Mickey Kaus and Andrew Sullivan were the only two others I remember already making a living that way. EP has had plenty of ups and downs in the twenty-one years since, but none like the last two weeks.

On March 14, a friend in Chicago wrote to say that www.economicprincipals.com was showing only a “critical error.” Within a few days, an ingenious customer rep at the hosting firm rigged a fix that enabled me to post (under a false flag) the news that the EP site was “under repair.”  A day later, another friend wrote from Richmond to lamented the probable loss of the clean design of the page on which my work had appeared for many years.

He was right about that! With only a week’s warning, the hosting firm had upgraded the scripting language on all the sites it maintained to PHP 8.1. EP, and an unknown number of others, had crashed as a result. After twenty years, the Web has become a dangerous place for solo proprietors to do business.

Happily, twenty months earlier, I also had begun publishing my column on the Substack platform. The six-year-old start-up was a sharecropping system, but its terms were reasonable – Substack and payments firm Stripe between them take 14  percent of the gross. And its publishing platform was far superior to my home-brew concoction.

More to the point, the newsletter business was suddenly said to be hot.  I hoped Substack would turn out to be a livelier venue than the isolated site I have devised over the years. And so it has proved to be.

Meanwhile, I continued to publish my column on my old site as a final edition, its typos corrected, a day later than the early “bulldog” version that goes out on Substack just after Saturday midnight.  I did so because I clung to the psychology behind the model I had developed, after a bumpy start, which I conceived of as a public broadcasting boutique.

The idea was that a relative handful of generous supporters, responding to once-a-year fundraising appeals, would support the enterprise, while everybody else read for free. I fondly remember checking country reports, in the days before Google’s search engine became an advertising business. At its peak, EP had at least a few readers in 160 countries around the world.

During those first twenty months on Substack, I continued to operate under the old rules, without thinking about it very much. I wrote as I pleased. Paywalls were practically non-existent. There was too little lagniappe for paying subscribers, especially for founder. I wasn’t working for Hamish McKenzieAndreessen Horowitz and the Collison brothers, I was working for myself and my readers, whether they were paying or not.

Then came the crash.

It took more than a week to think matters through it. Serving two masters doesn’t work. Therefore, it is goodbye to public broadcasting, hello to for-profit journalism. I haven’t yet completed the move.  I don’t know what the future holds for the visionaries and venture capitalists who put Substack together, but I now know what it now holds for me. Last week I agreed to finish a book, long in preparation, that will keep EP writing for three more years, inshAllah.

So, less magnanimity, more paywalls, better and more frequent subscriber and founder reports. More thoughtful focus on economics and politics; on topics spawned by the books I have written; with occasional side-orders of attention to Boston and the news industry.

Thanks to all those who have helped keep EP a going concern. I used to be a Boston Globe newspaper columnist and author.  Henceforth I am an author and newsletter writer on Substack.

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