What even is a newsletter? Presenting...The.Ink

Do you know the four meanings of ink?

When the Bitcoin craze got under way, I passed. I refused even to learn what Bitcoin is. (What is Bitcoin?) When TikTok came along, I passed on that, too. As it became clear that podcasts were becoming the dominant media form of our time, I avoided having a podcast. And so now, in a stunning reversal, and with a mix of hope and doom, I am starting a newsletter.

What even is a newsletter? This is one of the questions that I hope we will answer together. Mine will be called The.Ink. It debuts tomorrow and will appear every Tuesday morning, probably. To avoid humiliating my family, please subscribe.

The.Ink will investigate politics and culture, money and power, and it will tell the un-gussied truth. I also have a very important item about fish-sauce vinaigrette in the works — so it’s all very high stakes.

I have spent much of my career working for big platforms. I spent 11 years reporting for The New York Times. I now write occasionally for TIME magazine and serve as a political analyst for MSNBC. But as change gusts through the media, I have felt drawn to creating a space and community of my own. With this newsletter, I hope to create a more intimate bond with many of you who do me the honor of reading and engaging with my work.

If you’ve already signed up, please consider spreading the word to anyone you’ve ever loved, hated, or possibly gotten Covid from.

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The.Ink will run my essays on the passing scene, interviews with compelling people, recommendations of books and culture, and more. It will be powered by the Substack platform, whose approach is to help writers build small but mighty sustained communities of readers, as opposed to yelling into the vast human sea. It’s different from writing a magazine cover or doing a hit on TV. As I pondered whether to try it, three factors guided me.

First, while I have pursued a traditional kind of writing as the focus of my career, I have always also been an experimenter — and far too many of my experiments have been suffocated by gatekeepers. I tried to make a TV show. I tried to make a movie. I tried to make a web video series. If you haven’t heard of these initiatives, you will be forgiven, because most of them never got off the ground, and whatever did get off the ground was quickly brought back. I am not bitter, though I do have citrusy notes. But I realize now that, in trying to create, I often set myself up to need others’ permission. Don’t get me wrong: for a lot of my work, I rely on and even seek out gatekeepers. But I also want to explore. The.Ink will be a place to do that. Some things will work; others won’t. But I will no longer ask for the freedom to attempt.

Second, I have long sought to speak truth to power while maintaining access to powerful platforms that gives those truths reach, and it is becoming an ever trickier balance. While I have no plans to abandon those platforms, I have been listening to many of you who have advised me to form a supportive group around my reporting, writing, and thinking. I have watched as creators of all kinds turn to Patreon and Substack and other platforms to support their explorations of the world, share works in progress, and foster meaningful exchange. With the media increasingly concentrated in the hands of billionaires and mega-corporations, this frequent critic of billionaires and mega-corporations has decided to ask a community of readers to buttress my research and reporting on the world.

Third, I am concerned about social media. Recently, you may have heard from some prominent writers telling you the problem with social media is the mob’s jeopardizing of their employment. My concern is different. I’m not worried about the Twitter mob’s behavior. I’m worried about my own behavior. I’m not worried about what the public is doing to writers but what us writers may be doing to the public. Let others play victim; my fear is of being a perpetrator. Over the years, as an active social media poster, I have felt myself changing because of how the platforms work. Listening for dunking rather than for understanding. Giving in to the incentives of being “liked.” Embracing the rewards for thinking the distilled, unsubtle version of a thing and the penalties for thinking with nuance. I don’t know about you, but I have watched myself become, at times, that scariest of creatures: someone whose mind is immune to changing. As much as I love Twitter, I have found myself failing, more and more, to live up to the mantra of the late American diplomat (and mentor to my wife) Harold Saunders: “Listen deeply enough to be changed by what you hear.” During a conversation with Ezra Klein last year, I was persuaded by his notion that the dynamics of social media are all too often the dynamics of school bullying. I’m trying a newsletter, with the opportunities it affords for a different kind of back and forth and commenting and sustained engagement, to see if another kind of public conversation is possible.

Please sign up if you oppose school bullying.

All posts will be free of charge for the time being, including access to live events and more. Over time, some of that will be limited to paid subscribers, to help underwrite the reporting I do. I’m grateful for any kind of support you can offer, as I build a research and support team around The.Ink. There is even a scheme by which you can become a “founding member,” which is basically just incredibly prestigious.

As I prepared to launch this newsletter, I hit up the Oxford English Dictionary to research the word “ink” and make sure it didn’t have pornographic connotations in Albanian. (Once burned…) Here’s what I found. Ink is, of course, a medium for writing. But it is also, as you know, a liquid secreted by sea creatures to cloud the water and help them flee. Ink can refer to a component of a mill. And ink can mean a low-lying grassland prone to flooding. So, as I see it, ink is a place of vulnerability, which is where we are now. But ink is also a tool that enables the onward grinding of progress. Ink allows us to advocate for, and bear witness to, this progress. And, importantly, it is a clouding agent that distracts from what is really going on — the kind of thing I take pleasure in revealing in my writing. All of these definitions will guide this newsletter.

I don’t know about you, but I have a strange feeling about this time. It is obviously a time of despair. But, on good days, it also feels like a time of hope — one of those moments that come every so often in history, when it might just be possible to reimagine the world. This hour, defined by the stench of a dying order and, no less, by the fresh scent of a new world wafting in, is what I’m eager to explore in conversation with you. Thank you for enduring this awkward letter, and thank you for being that most marvelous of human types — a reader.