How to start a Substack newsletter

In March, I started The Planet newsletter, and I'm looking back at an exciting journey.

In mid-March, the snow started to melt. It was still a meter high in some parts of Ottawa, but here and there, big pools of water appeared that showed beautiful reflections of the still bare trees and the blue skies. I remember how excited I was about the change of season. The Canadian winter is so much longer than the often snow-less Dutch ones on my island. I looked around for the first flowers but couldn't find them yet in mid-March. So fresh tulips from the flower shop soon brought spring as well as Dutch memories home. 

For those who follow the daily journey of this year's events in the last 52 days of 2021, we arrived in Week 11, which started on March 15. For today, I will not recall historical events in faraway places. Instead, I will stay at home. The story begins at precisely the spot where I am sitting now. I remember how I was reading tweets and suddenly ended up reading my first Substack newsletter. 

Substack and the revival of the newsletter

I had never heard about Substack and had utterly missed the revival of newsletters per email during the pandemic. But, of course, I knew about newsletters from the early days of digitalization, some 30 years ago, when we all started with our first email accounts, which was likely a Hotmail address. Since then, we moved on, got our Facebook accounts, followed by other social media and the joy of having that virtual world in your smartphone apps. But then, quite recently, there was suddenly the revival of the good old newsletter. Not much different than the paper version that I published as a backpacker in the 1980s: I wrote a letter, photocopied it, and sent it in envelopes to friends at home.

Sending out the first Substack newsletter

I liked the Substack concept, and soon I was working on my first newsletter. I thought of a name, worked on a design for a logo, and sent out a tweet announcing that I would start a newsletter about the planet, which you know by now, was named The Planet. So, in week 11 of this year, I send out the first newsletter to the first subscribers. This was the first version of the logo:

You may have missed that first newsletter (which is likely, only a few hundred people had signed up for the free version, and a handful of friends was kind enough to take a paid subscription); therefore, I will use the rest of today's post to share what my ideas were then. 

Tomorrow, I will be back with the world news of Week 12 and stay away from my tiny corner of the world where I wrote the first 'The Planet' newsletter. My last thought before I start pasting in the central part of the first newsletter: after just rereading it, I believe that I did stick to the concept that I worked out in those few days in mid-March; I would love to hear your thoughts.

The beauty of our return to newsletters

Oh, and one more request: you can always contact me for suggestions and comments; if you don't want to give a public comment, just reply to the email, many readers do so. It's the beauty of our return to newsletters where, after all the complex social media apps, we are back at the basics of writing letters to each other. I have always liked letter writing.

This is what I wrote on March 17:

“For a newsletter named 'The Planet,' you may expect me to write about some of the most significant challenges: climate change, biodiversity loss, water, food, energy, and related problems that we have to face on this rapidly changing planet. There is a lot of confusion about these issues, and part of that confusion is fabricated by those who prefer to keep us ignorant of the existential threats that we should urgently solve. 

I will update you on the news and write about the background stories, the available solutions, and why politicians (whatever their political background) don't always choose the most logical path out of this mess. When you lose hope, I will tell you that it is not too late to take meaningful action; we can still avoid the worst-case scenarios. But when you forget about the urgency, I will share stories to remind you that we have no time to lose. The challenges of our time are very diverse but are often more connected than you would have expected. I will share a wide-angle view, and we will follow the connections from one issue to the other. 

I will share positive stories about local initiatives, showing what you can do, and talk about technological innovation. Still, we won't get anywhere without significantly raising the ambition at the national and international level. We live in an exciting time of opportunities; building back better, the U.S. is back on board for climate action, and the critical COP26 will take place in Glasgow in November.

And what else?

These threats and opportunities are what motivated me to start this newsletter. I have worked most of my life on environmental and security issues, and I have seen how these have become increasingly intertwined into planetary security challenges. 

But if we only look at our planet through the lens of climate change and the loss of nature, we miss an essential part of the story. We often admire anything fragile; we see its beauty and want to protect it. It is also a way of looking at our planet: delicate, beautiful, and in need of protection. I have increasingly changed my focus from the threats to our world to what is at stake. Nowadays, I focus more on the beauty of wildlife, forests, or oceans in my public speaking. Remembering what we risk losing motivates us to preserve all this for the next generation. 

I mentioned the threats and solutions, mixed with reminders of our planet's beauty. Still, that is not enough to tell the whole story. The stories of our times on this planet will mostly be about us. We live in the Anthropocene, the new geologic epoch that is all about our impact on this planet. Therefore I will also focus on us. Not just the burning of fossil fuels, but about all kinds of aspects that are part of the story of who we are at this point in history. My writing about history, archeology, travel, science, or art will often relate to the core planetary challenges. I share, for instance, examples of art about climate change in a separate Twitter account called @artforourplanet.

Our journey

And that is where you can play a role. For those who come on board, we are at the beginning of a journey. I will count on guidance from you. In the more than ten years that I have been active on Twitter, I have always enjoyed the many suggestions that followers have sent me. And I have tried to find and create the most appreciated content. 

Over the years, being active on Twitter changed from sending information to being part of a vibrant community. Many of my tweets are the result of suggestions by Twitter friends that feel part of this community. This approach has changed my tweets significantly. Every January, I take some time to make a list of issues that you care about, a process that involves a lot of direct communication with hundreds of followers. Based on your reactions, there is now more focus on positive news, innovation, solutions, and hope. And increasingly, there is more room for all kinds of other topics. Some will be close to our changing planet's theme, like nature, resources, biodiversity, or pollution. Other posts will have no relation at all to the changing world but are just fascinating to share.

If Twitter is any guidance on where this will go, it may get more personal with travel experiences, photography, or memories. Again, we are on this journey together. You can hit the brake, steer me in other directions, or encourage me to dive deeper into a specific subject. I am used to that, and I will search for a middle ground between different requests.

I plan to write regularly, and I will make sure that there will always be some content freely available in front of the paywall, but there is also the opportunity for paid subscriptions. I'm trying to find a balance here: on the one hand, I don't think anyone should write for free, but on the other hand, I don't want to deny access to those that can't subscribe. The paid subscription will give exclusive access to everything I publish. It will also provide the option to comment; to access the discussions where you can contribute; in short, that is where to find the community. 

I look forward to this journey and count on your support. While writing these first paragraphs, I already received some first suggestions and supportive comments. Thanks, I do appreciate that. You can also contact me via direct mail on Twitter at @alex_verbeek, on Instagram via @alexanderverbeek, or through my website

I am looking forward to starting this journey together and hope to see you all regularly on Substack.”

Are you still here? That was a long introduction even before I had written one newsletter. The first real one (on the carbon release of trawlers and aviation) would follow the next day, and it would take about a hundred days before I would skip a day for the first time. 

Meanwhile in Ottawa

Well, I already mentioned the first tulip; here it is. I wish you a beautiful week. 

I hope you enjoyed reading a bit of the history of this newsletter, you have likely been on this journey for a while but I believe not many people had ever read my very first post until now.

Most people skip this part, but please, read this too. This newsletter is an independent production, and support from those who can afford it makes this independent newsletter available to all.

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