The Gist: Meet the New Gist!

Things have changed for the Gist this week. Seeing as it only exists because you like to read it, I thought this might be a good moment to do my first ever post on writing a newsletter. This is the Gist’s gist!

The Gist: Meet the New Gist!
Photo by Markus Winkler / Unsplash

Things have changed for the Gist this week. Seeing as it only exists because you like to read it, I thought this might be a good moment to do my first ever post on writing a newsletter. This is the Gist’s gist!


The Gist exists as two sorts of things. It is an email that arrives in your inbox about once a fortnight about something you have absolutely no advance warning of by a person who plays a potato on the internet. And it is a website, where all those emails live on as sort of archive, building up a history of things the potato has said where you can refer other people to them.

This is a model of writing that really appealed to me- it seemed to be built around the idea of writing for a relatively stable audience, instead of trying to come up with combinations of words that the Matrix-like robotic spiders of Google might find appealing to their inhuman SEO brains.

So, because I am susceptible to trying new things, I set up the Gist on Mailchimp’s TinyLetter service and sent the first email to approximately 15 people in May 2016. Here is it now. A pretty bare-bones sort of an email, with no web address you could share. In fairness, I think claiming it gave even the Gist of its stories pretty generous. I was sending one out every single day too- right before going to bed. My idea was that it might sit every morning in the inbox of the recipients and let them know what the two or three things people would be talking about were.

The problem with this is that I actually need sleep. And staying up into the small hours of the morning to identify and then compress the main news points of the day wasn’t really sustainable for me.


So, when Substack appeared, offering to both send out newsletters and also give them a web presence, I thought that was a great idea. I had been doing a daily round-up of the 2020 election campaign (a topic which had the benefit of being both amusing and easily summarised) in the Campaign Gist series. Substack let people forward on the addresses of pieces through social media and the newsletter started to get some more subscribers. Around this time a small event occurred which was surpassingly strange- as I walked from Jervis Street shopping centre to the Millennium Bridge a man stopped me, asking was I Simon McGarr. After the traditional moment of darting my eyes about his person for any legal documents he might have been dispatched to serve, I admitted I was. He then shook me by my hand and said he loved the Gist.

I have been writing words for the internet since 2002 - since the days of Radio Userland blogs.  But in twenty years of saying things in pixels, nobody had ever formed an affinity with a site I’d written. People felt like The Gist was for them. I’ve come to feel the same way.

Again out of curiosity, I had turned on Substack’s ability to for people to pay for Gist over the Christmas holidays in 2020. It has 32 paying subscribers now and I am constantly worried for them.

Generally, each post is read by between 1000-2000 people and the emails are opened by about 50% of the 849 recipients (or thereabouts, as some may open them without being tracked).

So now we come to the next, and I suspect last, big change to the Gist’s home. I have grown less and less happy contributing to a VC-backed content platform as a place to keep The Gist. Substack has very slowly been trying to rebuild the open model of blogging from 2002 as a closed garden (its latest innovation is the equivalent of a webroll, where bloggers used to show a list of the blogs they liked on every page. Now you can do that with Substack, but only with other substacks. Thanks, but no thanks). The twisting fate of Medium, another privately-owned platform for publishing people’s words, shows how insecure contributing your work to a company that then farms it can be. I also was unhappy about some of Substack’s privacy and data protection setup, something I care about as you might imagine.


So this week sees the launch of Like most projects which involve me trying to learn technical things, it is slightly rough around the edges still. But the heart of it is there. I now pay for the hosting and domain name. The archive will last as long as I keep paying and the URLs will stay unrotted. No Management pivot in Silicon Valley can kill the Gist.

I’ve used Ghost, a system which has support for newsletters built into its core. It's a welcome relief from the world of plugins and incompatibilities that Wordpress has become. The fees charged by Substack to handle paid subscriptions are now going towards the hosting costs. That seems a more elegant use.

So that’s the New Gist- same as the Old Gist, as much as possible.

But I wanted to send this out to you all to say thanks for reading these emails and posts for the last few years (and for your feedback here and on twitter when you liked or disagreed with a particular turn of phrase). Traditionally I’d end by promising great new things in the future, but really, if we all just get through our days as things are I think that’s a success at the moment.

But today I want to thank you all for your support. Thank you for reading and sharing the Gists over the years. It really is lovely not to write for unknown, anonymous website visitors, but for an audience that, over time, feels a bit like a community. Albeit a community with an interest in the exceeding niche things known as whatever might be in my head on a given day.

Thank you.