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Why So Many Mainstream Media Figures Really Hate Substack

The subscription newsletter service allows good writers to reach their audiences without a horde of censors and gatekeepers, as is usually the case in mainstream media today

Substack — a newsletter site where popular writers can make money via private newsletters — has thoroughly rattled many traditional legacy mainstream media. Founded in 2017 and headquartered in San Francisco, it essentially ensures that the writer, not the medium, is the primary financial beneficiary of the writer’s talent. It also doesn’t need to censor writers on account of, say, money from China.

One result is that many well-known writers from, for example, the New York Times, Vox, and BuzzFeed quit their jobs and started writing for newsletter subscribers who pay for premium content, print or podcast, typically $5 a month or $50 a year. Only a few thousand subscribers are needed to generate a nice income for a talented writer who is not just churning out the hackwork that keeps a declining legacy publisher happy and Correct.

At the New York Times, Ben Smith explains:

This new direct-to-consumer media also means that battles over the boundaries of acceptable views and the ensuing arguments about “cancel culture” — for instance, in New York Magazine’s firing of Andrew Sullivan — are no longer the kind of devastating career blows they once were. (Only Twitter retains that power.) Big media cancellation is often an offramp to a bigger income. Though Substack paid advances to a few dozen writers, most are simply making money from readers. That includes most of the top figures on the platform, who make seven-figure sums from more than 10,000 paying subscribers — among them Sullivan, liberal historian Heather Cox Richardson, and confrontational libertarian Glenn Greenwald.

Ben Smith, “Why We’re Freaking Out About Substack” at New York Times (April 11, 2021)

Needless to say, many defenders of the status quo are displeased. Let’s look at their concerns. First, offering a representative range of opinions seems like a terrible idea to some:

But as more writers came forward as part of the Substack Pro program, Substack was criticized for subsidizing anti-trans rhetoric, since some of these writers used their newsletters to share such views. Substack admits it’s not entirely apolitical, but the choices of which writers to subsidize, and its decision to use only lightweight moderation tactics, are a political choice in an era of the internet when content moderation has a tangible effect on global politics. Some writers even chose to leave the platform, as a result…

So, when Substack described its new acquisition Letter as a platform that encourages people to “argue in good faith instead of dropping bombs for retweets,” it made the acquisition worthy of a deeper examination. Statements like this sound agreeable, yet this kind of language often appears in arguments that deem social justice a threat to free speech. But free speech shouldn’t mean endorsing hate speech.

Amanda Silberling, “Substack doubles down on uncensored ‘free speech’ with acquisition of Letter” at TechCrunch (August 3, 2021)

Sorry, Amanda Silberling, but free speech does, in fact, mean allowing what an individual like yourself may regard as hate speech. Or, as a veteran Canadian journalist, June Callwood (1924–2007), once put it: If you don’t believe in free speech for people you hate, face it, you don’t believe in free speech. Maybe you were flattering yourself that you did. Because it sounds cool. But let’s get this clear right away. You don’t.

At The Hedgehog, we hear fussing about what type of relationship Substack writers have with their readers:

But Substack also sits at the nexus of deeper concerns about American culture: our individualistic view of work, the massive rewards that accrue to high flyers, and our willingness to invest ourselves in one-way relationships with public figures. Together, these concerns coalesce into a question: Should the people we rely on to inform us be celebrities?

Jonathan Malesic, “A Stacked Deck” at The Hedgehog Review

Well, really, isn’t that for the reader to decide? There are no penalties for not renewing a subscription at Substack. Malesic goes on to offer a classic offer a reader can refuse, which points to the specific problem Substack was created to solve:

If, instead of paying $50 to get email from a single writer, you spent that money on a magazine subscription, you would get to read dozens of talented writers on an array of topics. And unlike typically shaggy email newsletters, everything you read would be crisply edited. That system works; it’s what launched the careers of many Substack stars in the first place. Small magazines like this one are still where you might stumble across your next favorite writer.

Jonathan Malesic, “A Stacked Deck” at The Hedgehog Review (June 17, 2021)

Sure, a typical mainstream media magazine may feature someone who becomes a favorite. But today, it will certainly feature dozens of earnestly Correct writers with journalism degrees. They may not be saying anything the reader feels like paying for.

What Substack gives the reader is the right to hear only from people whose information has proven of value. If that’s a problem, it is a problem for the publisher of the dozens of earnest Corrects, not a problem for the Substack reader.

Last year, a classic legacy journalist was distressed by the lack of viewpoint enforcement at Substack:

In these moments, Substack’s founders veer into unsettling corporate-tech-dude-speak, papering over the fact that a “nonideological” vision is, of course, ideology just the same. When Sullivan joined Substack, over the summer, he put the company’s positioning to the test: infamous for publishing excerpts from The Bell Curve, a book that promotes bigoted race “science,” Sullivan would now produce the Weekly Dish, a political newsletter. (Substack’s content guidelines draw a line at hate speech.) Sullivan’s Substack quickly rose to become the fifth-most-read among paid subscriptions—he claimed that his income had risen from less than $200,000 at New York magazine to $500,000. When I asked the founders if they thought his presence might discourage other writers from joining, they gave me a pat reply. “We’re not a media company,” Best said. “If somebody joins the company and expects us to have an editorial position and be rigorously enforcing some ideological line, this is probably not the company they wanted to join in the first place.”

Clio Chang, “The Substackerati” at Columbia Journalism Review (Winter 2020)

It does not enter Chang’s head, perhaps, that leaden editorial enforcement is one of the things Substack subscribers are paying to avoid. Rod Dreher, himself a Substacker, responds,

This reporter, Clio Chang, a Brooklyn-based freelancer, actually believes that the presence of Andrew Sullivan on this open platform might discourage other writers — writers of color, she means — from joining it. Sully cooties, ewww! The question itself, and the fact that she was dissatisfied with the “pat” answer, is precisely what is wrong with legacy media!

Love him or hate him — I have done both over the past three decades, Andrew Sullivan is one of the most interesting and compelling journalists of his generation. And yet in the year of our Lord 2020, this extremely anti-Trump journalist was driven out of New York magazine because they would not allow him to give his opinion on race riots, because it stood to upset younger progressives in the newsroom. Of course he left. If you could, wouldn’t you?

Rod Dreher, “The Substack Threat” at The American Conservative (November 16, 2020)

Dreher adds,

I read The New York Times and The Washington Post for the same reason a Kremlinologist would have read Pravda and Izvestia: for insights into how the ruling class thinks. I don’t read them for accurate and insightful information about the way the world is. I know that American journalism has selected for journalists who see the world a certain way, and only that way. The moralizing of difference — for example, demonizing the mere expression of opinions that run contrary to the leftist line — has made journalistic institutions less valuable as guides to reality, and more important as guides to how left-wing elites think. It’s a closed feedback loop.

Rod Dreher, “The Substack Threat” at The American Conservative (November 16, 2020)

Dreher doesn’t think Substack is viable in the long term. Only time will tell. What it illustrates is that a good writer can be far better paid if he or she does not have to share the income with many editors, gatekeepers, overseers, and journalism graduates.


You may also wish to read: In Big Tech World: the journalist as censor, hit man, and snitch. Glenn Greenwald looks at a disturbing trend in media toward misrepresentation as well as censorship.

and

Newsletter group creates alarm plus demands for censorship Substack is getting a lot of ink these days — raising both hope from readers and hand wringing from old media. The surprising thing about “controversial” Substack is that it is a restoration of the very old idea that we should pay a small amount for the content we want.


Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she has published two books on the topic: Faith@Science and By Design or by Chance? She has written for publications such as The Toronto Star, The Globe & Mail, and Canadian Living. She is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist'€™s Case for the Existence of the Soul. She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

Why So Many Mainstream Media Figures Really Hate Substack