The Substack Threat
You will by now have heard that a number of marquee writers are moving over to the Substack model. Substack is a platform for writers to publish newsletters that go out to subscribers. Usually these subscribers pay some amount (the least you can charge is five dollars per month) for exclusive access to the content. It has drawn some big names. Former National Review writers Jonah Goldberg and David French, among others, are doing very well with The Dispatch, their political newsletter (which is now the No. 1 Substack in the country). Andrew Sullivan, angry that New York magazine wouldn’t let him write critically of the Black Lives Matter protests and race riots, jumped to Substack and has tripled or quadrupled his income. Glenn Greenwald and Matt Taibbi went Substack, and the other day, so did Vox co-founder Matt Yglesias.
I started a Substack about three weeks ago, to do a different kind of writing from what you see on this blog. I wanted a place for my less polemical and more reflective writing. For now, I’m sending it out for free, and have about 3,400 subscribers. But I’m putting a lot into it after I finish my day’s work here at TAC, so I’m going to start charging before long, because I need to replace my sidestream of speaking income lost to Covid. Check out Daily Dreher to see what you think. To repeat: on this TAC blog, I write a lot about the culture war, politics, and so forth, but on the Substack I step a bit back from the heatedness of these topics. If you come here for hot takes alone, you might not like Daily Dreher. But I’m finding that certain readers appreciate the more conversational, less combative tone and content of Daily Dreher. I want to emphasize, though, that unlike Sullivan, I did not start my Substack because people at my magazine were trying to censor me. TAC has been and continues to be a great place to work.
Anyway, Columbia Journalism Review has a new piece out more or less blasting the Substack model for undermining the media model and — no kidding — perpetuating racism. First, though, there’s this legitimate criticism of the Substack model:
Writing is often considered an individualistic enterprise, but journalism is a collective endeavor. And that is the paradox of Substack: it’s a way out of a newsroom—and the racism or harassment or vulture-venture capitalism one encountered there—but it’s all the way out, on one’s own. “Holy shit, I work anywhere from fifty to sixty hours a week,” Atkin, of Heated, told me. “It’s a lot.” Harvin, the Beauty IRL writer, said she missed the infrastructure—legal and editorial—of a traditional outlet. “I just know how valuable it is to have a second ear to bounce ideas off of, someone to challenge you,” she said. “I’m very not big into writing in a vacuum, and I think that is the thing I miss the most.” Kelsey McKinney, a journalist whose literary Substack, Written Out, has accounted for about a third of her income during the pandemic, doesn’t do any reporting for her newsletter because of the lack of legal and editorial backing. Investigative journalism seems particularly difficult as a solo enterprise on Substack, which doesn’t reward slowly developed, uncertain projects that come out sporadically.
If you visit Substack’s website, you’ll see leaderboards of the top twenty-five paid and free newsletters; the writers’ names are accompanied by their little circular avatars. The intention is declarative—you, too, can make it on Substack. But as you peruse the lists, something becomes clear: the most successful people on Substack are those who have already been well-served by existing media power structures. Most are white and male; several are conservative. Matt Taibbi, Andrew Sullivan, and most recently, Glenn Greenwald—who offer similar screeds about the dangers of cancel culture and the left—all land in the top ten. (Greenwald’s arrival bumped the like-minded Yascha Mounk to eleventh position; soon, Matthew Yglesias signed up for Substack, too.)
None of that is so surprising—it’s hard to earn four-fire-emoji status without having already built up a reputation within established institutions. And, as this year’s anti-racist activism has made all the more visible, those institutions are built from prejudiced systems, which form working environments that are often unsustainable for people who are nonwhite or non-elite. “I think one of the reasons why we often see that the top-twenty-five board at Substack is mostly white authors is because that’s an extension of the type of audience and recognition they get for their work on other platforms,” Harvin said.
In general, will Substack replicate the patterns of marginalization found across the media industry, or will it help people locked out of the dominant media sphere to flourish? To a large extent, the answer depends on whether or not Substack’s founders believe they’re in the publishing business. When we spoke, they were adamant that Substack is a platform, not a media company—a familiar refrain of Silicon Valley media ventures. “We’re not hiring writers, and we’re not publishing editorial,” McKenzie said. “We’re enabling writers and enabling editorial.” He told me that the leaderboards, which were originally conceived to show writers what kind of “quality work” was being done on Substack, were organized by audience and revenue metrics, with “no thumb on the scale” from the company. When I asked about their views on content moderation, the founders said that, because readers opt in to newsletters—unlike Facebook, there’s no algorithm-based feed—they have relatively less responsibility to get involved.
It was a nonideological, noneditorial stance—one that he’d taken in conversation with me before. But often, adherence to neutrality only enforces existing power structures. 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.”
It is such a telling piece of work. Can you imagine that? 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?
Glenn Greenwald left the website he co-founded because, in his opinion, they were trying to protect Joe Biden, and wouldn’t publish Greenwald’s criticism of him. If you could leave a place like that and support yourself, wouldn’t you?
All this makes me realize how fortunate I have been at TAC these last nine years. Nobody has ever told me what I couldn’t write. Do you know how rare that is?
I have written three New York Times bestsellers, the previous one of which has been translated into 11 languages. I get a huge number of unique page views on this blog every month. I spent most of my career working in mainstream media, and have a long track record of accomplishment. But if TAC disappeared tomorrow, I could not get a job at an American newspaper. They would not hire me, entirely for political reasons.
And I would not want to work there. The conservative friends I have still laboring in that particular vineyard, they’re trying to get out; they say the atmosphere inside their newsrooms is intolerable. Nothing but progressive activism and militancy against wrongthink. I remember over a decade ago, walking down the hallway at The Dallas Morning News, and one of my colleagues there turning his back to me and facing the wall when I passed by. This, because I published conservative opinions in my column — opinions that he thought were a disgrace. I laughed at that, because he was haughty, and I didn’t feel sorry for him when he got pink-slipped in one round of layoffs. My boss, more liberal than I, did not agree with everything I wrote, but she was an old-fashioned journalists who believed in fairness and open debate. She always had my back, and I was so grateful for it. Well, she’s retired now, and many senior journalists like her who remain in place at legacy media have capitulated to the progressive mob.
They have forgotten what journalism is supposed to be. They deserve to lose writers like Sullivan to Substack. Notice this remark from Clio Chang, about legacy media:
those institutions are built from prejudiced systems, which form working environments that are often unsustainable for people who are nonwhite or non-elite.
That is, to put it kindly, horseshit. There is nobody more privileged in leading American newsrooms today than left-wing writers of color, or other bearers of favored identities. You not only can write your own ticket, but you can determine what gets covered and what gets written (or not written). You know who are the most marginalized people in elite American journalism? Conservatives, especially religious conservatives. These people are invisible to the Clio Changs of the world, and the Columbia Journalism Reviews of the world. Twenty years in the mainstream media business, and I’m telling you, they have never, ever recognized their blindness. In 2003, I was at a big op-ed journalism annual conference for the first time, and I found exactly two people of my generation who were conservative. We hung together and just shook our heads in amusement at the lockstep liberalism all around us — and, in particular, at the constant self-congratulation among the herd of independent liberal minds, about how it is they who are open-minded and cosmopolitan, unlike the right-wing troglodytes. The epistemic closure within mainstream journalism is airtight, and worse than when I was involved.
This really lights my fire. These people, these leftists in charge of journalistic institutions, are so sold out to their narrow vision of the world that they make it impossible for anyone who doesn’t share their ideology to work in a newsroom — and then they fault the talented writers who can make a go of it on their own for doing so, because it’s racist?!
New York magazine would still have Andrew Sullivan on its staff if they had been willing to let him express an opinion that is shared by at least half the people in America, though in NYC journalism circles, they have probably frightened anybody who agrees into total silence. Sullivan didn’t leave New York for more money — I can tell you, because he’s a friend, that he is shocked by how much more money he’s making now — but for freedom to write what he thinks. The audacity of these progressive journalistic institutions gagging writers, driving them out, then spiting them as bigots because they have the gall to sell their words to people who want to hear what they have to say — well, it makes me hate the mainstream media even more than I do.
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.
Substack is not an antidote to that, nor is it a replacement for basic journalism. And I don’t think it’s sustainable in the long run. How many subscriptions will people be willing to pay for? What’s more, it doesn’t solve the problem facing young heterodox writers who, unlike people at my career stage, can’t support themselves via Substack, and would get themselves fired or otherwise blackballed for expressing a heterodox opinion, even outside their workplace. But it’s a place of freedom for writers like Sullivan and Greenwald. For me, it’s a place to do a different kind of writing, a side project to try to recover a voice that I have lost, and, once I start charging, to make up for the speaking income I’ve lost this year because of Covid, and probably will lose next year.
The point is, I don’t see why it’s so bad that writers get paid to write, and writers who have been driven out of the mainstream journalism community for their heterodox opinions find a platform. If it causes agita among the gatekeepers of mainstream journalism, well, good. They deserve it. Like Renaissance popes who were impervious to change, they have brought this Reformation upon themselves.