Why everyone is so mad at Substack all the time
The newsletter platform has become the latest battlefield in a long-running ideological war in the media industry.
Welcome back to What Went Wrong?, a newsletter about the failures, inefficiencies, and screw-ups that define 21st-century American life, written by Harry Cheadle.
The post about the philosophy of centrism I teased in my last newsletter will come out later this week, but I wanted to write an old-fashioned blog post about a controversy involving Substack because it represents a collision of ideology and economics going on in the media industry and it’s worth diving into the incentives of the players involved:
-The controversy basically boils down to whether Substack as a company gives money and other forms of support to writers who have toxic politics, particularly those who write about “cancel culture” and get into nasty online beefs with their critics. Former BuzzFeed reporter Ryan Broderick gave a preview of this debate when he wrote that popular Substack writers like Glenn Greenwald and Bari Weiss “will be the first big community moderation issue for Substack as a platform” because their work might soon cross a boundary into harassment—in other words, that Substack would soon have to consider whether to ban certain popular but controversial figures. Then, late last week, the independent writer Rick Paulas started compiling a list of writers who have received money from Substack. On Twitter, he said that this was to get “a better glimpse at the ideological lens through which they're constructing their publication.” Others quickly picked up on this and evidently concluded that Substack had a sort of crypto right-wing ideology, with some progressive writers quitting the platform in protest. The discourse around this has gotten pretty intense and to my mind divorced from the facts, with people accusing Substack of giving “some alt-right users” $250,000.
-Paulas, who I’ve worked with before and am friendly with, calls Substack a publication. I think its model is more akin to a book publisher. Like a book publisher, Substack finds writers who either are already famous or could become famous, and offers them deals that combine up-front money with a revenue-sharing arrangement. Hamish McKenzie, a Substack co-founder, explained how these “Substack Pro” deals work recently, seemingly in response to Paulas’s work: The company will sometimes give a writer a big lump sum in exchange for 85% of that writer’s subscription revenue in the first year of their newsletter. (McKenzie didn’t reveal who had gotten these deals.) Like a book advance, this money gives writers freedom to work while also boosting the company’s bottom line if people buy the resulting book, or subscribe to the resulting newsletter. In some cases, it might be a bad deal for writers who would ultimately make more if they kept a greater share of their revenue, and it seems like some writers have rejected this offer for that reason.
-Book publishing used to be a relatively nonideological space. Publishing houses would put out books by conservative authors like Bill O’Reilly not because the companies were conservative (I imagine most of their employees were liberals) but because O’Reilly sold a lot of books. But the industry has been hit by a backlash to this practice in the past few years, with employees objecting to books by far-right figures. Printing and selling conservative books is now controversial. Partly this is because the American right has gotten more extreme in the Trump era, but it also reflects a changing value system in the media and publishing industries, and these changing values are ultimately what is driving the anti-Substack backlash.
-As recently as a decade ago, outlets that weren’t explicitly left- or right-wing were expected to offer a range of political opinions. Even new media outlets like BuzzFeed and Vice had Republican-friendly content—maybe as a way to show Republican readers they weren’t unfairly biased, maybe because editors had a vestigial instinct to publish a bunch of different views. I worked at Vice during this time and can’t fully explain the thinking behind this, it was just sort of what you did if you worked at a media company. Just like in publishing, the mood has shifted and now left-leaning publications run right-leaning columns at their peril. The New York Times opinion page is the best-known example of this. Like other newspaper op-ed pages, its traditional mission has been to present readers with a variety of opinions so they knew what kind of stuff fancy-pants elites were thinking about. (That presumably is why the Times once ran a column by Vladimir Putin.) But today if the Times prints something it’s generally assumed that the Times is basically endorsing the columnist’s take. When the paper ran a noxious column from Republican Senator Tom Cotton last year calling for the US military to deal with Black Lives Matter protests, it sparked an outcry from Times staff, and editors later inserted a note apologizing for publishing it. The rationale of a previous generation of editors—that opinions from newsworthy figures should be published so readers can consider and debate them—no longer holds up.
-Pundits who love to yell about “cancel culture” see these changing attitudes as a big problem—the left is growing more censorious, the dream of the Republic is dead, yadda yadda. But op-ed pages and major book publishers are no longer the powerful gatekeepers they once were. Senators who get op-eds rejected by the Times can write something on Medium, share it on Twitter, and spark the same level of discussion they would had their words been printed by a newspaper. Conservative authors can follow in the footsteps of Donald Trump Jr. and self-publish. (It’s worth noting that right-wing media has never bought into this “publish diverse viewpoints” stuff; they just sell right-wing views to a right-wing audience.) So even as prominent outlets have gotten more ideological in terms of what they publish, they have become less powerful in the overall media landscape.
-In this context, Substack has a fairly old-fashioned business model, offering its platform to a wide array of writers and publications. The top political newsletters on Substack range from the outright conservative (Eric Erickson, the Dispatch) to the stridently progressive (the Daily Poster, Popular Information) to the technically-left-wing-but-hates-the-left (Glenn Greenwald). Even when you examine the authors Substack has given advances to, there’s no ideological coherence. Emily Atkin, who built a huge following for her newsletter Heated after getting a $20,000 advance, is a climate-focused lefty. Matt Yglesias, who got a $250,000(!) advance, is a Bernie Sanders–supporting liberal who writes mostly about dry public policy. Freddie DeBoer says he is “a Marxist of an old-school variety,” whatever that means, and spends a lot of time writing screeds about the media from that perspective. Anne Helen Petersen seems pretty progressive, though her writing about culture and millennials is rarely explicitly political. As far as I can tell, Substack is merely trying to recruit writers who it thinks will create popular newsletters. This strategy unfortunately replicates a lot of the existing inequities of the media industry, since successful newsletter producers tend to be journalists who were already famous—as I’ve written, being an unknown Substacker is a lousy gig, and I wish Substack would do more to recruit marginalized voices.
-Substack’s critics are correct when they point out that a lot of successful newsletters are dedicated to critiquing cancel culture and social justice (Bari Weiss, Persuasion), are conservative in heterodox ways (Andrew Sullivan), or occasionally push back against conventional progressive thinking (Ygelsias, DeBoer). Their success, however, isn’t something that Substack created out of thin air—there are clearly a lot of people willing to pay for the content these writers create. In the old media world, outlets would recognize this and try to hire them, thus gaining their audiences. But today it’s an enormous headache to have a shit-stirring columnist: Your readers and maybe your staff will complain, and you won’t be able to credibly make the old-style excuses about how you’re not endorsing the columnist’s views but merely presenting an interesting perspective. (I would guess, though I can’t say for sure, that this dynamic led to Sullivan leaving New York and Ygelsias leaving Vox.) So it’s inevitable that the shit-stirrers have migrated to a platform where they don’t have to answer to publications that are dealing with a complex set of incentives. (Ross Douthat, the conservative New York Times columnist, seems like a top Substacker in waiting for these reasons.)
-This migration to Substack has created a situation where a lot of prominent Substackers are anti-establishment in one way or another. Whether that attitude makes them bold truth-tellers or obnoxious little babies probably depends on whether you agree with a given newsletter. But importantly, this model only works if Substack writers agree to disagree with one another—that is, if we see ourselves as not fellow travelers on an ideological journey but authors who happen to share a publisher. I’m staying on Substack because I don’t think that anything that anyone else on this platform says reflects in any way on me, and I don’t think my using Substack constitutes an endorsement of the writers Substack has given advances to. It’s true that Substack’s primary functions are sometimes in conflict: It wants to be a neutral space for writers as well as a company that tries to identify writers who seemed poised for success and thus profitability. But it’s a mistake to think that Substack has made people like Greenwald or Weiss popular, and if the platform vanished tomorrow they would surely take their audiences elsewhere (and have even more to say about cancel culture). To paraphrase internet sage Alex Balk, everything you hate about Substack is actually everything you hate about people.
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Here is my issue with censorship/ Cancel Culture you cant stop them really. Its a waste of time to try. People will get angry and sound off their views on other platforms just as bad or worse since they have a further bone to pick. Much like business who tried to stop torrenting it doesnt stop them just drives them to the fringes of other sites. Yes some very bad speech should be looked at on the platform and if they want continue they are free to do it elsewhere (That is America after all).
Writers who walk away from Substack to protest "content" they don't agree with just supports the "cancel culture" narrative and encourages more platforms to write about it. I applaud you for thinking critically on your own and staying with Substack.