Substack: The Media's Forbidden Fruit

Do you take a bite, or do you abide by media's institutional power instead?

[From left to right] Executive editor of the Washington Post Martin Baron, former co-executive editor of Recode Kara Swisher, and executive editor of the New York Times Dean Baquet. Photographs courtesy of Álvaro García Fuentes and NRKbeta on Flickr. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 and CC BY-SA 2.0.

Working in media naturally curates for a special kind of self-centeredness, so it’s not really a surprise that media discourse is mostly preoccupied with… well, itself. Substack is just the latest item in the saga with a particular focus on who the company paid an advance to entice their arrival on the platform, many citing concerns over their unorthodox political views typically skewing rightward of the rest of liberal mainstream media. The platform’s intentions may appear sinister at first, but closer examination would reveal more complex dynamics at play that don’t necessarily suggest Substack morphed itself into a refuge for the ideological fringe on purpose.

One must first reckon with blogging’s whole raison d’être before such issues are confronted–the blogosphere was born out of a desire to bypass media gatekeepers, and much of it culminating into the creation of media conglomerates that embraced blogging as their signature style, Gawker being a prime example of that. The intention to compete with legacy media on the terms it set proved problematic to some, and it wasn’t long before writers either relapsed back into blogging or got subsumed into the very outlets they’d once shown rebellion against–either way, the experiment of New Media barely brought about any meaningful success, and in the wake of its dissolution, some are incredibly dismayed at the quality of writing that has come to almost define Substack under its new-found notoriety.

The thing that is often implied but not explicitly said when progressive writers criticize Substack, is that they simply wish there to be no lucrative opportunities for anyone straying away from a certain leftward-skewing ideological slant–essentially, there’s a desire for Substack to become a mere extension of the model that organizations like Vox Media and Bustle have already pioneered: a kind of vaguely-progressive editorial with somewhat uniform views on social and economic issues.

Substack’s perceived propensity to attract a certain type of right-wing writing cohort doesn’t have much to do with the company’s expressed values than the simple matter of how media dynamics worked out in the last few years—especially under Trump’s purview—and the tendency of such arrivals to select for their bottom-rung. Matt Bruenig–founder of the People’s Policy Project and self-avowed socialist–talked about having been approached for a writing deal but ultimately rejecting it, but then he also laid out a simple but convincing explanation on why the Substack-sponsored roster looks the way it does.  “What [critics of Substack] are missing is that it’s in fact people who are struggling in the current institutions that take the deal,” he said. “So there’s a selection effect based not on who Substack is picking, but based on who is willing to accept the deal.”

When diagnosed this way, it makes perfect sense why the Jesse Singals, Andrew Sullivans and Glenn Greenwalds of the world are the ones who found prominence on the platform. Their rhetoric was already at odds with a sizeable chunk of mainstream outlets’ newsrooms, and without a clear distinction between them and a bespoke opinion section like the New York Times has—for all its faults—defectors’ last resort is to join a platform like Substack since their relationship with mainstream media–and consequently having any kind of financial stability–is constantly under peril.

It’s also important to point out audience-creator dynamics in such scenarios–the fact that typically-controversial figures have retained a sizeable viewership and a healthy amount of subscriptions on a platform like Substack is proof that no matter where they’d land, there’s plenty of cushioning to soften the blow of any disruption in their line of work. A cool perk of being a popular blogger on social media is that your winnings are entirely decoupled from your method of earning them–as long as a newsletter platform has the technical capacity to monetize engagement, then it’s a moot endeavor to try and suppress Substack with any degree of specificity. The issue isn’t unique to the platform–it is entirely perpetuated by writers presenting their audience with what they’d like to see, and readers meeting that supply with the sign of approval that is their payment information.

Moreover, the focus on Substack’s select few dozen trouble-makers ignores that many—myself included—are hugely undermined by a rhetoric that tries to paint Substack with one broad-brush when a negligible percentage of a platform’s writing community do not define its identity, let alone whatever unspoken editorial leanings it might otherwise have.

There’s an urge by liberal intelligentsia to reflexively demonize any platform with even the smallest number of ideological oddballs on it, but consider that Substack may prove an effective tool for writers on the left if and when their presence on prominent newsrooms is no longer of service. It’s not like Jacobin alumni are lining up for slots on the New York Times opinion page—far from it—so to outright discount what boons Substack can bring to leftist writers is misguided at best, and at worst woefully naive.

But ultimately, the desire to see the platform’s discursive qualities neutered is about upholding institutional power. Media organizations have long taken issue with blogs undermining their authority in the broader move to the direct-to-consumer delivery model, and when legacy outlets took a chance on bloggers, their intent—unstated as it may be—was to integrate them into the preexisting system so well that they’re just as vulnerable to its pitfalls as its current enrollees. Blogging allows writers to take some measure of control back, and it’s without a shadow of a doubt what vanguards of legacy media are afraid would happen, even if it’s couched in epistemic uncertainty as to claim plausible deference to the contrary.

Underlying all of this is a reticence to confront the media’s core issue, which today stands as an overreliance on a shaky advertisement market and ever-shoddier subscription models–profit incentives rarely make for better products, and it’s never been truer than with media. That Substack replaced this with endowments given to a select few writers and subjugated the rest to their readers’ loyalty merely shifted serfdom away from shareholder interest to end-users–the antidote to both is simply to have the government play a more proactive role in preserving a healthy media environment where quality journalism can flourish. “There may be something distasteful about the fact that Substack benefits from journalists’ financial desperation. But ultimately the core problem here is not that a newsletter platform is helping cash-strapped writers squeeze some tips out of their Twitter followings. The problem is that legions of talented journalists are going underemployed, even as statehouses across the country are going under-covered,” writes Eric Levitz for Intelligencer. “Forcing Substack to disclose every contract that it has ever offered will not free us from the scam that is the modern media industry. Only publicly financing the Fourth Estate can do that.”

While many consider the mere act of writing on Substack to be moral sacrilege, it’ll remain my home until the entire media ecosystem is reformed. More popular writers can afford to make the jump to other lesser-known blogging ventures, but it’s simply not an option for me–to demand otherwise is just an admission of great privilege. If you’re able to make it out fine without the platform’s name recognition–and the URL’s familiarity isn’t to be underestimated–then by all means. But for most of us—especially those who’ve barely gotten a foot in the door as editors jerk us around from pitch to pitch—the price of admission is already far too high to hastily switch platforms every time trouble is abound.