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Musings on digital media, urbanization and politics from Seattle, Wash.

Substack is a step for journalism, but in what direction?

November 17, 2020

Anything that puts money in journalists’ hands, I’m in favor of. Hell, anything that puts money in any hard-working folks’ hands, I’m in favor of. But given the industry has had its ass kicked—with writers bearing the brunt of it—you can’t blame anyone jumping to tab something as the potential savior for journalism.

Enter Substack. The premium newsletter platform is all the rage these days and, if you follow any number of journalists on social, odds are you also follow a journalist who’s been laid off—and, after that, started a Substack.

The platform is in the news as a number of semi-conservative thinkers leave established roles and outlets to go it their own. Andrew Sullivan, Glenn Greenwood, Matthew Yglesias. You’ve probably heard.

We’ll get to the underlying issues with this group in a second—but what you may not have heard is that these can guys make bank.

Outside of the $25,000 advances and $100,000 fellowships the company hands out to those deemed worthy, measured by Twitter fame, top writers on the platform can make upwards of six figures.

Andrew Sullivan, as this outstanding report in the Columbia Journalism Review notes, bumped his pay from below $200,000 at The New Yorker to more than half a million dollars on Substack.

Gotta be something here, right? Something with the potential to save the whole damn field?

Welllll, it’s complicated.

I liked this take, from that same CJR piece.

“Substack is not the sort of thing that is going to create a sustainable next phase, but it can open the door to things that we don’t have doors for yet,” Nathan Schneider, a media studies professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, told me. To the extent that Substack fixes something in the journalism industry, it might be compared to GoFundMe—a survival mechanism whose resources are unevenly, arbitrarily distributed, laying bare systemic problems without directly tackling them. “GoFundMe can help us see things we’re not seeing and put money where it would not go,” Schneider said. “Of course, we don’t want a GoFundMe society.”

This, obviously, is not the perfect solution. Substack would acknowledge that themselves.

A big part of that, to my eye, is the medium itself. Newsletters are trendy, and I think the scheduled nature of them (like a due date for writers) creates a more intimate relationship with the reader, but is our inbox really the spot we want to consume our news in 2020?

They follow this really important concept, because the revenue model enables them to:

But there’s still this:

I’m biased, because I’ve spent the better part of my professional career at LexBlog making this point, but there’s nothing like an independent publication.

You want something your own—really your own. It’s on your own domain, has the design you want and has the look and feel of a genuine publication, all on its own. And it should generate sharp email notifications, too.

You can hold it out and say “I write this.” and not “I write this…on Substack.”

Substack, to its credit, does have a web interface—and a clean one. But a logo on top of the same template everyone else has, as polished as it may be, doesn’t give the feel of a standalone first-class publication.

And I’ve always thought, if I were a journalist going out on my own trying to capitalize on the relationship I’ve built with my readers, that’s what I’d want.

That solution doesn’t exist yet, and I’d like to make it, but it isn’t there yet.

And still, there’s one key problem with a solution that’s dependent on reporters bringing their audiences—it doesn’t solve the critical problems, whether it sets out to do so or not, with the publications and institutions from which they bring those readers.

Back to that CJR piece:

 …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,” [Darian Harvin, author of Beauty IRL] said.

Obviously, Substack isn’t all Andrew Sullivans. Not even close. Most writers on there don’t do this full-time, and even the most successful bootstrappers are working heavy hours without a lot of help—not to mention infrastructure like benefits, editing, workspaces and so on, though Substack’s working on that.

Going it alone cuts both ways, especially when you’re not coming in with an established audience.

So it’s something to see writers like Sullivan and Yglesias and Greenwald complain about being stifled while pulling in six figures thanks to massive readership.

One of the more interesting things I heard about blogging recently was that, unlike other mediums, you can set out to explore an issue—and never really arrive at a point. You just lay out what you’ve found or what you’re seeing.

So while I’d like to be able to answer what kind of step Substack is for the field of journalism and the precarious lives of the people who work in it, I can’t.

It’s complex. And if we’re ever going to find the place where this all works again, we have to try a lot of new things. This is just one of them.

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