SSince its launch in 2017, Substack has been touted as a “better future for news. “Their offer was simple: email newsletters with an option for subscribers to pay monthly fees for content, like Netflix for newsletters.
If you have something to write and an email list of people who want to read it, you think there is nothing stopping you from making a living on your own. With a healthy Substack email list, freelancers are no longer in debt to petty publishers; staff reporters no longer have to feel insecure about layoffs; small media companies no longer worry about a tweak to an algorithm that would send them into oblivion.
Everything the company asks for in return? A 10% cut in subscription dollars.
Substack’s vision is proving attractive. In the past 12 months, several high-profile journalists and writers quit their jobs to go solo with Substack: The New York Times Charlie warzel, From Vox Matthew Yglesias, New York Magazine Heather havrilesky.
The number of poets, essayists, amateurs, chefs, advice givers, spirit guides They charge a modest amount for their newsletters is growing. In a year in which the American media lost thousands of newsroom jobs, the company emerged as a seemingly viable alternative for journalists and writers to earn money. But then in recent months, various revelations about Substack’s policies have led many to question whether he should be relying on crafting a vision for the future of news.
The controversy began in response to reports that the company was attracting writers to the platform through a program called Substack Pro, which offered lump sums of money, up to $ 250,000, for writers to quit their jobs and start writing newsletters. Some writers were also offered access to editors, health insurance, and a legal defense program.
At first glance, Substack Pro was simply offering writers the benefits that usually come with a full-time job. But the show was seen as controversial for a number of reasons.
For starters, the cohort of writers selected by the company remained undisclosed. This created a system of invisible tiers that divided those who received active support from those who took risks trying to build their own subscriber base.
According to journalist Annalee Newitz, this made Substack something of a pyramid scheme. Some anonymous writers were destined to succeed, while the vast majority provided free content to Substack, hoping they could one day monetize. Like New York Times columnist Ben Smith Put it on, Substack was surreptitiously enriching some writers and turning others into “the content creation equivalent of Uber drivers.”
The second and perhaps more fundamental problem with Substack Pro was that it contravened the company’s claims of editorial neutrality. Since its launch, Substack has insisted which is not a media company, but a software company that creates tools to help writers publish newsletters, the content of which is none of their business, like a printing press for the digital age. This differentiated the company from social media platforms, which algorithmically organize content to increase engagement, and media companies, which make active editorial decisions about what they post.
In reality, however, Substack was doing both. They used metrics of Twitter to identify writers with a proven ability to draw attention to themselves and then actively hunt them down. Substack’s founders, a journalist and two developers, said they wanted to offer an alternative to the instability of digital media companies and the toxicity of social media platforms. And yet the company was actively choosing writers who had stood out through those channels.
In other words, Substack was removing the fat from what they called a toxic media environment while claiming to offer an alternative. In the process, the company inherited some of the hottest issues in digital media. After it was revealed that Substack Pro had signed controversial writers Glenn Greenwald and Jesse Singal, various Substack writers voiced your opposition. Substack tried to avoid responsibility for its selections by maintaining a semblance of neutrality, claiming to be merely a platform, not a publisher. They were trying to have their media cake and eat it too.
The disclosures about Substack Pro led to a broader conversation about the company’s content moderation policies. At the end of last year the company clarified its position: no pornography. It is not rubbish. No doxxing or harassment. Do not attack people based on race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sex, gender, sexual orientation, age, disability, or medical condition. But the company also took the opportunity to affirm its commitment to freedom of expression. “We believe dissent and debate are important,” wrote co-founder Hamish McKenzie. “We celebrate nonconformity.”
Some saw this as a welcoming invitation in what they perceive as an increasingly “awake” media landscape. Dana Loesch, former NRA spokesperson, moved his newsletter from Mailchimp to Substack, stating that the former “knocks down the Conservatives.” Writer Andrew Sullivan, who has been criticized for his views on race and IQ, moved your New York Magazine column to newsletter format.
For others, however, Substack’s position on content moderation was alienating, showing that the company had little interest in actively addressing some of the thorny questions about hosting healthy media communities online. Many have decided license and take your newsletters and email lists elsewhere.
Of course, Substack Pro represents only a small proportion of people who use the platform for writing. Most write short letters to micro-communities that do not ask for payment. There is an intimacy in the newsletter format that is not available on social media. I love receiving the poem from the poet and essayist Anne Boyer. meditations in my inbox from time to time. Equally the occasional reflections and book recommendations from writer and critic Joanne McNeil.
However, Substack has an interest in helping these smaller scale writers get paid from subscribers. Every dollar earned by a writer on the platform contributes to their income. For this reason, they have offered no-obligation grants, between $ 500 and $ 5,000 in cash, to help writers take more time to commit to building an audience.
The concept of creators making money directly from a cohort of followers is certainly not new; Patreon, OnlyFans, Cameo, Clubhouse all work from a similar paradigm. Digital media could be moving away from a model where creators work for free, trying to accumulate as many followers as possible and somehow make a living through ad revenue or product placement. It seems rather to be closer to what Kevin Kelly calls The 1,000 true fan principle: If you find 1,000 people who will pay you for what you create, you can make a living as an independent creator.
But the company wants to do more: they want to be the future of news. In this quest, the company has become the nexus of most important questions that will define the future of digital media. What is the dividing line between a journalist and an influencer? Are the readers consumers or fans? How do we create a shared sense of reality in a media landscape comprised primarily of individual writers and their loyal fans?
Despite the controversy, Substack will be part of this conversation.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism