The Media's Real (And Imagined) Substack Problems

I have been seriously working on this newsletter on Substack for coming up on five months, and in that time I have watched so many storms develop in so many teacups that at this point I am totally out of cups, and must simply drink from the kettle itself. The latest is from career non-provocateur Ben Smith at the New York Times, who’s piece “Why We’re Freaking Out About Substack” likely fails to realize the “we’re” it’s discussing is a much smaller group of people than he wants it to be.

The piece seemingly at first centers around the really interesting part about Substack - the fact that people with audiences that want to read what they think about stuff can make real money from doing so. It also delves briefly into Substack’s Pro program, which I personally think is a horribly organized thing that will only cause the company problems.

It’s the usual Substack story - hey, I’m a writer who now writes on Substack, I left my day job and now Substack is my job, Substack gave me an advance. There’s the heralding of it being “direct-to-consumer,” a toothless summary of those who have been “cancelled” who also make seven-figures (Glenn Greenwald and Andrew Sullivan) with not a single discussion as to why, or the harm they cause, other than an extremely wrongheaded analysis of Jude Doyle’s serious issues with Jesse Singal and his transphobia, with the trademark Ben Smith utter lack of criticism, summarizing it as an argument over “gender policy.”

The piece, it seems, is the big chance to announce that yet another reporter - in this case the New York Times’ Charlie Warzel - has decided to go solo with a paid-for Substack, and a chance to also boast that he “turned down an offer of an advance well above my Times salary, in part because of the editing and the platform The Times gives [him], and in part because[he] didn’t think I’d make it back.” It reads as if this entire column was dedicated to specifically announcing a colleague and their friends’ new thing, wrapped with the most surface-level non-analysis of Substack possible.

I realize that I am analyzing a column about navel-gazing by writing about the thing he’s navel-gazing about in my own voice on my own column based on my own opinions, which is precisely my annoyance with his column, and Ben Smith in general. A guy who was the editor in chief of Buzzfeed - a company that fundamentally shifted online content on a historical level - who is now the Media Columnist at the times - has absolutely no analysis of this entire situation beyond “hmmm, well, they offered me lots of money, but I chose not to take it.”

The most interesting thing about Substack, to me, isn’t that there are people leaving well-moneyed jobs to then self-monetize. This is, frankly, a boring story - it is a case of people who already have an audience using that audience more directly. People who are already popular using that popularity is boring, and constantly repeating that it’s happening and that it’s “terrifying” people is a masturbatory exercise.

What is interesting and relatively untold with Substack are people that did not leave national media jobs - people like Luke O’Neil, a career freelancer with 43,000 Twitter followers - and yet have still found a stable income. This isn’t an insult to Luke, who is an excellent writer, but an example of a story of someone who didn’t have a nationally-syndicated column or 1.6 million followers who has a Substack that makes money.

Ironically, Ben Smith begun his column with the most interesting anecdote - that Danny Lavery, an author, got a $430,000 contract with Substack. He then leaves it and spends significantly more time discussing people that left jobs in the national media to start Substacks, despite this being far more of a media story than a tech columnist starting a Substack (no offense to Charlie). I have been fairly critical of Substack’s general approach to giving advances to some total pieces of shit, but one thing they have done is enable people to create and monetize words in a fairly frictionless way.

And I feel like the conversation around Substack very rarely comes back to that, because everybody wants to discuss this endless narrative of it killing media. The distribution mechanism and the WYSIWYG editor work very well, and getting money from people (I wouldn’t know, I do not think my work here is worth money) seems very easy. The fact that there are people that are making money on Substack who are outside of the deep media circles is very, very interesting.

Perhaps it’s because Substack’s real threat to the media is in how it gives freelancers in some cases a way of making money and not being entirely dependent on an industry that regularly treats them with contempt. It also gives those with an audience significantly more bargaining power if a media entity wants to try and pay them, and a way to build an audience outside of their job. While getting in with some sort of media circle is oftentimes a requirement to “get somewhere” in a media entity, a Substack (or other newsletter) that can easily and directly be distributed makes being a “member of the media” significantly less important.

The issue will come down to how much people can reasonably spend on content a month. There is no monetization on Substack other than monthly subscriptions, and thus there may be a point at which people aren’t able to pay for tons of premium Substacks. That being said, many people pay for multiple Patreons, so there’s every chance that that hunger and sustainable audience is out there. And there’s even more of a chance that people would rather pay one or two people they actually like to read than paying for a newspaper subscription they only sort-of-like.

And this is where the non-media people are going to succeed - they’re going to be the ones that people are really avidly willing to pay for every month, and they are the ones that I want to hear about. I do not give a shit if someone who has over 100,000 followers and a national masthead is going to get another media job but it’s a newsletter - I want to hear if there are people who didn’t have a media job that basically create one out of Substack.

I think a core of that interest is that I believe the media industry picks its favorites and successors, and continues to pick which Substacks will be big through exposing them through tweets and columns. The panicked “wow this person left X outlet to write their own newsletter!” articles are an exercise in keeping the people they want in the media - which is fine - but also exists to perpetuate fame within the circles they run in.

What will be interesting is if any of these people come back from their Substack sojourns, or can be beckoned back with more money and status. We shall see.