A proposed cure for media angst about Substack

Seed the next generation

I keep hearing that Substack is causing anxiety for traditional media. Here, for example, is the framing of a recent Bloomberg BusinessWeek story about Substack: 

The same anxiety was implied, I suspect, in the New Yorker’s recent story about us, headlined: “Is Substack the media future we want?” In an interview for that piece, the reporter, Anna Wiener, pressed me on the notion that we might consider Substack the supreme answer to all the woes of the news business. But we’ve never made that claim. In fact, in the very first thing we wrote, published before we even launched the product, we said that Substack cannot and should not be the only model for news.

We’re not claiming that this model will work for all types of news, and we don’t think it should be the only model. Perhaps it will co-exist with a non-profit model like ProPublica, a government-supported model like the BBC, or, perhaps something new, like a non-partisan fund for journalism paid into by the tech platforms that rely on the work of others to fill their newsfeeds. 

The truth is that we do not see ourselves in competition with traditional media. We are not here to “disrupt” the city newspaper or the local radio station or even global news organizations like the New York Times. Our focus is on the general information ecosystem, not any one player within it. We are attempting to subvert the attention economy.

But that doesn’t mean there’s no value in some healthy pressure. 

The news media business has plenty of problems. One of the most acute is how writers experience it. 

Take Anand Giridharadas, author of The Ink, as well as several books, including the 2018 bestseller Winners Take All. Anand worked as a correspondent and columnist for the New York Times for 11 years, but he never received the benefits of full employment there. While he was entrusted with being one of the Times’ leading voices in India and given the bi-weekly Letter from America column, he was never given healthcare. He tried and failed to figure out how to convert his contractor role into a position that provided the security he sought as a journalist who had reached the upper echelons of the industry. As he told me in a recent call: “It was never on offer.” Later, he had a similar experience as a columnist for TIME: a contract, but no healthcare and no security.

Anand has followed some of the commentary around Substack’s rise with bemusement, particularly relating to the idea that the platform serves as a revolt against “cancel culture.” To him, the bigger threat to our discourse instead comes from “greenlight culture” – that is, the question of who is given opportunities in media in the first place. 

“Who gets op-ed columns that can attract a mob pile-on?,” he asks. “Who gets to be the cofounder of a big media company? Who gets philanthropic money to start an investigative site?”

When he looks at the op-ed pages of the prestige publications, he sees a “Dianne Feinstein problem.” The best positions are hoarded by a roster of tenured writers who are reluctant to make way for a new generation. “I see people who have stayed too long at the fair.”

Anand realizes that he is one of the exceptionally lucky ones. He has had the opportunity to write for the world’s biggest publications and to publish books with the most prestigious imprints. His livelihood as a journalist has never been under serious threat. But the vast majority of writers today face much tougher conditions. 

Freelancers especially have it tough, having to endlessly pitch story ideas to editors who in some cases fail to even reply to their emails. Even once a story has been assigned, those freelancers often must cover the costs of their own reporting and then hope that their piece is deemed of acceptable standard and – timing, competition, and internal politics permitting – finds its way to publication, where it may or may not be promoted and it may or may not find a readership. At the end of all that, eventually, the freelancer will be paid – a pittance, usually, and often late. 

At the same time, in recent years the US media has become the domain of the elite. Look at the educational backgrounds of journalists at the New York Times and the Washington Post and you’ll find that the Ivy League is massively over-represented. Meanwhile, many news organizations continue to avail themselves of unpaid internships, which means one of the chief pipelines for future talent is populated mostly with people who are wealthy enough to go without pay for months on end. 

When the scales are tipped so heavily in favor of the already-lucky, how can an outsider hope to break in? 

For Substack, it has always been important that writers can rely on a business model that works and helps them make more money than they might have in traditional media jobs. However, it’s just as crucial that talented, committed writers can start their own media endeavors regardless of their backgrounds. We’re happy with all the star talent that has made the jump to Substack, but we’re even more excited about the chance to help the next generation emerge. That’s why we’ve been so encouraged to see an array of non-mainstream voices succeeding on Substack, such as Austin Channing Brown, Isaac Saul, Haley Nahman, and Nathan Tankus, to name a few. We have a ton more work to do on this front, but it’s a start. 

Anand started The Ink because he had concluded that places like the New York Times and the New Yorker were just not going to be viable career options. “I really thought I needed a space where I can put other things out there into the world without having to beg for permission,” he said. 

Anand’s situation resonates with that of Lauren Wolfe, whose contract with the Times wasn’t extended after she bared her emotions in a tweet about President Biden’s inauguration. Lauren is now publishing on Substack with her own publication, Chills. Some of the best sports publications on Substack are produced by writers laid off by, or discouraged by the layoffs at, SB Nation and Bleacher Report. Matt Miller’s The Draft Scout has given him a freedom he couldn’t find at Bleacher Report. “I’m excited because I have no boss, I have no corporate sponsor, I have no ads, nothing,” he told The Big Lead. “I get to actually write the things that I care about.”

This kind of activity might indeed feel like competition to news organizations. If they cannot offer writers stable jobs with fundamental benefits like healthcare, many writers will wonder if they’re better off going independent. But news organizations are in a greater position of strength than they might realize. As the media ecosystem evolves, they’re well placed to adapt and perhaps even thrive. 

Traditional media companies know how to produce compelling media products, and they have the resources necessary to seed the next generation. They can fund and support writers who want to start their own publications based on the same principles that are helping Substack writers succeed. These companies have editorial and legal resources to assist writers under this model, and they can also help with distribution, driving subscribers to the publications and then sharing in the spoils.

Through these means, the companies and the writers can be building for a future together, with a shared sense of ownership. Writers will stop being seen as a cost center and will start being seen as core to the growth of media businesses. 

And yes, of course, none of this is certain to work. But if a traditional media company can make an arrangement like this profitable for one writer, then they can probably do it for 10. And if they can do it for 10, then they can do it for 100. And that’s how a new thing starts. 

That seems to me like the best possible way to alleviate existential anxiety. 

This is the third post for my new occasional column. Previously, I wrote about the return of blogging and Facebook and Twitter’s entry into the paid newsletter market.