Being on Substack is turning in to an identity marker

Let's make sure it happens right

As a writer and former journalist, it’s been hard to miss this year’s steady drumbeat of other writers and journalists departing their institutional publications for Substack.

I started this newsletter thinking I was late to the Substack party. Turns out I was kind of early. In one of my first posts I grappled with how closely I identified with the term itself, writer. Would I blog just for me? Would I keep a journal? Would I try to make money with my writing, and if so, how? The most fundamental question I faced was this: was I serious about my own professionalism?

Ultimately, I decided I was, and I wrote a post about it titled Why I moved from Wordpress to Substack (And what it all means). The piece was as much about my values as a writer as it was about the platforms themselves. Indeed, it was really about what the decision on platforms says about your values.

Why journalists are joining Substack

The answer begins with Hamish McKenzie, one of Substack’s co-founders and a former journalist himself. In a post from May 18th, What’s next for journalists, McKenzie talks about his past as a freelance writer. He came to the U.S. in 2010, 29 years old, and hustled and scraped to make $35,000 his first year. That’s a princely sum for a freelance journalist at any age, especially one newly arrived to the U.S.

For as long as I’ve been following McKenzie’s posts, I’ve been impressed with his grasp of the major forces impacting journalism, and his attention to building a platform which works for journalists. Take, for example, Substack’s announcement in July that they would begin providing legal support for their writers. Only a journalist can truly appreciate how significant that was. The line between freedom of the press and censorship, or between defamation and truthful reporting, can sometimes only be defended (and sometimes must be defended) by a lawyer who knows what they’re doing, and the presence of that support gives journalists the crucial confidence they need to do their jobs well without fear of being sued into oblivion.

McKenzie’s attention to journalism has resulted in a kind of slow drip of prominent writers who have abandoned their institutional comfort blankets in favor of Substack’s direct-to-reader, subscription-based model. In fact, so many prominent reporters have joined Substack this year that the shift itself has become its own story. Here’s just a partial list of big names from this year:

Scott Alexander of Slate Star Codex has also written that he’s considering a move to Substack.

The common thread

Shortly after Glenn Greenwald announced his departure from The Intercept in October, I saw a Twitter commentator who fancied themselves particularly woke chime in on the exodus. She had seen all these white men bringing their audiences to Substack and concluded that the platform must therefore be yet another tool for perpetuating the white patriarchy and boosting existing power structures.

She’s since deleted the tweet, perhaps because she realized in retrospect how wrong she got it. But the online debate I saw about the kinds of writers who were leaving their previous institutional homes got me thinking what those writers might share, which got me back to thinking about values.

Fact is, the Substack model is the exact opposite of a tool for perpetuating established power structures, much less white or male ones. To begin with, it’s free. So there should be no confusion about needing a lot of money or access to capital to get started. Secondly, our subscribers are our own. We can upload an email list to the platform, or export our email list from it. There is no algorithm designed by any Silicon Valley frat boy intermediating my content from you the reader, and I hope there never will be.

Of course, writers like Matt Taibbi, Andrew Sullivan, and Matthew Yglesias are able to bring their existing audiences to Substack, but there’s hardly anything nefarious there, and in order to do so, they had to use other platforms, namely Twitter. It’s not like Taibbi was able to export some email subscriber list from The Rolling Stone, or Yglesias from Vox.

In fact, I think Sullivan said it best:

Well, yes. The Substack model does kind of lends itself to that.

What kind of writers join Substack

If Substack does become a kind of identity marker, let it not be a marker of political ideology. Let it instead be a marker of independence, of freedom.

Newspapers have been in a death spiral for a long time now. I could feel the beginnings of it when I was newspaper reporter, from 2004 to 2007. I covered politics for the Albuquerque Journal, then, as now, New Mexico’s largest daily newspaper.

Yet I could see the threats to circulation and to ad revenue, and thus to our ability to do good work. Craigslist was taking over the classifieds. Facebook and YouTube were just at the start of their path toward global domination. “Information wants to be free” was still a kind of mantra among certain idealistic Internet purists. Whenever a reporter left our newsroom, the powers that be declined to fill the position, and the rest of us made do, trying to cover the same areas with an ever-dwindling staff.

I remember a debate one day in the newsroom. The publishers had come to talk about the strategic future of the newspaper, specifically how they would adapt to more and more readers going online, cancelling their paper subscriptions. A few of the younger staff writers argued that the web version of the site should be totally free, because that’s what people wanted — make it free, draw the audience, and then make up the lost revenue from paper subscriptions on online ad revenue.

I’m embarrassed to say I was one of those young staff writers. Oh how naive and wrong I was.

Today, count me among those who whose most fervently held beliefs include the idea that chasing eyeballs for the purpose of selling ads is leading to the wholesale degradation of our media, our public discourse, and indeed our souls.

The Substack model matters

In journalism, it used to not matter much who your advertisers were. As a reporter, I never saw the ad sales people and they never saw me. They worked in some other part of the building I never went in to.

Fifteen years later, who your advertisers are matters a great deal. Journalists with podcasts read the ads themselves. In their own voice. My old-school, old media sensibilities are still kind of aghast at how definitively the old wall between the reporters and the advertisers has collapsed. Now, journalists tell me on their podcasts how much they love the products or services they are paid to shill in between segments. Now, companies are political. You can’t not be. To do business in America is to more and more often take sides in a culture war.

Substack stands in opposition to this trend. If a writer is to be financially accountable to someone, so Substack has declared, let it be their readers. Let that relationship take precedence, Substack has said. And furthermore: let the platform which enables that subscription model tie its financial incentives to the writers who use it. When I make money, Substack makes money, and not before then. As my revenue goes up, so does theirs. No advertisers and no algorithms.

So, what does it mean to have chosen this model? Simply that we value our independence — and we want a technology partner who defends it.