Opinion | Is the Rise of the Substack Economy Bad for Democracy?

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Last week, Facebook made its first venture into the burgeoning industry of paid subscription newsletters, in a bid to court the growing number of writers leaving traditional publications for start-up newsletter platforms like Substack and Revue. The goal of the new service, called Bulletin, “is to support millions of people doing creative work,” Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive of Facebook, said.

A newsletter about newsletters is, I recognize, an unseemly proposition at best. But Silicon Valley’s investment in the business model could have far-reaching implications: “History has shown that the economic basis of American journalism is deeply entangled with its style and tone,” Michael Socolow, a journalism professor at the University of Maine, wrote last year about the rise of Substack. “When one primary revenue source replaces another, much larger evolutions in the information environment occur.”

What evolutions, then, can we expect if companies like Facebook and Substack succeed in their goal, and how will they affect the health of the free press? Here’s what people are saying.

Why subscription journalism is having a moment

The concept of niche, subscription-based news and commentary isn’t exactly novel. As Socolow explains, it bears a resemblance to early 19th-century journalism, when newspapers were subsidized largely by political parties and elite readerships.

In the 1830s, publishers started to rely on advertising revenue and new printing technology to lower their prices: 1 cent an edition, sold on the street. By broadening journalism’s audience, the penny press paved the way for the modern print newspaper.

Then, of course, came the internet. In the past two decades, most of the advertising revenue that used to underwrite traditional news was captured by Google and Facebook, casting the industry into crisis: Between 2008 and 2019, U.S. newspapers lost half of their newsroom employees. Local news coverage, in particular, has collapsed.

The fallout: “A growing body of research has found that government is worse off when local news suffers,” Joshua Darr writes in FiveThirtyEight. “In fact, inadequate local news has been linked to more corruption, less competitive elections, weaker municipal finances and a prevalence of party-line politicians who don’t bring benefits back to their districts.”

The creator economy has been hailed as a solution — or part of a solution — to this crisis. “Digital media might be moving away from a model where creators toil for free, trying to accumulate as many followers as possible and somehow earning a living through ad-revenue or product placement,” Oscar Schwartz writes in The Guardian. “We seem, rather, to be approaching what Kevin Kelly calls the 1,000 true fans principle: If you find 1,000 people who will pay you for what you create, you can make a living as an independent creator.”

For some journalists, ideological and editorial independence from the strictures of professional newsrooms is the newsletter model’s primary selling point. But the money can be its own draw: The journalist Glenn Greenwald, for example, has been estimated to make between $80,000 and $160,000 a month after Substack takes its 10 percent cut — far more than most journalists make in a year. (Revue, which was acquired by Twitter this year, takes a 5 percent cut, while Facebook is offering to forgo fees at launch.) Other writers, like the Vox co-founder Matt Yglesias, are offered six-figure advances to migrate to the platform.

Readers, in turn, are promised a more intimate connection to their favorite writers, unfettered and unfiltered. (In the words of Politico’s Jack Shafer, “Partaking of a Substack column can be like drinking cow’s milk straight from the teat instead of waiting for it to be pasteurized, homogenized and bottled by the dairyman.”) Substack and Facebook have also pledged to invest millions of dollars in local journalism.

Is this the media future we want?

The Substack model has no shortage of skeptics. “A robust press is essential to a functioning democracy, and a cultural turn toward journalistic individualism might not be in the collective interest,” Anna Weiner argued in The New Yorker last year. “It is expensive and laborious to hold powerful people and institutions to account, and, at many media organizations, any given article is the result of collaboration between writers, editors, copy editors, fact-checkers and producers.” Most of the journalism that thrives on Substack is commentary, which is often cheaper than news to produce.

But that doesn’t mean that traditional news organizations are somehow safe from the competition. As Will Oremus writes in Slate, commentators have historically acted as subsidies for the more expensive and less glamorous work of local reporting — and, I would add for news operations like this one, international coverage.

“The Times’s digital success has been built partly on a major expansion of its opinion section; magazines such as The Atlantic and Mother Jones have relied on their best-known columnists to support their originally reported features and investigations,” Oremus writes. “It’s those personalities that Substack is going after and poaching.”

As a result, the paid subscription newsletter business is likely to favor writers who already have a national platform. “If you visit Substack’s website,” Clio Chang wrote for The Columbia Journalism Review last year, “you’ll see leaderboards of the top 25 paid and free newsletters; the writers’ names are accompanied by their little circular avatars. The intention is declarative — you, too, can make it on Substack. But as you peruse the lists, something becomes clear: The most successful people on Substack are those who have already been well served by existing media power structures.”

It’s doubtless a good deal for that small coterie of writers. But whether the citizenry will benefit in the long run is another question. Sarah Roberts, a professor at the School of Education and Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, has gone so far as to call Substack “dangerous” and a “threat to journalism.”

“People not inside journalism or media may not know the specifics, but they often have a nebulous sense that there are norms — independence, disclosure of compromise, editorial oversight and vetting of the reporting,” she tweeted in February. By decamping to an independent newsletter, “An investigative reporter who has earned her bona fides in a newsroom and under both strict editorial and journalistic principles, has just cashed out and turned herself into an opinion writer.”

In defense of the creator economy

The journalist Matt Taibbi, who left Rolling Stone to start a Substack newsletter last year, argues that traditional news organizations have lost whatever authority they once had to gate-keep information. “To imply that trust is a thing that can only be conferred by a mainstream newsroom is beyond insulting, especially since mainstream news organizations already long ago started to become infamous for betraying exactly those hallowed ‘norms’ to which Roberts refers,” he writes.

Taibbi locates the origins of this betrayal in the lead-up to the Iraq war, when mainstream news organizations credulously reported the George W. Bush administration’s false claims about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. “It was bad enough when the traditional newsrooms Roberts so esteems near-universally swallowed the W.M.D. lie, but the real kicker was when the worst offenders in that episode were promoted, and given the helm at major magazines and journalistic supertankers like The Times,” Taibbi writes.

There’s good reason to believe that a more diverse press could puncture such bubbles of false consensus. Socolow, for instance, cites I.F. Stone, a muckraker who began self-publishing his own subscription-based newsletter in the early 1950s. “His skeptical reporting on the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident, questioning the idea of an unprovoked North Vietnamese naval attack, for example, challenged the U.S. government’s official story, and was later vindicated as more accurate than comparable reportage produced by larger news organizations,” Socolow explains. More recently, the proliferation of social media and newsletter platforms has allowed independent writers to challenge groupthink around Covid-19 within parts of the professional press.

But perhaps the most valuable function of the paid newsletter is to remind people that journalism costs money. “Web surfing made us forget this,” Socolow writes. “If Substack can help correct this misapprehension, and ensure that journalists are properly remunerated for their labor, it could help remedy our damaged news environment, which is riddled with misinformation.”

A paradigm shift, or a bump in the road?

Tech companies may be betting big on the subscription journalism model, but it’s not clear how much of a market for it there really is. “From the consumer side, the proposition is scattered at best,” Hannah Kahlert writes at MIDiA Research. “To be successful, and before it can offer brand partners an audience, the Bulletin rollout will have to build that audience by providing something they cannot find elsewhere — and there are many, many email newsletters on the market, most far more tailored to niche audiences and perspectives than the mainstream considerations of Facebook will likely be able to afford.”

If newsletters remain primarily a form for commentary, the model could soon run into the same problems as the rest of the journalism industry. “Honestly, there are a lot of people out there who do good opinion writing,” Bill Grueskin, a professor at Columbia Journalism School, told Slate. “If anything, the supply exceeds the demand.”

Do you have a point of view we missed? Email us at [email protected]. Please note your name, age and location in your response, which may be included in the next newsletter.

READ MORE

“Substack Is a Scam in the Same Way That All Media Is” [New York]

“Is Substack the panacea local news is looking for?” [Poynter]

“A classic Silicon Valley tactic — losing money to crush rivals — comes in for scrutiny” [The Washington Post]

“Why Matthew Yglesias Left Vox” [The Atlantic]

“What Is Substack?” [The New Republic]

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