Substack's Clumsy Recreation of the Old Worlds

"Substack doesn’t reflect a divergence from traditional media—the powers have simply shifted hands: from legacy media to a tech company."

This is a guest post by Rozali Telbis. As always, these posts will be free, with no money going in Substack’s direction. You can give money directly to Rozali here. Thanks!

by Rozali Telbis

A couple weeks ago, I wrote an article on the merits of Substack and how it might impact the media landscape. Since then, more discourse has erupted in the Twittersphere, with journalists, writers, and anyone with an opinion, weighing in on the pros and cons of Substack. Substack co-founder, Hamish McKenzie, also weighed in with his own post, “Why we pay writers,” in an effort to neutralize controversy about their mysterious program, Substack Pro.  

Unfortunately, the most pervasive and loudest critiques against Substack have been primarily ideological in nature. Critics (many of them self-proclaimed “progressives”) have been calling on Substack to remove “alt-right” and “anti-LGBT” journalists from the platform. These attacks have taken center stage and reduced discourse, once again, to an ego-fueled pile-on, rife with mud-slinging, ad hominem attacks, and libel to boot. 

While these criticisms are unproductive at best, and dangerous at worst, there are other questions worth asking that are largely left out of these conversations. 

Some questions that come to mind are: What role, if any, should tech companies play in controlling the media landscape? And, more specifically, should tech companies be tasked with “rescuing” journalism? Would it be in everyone’s best interest to do so? 

These questions are becoming increasingly important to ask as more tech companies are readily positioning themselves as producers, and not just distributors of informationIn 2013, eBay founder, Pierre Omidyar, founded First Look Media, of which The Intercept is a subsidiary. That same year, Jeff Bezos purchased The Washington Post for a cool $250 million. Substack’s blurred role as publisher, platform, and investor, marks a continuation of this trend of tech coalescing with media. It may assert itself as a tech company on one occasion (when it needs money), but it can reposition itself as an investor (when it wants to poach writers), or as a platform for independent writers whenever it is confronted with criticism about its role as a tech company and investor, respectively. The ability to change hats is an effective way to sidestep criticism and dodge accountability—and being a tech company, there’s no requirement for transparency or openness, as Hamish reminds us in his post. 

Interestingly, many of the same people who criticize Big Tech fail to acknowledge the possible drawbacks of having a VC-backed tech company such as Substack masquerading as a publisher/platform/<fill-in-the-blank>. Glenn Greenwald, for instance, tweeted the following: “What Substack does—like YouTube & Patreon before it—is empower journalists to do reporting and analysis without the shackles of corporate editorial or liberal pieties. That’s why audiences love it, and why so many corporate journalists hate it. It’s that simple.”

Alas, it’s not that simple. 

Both YouTube and Patreon are just as ideologically motivated and beholden to corporate influence as antiquated newsrooms. Both platforms go to great lengths to punish creators who deviate from the status quo. YouTube does this through its arcane algorithms or by demonetizing creators, while Patreon outright boots creators off its platform if they violate its ambiguous terms (like other tech giants, the terms are unevenly applied depending on the user’s alleged transgression).

In its early days, YouTube advertised itself as a space for the ordinary person to freely distribute videos for anyone to see. YouTube’s slogan ‘Broadcast Yourself’ was more than just a slogan—it was a direct invitation for everyday people, from the outcasts to the amateur videographers, to share whatever they wanted, and everyone could do so equally. No creator was given special treatment. That’s not the case anymore. In recent years, YouTube has taken a sharp turn towards corporatization and ideological rigidity—and its smaller content creators have been feeling the change. Amid the pandemic, YouTube made no attempts to conceal its efforts to promote its celebrity creators. Over the past year, a handful of celebrities decided to try their hand at vlogging, and YouTube rewarded them generously: Their channels were widely promoted, and they were instantly verified and monetized all before their first video was posted. For YouTubers, this is unheard of. (Typically, it takes several years, depending on the creator, to amass a large enough following and video repository to get verified and monetized—if it happens at all). YouTube used to be a space for making the “invisible visible” but it has long abandoned its founding principles to elevate the ordinary and opted instead to reward carefully cultivated content made by celebrities and other public figures.  

Medium, too, went through a similar transformation. Medium, a blogging platform launched 5 years before Substack, also hoped to elevate emerging and novice creators. It blurred the lines between being a tech company, platform, and a publisher. In the space of a few years, Medium went to great lengths to recruit established writers and editors from other media outlets to create and manage its in-house publications, despite having thousands of independent writers to poach from on its own platform. Medium is also now heavily ideologically motivated, so writers who deviate too far from the party line are unceremoniously booted from the platform entirely. Some independent bloggers still make money, but on the whole, it’s viewed as an unprofitable thought experiment that rewards established writers over the rest. 

Since its launch in 2017, Substack also branded itself as a place for “independent writing” but due to its still-limited functionality, finding new writers organically is a near impossible feat if you don’t already have a referral or recommendation. Instead of building out this functionality to equalize the platform, Substack has opted to poach well-established journalists and writers through their Substack Pro program (similar to what Medium has done). Substack has also offered health care stipends, design help and even money to hire freelance editors for select high-profile writers. Their efforts are clearly paying off: in the first three months of the pandemic, Substack’s readership and writership doubled. 

When Substack loyalists screech “just build your own following!,” it discounts the ways that these platforms—not just Substack—favors already-established voices through their mysterious programs and initiatives. It would be nice to “just build a following” if these platforms just stuck to their mission and didn’t selectively give special treatment to already-popular creators, making it more challenging for emerging writers to establish themselves from the ground up. 

In some ways, Substack does harken back to the old blogosphere—but in the way that it matters most—it’s already faltering. I’m certainly not discounting the benefits of Substack: it’s free for writers, it has a built-in subscription feature, and a clean interface to boot. It also houses some of the most intellectual writers today. That being said, Substack doesn’t reflect a divergence from traditional media—the powers have simply shifted hands: from legacy media to a tech company. Of course, traditional media has its limitations—there’s no denying this, but that doesn’t make Substack immune to any criticism whatsoever, nor does it make it a panacea for a dying industry. 

Sometimes, Rozali is on Twitter, or more lately, hanging out hereFeed Rozali’s piggy bank