Same as it ever was. Photo (cc) 2006 by Sofia Gk.
Previously published at GBH News.
I have nothing against Substack.
The newsletter platform seems like a clean, simple tool aimed at helping independent writers charge subscription fees for their work.
But please spare me the hype. Substack has been the subject of recent stories by NPR, the Columbia Journalism Review and The New York Times, among others. And though most of the coverage has come with a few caveats, the impression that’s left is that Substack, at long last, has created a workable business model to support journalism at a time when COVID, Google and Facebook are destroying more traditional forms of media.
Substack, Ben Smith wrote in the Times earlier this year, holds out the promise of “reversing the dynamic of the old top-down media company and producing something more like a talent agency, where the individual journalist is the star and the boss, and the editor is merely on call.” Now where have we heard that before?
With celebrity journalists such as Matt Taibbi, Glenn Greenwald, Andrew Sullivan and Matthew Iglesias giving up their institutional gigs and going it alone, Substack has emerged as the hot new media thing of 2021, even though it’s not new and it’s unlikely to pay off for more than a few writers who had a substantial audience even before they switched to Substack.
“The Substack model works really well for some people who already have prestige and a following,” New York University journalism professor Meredith Broussard told NPR. “And it doesn’t work that well for everybody else.”
Back when I was a graduate student in the 1980s, I remember coming across an aphorism that there are two schools of thought about the unfolding of history. The first is that it’s one damn thing after another. The second is that it’s the same damn thing over and over.
Substack is clearly an example of the second. Because what is the newsletter model if it’s not blogging revisited? Remember blogs? I’ve been writing one since 2002. I also teach a workshop on “Blogging for Journalists” once or twice a year at the Harvard Kennedy School. Over the years, my message has morphed from “this is a cool new thing” to “everyone is doing it, so you should too” to “blogging may be dead, but it’s still got a lot of value.”
I guess my revised message should be “blogging is alive and well, except now we call it Substack.” After all, you can subscribe to my blog and get an email every time I post — so it’s a newsletter, right? And Substack archives your past newsletters in an attractive list kept in reverse-chronological order — so it’s a blog, right? Does this sound like a revolution to you?
There is one important difference: Substack has better, more flexible tools for payment than blogging ever had. We could put out a virtual tip jar back in the day (I never did) or run ads (I experimented with them but decided they weren’’t worth the bother). For the most part, though, charging subscription fees for access to a blog is difficult, and very few bloggers tried it. Substack makes it simple and, as the coverage enthusiastically notes, a small number of writers at the top of the heap are earning six-figure incomes. That’s pretty impressive.
At the same time, though, the paid-subscription model itself may be heading for the bubble-bursting stratosphere sometime in 2021. National news organizations have returned to something like financial health through reader revenue, which is no small accomplishment after years of wondering if The New York Times would survive. But how many news subscriptions are readers going to pay for? My guess: one or two digital newspapers; a magazine or two; and that’s just about it. Writers charging $6 a month on Substack are going to be frozen out — again, except for the celebrities.
“If Substack is successful, it will remind news consumers that paying for good journalism is worth it,” wrote the University of Maine’s Michael Socolow for The Conversation. “But if Substack’s pricing precludes widespread distribution of its news and commentary, its value as a public service won’t be fully realized.”
Moreover, there are some problems with Substack that sound exactly like the laments you used to hear from bloggers.
For instance, when Andrew Sullivan gave up his blog a few years ago and went to work for New York magazine, he said the grind had gotten to be too much. This past summer, when he announced he was leaving the magazine for Substack, he was still whining about the workload.
“Since I closed down the Dish, my bloggy website, five years ago, after 15 years of daily blogging,” he wrote, “I have not missed the insane work hours that all but broke my health.”
Somehow Sullivan has convinced himself that things will be different at Substack. Maybe he should have checked in with Patrice Peck, a journalist who publishes a Substack newsletter in relative obscurity called Coronavirus News for Black Folks. According to an article by Clio Chang in the Columbia Journalism Review, Peck has discovered that overwork and burnout are just as real for newsletter writers as they are for bloggers. (And why would we think otherwise?)
“I’m creating graphics on Instagram to promote it, tweeting it, doing everything,” Peck told Chang. “It’s a one-woman show. That gets exhausting. I don’t put it out as frequently as I’d like to.”
As for Substack’s corporate priorities, well, look out below. Chang noted that Substack is funded in large measure through $15.3 million in venture capital that it received in 2018. Among other things, the money has enabled Substack to recruit well-known writers. But at some point the investors will insist on their payday, as they always do. That’s when Substack writers will realize they’re not working on their own but are, rather, cogs in someone else’s machine.
After the initial excitement of the early to mid-2000s, blogging settled into a valuable but small niche in the digital media world. Some of us are still at it. Many others moved on.
The same is likely to be true of Substack as well. Because Substack isn’t merely similar to blogging. It is blogging, and it’s amazing that so many think that it’s new and different. Like Blogspot, WordPress, Medium (an earlier cautionary tale for journalists) and others, Substack will take its place as just another platform for self-publishing — better than some, but evolutionary, not revolutionary.
And the hard work of finding ways to pay for journalism in the digital age will continue.
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