Substack: a critique.

A critique in nine articles, selected for you between November 2020 and March 2021.

The dream of a better media world, the distrust of venture capitalists, the fear of new echo chambers, the reality of a platform that does not want to be a publisher, but cannot avoid taking responsibility on who writes and what is written. That talk about Substack is multifaceted and never neutral.

One thing is sure. Newsletters are not hype. There is a true desire to escape the trap of social media and to support quality content. But we need to recognize that Substack can help a lot of good content (on almost all topics) find their readers, but cannot alone solve the problems of journalism. So, probably, it is time for journalists to talk less about Substack and leave it to the many other writers that have something to say outside news media.

Training ground for new authors, inspiration for old publishers. 26th Jan 2021. The Substack model, designed for authors who want to become independent, is working as a training ground for launching new publishing ventures, author collectives and even as an inspiration for traditional publishers who want to extend their network of contributors to more entrepreneurial models.

In this article, Axios cites the examples of Everything Bundle, a collective born on Substack and now independent, and – at the other end of the spectrum – Forbes and its revenue share project with newsletter authors who decide to publish with the magazine. The bottom line, according to Axios: after being unbundled into simple newsletters written by an individual writer, media companies are being re-bundled in novel ways that need new tools and structures.

A new life for vertical magazines.

The Guardian, 25th Feb 2021. Thanks to platforms like Substack, vertical magazines have found new life, becoming paid newsletters. These conversions are another phenomenon sped up, but not originated, by the pandemics. Now, however, the model of audience niches served via digital newsletters is becoming a mass phenomenon, populated by journalists with a noble past and many skills that, brought to the newsletter, can elevate the media and give it structure and decency.

The Guardian tells the story of the Q Magazine (Bauer Media), a monthly music magazine closed in 2020 and reborn as The New Cue, a weekly newsletter run by some of the Q Magazine editors.

Is Substack the media future we want?

By Anna Wiener on The New Yorker, January 2021. Reviewing the history of newsletters from the 1980s to the present day, the piece asks whether a future of newsletter journalism – replacing magazines and newsrooms – is the future we want. The question remains open: if newsletters offer to their authors not only an economic possibility but also a lot of creative autonomy; without editors and newsrooms some genres essential to democracy, such as investigative journalism, become difficult to keep alive.

The risk of delivering opinions instead of exploring facts is there. Also, the risk of creating new echo chambers that replace the algorithmically defined social feeds on our phones with a self-selected portfolio of paid newsletters. In each way, it remains only room for things that reflect our worldview and no room for being challenged by other ideas.

It is a piece worth reading, especially if you know little about the Substack platform and its investors from Silicon Valley. Speaking of it: the author of the article, Anna Wiener, knows the world of venture capital and tech startups very well, having experienced it firsthand and portrayed it in a very successful memoir: “Uncanny Valley”, published in 2020.

(Behind free registration paywall)

Substack raises more money, but is that a good thing?

Columbia Journalism Review, 1 April 2021. Substack’s story and mission attracts a lot of praise and admiration, but what if too much money raised through venture capital turns it into another mid-sized startup in Silicon Valley? This is the question posed by Mathew Ingram of the Columbia Journalism Review.

With Twitter and Facebook poised to launch their newsletter platforms and the immense audience development power that their subscribers give them, Substack certainly needs funds to attract and finance name authors to compete against the two big platforms. But this inevitably turns Substack from a platform into a publisher: that can be good, but it can also mean control over publishing policies or a focus not on the many niches that flourish on Substack today, but on more “mass market” writers.

The presence of Andreessen Horowitz among Substack’s big investors suggests two things: on the one hand, we know A16z has aspirations to dismantle the traditional media. Not only has the firm talked about creating its own media entity, but it has also invested in several services like Clubhouse. On the other hand, the funding raised will eventually have to generate profits, even to the detriment of Substack´s original mission, centred on cultivating authorial diversity.

CJR, 1 April 2021

Substack’s success shows readers have had enough of polarised media.

Financial Times, 31st March 2021. In a short column written after Substack’s new funding round in March 2021 (free registratrion paywall) , Financial Times columnist Jemima Kelly observes that the platform’s success, due more to its neutral positioning than to a not sustainable technological advantage, says a lot about readers’ attitudes towards the current state of news media: too polarised, sometimes unbearable. Substack, on the opposite, offers a diversity of themes and points of view, nuances and insights. A balsam for our brains bombarded by debates and aggressive headlines.

Newsletter: a battle against algorithms.
Mit Abonnenten gegen Algorithmen.

FAZ, Harald Staun, 01.04.2021. The German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung introduces its readers to the paid newsletters trend and focuses on the question if something like Substack – be the talk of the town among journalists and a source of significant income for writers – might happen.

Starting from the success of „Morning Briefing“, a political newsletter launched by Gabor Steingart (financed by angel investors and big players like Axel Springer Verlag), that reached over 230.000 subscribers, portraits the german equivalent of Substack, the berlin-based startup Steady. Berlin is the European capital of copycat startups: Steady is a mix of Patreon, Substack and Memberful, with some relevant names among its customers: indie newsletters like “Übermedien“, “Bildblog“or the satirical magazine “Titanic“.

No thesis here about the potential future of newsletters, just the acknowledgement that the size and the attitude to pay are not as big as in the USA and that here in Germany there is still enough trust in the established media to let users spend some Euros to subscribe to them, rather than support primarily independent writers.

Substack Is a Scam in the Same Way That All Media Is.

According to Eric Levitz in the New York Magazine (24th March 2021), journalists leaving their employer publishers for Substack represent a concerning development in some respects. It’s easier for social-media-addicted daily commentators to cultivate loyal fandoms than it is for investigative journalists or state-level political reporters. And yet the latter’s work is more indispensable to journalism’s civic function. An ecosystem in which star pundits serve as a major profit centre for newspapers, which can then use the revenue generated by their pontificating to cross-subsidize hard reporting, is probably healthier for the Fourth Estate than one in which star pundits reap windfall returns by going it alone.

Much less concerning, according to the author, is the recent debate about Substack subsidising renowned publishers to join the platform. Many say that Substack is becoming a scam, promoting itself to aspiring authors with the idea they can make a living of it, while only a few newsletters authors collect enough of a readership to become profitable (more or less like one out of a million on social becomes a rich influencer).

But then, what about the thousands of interns who take unpaid to barely paid positions in traditional journalism, and will never attain the financial security of their publications’ big-name writers? Is that not a scam as well?

Levitz´ conclusion: “There may be something distasteful about the fact that Substack benefits from journalists’ financial desperation. But ultimately the core problem here is not that a newsletter platform is helping cash-strapped writers squeeze some tips out of their Twitter followings. The problem is that legions of talented journalists are going underemployed (..) Forcing Substack to disclose every contract that it has ever offered will not free us from the scam that is the modern media industry. Only publicly financing the Fourth Estate can do that.

The Substackerati: Did a newsletter company create a more equitable media system—or replicate the flaws of the old one?

The Columbia Journalism Review, Winter 2020, Clio Chang. Another piece, published in Winter 2020, goes back to the origins of Substack and forward to its future and role in transforming media. The open questions, that nobody so far can answer, is if Substack:

  • is a pure enabler platform or a publisher – this question has lots to do with the recent steps taken to pay writers to join Substack, to have them “qualify” the platform as the right place to be for your newsletter.
  • Will stick to promote diversity of opinions or – under the pressure of its investors – will, like other media, marginalize opinions and authors that cannot significantly contribute to the platform’s growth and monetization.

Both questions come down to the fundamental one: “there remains a broader question—one that the industry at large will have to answer—whether venture capitalism, driven by the pursuit of high returns on big-bet investments, is, at its core, antithetical to the project of journalism. With new writers joining to escape the newsrooms, and others leaving the platform in polemics with the too many right-wing, conservative, racist voices there, this question could determine – more than the competition of Twitter and Facebook – how the trajectory of Substack will look like.

Heather Cox Richardson Offers a Break From the Media Maelstrom. It’s Working.

Dec. 30, 2020 on The New York Times. This review deserves to be concluded with this article, dedicated to the most popular Substack newsletter in America, and different from those that are often mentioned.

It is called “Letters from an American”: its author, Heather Cox Richardson, is a professor of 19th century American history at Boston College. Her newsletter summarizes in around one thousand words the events of the day in the USA, providing a historical context and a brief, but profound understanding of what those events mean for America. With that newsletter, started thanks to her Facebook followers asking for Dr Richardson to create a newsletter out of her Facebook page, she does a job that too many media declined to do lately: not to shout, but to help understand facts and not to feed the polarization of society, but providing context.

The voice is personal, very much the voice of a female author that talks to female readers and there are no concessions for twitter jargon or click-baiting. A new type of digest: something that many newsroom editors would assume was too boring to assign. Dr Richardson is succeeding because she’s offering something you can’t find in the mainstream media: straightforward, but thoughtful, answers to the big questions about America right now.

There is no better proof of the fact that – despite all concerns about Substack and the like platforms – something new is emerging that is much more close to the very beginning of the Internet project: a chance to let emerge multiple voices and points of views and each of us find our preferred sources, outside of echo chambers and the algorithmical drive to follow the few (often aggressive and polarised) sources that dominate the social media. That is enough of a reason to still give confidence in the power of newsletters to help overcome the shortcomings of the attention economy.

Banner image: Camille Orgel on Unsplash