Discover more from Political Currents by Ross Barkan
Reflections on the Great Substack Panic of the early 2020s
How little staying power it all had
First, a new Substack alert! My friend Craig, a talented musician and inveterate Yankee fan, has a new Substack out on the Yankees and baseball in general. A lot of sportswriters are boring. A lot don’t write well. Craig writes very well and is far from boring. Read and subscribe!
Do you remember the great Substack panic of 2020 and 2021? I know I’m not exactly asking about the meltdown of the stock market in 2008 or Donald Trump sweeping the Midwest in 2016. Internet events are internet events for a reason; they are ephemeral, built to disappear, and only the amateur historians are left to pick through the memories and care. Unlike, say, the ice bucket challenge craze of 2014, there was nothing ameliorative about the Substack panic. It was also a very particular product of a very particular time, and those who were most clearly upset were left-leaning media figures and pundits. The culture war rages today, but it was more visceral two years ago—we were still in the midst of the pandemic and the racial reckoning around the George Floyd protests was very fresh.
Were I more inclined, I’d go around and ask the people who were most concerned about Substack how they feel about it today. My sense is most have moved on, since the discourse around Substack has significantly died down. In late 2020, the New Yorker’s Anna Wiener asked if Substack is the “media future we want” and proceeded to answer, in elliptical New Yorker fashion, her question.
Substack, like Facebook, insists that it is not a media company; it is, instead, “a platform that enables writers and readers.” … The company, which currently has twenty employees, has a lightweight content-moderation policy, which prohibits harassment, threats, spam, pornography, and calls for violence; moderation decisions are made by the founders, and, McKenzie told me, the company does not comment on them. Best has suggested that Substack contains a built-in moderation mechanism in the form of the Unsubscribe button.
It’s an interesting time for such a hands-off, free-market approach. The Internet is flooded with disinformation and conspiracy theories. Amazon’s self-publishing arm has become a haven for extremist content. The flattening effect of digital platforms has led to confusion among readers about what is reporting and what is opinion. Newsrooms at the Times and the Wall Street Journal have taken pains to distinguish their work from that found in the op-ed sections. Substack has advertised itself as a friendly home for journalism, but few of its newsletters publish original reporting; the majority offer personal writing, opinion pieces, research, and analysis.
Substack, at the time, drew an enormous amount of criticism from several different angles. One was their decision to have a “pro” program where certain prominent writers like Matthew Yglesias were offered advances to leave their day jobs and join the platform. Since some in the media didn’t like who the advances were offered to and there wasn’t a great deal of transparency around them, complaints were lodged—complaints that indicted the whole platform. There was the question, too, of what the “platform” meant. The founders of Substack did not believe they were operating a media company or a publishing house; they believed strongly in the concept of free speech and maintained a lax moderation policy. I always understood Substack the way most did once they started engaging: it’s blogging software with a payment processor attached. WordPress never got in the game of handing out “pro” deals or embedding Stripe into their software. Substack was more ambitiously replicating the 2000s blogosphere and making it so any writer, in theory, could earn money directly from their readers. Substack was not going to save the media or local news because nothing, absent a direct infusion of federal cash, can. But it offered an avenue for a certain number of writers to do very well financially. For a vast majority of Substackers, myself included, the platform amounts to a side hustle. It’s extra money to supplement whatever else you do. Substack takes 10%, Stripe skims off a small processing fee, and you walk away with upwards of 80% of the revenue. Considering how the publishing and music industries work—artists earn slim percentages of sales or royalties—it’s a very good deal.
For critics, the real issue became that Substack wouldn’t kick off the “bad” writers. Some of these writers held views that were genuinely noxious; others were simply conservative or weren’t much interested in the left-liberal consensus.
A few left Substack because there were writers on the platform regarded as anti-trans. Substack was also handing out generous advances to trans writers. To those not schooled in pluralism, it was a very confusing time, indeed. A glance at Substack’s top political newsletters will tell you Substack won’t be easily defined. Heather Cox Richardson, a decidedly liberal historian, has the most popular newsletter. Bari Weiss, the anti-woke conservative, clocks in at number two. Alex Berenson, the Covid misinformation merchant, is up there too, but so is the liberal journalist and former political staffer Judd Legum. Robert Reich, Dan Rather, and Andrew Sullivan remain top Substackers. Other than their dislike of Donald Trump, they don’t have much in common.
There are plenty of “heterodox” voices that have, to the consternation of conventional liberals, grown popular on Substack. There are also many conventional liberals, leftists, and people who tow whatever party line the anti-Substackers once demanded. I say once because all of this dissipated. For a moment, it seemed one had to leave Substack to be in “good” standing with the correct crowd. I was never going to leave Substack because it was the first technological change in my journalism career that was a net benefit for me. The newsletter steadily grew and steadily earned me more money. I love doing it and also view it, a bit like real estate, as an investment. I hope you’re still reading and paying a decade from now and I can be operating Political Currents in middle-age, paying my bills this way.
But did I think, in this polarized age, my choice of a particular blogging and email platform could make it harder for me in the worlds of prestige media I still wanted to operate in? Momentarily. There was a visceral anger toward Substack because it was not willing to drive out the undesirable voices. It plainly did not want to play moderator. “It’s an interesting time for such a hands-off, free-market approach,” Wiener writes, and her implication is obvious: there must be some benighted actors who can tamp down the lies, hate, and misinformation that courses through the internet. Social media platforms need more regulation, not less, and Substack could be potentially dangerous as an outpost beyond where various private sector regulators (or the government) could reach.
Some misinformation is, indeed, misinformation. Some if it is fact that has not been properly digested yet—or rejected for political reasons. Hunter Biden’s laptop, for example, was a genuine laptop, not a way for Russia to meddle in the election and help Trump again. Masks could help stop the spread of Covid, even though scientists, in the early days of the pandemic, said we shouldn’t bother wearing them at all. We’ll never know, with absolutely certainty, where Covid came from, but gain-of-function research in Wuhan is a plausible culprit—it’s not just a right-wing fever dream. We need, overall, more reliable streams of information and Substack alone can’t close the vortex that the catastrophic decline of newspapers has opened up. Substack can’t employ teams of journalists. It is not the answer; it also does not have to be. It can simply be what it is. I would not call this a golden age, but I would also say, compared to the scene of a decade ago, it’s much more vibrant. Many of my favorite writers reside on Substack. Every single day I can read an essay or a column or a number of stray thoughts from a person with a singular perspective. I can learn something new. I can watch good faith debate break out. The more time I spend on Substack, the less use I have for social media. That’s how it should be. Perhaps the few people who rushed out of Substack two years ago would consider coming back.