Authenticity   /   Fall 2021   /    Notes & Comments

Stacked Deck

At what point does Substack journalism become fan service?

Jonathan Malesic

Via Wikimedia Commons

Imagine you’re walking to your mailbox one afternoon in 1967. You know there will be the usual clutch of bills and workaday correspondence. But you also know there will be something thoughtful and expertly composed. It will be from Joan Didion, who sends you a note every weekday. In it, she might write about the political scene, or critique a new film, or just riff on the feel of the breeze wafting off the Pacific. Sure, thousands of other people are getting the same letter, but it still feels written just for you. How much would you pay for that privilege?

This is more or less the proposition being made by Substack, an e-mail newsletter platform that has recently enticed dozens of well-known journalists to quit their jobs at the New York Times, Vox, and BuzzFeed so they can devote themselves full-time to writing whatever they want for newsletter subscribers a few times a week. They make money from readers who elect to pay for premium content: an extra newsletter or access to a podcast, perhaps. A subscription typically costs $5 per month or $50 per year. At that rate, just a couple thousand paying subscribers would represent a six-figure income, a tidy sum at a time when traditional (i.e., print and broadcast) newsrooms have been shedding thousands of jobs a year. Some writers make quite a bit more. The historian Heather Cox Richardson, for instance, pulls in more than a million dollars a year through her daily newsletter, Notes from an American.

These high-profile defections from legacy publications have roiled the media world this year, posing a threat to more traditional publishing models. But Substack also sits at the nexus of deeper concerns about American culture: our individualistic view of work, the massive rewards that accrue to highflyers, and our willingness to invest ourselves in one-way relationships with public figures. Together, these concerns coalesce into a question: Should the people we rely on to inform us be celebrities?

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