If I were to step away from my current work and try to make a living by writing a Substack newsletter, or by podcasting or becoming a YouTuber—none of which is likely to happen, I should add—I would be turning my back on three long-established institutions in which I have participated for many years: higher education, periodical publishing, and book publishing. I would therefore be contributing to a development Yuval Levin laments in his recent book A Time to Build: From Family and Community to Congress and the Campus, How Recommitting to Our Institutions Can Revive the American Dream. Levin argues that “Americans have long been losing faith in institutions”—have tried to exploit those institutions for personal gain or have abandoned them altogether—and that this has led to a “degradation of our common life.” A kind of vicious circle has taken hold: People who mistrust institutions invest less of themselves in them, which weakens the institutions and makes them harder to trust.
In Levin’s reading of the situation, this can happen even when elements of the institutions in question are financially successful. American journalism is in a generally parlous state, and even though the New York Times is making plenty of money, it nevertheless experiences many of the institutional pathologies of the larger institution, as was recently documented by Reeves Wiedeman in a report for New York magazine. That kind of dysfunctional, fear-and-anger-driven culture is especially worrisome if, like Levin, you think that human beings “require moral and social formation, and that such formation is what our institutions are for.” And when respected writers like Charlie Warzel leave the Times for Substack, this can’t help the health of the newspaper—or of the larger institution of journalism, or anyway, journalism as we have heretofore known it.
I think, then, that it is perfectly reasonable to interpret the rise of services like Substack—a newsletter platform—and still more important, Stripe—a “payments infrastructure for the Internet”—as corrosive of institutions. But there’s another way to think of the current situation that is less troubled and more hopeful.