THR Web Features   /   June 17, 2021

A 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 workaday correspondence and bill notices. 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 email 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 to 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. Typical fees are $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 in an industry that has been contracting for more than a decade. 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.

Because of these high-profile defections from legacy publications, Substack has roiled the media world this year. That’s no surprise, since it represents 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 high flyers, 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?

I should say, before going any further, that I, too, have a Substack newsletter, which I use to send sporadic updates about my thinking and writing to a few hundred people. My newsletter is free for them to read and for me to send. In fact, I depend on the stars; the revenue Substack gets by taking a ten percent cut of Richardson’s income pays for the software developers and server space that enable to reach my small but devoted audience.

As is true across Internet culture, a writer who wants to make good money through Substack must become an influencer. Even if journalists made their names through the help of rarely-seen editors, fact-checkers, and photographers, their personal brands are what entices fans to sign up for their newsletters. By helping writers monetize their byline, Substack maintains the fiction of writing––of any profession, for that matter––as a solitary pursuit. Because subscribers pay writers directly, they cut around all the labor that makes good journalism possible. It’s like going to see your favorite actors perform, but with no stage manager, costume shop, or lighting crew.

To maintain their newsletter’s value for its paying subscribers, writers need to post every day or two. That means they may not have time to do deep research or take long reporting trips. The business model favors quick analysis and the kind of reporting you can do from your desk; it doesn't favor the sort of narrative journalism people have turned to magazines to get ever since the 1960s when Didion and James Baldwin and Gay Talese were inventing the genre.

Those writers became celebrities, breaking the journalistic rule never to become the story. Didion even became an often-photographed icon of style. She still is, despite no longer publishing new work. Just a few years ago, at age 80, she appeared in an ad for the luxury-accessories brand Celine.

American society loves to over-reward talented people whom it turns into stars. A slight edge in talent, education, or fortune can yield outsize returns. In corporations, professional sports, and academia, top performers earn multiple times what average ones do. The newsletter model rests on a similar fetish for “talent” and thus exacerbates the earning disparity in journalism. Most of the people who are doing well on Substack were already doing well in more traditional media jobs. Andrew Sullivan, for instance, who like Didion has appeared in glossy clothing ads, said that he was making less than $200,000 a year as a New York magazine columnist. A month after his newsletter launched, he was on pace to clear a half million.

It’s true that Substack makes it possible for writers with niche interests or modest renown to lock down some steady income and write what they know their audience wants, not what editors want. And the company has given stipends to some writers to help them build their audiences. But most freelance writers have no renown at all. Paid subscriptions will not help them. All they can do is keep hustling for pennies per word.

What makes someone a likely Substack star is not strictly writing talent. It’s also an ability to cultivate one-way, parasocial relationships with readers. In the age of Twitter, every journalist is a miniature celebrity, a creator of culture living in the center of the universe (Brooklyn), in step with every trend, yet also “relatable,” with unruly kids and an obsession with garbage TV. And the author’s words come right to your inbox. You don’t have to seek them out on some ad-choked website. Reading a message can feel intimate, as if the author is your best-informed, wittiest friend just writing to catch up.

In fact, despite the tinge of glamor to their self-presentations online, even famous journalists are far more accessible than movie stars are. Often enough on Twitter, they reply to their reply guys. A frequent perk of subscribing to a big-name writer’s newsletter is the opportunity to comment on her posts or interact with her on a messaging platform. But at what point does this form of journalism become fan service? How does the need to stay relatable affect a writer’s choices about what topics to cover, what angles to pursue?

I see no reason to doubt Substack’s sustainability. Granted, we should be wary of any project backed by venture capital, as the company is. When investors’ money runs out, things tend to collapse. But Substack isn’t really “Uber for journalism.” Uber’s business model was to lose a fortune year after year until it had cornered the ride-hailing market, then raise its rates. That is proving to be unworkable. Substack is betting on prominent writers by handing out six-figure advances, but some of the bigger ones have paid off extraordinarily well. Matthew Yglesias admitted in March that by taking a guaranteed $250,000 from Substack in exchange for 85 precent of his revenue for a year, he left nearly $400,000 on the table, given that his newsletter attracted far more subscribers than anticipated. Roxane Gay similarly earned back her advance faster than expected. As long as readers are content to shell out for subscriptions, then why can’t the model become the industry standard?

If it does, something significant will be lost. Presumably readers don’t have infinite money to spend on subscriptions. If they shift resources to a handful of superstar Substack writers, then magazines and newspapers will suffer, leading to a public that has an opinion about more and more but knowledge about less and less.

To make newspapers and magazines financially viable again may require breaking the Facebook-Google duopoly on online advertising. That’s a job for Congress. But ordinary readers have a role to play, too. If, instead of paying $50 to get email from a single writer, you spent that money on a magazine subscription, you would get to read dozens of talented writers on an array of topics. And unlike typically shaggy email newsletters, everything you read would be crisply edited. That system works; it’s what launched the careers of many Substack stars in the first place. Small magazines like this one are still where you might stumble across your next favorite writer.

In 1967, you actually could get Didion’s writing sent to your mailbox. She and her husband John Gregory Dunne each wrote a monthly column for the Saturday Evening Post. They must have been paid handsomely, enough to bankroll an enviable Hollywood lifestyle, complete with a Corvette Stingray.

The magazine was in poor financial shape, however. Its advertising revenue slid during the late 1960s, and it lost millions of dollars a year. In 1969, it shut down. In a press conference announcing the closure, the president of the Post’s parent company lamented the conditions he saw as forcing his decision. “Apparently,” he said, “there is just not the need for our product in today’s scheme of living.” I wonder how many publishers will soon utter those very words.

[This web feature appears in a slightly different version in the Fall 2021 print issue.]