BY Lewis Gordon in Columnists | 18 FEB 21

Substack’s Lonely War on Publishing

The new subscription platform for writers is atomizing an already fragile cultural ecosystem 

BY Lewis Gordon in Columnists | 18 FEB 21

Journalism in its earliest form was reliant on an elite audience: those who could read, possessed the leisure time to do so and, most importantly, enjoyed a healthy disposable income to pay for it. In the UK, The Gentleman’s Magazine, launched in 1731, provided a window into the concerns and considerations of its well-heeled audience and, in the US, prior to the ‘penny papers’ of the 1830s, newspapers courted a similarly wealthy audience. Over time, as literacy increased and printing technology improved, readership widened to a point of mass participation; this, in turn, exploded advertising revenue. Since the 1990s, however, the internet’s free informational access has steadily eroded the ads-driven model of print journalism. It’s no secret that the newspaper and magazine industries have enjoyed better days. 

Launched in 2017, Substack is a technology start-up billed by its co-founder and former reporter Hamish McKenzie as an attempt to ‘build an alternative media company that gives journalists autonomy’. It’s certainly an enticing proposition for writers whose industry he described in an article published on Substack in May 2020 as being in ‘freefall’. Like many online media companies (including, recently, Frieze), Substack’s solution is the subscription; its content, however, is beamed directly to the reader’s inbox as a newsletter. 

The Gentleman's Magazine, 1759. Courtesy: Michael Maggs and the magazine

In many ways, Substack can be useful for writers: it synthesizes a range of technological services into one package that essentially makes it easy for content providers to bill newsletter subscribers. But the firm, backed by millions of US dollars in venture capital, is also aggressively executing a plan to poach big-name journalists, such as Glenn Greenwald, from traditional outlets using sizable advances, healthcare and legal funds. This, according to the philanthropic-sounding marketing copy on Substack’s website, is ‘building a better future’ for writing. The vision is one in which readers subscribe and pay for individual writers rather than entire publications, unbundling the model of the media organization at what the platform’s founders perceive to be a moment of industry-wide crisis. You could call Substack a disaster capitalist of the publishing world. 

The writers Substack plucked were employed, and now they’re not. The platform, which has more than 250,000 paying subscribers, isn’t just giving the writers tools to make a living; it’s attempting to popularize and normalize an entirely individualized form of freelance journalism. Substack, and those who have sunk money into it, are the ones who stand to profit from the rapid fragmentation of the mediascape, skimming their 10 percent tithe from every transaction. 

Substack logo, 2021. Courtesy: Substack

As social media feels increasingly turbulent, it makes sense that a tech start-up should look to the quieter, more intimate pastures of the email inbox as the landing pad for its product. Newspaper and magazine websites – Substack’s competition – still feel part of a spatialized internet people surf rather than slowly scroll. The layout of articles can draw the eye in welcomingly unexpected directions. The Substack newsletter, however, is rooted in a private purview; it isn’t something you seek out; it arrives, ready when you are, in the walled-off confines of your chosen email service. In a way, it feels like an argument against collective experience, appearing to somewhat insidiously suggest there’s no need to extend your perspective beyond the inbox. 

For the generalist reader, Substack is expensive and time-consuming, even if the platform promises to facilitate a cosier ‘direct relationship’ with authors. Attaining a big picture through the platform’s newsletters means forking out hundreds of dollars in annual subscription fees. This is why, as journalism scholar Michael Socolow wrote last December in The Conversation, its target audience feels like a throwback to the days of ‘elite subscribers’. This, too, suggests Substack is working against collective experience; writers might enjoy a more prosperous livelihood, but the reach of their work is limited to privileged eyeballs. 

The longevity of this boom for digital newsletters remains to be seen, and its significance may yet turn out to be overstated. However, a resilient, collaborative and accessible press is crucial to flourishing arts and culture; in a landscape of individual newsletters, we risk fatigue and repetition of ideas. Already, Substack can feel like death by a thousand emails, with constantly pinging notifications and credit-card micro-transactions emptying the bank accounts of its users – music, no doubt, to its investors’ ears.  

Main image: Man reading a paper at a recycling plant, mid-'90s. Courtesy: Getty Images

Lewis Gordon is a UK-based technology and culture writer. His work appears in outlets such as Vice, The Verge, and The AV Club.