Do you have a newsletter? I have a newsletter. The same goes for many of my friends, colleagues and people whose work I enjoy and follow. This model of communication is nothing new. Chances are your email account is currently being polluted with brand promotions and regular updates from sites you’ve clicked once or twice and still forget to unsubscribe. Still, it’s hard to deny that, especially over the past year, newsletters have gained traction.
Various platforms such as Substack and Letterdrop are competing for your business, with the former noticeably losing a lot of money to secure exclusive deals with some of modern media’s most notable writers. Substack offered six-figure advances to Matt Yglesias and Danny Lavery to make the site their creative home. It didn’t take long for a slew of big names in this tight-knit industry to jump ship, like Matt Taibbi and Andrew Sullivan heading to Substack, where they reportedly made huge profits with the paid subscription model of the platform. The mainstream media are scrambling to keep up. The New York Times announced earlier this year that publisher Choire Sicha would move from the Styles section to a new project related to the newsletter expansion. Twitter bought Revue, a “service that makes it easy for anyone to start and post editorial newsletters for free.” Even Facebook is now in the newsletter game with Bulletin, where you can subscribe to Erin Andrews, Mitch Albom and Tan France.
In an interview with journalist – and Substack writer – Casey Newton, Mark Zuckerberg presented the newsletters and the paid subscription model as a sign of a bright new future for creators, one where they are freed from mainstream media. Coming from the man whose lies about the value of pivoting to video on his own site have irrevocably destroyed huge swathes of traditional and online media, that’s a pretty rich claim to make. It also ignores how much this bubble depends on the venture capitalist’s money and the same foremost profit rules that have choked the world of newspapers, magazines, and websites, independent or not. Substack’s biggest investors are venture capitalist Andreessen Horowitz, and a recent round of funding brought in around $ 65 million. According to Axios, this “would value the company at around 650 million dollars”. And I doubt Facebook created the Bulletin out of the goodness of its heart. It’s an interesting future that venture bros can bank on, a future where big names in the media write unfiltered articles to their adoring fans, and the concepts of fact-checkers, editors, and all sorts of guides are here. put aside. It certainly narrows down who benefits from this system: the writer goes bank, and the platform does its part.
Substack spent a lot of time justifying why they offered large cash advances to certain writers. Hamish McKenzie, co-founder of the company, explained that the agreements “give writers struggling with financial constraints the opportunity to start building a sustainable business.” We take most of the risk for them. In return, their work contributes to the quality of the Substack ecosystem, and they become long-term customers. ‘ It sounds like a dream come true. Staff concerts are rarer than gold dust in the media these days, and the possibility of long-term security is almost an illusion. Why not take the six-figure sum, write whatever you want, and let Substack take its share? But who is considered worthy of such a deal? Substack finds it hard to understand that they are as much a publisher as a platform.
Much has already been said about Substack’s apparent reluctance to quell transphobia on their site. Former TV screenwriter Graham Linehan, a transphobe so obnoxious that Twitter has banned him from all places, is on Substack. He seems to spend most of his time accusing trans women of sex offenders. Substack claims it just offers a platform for free speech and the like, but that ignores the curation and funding they do. You can’t pretend you’re ignoring these questions when offering six-figure checks to some people over others. Writer Jude Doyle chose to quit Substack to protest this issue, writing, “As for me, I’m out. Substack has the right to pay whoever it wants, but it doesn’t have the right to make money for bad decisions, nor the right to take advantage of my name, my credibility, or my job.
As an individual, these platforms are all you make of them, and there is no limit on who can participate and why. The dominance of Joe Rogan’s podcast doesn’t mean you can’t record your own show from your living room with a mic you bought on eBay. The same goes for newsletters (and sites like Patreon, which allow for a more direct relationship between fan and creator.) Such platforms offer a kind of uniqueness and creative freedom that can be liberating, especially in an age where l ‘we still live in suffocation. the uncertainty of an industry without a financial safety net and the tyranny of the almighty algorithm. I created my own newsletter as a fun project that I could have full control over, but I can’t claim that I didn’t do it with at least one eye on making it profitable someday. The same goes for literally every podcast project that I have run. When you’re designed to view every aspect of your life as a potential side activity (hi, millennials), why don’t you look at Substack and think about giving it a go? At least get your foot in the door before the bubble bursts.
And it will burst, make no mistake about it. Indeed, it already seems to be leaning on a precarious edge. Writer Annalee Newitz told her audience at Substack that the company is a “scam”, with their funding from top writers a convenient way to make their business seem more lucrative than it is. is. Will they one day be able to recover these advances? And if not, how does Substack fill that black hole, especially if the writers they funded in their first year decide it’s more beneficial to go solo once their obligations are met?
Casey Newton told the New York Times that Substack had become a target for “a lot of people to project their anxieties”. This is not an unfair conclusion. Hell, everything in this business is essentially a screen to project our panic. Yet the newsletter boom appears to be perched on a particularly fragile base, which exposes many of Silicon Valley’s problems as it tries to reinvent the wheel that is journalism. These relentless attempts to “disrupt” the status quo often reinforce it. The podcast market promised a democratization of dialogue, but all the big deals still go to famous white dudes. OnlyFans offered freedom and a level of protection to sex workers, but the influx of celebrities can put that at risk. YouTube is playing out its status as a kingmaker and a creative hub for the world, but its algorithm stifles creators and rewards the worst human beings. Who is the power shifting towards in the great newsletter boom, and who will be hurt most when the bubble bursts? At least when a Silicon Valley douche-bro CEO buys a website to empty it of its value, they’re forced to pay the staff. Substack does not consider its editors to be employees. Where will they go if the platform implodes?
The newsletter era will not solve the deeply rooted issues with modern media and its absolute screwing up of the people who create them. The break-up of unions is still happening at a terrifying rate. Freelancers struggle to make a living in a business dominated by the SEO cult and underrated writers. The almost mythical idea of creative independence seems pathetically at odds with the realities of wage disparities, rising rent prices and lack of investment in journalism (especially at a time when it is the target of a anger so dangerous in the aftermath of the Trump administration.) The pivot to video was supposed to support the sinking of the ship, but that only exacerbated the problem (in reality, it created a whole new problem that didn’t had never existed before, thank you very much, Zuckerberg.) So many of these platforms offer the world but no transparency to support those tempted by fantasy. How does Substack differ from traditional media when it seems determined to reproduce its worst corners, albeit without the structural advantages of a publisher? It’s not as if Silicon Valley has already shown an ability to learn from its past mistakes.
For now, big newsletters seem to be doing well, or at least they are adept at harboring such an illusion. Facebook is bolstering its new platform with familiar celebrities while Substack hopes the media’s most memorable names will give them an air of commercial and creative legitimacy. And through it all, writers are just trying to get paid. Guess we should enjoy it while it lasts and is replaced by the next new thing that will forever disrupt modern media. My money is on the fanzines.
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Source of header image: Fox // Frinkiac