Isabelle Roughol was done with her day job at LinkedIn and was ready to start something of her own. She quit in early 2020 and launched Borderline, a podcast and newsletter aimed at “defiant global citizens”, and to help her build it she became an early user of a new online service: Substack.
Substack has marketed itself aggressively to people such as Roughol as a new type of tech company, one that will let writers build their own brands and communities. The company offers software to help people set up free or paid-for newsletters and promises the people creating them that they can write what they want and that they own their own mailing list and can take it with them if they leave.
Initially, everything was great: Substack’s interface to make newsletters was much more intuitive than Mailchimp or other rivals and the company seemed keen to be friendly to small independent outlets such as Borderline, but then Substack started courting big-name writers and, with it, controversy.
Reports earlier this year revealed Substack has offered six-figure advances to a number of US writers to leave traditional media and go it alone on its platforms. Among them are Glenn Greenwald, the lawyer turned blogger who helped break the stories from leaked documents from NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, and American Bad Feminist author Roxanne Gay.
Both are making more money than they ever did in traditional media, but concerns are emerging about what Substack is now, exactly. Is it a platform for hosting newsletters and helping people discover them? Or is it a new type of publication, one that relies on stoking the culture wars to help divisive writers build devoted followings?
Substack, until recently a darling of the technology world, has left people wondering whether behind it all, it’s just another media company – with all the problems that brings.
“It’s funny to think there’s so many people in tech who think that they’re just going to reinvent the media economy and they’re going to figure out some things that decades of people in media haven’t figured out,” says Roughol.
“And then they get to the point, they’re like, ‘Oh, actually, it is hard to make money and have a business model in content.’”
Substack rose to prominence among numerous rival newsletter services by positioning itself as a friend to people trying to set up solo media brands. The company takes a relatively small commission and to position itself as truly creator-friendly, it even started launching funds to help independent publishers tackle lawsuits.
But the bid to capture big-name writers changed the nature of the service. Where once Substack was a software tool, it started to become a brand in its own right, persuading big-name columnists to defect from traditional media and launch on Substack, perhaps changing how Substack itself was perceived.
If a company is talent-spotting for journalists and cherry-picking big names to offer them guaranteed minimum salaries of five or 10 times what most reporters could hope to earn, at what point does it stop being a technology company and start being just another new media outlet?
The controversial names Substack is targeting and hosting heighten that problem: Greenwald’s reputation is that of a man able and willing to start 10 new lifelong grudges a day on Twitter, while the site has been much criticised for hosting Graham Linehan who has been banned from Twitter for trans hate speech.
Not only has Substack stopped being software hiding in the background for people to build their own brand, but being on Substack has for some become a tacit sign of being a partisan in the culture wars, not least because it’s a lot easier to build a devoted and paying following by stressing that you’re giving readers something the mainstream won’t.
For journalists such as Roughol, Substack’s emergence as a publisher of sorts and a brand in its own right is enough to make her rethink her position on the platform.
“For me, I was looking for a tool that could kind of recede in the background and allow my own brand to shine,” she says. “And that’s just not really what Substack is anymore. It’s increasingly a platform; people can even go and read on Substack rather than me reaching them directly with my brand in their inbox. So… some of those product changes, you know, are a bit concerning for me.”
Such is Substack’s recent notoriety that people are now worrying that it might be the latest thing that might kill traditional media. By offering star writers a bigger payday for going it alone, people fret it might break up traditional newsrooms and make it impossible to do the kind of journalism that needs reporters, editors, fact-checkers and lawyers.
Substack, they argue, is tearing apart that coalition of workers by ripping out the stars. But Douglas McCabe, media analyst at Enders Analysis, isn’t quite so sure.
“The internet just creates this endless cycle of aggregation, disaggregation, aggregation and disaggregation and that is an internet story, full stop,” he says. Substack “will end up aggregating particular kinds of content and trying to sell a single price point to access these 20 writers who talk about the environment or talk about the future of technology, or whatever it is they talk about”.
For those just trying to find something good to read, though, Substack’s foray into the culture wars is polluting other social networks. If you rely on people discovering your paid-for newsletter and giving it a try, you need to tempt new people into discovering who you are and what you’re offering.
One way to do that seems to be picking a fight. Charlie Warzel, a former opinion writer for the New York Times, left the newspaper to start a thoughtful Substack newsletter on technology and culture, Galaxy Brain.
Greenwald noted on Twitter that Warzel had only managed to attract “hundreds” of subscribers in his first week and suggested this showed the newsletter was failing. The Twitter spat led dozens of people to immediately subscribe to Warzel’s newsletter and prompted Warzel to write up the spat, knowing it would boost subscriptions.
“I can safely say that what I’m trying to create is the polar opposite of whatever it is he is doing,” said Warzel in his newsletter capitalising on that very row. But that statement is disingenuous: by capitalising on a Twitter fight for followers, Warzel is playing the exact same game as Greenwald, with the exact same business model.
Readers might tell themselves they’re there for the thoughtful conversation, but it’s the fighting talk that gets the social shares. Lines such as “CANCEL ME, GLENN! DADDY IS THINKING ABOUT INVESTING IN SOME NON-IKEA FURNITURE” are made for likes, shares and RTs, however much their author might protest otherwise.
The result of all this is that Substack finds itself in the middle of an identity crisis. Is it a cool online tool to help people outside legacy media build and write newsletters? Is it a publisher picking the journalists of the future? Or is it some combination of the two – and how much editorial control does it claim?
Given its team offer some writers massive advances, while leaving others to work entirely off their own merits, they are making very similar hiring choices to those made by traditional editors. The company is also hoping investors value it as a fast-growing tech company, rather than as a dowdy old media company reliant on a large staff of journalists, web developers and back-room employees.
“We’re a platform and in our model the writers are the publishers,” said a Substack spokeswoman in response to queries from the Observer. “So the intent is to enable writers to be their own bosses and shape their own brands. Our approach is to give them the platform and infrastructure, then stay out of their way.”
Substack started out offering writers a tool to build independent businesses. It’s now hiring editors and trying to poach talent and even offering a reading tool on its own website. The danger for the company is that it becomes just another new media outlet; while once it might have been fashionable to be BuzzFeed or HuffPost, the lustre has gone from both as they cut newsroom staff in a bid to be profitable.
“In the end, it’s a people business and journalism business,” says McCabe. “I don’t feel convinced that Substack has come up with something that is fundamentally new.”
Substack was supposed to be a tool, for people such as Isabelle Roughol, to help them build a brand and an audience, but now she’s unsure what it wants to be.
A product that won its early fans – like her – by having a much better and simpler interface than its rivals is itself increasingly bloated and unwieldy as more features are added. Being on Substack now carries connotations that you might be somehow aligned with its big-name writers. You’re competing with them for attention via the publishing tool.
But for all that, Roughol thinks the company might be getting a worse press than it deserves – it’s still a relatively young company, a smallish team, and she still has faith in its good intentions.
“They say if you stay in business long enough, there’s going to be a point where people think you’re the second coming,” she concludes. “And there’s going to be a point where people think you’re the devil incarnate – and that’s the business world we live in.”
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