Columbia Journalism Review: Substack might be problematic

Today, Columbia Journalism Review published a lengthy piece about Substack, the newsletter publishing site that has recently become home to a number of journalists fleeing the constraints of larger media outlets.

Last month Glenn Greenwald announced he was leaving the Intercept, a site he co-founded, when he felt his editorial freedom was being challenged. In July, Andrew Sullivan was pushed out at New York Magazine because some portion of the staff wasn’t happy with his criticism of identity politics. And just last week, Matt Yglesias announced he was leaving Vox, again because it seems people were uncomfortable with some of his content. All three of them signed up with Substack, and Andrew Sullivan quickly became one of the most-subscribed producers on the site.

Some of the CJR piece describes how the site was formed but eventually the author, Clio Chang, gets around to the suggestion that maybe there’s a problem with the writers the site supports:

If you visit Substack’s website, you’ll see leaderboards of the top twenty-five paid and free newsletters; the writers’ names are accompanied by their little circular avatars. The intention is declarative—you, too, can make it on Substack. But as you peruse the lists, something becomes clear: the most successful people on Substack are those who have already been well-served by existing media power structures. Most are white and male; several are conservative. Matt Taibbi, Andrew Sullivan, and most recently, Glenn Greenwald—who offer similar screeds about the dangers of cancel culture and the left—all land in the top ten. (Greenwald’s arrival bumped the like-minded Yascha Mounk to eleventh position; soon, Matthew Yglesias signed up for Substack, too.)

None of that is so surprising—it’s hard to earn four-fire-emoji status without having already built up a reputation within established institutions. And, as this year’s anti-racist activism has made all the more visible, those institutions are built from prejudiced systems, which form working environments that are often unsustainable for people who are nonwhite or non-elite. “I think one of the reasons why we often see that the top-twenty-five board at Substack is mostly white authors is because that’s an extension of the type of audience and recognition they get for their work on other platforms,” Harvin said.

I’m not sure who the author thinks is conservative on this list. What stands out to me is that most of these writers are far left with the one exception that they don’t care for identity politics and cancel culture.

It’s also not correct that all of these people built a reputation at established institutions. Most of them were bloggers before they joined established institutions. Eventually that success led them to join established outlets and later to start their own. But it’s not really accurate to accuse this group of coasting on their big media backgrounds.

The author also wonders aloud whether Substack should be supporting some of these authors. She’s saying this for the company’s own good of course:

It was a nonideological, noneditorial stance—one that he’d taken in conversation with me before. But often, adherence to neutrality only enforces existing power structures. In these moments, Substack’s founders veer into unsettling corporate-tech-dude-speak, papering over the fact that a “nonideological” vision is, of course, ideology just the same. When Sullivan joined Substack, over the summer, he put the company’s positioning to the test: infamous for publishing excerpts from The Bell Curve, a book that promotes bigoted race “science,” Sullivan would now produce the Weekly Dish, a political newsletter. (Substack’s content guidelines draw a line at hate speech.) Sullivan’s Substack quickly rose to become the fifth-most-read among paid subscriptions—he claimed that his income had risen from less than $200,000 at New York magazine to $500,000. When I asked the founders if they thought his presence might discourage other writers from joining, they gave me a pat reply. “We’re not a media company,” Best said. “If somebody joins the company and expects us to have an editorial position and be rigorously enforcing some ideological line, this is probably not the company they wanted to join in the first place.”

On Twitter, Jesse Singal noted that this sort of thing is now the “default position” for progressive writers, i.e. readers need to be protected from themselves.

Glenn Greenwald suggested it was only a matter of time before the push to censor Substack writers would happen:

Again, I don’t think I agree with any of these folks on any number of things. But they have shown themselves willing to criticize the extremists on the far left, something that your average CNN host seems to struggle with. I’m glad the critics are out there saying what they think, especially if the big media outlets want them to shut up about it.