Another Humorous Substack Panic

Has the Empire really struck back at "independent newsletters"?

“The Substack Scaries are Over for Media Companies,” announced Axios today, in a tweet tagged to a story with a dramatic headline: “Big media strikes back at Substack.” The piece referenced a recent Vanity Fair article, “A Good Newsletter Exit Strategy Is Hard to Find,” that described how some writers who’d come to platforms like Substack had run up against unexpected logistical problems, like wrestling with the issue of how to quit, and returned to traditional media jobs.

Coupled with the fact that major media outlets like the Atlantic and the New York Times have recently launched their own “independent newsletter” platforms, this was evidence, Axios proclaimed, that “The Substack threat to newsrooms was overblown.” The Axios “bottom line” observation: “Journalists that crave the infrastructure and editorial support offered by newsrooms are finding more happy mediums as the newsletter industry grows.”

Burying the lede just a tad, the same article noted Substack announced Monday that it has “more than 1 million paid subscriptions to publications on its platform, up from about 250,000 in December 2020.”

The Axios and Vanity Fair articles are the latest entries in a year-plus of hilarious anthropological pieces, often quoting writers returned from the wilds of Substack with harrowing survival tales (“We had to do our own marketing!”). These pieces tend to say a lot more about the cluelessness of the mainstream publications in question than the “independent-operator model” they’re purporting to cover, and these are no exception.

The notion that Substack is or was a “threat” to traditional media itself speaks to the comical inability of these organizations to understand cause and effect. Happening #1: traditional media companies in the Trump years suffered catastrophic declines in audience trust, which have translated lately into commensurate struggles with clicks and ratings. Happening #2: those companies noticed podcasters like Joe Rogan were drawing, and retaining, mammoth audiences, even as efforts by outfits like MSNBC to create glitzy new on-demand shows hosted by people like former George W. Bush communications director Nicolle Wallace somehow flopped. This was despite the fact that industry pros insisted streaming was “where the young people are.” What went wrong?

When Substack appeared and had a run of success, news executives treated it as something traitorous and horrifying, being sure now the independents were to blame for their audience crop failures. Vanity Fair with a straight face referred to last year’s “Summer of Substack,” as if describing a disastrous, barely-survived season of hurricanes or pirate raids. These firms to the last were convinced their own problems were either being caused by podcasters and Substackers (who therefore must be bad), or by Fox (which, they all agree, should just be outlawed).

They were making the same mistake they nearly all made with Trump, confusing symptom with cause. Yes, a few independents have done well, but that’s mainly because the overall quality level of mainstream news plunged so low so long ago, audiences were starved for anything that wasn’t rancidly, insultingly dishonest.

Years ago, when I tried to start up a humor/satire site called Racket under the auspices of billionaire Pierre Omidyar’s First Look Media, I was asked to write a mission statement explaining a commercial strategy. I shrugged and wrote about a paragraph just calling for hiring good, funny writers. I argued they would stand out in an increasingly mechanized media landscape, because humor and literary style are unique to human beings and can’t be faked. This presentation didn’t go over well with the company’s executives, who mostly came from Omidyar’s eBay, one of the Internet’s first great magic money-making widgets.

At the time, media executives were in thrall with sites like Buzzfeed, Mic, and Upworthy, which all represented similar efforts to dream up a magical audience-hoovering thingamadoodle. Executives seemed particularly in love with Upworthy, which Fast Company once lauded as “the fastest-growing media company of all time” (that phrase itself would later become an industry joke). Silicon Valley types loved the idea of a company that fused algorithmic curation and a technically human editor to create content that merged the “awesome,” the “meaningful,” and the “visual”cat videos, but important! Unsurprisingly, an Upworthy parody site that automatically generates its classic clickhole-camp headlines (“I Thought It Was An Ecological Disaster. But Then I Saw This Troubling Forty Second Video) far outlasted the actual company.

People who work in the media business for too long develop certain definite traits. One is an incurable addiction to losing other people’s money. In Vanity Fair’s Substack-horror piece, writer Delia Cai referenced an old profile of Twitter founder and co-creator of Blogger Evan Williams. Cai quoted fellow Twitter co-founder Biz Stone, who roasted Williams for his “ambition to make publishing profitable”:

“I was like, ‘Yeah, so does everyone else.’ How far along are we? Somewhere between zero and half a percent.”

These warriors of the information economy have been hustling venture capitalists for ages, decades in some case, in search of the magic wand that will make media fortunes: headline generators, lad-mag layout schemes, all-British editorial staffs, more and bigger chyrons, streaming, Axios-styleWhy it mattersbullet-point formats, and so on, and so on. These people have been searching for a gimmick for so long, they think everything is one, including, now, the “independent subscription newsletter.”

One would think even the hardest-headed tech executive would see the conceptual problem with the New York Times creating “independent newsletters” — after all, the whole point of a platform like Substack is that it’s not sponsored and overseen by something like the New York Times — but they don’t. They’re convinced that what audiences are responding to with Substack is another collection of widgets: subscription format, a self-edited “content creator,” etc. All they need to swat away the blight of unregulated commentary is a facsimile version of the same thing.

Functionally, of course, most of these not-independent independent newsletters will end up reading like longer versions of New York Times or Atlantic editorials, which, who knows, may work. I doubt it, but they might. I sincerely wish them luck.

However, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t laugh every time I read one of these articles. It seems so obviously absurd for the New York Times or the Atlantic to try to “strike back” against the tiny slice of market represented by a handful of Substack writers by rolling out their own Death Star version of “independent voices.” If they really wanted to wipe us out, of course, they could just put out a New York Times that sucked less. In a million years, that won’t occur to them. Which, God forgive me, I still find funny, even if there are surely more important things to worry about today.