For more than a decade, Facebook and Twitter have hosted a series of revolutions in mass media. The former wrecked the old business model for newsroom journalism and stoked global panic about political misinformation in the process. The latter corralled journalists, activists, and consumers onto a raucous liveblogging platform which has, for better or worse, laid bare the biases, processes, and pressures which drive so much editorial judgment at media institutions beholden to the favor of an algorithm.
These tech companies helped turn reporters into personalities, and they’ve empowered those personalities to challenge those institutions both internally (as employees who command audiences beyond the employer’s own pages) and externally (as independent writers who now compete with full-staff publications for paid subscriptions). Facebook and Twitter spent the past few years swearing (before Congress!) that they’re platforms, not publishers; they don’t want to micromanage political speech. But now—despite their better judgment—they’re getting into the web newsletter business.
Newsletters may seem somewhat niche, not worth the attention of multibillion dollar corporations. But the business has been buzzing for the past year or so, with Silicon Valley company Substack leading the most successful—and controversial—enterprise. Substack has raised more than $17 million in venture capital and signed several high-profile journalists to high-dollar contracts in order to further popularize the platform, which nets its most successful writers hundreds of thousands of dollars per year.
In its commercial expansion, Substack lives and dies by its self-consciousness about the intellectual diversity available to its readers and its explicit reluctance to censor its writers. This makes Substack a tempting destination for nonconformists who rile progressives on other platforms, such as Twitter. But Substack is a small company, employing 20 people, destined to compete with the social media giants. Twitter boasts 192 million users, Facebook boasts 2.8 billion users; those are massive built-in audiences for centralized newsletter distribution.
In January, The New York Times reported on Facebook’s plan to develop web tools for journalists and writers. Sources told the paper it would allow writers to build followings on their Facebook pages, curate email lists, and provide subscription features to help authors monetize their work—a very similar model to Substack. A few days prior to the Facebook development, Twitter purchased Revue, a web newsletter service based in the Netherlands. Though the relaunch date for Revue remains uncertain, Twitter has begun to integrate the newsletter editor into the main social media platform. Users will be able to edit and publish newsletters to their followers—of which some writers have hundreds of thousands on Twitter—in a closed system. The company promises to give writers the ability to monetize their followers while keeping the site’s users informed about their interests.
What to make of this late, strange beneficence from the news business’s worst enemies? And why are a rising number of journalists working outside of the news business anyway? The most popular politics writers at Substack share some professional context and some grievances against the dominant staff-led publications. The godfather of blogging, Andrew Sullivan, left New York magazine and relaunched his old blog, The Dish, as a newsletter on Substack. Bari Weiss left The New York Times and launched her newsletter, Common Sense, on Substack. Matt Taibbi still writes and podcasts for Rolling Stone but considers his biweekly newsletter his main gig. Glenn Greenwald left The Intercept, which he cofounded seven years ago, to launch his own eponymous newsletter. Matt Yglesias also left his own publication, Vox, cofounded seven years ago, to publish his newsletter, Slow Boring, on Substack.
“At mainstream newsrooms across the country,” Taibbi said in a recent tweet, “reporters and editors are being forced out because staffers increasingly insist upon—and are being granted—the right to a homogenous political environment. Substack is not that, refuses to be that, and therefore inspires outrage.” But Substack’s cofounders, Chris Best, Hamish McKenzie, and Jairaj Sethi, have repeatedly challenged the presumed duty to save journalism, which the company’s champions and critics often foist upon Substack. “A lot of people suppose that we started Substack to be the next big thing in journalism,” the cofounders wrote in a recent blog post. “But what we’re actually trying to do is subvert the power of the attention economy.” This should in theory be the key distinction between Substack and its imminent competitors, Facebook and Twitter: the writer’s ability to cultivate an audience apart from the general population of a busy social media platform. “Take back your mind,” the Substack homepage reads.
But the platforms appear to have more similarities than Substack would like you to think. A few months ago, the Columbia Journalism Review published a provocative story about Substack and its so-called “Substackerati.” Reporter Clio Chang profiled Patrice Peck, who writes the newsletter Coronavirus News for Black Folks, and she presents Peck—a dutiful news-gatherer and a modest success on Substack—in contrast to the website’s most prominent and provocative writers, such as Sullivan and Yglesias. “The most successful people on Substack are those who have already been well-served by existing media power structures,” Chang writes. Chang describes the company’s rationale for signing some writers to contracts. “They have a system,” Chang writes, “created by a former employee named Nathan Baschez, that measures a Twitter user’s engagement level—retweets, likes, replies—among their followers. This person is then assigned a score on a logarithmic scale of fire emojis. Four fire emojis is very good—Substack material. Best and McKenzie will reach out and suggest that the person try a newsletter.”
So even, then, as the cofounders posit Substack as an alternative to social media feeds that, in Best’s words, “end up amplifying all the things that drive us crazy,” Substack, too, seems designed to reward proficiencies in social media and personal branding at a premium. As far as the platform’s star writers and their critics are concerned, Substack doesn’t seem to be an alternative to Twitter so much as an extension of it, dedicated to taking Twitter spats into overtime.
No wonder Facebook and Twitter seem eager to co-opt the web newsletter trend. Twitter is explicit in touting its forthcoming newsletter service as a powerful tool for independent journalism. Facebook will reportedly launch its newsletter service in association with the Facebook Journalism Project, which aims to “strengthen the connection between journalists and the communities they serve”—and also probably strengthen, or repair, the bond between newsrooms and Facebook itself. Of course, Facebook and Twitter are the very last companies that a working journalist would trust to serve journalism in any principled sense. Take your pick of reasons to doubt Facebook and Twitter: Some will distrust their commitment to content moderation, others will distrust their commitment to free speech.
Web journalists distrust social media executives but love social media platforms. It’s not hard to imagine Revue getting traction among users who already spend hours every day scrolling Twitter. It will serve some writers and readers. But will it serve writing? How do you scale and sustain the model to serve the professional development of journalists as well as it currently serves the professional development of personalities? Substack hosts a variety of writers who recognized these perverse incentives but then turned to a different business model that seems even more determined to meet the very same perversions. It’s easy to see how the model serves the star writers, with so little overhead and so much profit. It’s harder to see how the model will overcome the supposed ruinous influence of activist fads, personal branding, Twitter addiction, echo chambers, and hyperpolarization.
Facebook and Twitter risk further subsuming the newsletter trend into the very ecosystem which Substack might otherwise empower writers to escape. But Substack has already become one more, inglorious outpost in the Twitter Extended Universe, reducing web journalism to a never-ending, all-consuming contest of personalities. So much for escaping the attention economy and restoring rigor and dignity to their bylines, theirselves.