Is the Substack Revolution Here to Stay?

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Have you heard of Substack? If you don’t pay close attention to the online writing/blogging/punditing world, you might not have. But it’s currently enjoying its 15 minutes of fame.

Newsletters are the everything-old-is-new-again hotness these days, and Substack is a platform that allows you to manage a newsletter business. What makes it unique is that it provides a ready-made infrastructure for charging subscription fees, which can vary depending on what you want to charge for and what you want to send out for free. This is handy for solo writers who just want to write and don’t feel like messing around with the business side of online writing.¹ Recent converts to Substack include Glenn Greenwald, Matt Yglesias, Andrew Sullivan, and others.

Those three are the reason Substack is suddenly getting attention. That’s because all of them, to one extent or another, have joined Substack as a sort of protest against the wokeness of their previous employers. They want the freedom to say whatever they want to say without hindrance from editors or allegedly hypersensitive fellow writers. Naturally this provides a great hook for stories about whether the wokeness of the left is getting so bad that even progressive writers are finally getting sick of it. For more, check out “The Substackerati” in the latest issue of the Columbia Journalism Review.

But this is not my topic today. I’m a blogging dinosaur, which makes me a little sad about the rise of Substack. Back in the day, the virtue of blogging was that everyone could talk to everyone. Later, when many bloggers (including me) went to work for magazines, our work was still freely available. We could link back and forth and our readers always had the option of clicking those links if they wanted more details or just wanted to check and make sure we were quoting each other fairly. The same was true of news articles we commented on.

This ecoystem began to break down when newspapers started going behind paywalls. For example, I now pay for subscriptions to the LA Times, New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal. That comes to over a thousand dollars a year, and I’m not really willing to cough up any more than that. This means that I constantly run into paywalls that prevent me from even reading potentially interesting pieces. And my readers, unless they also shell out a thousand dollars a year, are likely to be unable to ever read the news pieces that I link to.

Now, with Substack, the same is going to be true of an increasing number of writers. I’m not really willing to rack up a whole bunch of $60-per-year subscription fees for individual writers, which means I’ll never know what they’re saying. And even if I did, you’d never know what they’re saying unless you’re coincidentally a subscriber too. This means we have a growing circle of writers who are influencing the political conversation but doing it semi-privately. The rest of us will only get hints here and there, the way you might have heard snatches of gossip from acquaintances who had been invited to an 18th century salon.

There is, obviously, lots of political gossiping that already happens over lunch tables or cocktail parties. Still, I’m not thrilled to see political writing begin to head behind a paywall where only a select few can read it. I may be overreacting to this, and I very much understand the business problem it solves. Still, it’s a trend I’m not very happy to see.

¹The marketing side, by contrast, is more important than ever to mess around with. You’re on your own with Substack, and it’s up to you to keep your subscriber base growing.

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