Why Journalists Hate Substack

Last week the online media industry went through one of its recurring rituals of self-flagellation. HuffPost, formerly known as The Huffington Post (before the association with Arianna Huffington’s various lifestyle branding initiatives maybe became a bit too cringeworthy) saw its journo-workforce dramatically slashed by new parent company BuzzFeed. As is custom, those who got the axe ceremoniously took to Twitter to announce their fate and solicit new opportunities, with colleagues and peers chiming in to affirm how amazing they are and why you should totally hire them. Certainly the instinct to offer public support for laid-off friends and acquaintances is understandable. But…

Also came the obligatory ritualized lament about how horrible the online media industry allegedly is. “This fucking industry,” as one exasperated HuffPost journo put it, captures the prevailing sentiment. And yeah—there’s no denying that the online media industry has lots of big problems. I’m known to comment on them fairly regularly. So if you’re reading this and considering a future in the industry, but can envision literally anything else you might prefer to do in life, please for your own sake do that instead. It’s rife with sleazy nepotism, institutional pathologies barely explicable to outsiders, rampant conformism, endless bitter feuds and grudges, and precariously few prospects for long-term financial security. Also, a lot of the “content” is pure crap.

On the other hand, certain segments of the online media industry are currently thriving. A prominent example being Substack (more on that later). So if this segment of the online media industry is thriving, while other segments are cratering, maybe the issue isn’t the online media industry per se, but rather whatever problems are specific to the segments that are cratering? Just throwing a hypothesis out there.

Because personally speaking: with the exception of a roughly 18-month period from 2017-2018 when I was a full-time employee of The Young Turks (and subsequently laid off without warning one afternoon along with a slew of others—so I know the feeling) for the past five years I’ve been able to generate a dependable income primarily from various crowd-funding methods, on top of “independent contracting” for media organizations and most recently, a forthcoming book. And even though those income-generation methods have never made me rich, I nonetheless recognize how “privileged” I am to have derived anything like a sustainable income at all on the basis of my participation in the online media industry. Writing, podcasting, and such are not the most intensive forms of labor on the planet; it’s also pretty fulfilling to be able to express oneself on the internet and get paid for it. In light of this, my general attitude toward the industry is actually one of gratitude — despite my recognition of its big problems and my contempt for many of the people who populate it.

So when you see another round of layoffs, followed by another round of exasperated Twitter lamentation about how horrible the industry is, you have to wonder if these rituals ultimately function as an excuse for journalists to forgo any kind of real self-examination. For instance, why it is that the media organizations they inhabit always seem to be in a constant state of free-fall? Sure, there are economic factors at play that the journalists themselves cannot control. But it would seem to behoove these journalists to maybe spend a little bit less time complaining in the abstract about the depredations of “the industry”—as though they are its hapless, beleaguered casualties—and a little bit more time analyzing whether they have contributed to the indisputable reality that huge cross-sections of the public distrust and despise the media.

There are multiple potential explanations for this dynamic worth considering. Maybe it’s the tedious hyper-partisanship and weirdly outdated content aggregation tactics that much of the online media still employs. Maybe it’s the constant five-alarm-fire tone and incessant hyping of overblown threats that was characteristic of the Trump years. Maybe it’s some combination of all these and more—but you won’t see many axed journalists offering up any kind of critical introspection, because when the layoffs arrive it can never have anything to do with their own ideological myopia or other shortcomings.

Which brings us to Substack. Excuse the excessively self-referential posting about Substack on Substack, but I couldn’t help but notice that my initiation onto the platform last Wednesday seemingly coincided with the first concerted push by journalists and tech officials to demand the imposition of regulation and/or censorship on Substack. Which raises the question of why there’s such growing resentment out there against Substack, particularly in the media.

Part of the answer is self-evident. Substack provides a platform for those who have been cast out of respectable journo-world to generate an income while also being liberated from the institutional pressures that otherwise afflict most of the industry. So if you’re on Substack, you’ve exited the journos’ direct sphere of influence, insofar as they have no power to enforce any kind of direct repercussions on you for transgressing industry pieties. Especially as they labor away under such apparently lamentable conditions, it’s not hard to see how this would breed anger and resentment.

It must also agonize them to see that their painstaking efforts to unionize haven’t been as fruitful as they may have wished. In the past several years, they’ve spent a lot of time organizing their websites and magazines; unlike most other sectors of the economy, the online media industry seems to have undergone an organized labor renaissance. But there appear to be some drawbacks.

So the fact that Substack exists and is gaining popularity, and is even able to offer generous financial incentives to writers and journalists that Substack management deems likely to garner a large subscriber base, must be really irritating for these media industry people toiling away under comparatively precarious conditions. Hence their tendency to lash out at Substack and call for its destruction.

If past is any prologue, the point at which Substack will be most susceptible to demands for censorship is the point at which there’s a protracted campaign waged by ‘prestige’ media (New York Times, The Atlantic, CNN, etc.) to demand such censorship, lest Substack be accused of complicity in the infliction of “harm” or “violence” against vulnerable communities. That’s how earlier censorship initiatives targeting YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter have taken shape. My impression is that the people who run Substack are committed on principle to resisting these demands, and let’s hope that continues. But who knows.

Because when the media industry is increasingly operating under a framework whereby my mere writing of this post could be construed as “harassment” or even “violence” because I’ve obliquely criticized some journos, all bets are off.