Yesterday Alan Jacobs praised the return of Andrew Sullivan’s The Dish. He noted how it’s part of an emerging trend among journalists to form their own, independent platforms where they’re not beholden to the editorial demands of larger institutions. He also pointed out how directly paying writers for periodical writing quickly introduces a scaling problem for readers - paying five to ten dollars a month per writer quickly adds up. But, Jacobs suggests that putting writing behind paywalls rather than on the open web might be “a feature rather than a bug! Fewer morons to insult you without reading what you write.” I really like this line of thought, and have a few concerns about it, and some of Substack journalism’s emerging patterns, as well.
First, I’m concerned that the actual content of Substack journalism is going to be increasingly self-congratulatory, self-referential, and montonous. More specifically, I’m concerned that good writers like Matt Taibbi and Jesse Singal are going to devote most of their work to entries about “cancel culture”, free speech, academic/journalistic freedom, etc. While discussing these issues is a worthy activity, it’s not the only thing worth writing about. And I also think that left-leaning writers should be willing to criticize their own camp, if only for the sake of intellectual credibility. David French has been doing this on the right for years now, and it’s long overdue for some progressive writers to do the same. But, between Taibbi and Singal’s Substack home pages, all but one of the headlines seem devoted to criticizing sloppy thinking on the left. Again, I think these criticisms should be made, but let’s not stop writing about actual systemic policy issues as well. If writers going independent are so tired of culture war-ing, then I hope that they’ll eventually resume writing about something more interesting than culture wars.
Second, I’m concerned that this space of writers going independent is going to be primarily populated with those who already have existing platforms. Andrew Sullivan claims that going independent is necessary, “especially for up-and-coming writers”, but those who already have a following are going to have a much easier time finding financial backing than those who don’t. Of course, part of Substack’s appeal is that writers don’t need to pay until they start generating revenue.
Third, I’m concerned about the problem of access. The cost of access to independent writing will almost certainly mitigate the number of trolls engaging with (or rather, harassing) writers; if you hold nothing but animosity to a given writer and their views, you’re unlikely to pay for the opportunity to read them and support their ongoing work. In this way, the paywall acts as a feature. At the same time, it is a bug for those who’d like to read and engage, but for various reasons are unable to afford access. My worry is that the audience of readers and responders to these writers will be limited to the educated and well-resourced class similar to those already paying for subscriptions to The New York Times and The Economist. In other words, the problem of echo chambers will persist. Yascha Mounk can want to persuade people all he wants, but underpaid and overworked Americans already inundated with social media noise will probably be unlikely to listen when they already have some level of information exposure available for free on the major platforms. The paywall will just be seen as another form of gatekeeping by the elite class, and they’ll continue to read the bad-faith low-quality clickbait/ragebait churned out by content mills instead. If independent writers are seriously concerned about the quality of discourse happening in our country, I urge them to consider the problem of access.
Jacobs speculates about the possibility that “some kind of non-partisan, non-ideological journal of ideas will eventually emerge”, something I remain both skeptical and hopeful about, but in the meantime I think writers looking to build their own platforms should address the problem themselves. Humor writer Sam Irby handles this by having free and paid tiers for her newsletter (which I highly recommend). I’m unsure if Substack has a feature for this, but giving readers the opportunity to sponsor free, all-access memberships is another possible strategy. I would gladly pay double for The Dispatch if it meant that an underprivileged person could read it. Tangentially related, I’d say the same for micro.blog. Or, another option is to give everything away for free, and make paying entirely optional, trusting in the generosity and goodwill of readers to pay when they can. It’s ambitious, and risky, but so is this endeavor to further democratize quality writing online.