Jen Gerson: Substack rats unite!

Never fall into the mistake of assuming any of the objections are about principle or journalism. It's about who holds the power in media.

True story: an ambitious young man with an idea for a startup gave me a ring on the phone. He wanted to start a new platform for writers and journalists; what would it take to encourage a writer like me to abandon the mainstream media and go fully independent? I explained the sort of site that might entice me — a clean and painless user interface, basic word processor, and something to take care of IT and payment back end. I then hung up the phone and thought to myself: "Nice guy. Too bad that idea isn't going anywhere." 

After all, why would I abandon paying gigs in mainstream journalism for the uncertainty of direct reader support? It was a crazy idea. 

Years passed.

Well, this gentleman went off to form a company called, uh, Substack, and after Andrew Sullivan left New York Magazine to reconstitute the Daily Dish under the aegis on this very platform, I was forced to dredge up this gentleman's email and offer to eat my hat. 

Because by then, mainstream media was in a state of financial and moral disarray and it was time for me to do what I would have done three years earlier if I had possessed the foresight — start The Line. In any case, the founder of Substack was very kind and even managed to schedule a call with me, at which point I said: "OK, you were right." 

This was one of the conversations that eventually led to my co-founding this fine newsletter that you are reading now, but in the course of this chat I had to ask another question: "You know they're going to come after you, right? Are you ready for that?" 

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He said Substack is, indeed, committed to serving its community of writers — provided they aren't spreading hate or disinformation, of course —  but I suspect the company is only beginning to gain a glimpse of the test ahead.

When I read the Columbia Journalism Review's piece The Substackerati, released this week, my first response was: "Ah, and so it begins. The problematization of Substack." 

It's not enough to be content with the mass exeunt of several high-profile writers from major media outlets. In recent weeks, Andrew Sullivan, Matt Taibbi, Glenn Greenwald and now Matthew Yglesias have all left secure roles to pursue their own newsletters via this platform. So, of course, it's inevitable that those who feel threatened by these moves will next strike at the common denominator — the platform itself. To rob these writers of their credibility and potency, the tactic will be to undermine the platform they've used to achieve financial, moral and intellectual independence. 

Doing so exerts pressure on Substack to overstep its stated role as a distributor, and instead take a more active position on moderating positions that the Twitter punditariat deems offensive or unfit for wider consumption.

There are a few examples of this in that CJR piece. Lines like this: “(Substack took) a nonideological, non-editorial stance ... But often, adherence to neutrality only enforces existing power structures." 

And this: 

"But as you peruse the lists, something becomes clear: the most successful people on Substack are those who have already been well-served by existing media power structures. Most are white and male; several are conservative. Matt Taibbi, Andrew Sullivan, and most recently, Glenn Greenwald — who offer similar screeds about the dangers of cancel culture and the left — all land in the top ten." 

Note that by "well-served by existing media power structures," what we really mean mean is: "the people who got famous by regularly producing compelling writing over the course of many years have, unsurprisingly, managed to capitalize on that fame on another platform — as writers have done since hot-type was first pressed to page." 

I'm sure that the next step will be to tar Substack as a hotbed of racist or problematic people and content. I expect the anointed are, even now, delving through Substack's back catalogue of fringe contributors for examples of racist looniness. I have no doubt there are some examples of this to be found. 

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Never fall into the mistake of assuming any of this is about principle or journalism. It's about power. Independent writers increasingly at odds with existing journalistic institutions are taking back their audiences, and their autonomy. And cultural gatekeepers struggling to maintain their principles and their relevance in the current intellectual hothouse are using whatever tricks they have at hand to maintain their traditional role and authority. This is all very predictable.

I don't mean to be too hard on the CJR piece; it's honestly not that bad, and I expect far worse to come. 

What I actually love about these critiques is that they reveal everything about the critic. That the Substack leaderboards are dominated by the likes of Taibbi and Sullivan is a truly horrific early indicator — if you're the sort of person who cares, deeply, about things like leaderboards. Note that these critiques focus on power structures and status, not on the actual work. 

As a Canadian woman leading a newsletter intended for a Canadian audience, I'm very unlikely to make a leaderboard. While the support has massively exceeded my expectations, I don't yet make enough money at The Line to do this full time. Here's the thing: I don't care. I am on Substack because it allows me to make a thing that I can’t make anywhere else. Status is irrelevant. It’s the freedom to make the thing that matters. 

Whether it be mediated by Substack, Twitter, or mainstream media outlets, writing has always been a long-tail game. Very, very few writers manage to make a lot of money at it. And when a writer does make it, it's rarely because the angels above descended from the heavens and appointed one to be famous. Almost every writer worthwhile enough to hate has spent years — yes, years — grinding out piece after piece after piece, week after week after week, establishing credibility and trust, and creating a relationship with an audience. It's that relationship that a writer can then use to leverage better pay and a better position. 

An editor can give a promising writer a shot to build this kind of position for him or herself — but that's the only thing anyone can ever really be given. A chance. 

This is why I always laugh when Twitter falls into its weekly paroxysm over a Conrad Black or a Rex Murphy column. "Why is the National Post still giving these old white men a column?" 

The answer is so obvious, I feel embarrassed to type it: because these old white men still generate eyeballs.

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And not just a few clicks, either. Black alone probably attracts more views than the the next five second-tier writers combined. To borrow a metaphor, marquee columnists are like the meat counter at a grocery store: loss leaders in and of themselves, but if you don't have a butcher, nobody comes in for the eggs and broccoli. That's why marquee writers so often get away with petty misbehaviour and lazy rhetoric. They subsidize the rest of the newsroom, driving traffic and, ultimately, cash, to lesser-known journalists and their subjects. 

Now it's certainly true that existing outlets, beset by unprecedented financial challenges, have neglected their duties to develop a younger generation to replace the old. Their karma for this failure is that they are now captive to the ego-monsters of their own making. Their dying duty will be to edit the increasingly ridiculous raw copy of their in-house septuagenarian cranks as those now-indispensable writers age past their rhetorical prime. 

As for the rest of us, well, most people fail at writing. It's a terrible, poorly paid, joyless grind and the only ones among us who continue to make any kind of go at it are so socially maladjusted that we have no other option. But if this absurd compulsion to put words on a page holds, the technology now exists to permit people like me to spend decades devoted to building a relationship with readers unmediated by existing corporate media structures. 

And if such writers can't use tools like Substack to eke out a living, at some point they have to ask themselves if they're producing work that people find valuable. Those pushing the people like Sullivan and Yglesias out of their newsrooms shouldn't waste their time trashing the platforms that allow for the very independence that they too might one day cherish. Instead, they ought be cheering. The rats are gone! The ships of established media institutions are now unsullied by the gutter-sniffing stain of wrong opinion. The noble survivors are now liberated to ascend the ranks, anointed anew as if by the angels on high. 

Well, here we are now. Entertain us. 


The Line is Canada’s last, best hope for irreverent commentary. We reject bullshit. We love lively writing. Please consider supporting us by subscribing. Follow us on Twitter @the_lineca. Fight with us on Facebook. Pitch us something: lineeditor@protonmail.com