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Too Good To Be True: Substack Edition

Annalee Newitz's final Substack post (for obvious reasons, I'm using an Internet Archive capture link):

Here’s why Substack’s scam worked so well

As you may already know, Substack is a tool for publishing email newsletters like this one. The idea is that anyone can start a newsletter, using Substack’s (very nice) interface, and we have the option to charge subscribers. Substack advertises itself as a tool, an app, that functions like a marketplace. Using the app, readers can find topics of interest, and creators can get compensated for the labor we put into our creations. All that Substack asks is for a percentage of our subscription income, to pay for maintaining the site, support, etc. Honestly, a fair deal.

Except Substack is not merely an app. It’s actually a publication. Why do I say that? Because Substack’s leadership pays a secret, select group of people to write for the platform. They call this group of writers the “Substack Pro” group, and they are rewarded with “advances” that Substack co-founder Hamish McKenzie calls “an upfront sum to cover their first year on the platform [that’s] more attractive to a writer than a salary, so they don’t have to stay in a job (or take one) that’s less interesting to them than being independent.” In other words, it’s enough money to quit their day jobs. They also get exposure through Substack’s now-considerable online reach. 

By doing this, Substack is creating a de facto editorial policy. Their leadership -- let’s call them editors -- are deciding what kinds of writing and writers are worthy of financial compensation. And you don’t know who those people are. That’s right -- Substack is taking an editorial stance, paying writers who fit that stance, and refusing to be transparent about who those people are.

I was already suspicious about how Substack was being pitched as a 'make money from blogging' scheme. Looks like my gut feeling was correct.

But that's not where the bad smell is coming from. As Annalee details, the identities of some of the Pro's have been revealed, and a pattern has emerged about the people that Substack are bankrolling to write for their platform:

Before Substack came clean about its Pro program, I had already started to hear things from journalist friends about how certain people were getting massive amounts of money to write for the platform. Sure, they could call their newsletter by any name they wanted, but Substack was paying them to do it. And yet Substack was pretending that its successful newsletters were all bootstrapped. That sounded like shenanigans to me. 

It got worse when some of the Pro writers started to reveal themselves, because Substack’s secret paid elite all seemed to be cut from the same cloth.

From Jude Doyle (again, I'm using an Internet Archive link):

Substack has become famous for giving massive advances — the kind that were never once offered to me or my colleagues, not up front and not after the platform took off — to people who actively hate trans people and women, argue ceaselessly against our civil rights, and in many cases, have a public history of directly, viciously abusing trans people and/or cis women in their industry. 

Glenn Greenwald started his Substack by inveighing against trans rights and/or ACLU lawyer Chase Strangio, is currently using it to direct harassment at a female New York Times reporter, and has repeatedly used his platform to whitewash alleged rapists and domestic abusers. Freddie de Boer is an anti-“identity politics” crusader who became so infamous for harassing colleagues, particularly women, that he briefly promised to retire from the Internet to avoid causing any more harm; he’s currently using his “generous financial offer” from Substack to argue against “censoring” Nazis while pursuing a personal vendetta against the cis writer Sarah Jones. Matt Yglesias, who publicly cites polite pushback from a trans femme colleague as the Problem With Media Today — exposing the woman he named to massive harassment from Fox News and online TERFs alike — reportedly got a $250,000 advance from Substack. It’s become the preferred platform for men who can’t work in diverse environments without getting calls from HR. 

To which Annalee adds:

This is precisely the kind of thing that happens in organizations that lack transparency and accountability.

Hamish and the other Substack editors have responded to their community’s concerns about transphobia by saying that their paid staff writers come from all across the political spectrum. Which, by the way, is an editorial policy. Of course, we can’t verify that it’s true because Substack refuses to be transparent about which newsletter writers are on staff. 

So Substack has an editorial policy, but no accountability. And they have terms of service, but no enforcement. If you listen to Hamish, they don’t even hire writers! They just give money to people who write things that happen to be on Substack. It’s the usual Silicon Valley sleight-of-hand move, very similar to Uber reps claiming drivers aren’t “core” to their business. I’m sure Substack is paying a writer right now to come up with a catchy way of saying that Substack doesn’t pay writers.

So much for the salvation of blogging. Hence why I titled this post 'Too Good To Be True'. Of course, Substack is probably hoping to recoup the money it's paying out to the 'Pro' through the cut they take from everyone else. So I fully expect that the ability to offer content for free will dry up.

More to the point, do you want to tie your personal brand to a platform that is not only apparently fine with hate speech but happy to bankroll the spewers of such speech?

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