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Saturday, March 2, 2024

Substack Is Now a Playground for the Deplatformed

What do Alex Berenson, Bari Weiss, and Glenn Greenwald have in common? They’ve all railed against being deplatformed—be it a Twitter ban or the loss of a job at a prestigious publication—only to find a new home and great riches on Substack.

The hyped newsletter platform, founded in 2017 and touted as an alternative way forward for the perpetually struggling ad-driven media industry, has positioned itself as the anti-Facebook—a place where quality and thoughtfulness triumph over engagement algorithms. But some of its most feted writers are considered by many to push harmful content. Such successes raise an awkward question for the new media darling: If Substack is the future, what future is it even creating?

For Substack CEO and cofounder, Chris Best, the future can’t repeat the mistakes of the past. “The way we ended up, where we have these ad-supported, attention-monster social media feeds dominating how people spend their time and attention, has some really negative consequences.” Enter Substack. And Alex Berenson.

Berenson, formerly a New York Times writer, who was banned from Twitter in August 2021 for pushing false claims about the safety and effectiveness of Covid-19 vaccines, has a flourishing business on Substack. He earns an estimated $720,000 a year from his subscribers—though curiously doesn’t appear on Substack’s leaderboard of top writers. Best says Berenson’s absence from the Substack leaderboard isn’t a conscious choice to not promote him but instead “a technical glitch.” Though Best couldn’t say when the glitch was identified or when it would be fixed.

Glitch or not, Berenson’s popularity creates a potentially awkward tension for Substack, which presents itself as the alternative to the ad-driven model—and the gaping flaws of the attention economy. “We feel that the way the first generation of social media and the internet played out basically broke a bunch of things,” he says. While Best acknowledges social media and the early internet helped connect people in new ways, he believes it also broke the preexisting business models for great writing in a way it’s impossible to turn back, though plenty of publications, The New York Times perhaps chief among them, are managing to make big bucks from good writing.

Best believes that Substack is a new way forward for the world of media, and the herald of a new, democratic world. Social media broke journalism, and Substack is here to save it. When they launched Substack, Best and his cofounders, Hamish McKenzie and Jairaj Sethi, drew comparisons with newspaper impresarios from 200 years ago, saying their innovation was of equal importance. It was designed to shunt the media out of what the cofounders saw as a vicious cycle of pursuing clicks through outrage because it goes viral on social media. “The incentive structure that gets created because of that doesn't support and reward great writing. It supports and rewards things that make us crazy,” Best says. “And that’s a failure, both for us as individuals who care about what we read and care about having a good view of the world, and for society at large because it’s deranging us.”

Substack has managed to build an impressive business predicated on the idea that people will pay for good journalism—and prefer to support writers directly, rather than mediated through monolithic media organizations. But is what Best proposes all that revolutionary? Or is it just doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past in a zeitgeisty disguise?

Best’s argument is well-worn—and valid: The attempt to chase eyeballs has had a negative effect on our increasingly polarized world. But pointing the finger at social media is misguided. “Anyone who advances the argument that ad-supported content has to be more provocative and partisan than reader-revenue or pay content hasn’t been paying a hell of a lot of attention to how the television industry works,” says Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford. He points to the majority of ad-supported TV networks, Fox News excepted, which are resolutely centrist and play to the lowest common denominator in order to attract the broadest possible range of advertisers.

But if Best’s view on the ad-driven model puts him at odds with Facebook, Google, Twitter, and others, then his belief in the sanctity of free speech—and a hands-off approach to moderation—is more in line with the status quo. From Glenn Greenwald to Bari Weiss, its roster of biggest-name writers—a number of whom have been deplatformed from other social platforms—shows the company is willing to promote free speech rather than an overly interventionist content moderation policy. “We think building something that relies on heavy-handed censorship by anyone, including us, is a dystopian solution,” says Best. He points to the “travails of Facebook,” where the company tries to stop societal issues it causes by playing a game of whack-a-mole with inappropriate content, often unsuccessfully. “You end up with the original problem you had anyway,” he claims: Censorship is never perfect, and people distrust you for daring to shape what’s acceptable.

Substack does have brief content guidelines, last updated in November 2020, about what is and isn’t allowed on its platform, but they are broadly drawn, and it’s not clear how often they’re enacted, especially given the presence of Berenson on the platform. One of Berenson’s most recent posts on Substack claims incorrectly that mRNA vaccines have contributed to, rather than stopped, the spread of Covid-19. But Best defends hosting Berenson and his anti-vax content, saying he does have a place on Substack. “Making a version of Substack where we take a stance on what is right or wrong, or what’s the right public health policy, or what’s acceptable public opinion or what’s not, is not the best version of the platform we can make,” he says. The company declined to comment on specific instances of when it has intervened, and also declined to share the number of content moderators Substack employs to keep tabs on infringing content.

How well that approach stands up to regulatory scrutiny—which is coming for the social media companies Substack hopes to replace—is yet to be seen. So too is the business model Best believes is the future of media. He reckons we’re moving to a world where we support individual writers, rather than institutional outlets, through regular subscription payments in exchange for news and analysis sent to our inboxes. Some investors agree, so far funding Substack to the tune of $82.4 million.

“It’s a relatively small minority of people who say they get news via email,” says Nielsen. Across the 46 national markets the Reuters Institute surveys, just 16 percent of people got news via an email newsletter—and only 5 percent say it’s the main way they get their news. “That doesn’t mean it’s not important, but it’s important to recognize that context and that audience and user demand,” says Nielsen. In the US, where Substack is based, the proportion is higher—at 22 percent.

That comparatively small audience is perhaps why technology journalist Charlie Warzel left for The Atlantic just seven months after making a highly publicized move from The New York Times to Substack. (In his final Substack email Warzel pointed out that his subscriber count and income increased every month, and that he was moving “not because I see Substack as an untenable platform for me.”) Then there’s Casey Newton, another technology journalist, formerly of The Verge, who launched his own newsletter, Platformer, on Substack in October 2020. Little over a year later, Newton launched a jobs board. But, Newton says, he’s not doing so because of a lack of income. “The question is whether Platformer can be a little bigger than it is today—to turn it from a solo operation to a true tiny media company, which was the goal I laid out in my inaugural post.” If the jobs board works out, Newton hopes to be able to fund a second or third reporter for his newsletter.

“The digital media economy reinforces the already very strong winner-takes-most dynamics that exist in the media marketplace,” says Nielsen. It’s often those who shout loudest who end up with the highest profiles in publications. “You quickly end up where the benefits accrue to the platform and a limited number of very prominent voices.” Weiss, Greenwald, and Andrew Sullivan—three big names formerly associated with major publications—are in the top 10 of Substack’s politics leaderboard, with “tens of thousands” of subscribers each. Nielsen believes there are only a limited number of people able to earn a living on Substack—and the Venn diagram of those names overlaps significantly with those who have historically inked lucrative book deals, appeared on TV news channels, and earned big bucks for speeches. “This is a blockbuster economy,” he says, “and most of us aren’t blockbusters.”

Best rejects the idea that the loss of Warzel and the further intrusion of legacy media into the newsletter game is a sign the Substack model doesn’t work. He believes there’s still an appetite for readers to subscribe to multiple newsletters, and space for the company to grow. “We are not anywhere close to the limit,” he says. “We just need to help people discover, fall in love with, and subscribe to the writers that are already able to make things.” But as every tech firm throughout time has learned, scaling can be hard without abandoning your founding principles.

One way to scale would be to bundle Substack newsletters into single subscriptions. It’s a feature oft-requested by Substack writers, but Best says its implementation isn’t imminent. If the company were to do it, it would be led from the bottom up rather than top-down, with writers buddying up and offering readers bundled subscriptions rather than paying a single fee to Substack to read all its content. “If we said, ‘You had these direct linkages [with writers] but now you don’t anymore,’ not only would that be wrong for us to do, it would be suicidal,” Best says.

That challenge of balancing profits and people is a difficult one, though. In contrast to politicians and former Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen, who has claimed Mark Zuckerberg’s company prioritizes profits over protecting people, Best believes framing the future of media as a binary choice is too simplistic. “Their business has grown in such a way that in order to make the business successful, it has bad impacts on people,” Best says of Facebook. “Once you're in that position, as a business, you’ve already lost the game, right?”

Yet those same issues appear to be what Substack is tussling with right now. Yes, it isn’t reliant on algorithms and advertising money, but it is at least partially reliant on the popularity of writers who have been banned or cast adrift elsewhere. “Every platform, large or small, whether long-established or new, whether very public like Twitter or much more private like email newsletters, will face questions about content moderation,” says Nielsen. “We’re at the beginning of the discussion around how content moderation works in semiprivate spaces like email newsletters and podcasts.” The question is where that discussion leads—and whether Substack’s approach can hold up to further scrutiny.

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