The Substackerati
November 16, 2020 9:21 AM   Subscribe

 
When I asked about their views on content moderation, the founders said that, because readers opt in to newsletters—unlike Facebook, there’s no algorithm-based feed—they have relatively less responsibility to get involved.
Ah, yes - "we have no responsibility for the toxic waste on our website because users opt in to it." How quintessentially Silicon Valley.
posted by NoxAeternum at 10:00 AM on November 16 [28 favorites]


Also, how quintessentially “your local public library”.
posted by sideshow at 10:13 AM on November 16 [23 favorites]


These two quotes are both from the article :

“Publications are only paying me three hundred dollars per piece, so I thought, What would happen if I took some of them and grew my audience?” Her efforts were getting noticed; eventually, Substack gave her a $3,000 stipend and a $25,000 advance


When we spoke, they were adamant that Substack is a platform, not a media company—a familiar refrain of Silicon Valley media ventures. “We’re not hiring writers, and we’re not publishing editorial,” McKenzie said. “We’re enabling writers and enabling editorial.”
posted by jacquilynne at 10:17 AM on November 16 [4 favorites]


I am going to gripe about the article. Here goes:

Dear Columbia Journalism Review: This is an article on the internet. You have published a discussion about a website that hosts newsletters, including multiple mentions of specific newsletters.

I am left wondering whether you realize that this is an article on the internet. I am wondering if you are aware of the basic premise of the internet, a premise based on ‘hypertext’; that is to say, text that can direct the reader to other, related content via ‘hyperlinks’.

In the future, should you again choose to publish an article on the internet (especially an article that discusses other content that is also hosted on said internet), I would encourage you to take the approach so many others have done since the advent of the internet and implement the use of hyperlinks.

tl;dr: Don't make me have to fucking google the shit you are talking about. It's 2020 for fuck's sake.
posted by caution live frogs at 10:26 AM on November 16 [50 favorites]


I mean, it's pretty obvious it's going to be another Patreon - or, hell, OnlyFans - with the power-law distribution of rewards. So no, it's not fundamentally solving anything, though it might be useful to some people.

I get less convinced that we want these people being editors all the time, though. That's not really my problem with it. It's just - it does literally nothing to distribute income to more niche writers and basically just offloads the engagement-farming to somebody other than Substack. Revolutionary!
posted by atoxyl at 10:40 AM on November 16 [2 favorites]


I get less convinced that we want these people being editors all the time, though.

The problem is that one of the great myths of the internet is "middlemen bad!" without understanding how many middlemen bring real value to the table.
posted by NoxAeternum at 10:45 AM on November 16 [22 favorites]


The unbundling (e.g. Matt Yglesias leaving Vox to start a substack) just feels like a precursor to a future rebundling.

If you're relatively well known, and already have a decent audience, you can bring them into your substack subscribers, you're not discovering substack's /from/ substack right? You're following people over /to/ substack, they have the ability to hit the ground at a living wage, and therefore can offer a full-time job level of quality to the newsletter.

But at some point as a reader, you're seven deep in your Patreon, substack, self-hosted funded collection, and you've hit your comfortable spending limit-- you're subscription count will max out at some point and largely be stagnant.

So I suspect, in some medium term, we'll see substacks bundling either independently, "Matt and Susan" combine their substacks to share the workload to increase the followers pool, or Substack will offer a monthly $30 all you can eat buffet bundle(s). The rebundling will the force a move back to offering the web-view as a first-class citizen, and voila-- you've rebuilt a blog/news site-- gradually the bundle price will decrease and adverts will be added in to make up the difference to entice more new subscribers.

Is any of that bad compared to the current options? Meh, maybe? Feels like the little people will only ever get the crumbs, Matt might be making $30k/mo and can afford an editor and a charts guru to help to make his newsletter seem very slick, whereas you might only be making $45/mo and so your value offering is very different, but isn't that where we largely are/were?

And the overall driver for /all/ of this really feels like the web-view became too cluttered with adverts and bad design, which just makes me frustrated that the solution wasn't just to build a decent site that was fast and easily readable, instead we threw the webpage out, created an email, and then are slowly going to rebuild that crap website again.

It just makes me want to scream
posted by Static Vagabond at 10:50 AM on November 16 [19 favorites]


I just don’t want to have to read everything in my email, and I don’t want to have to pretend that a single journalist is likely to produce more than one story per week that I care about.
posted by Going To Maine at 10:54 AM on November 16 [5 favorites]


Also, how quintessentially “your local public library”.

This dismisses the substantial, ongoing selection role that librarians play in developing a collection.
posted by ryanshepard at 11:07 AM on November 16 [32 favorites]


The problem is that one of the great myths of the internet is "middlemen bad!" without understanding how many middlemen bring real value to the table.

I agree with that, though possibly for slightly different reasons. But my main issue is that if you have, say, a genuine collective of writers who want some job security and also to do good journalism, they can agree to distribute income equitably among themselves in the interest of allowing everybody in the group to do journalism, while also looking out for their collective interests! Whereas Substack is just a way for people who have already built a career - or lucked into one - to keep a somewhat larger percentage of revenue.
posted by atoxyl at 11:11 AM on November 16


Okay, so when note taking productivity blogs were big, I was following along on a "productivity guru's" blog and noticed that there were a ton of articles behind a paywall. It was some custom platform, maybe a Wordpress plugin or whatnot. The articles sounded like they'd be a bit interesting, but not 10 bucks a month interesting, if you know what I mean.

So time goes by, and there's a post about this newsletter joining Substack. Not as an individual newsletter, but part of a bundle of newsletters (exactly what Static Vagabond predicted). Some of the newsletters were on Substack before, as well. It's now 20 bucks, but it's bundled with a bunch of stuff, most of which I don't care about, but it looks like a better deal.

So I subscribe for a month, poke around in the stuff I was interested in and some of the bundled content. And now, thanks to this post, I've been reminded that I forgot to cancel.

Thank you, toastyk!

(Also, the page refused to *scroll* until I unblocked ads. That's such a reflex on badly behaving webpages for me, and now I suspect that breaking things "accidentally" is more effective than a plea to save journalism.)
posted by Anonymous Function at 11:51 AM on November 16 [7 favorites]


I get less convinced that we want these people being editors all the time, though. The problem is that one of the great myths of the internet is "middlemen bad!" without understanding how many middlemen bring real value to the table.

Well let's get some angel investors and come up with a middleman platform that turns your dreck into more polished dreck for a small fee. Call it "Korrekt" or "Editr," hey I'm just brainstorming here. You can choose whether you want AP style or Chicago.
posted by emjaybee at 11:56 AM on November 16 [4 favorites]


My engineers' disease is flaring up...
It's telling me that all the editors will be replaced with Grammarly, and that the writers will be replaced with GPT-3.
No pesky labor, just sweet sweet capital; gleaming racks of machines in a room somewhere in the world with cheap electricity and no emissions controls.
posted by Anonymous Function at 12:03 PM on November 16 [3 favorites]


And the overall driver for /all/ of this really feels like the web-view became too cluttered with adverts and bad design

The adoption of email newsletters is not being driven by readers, though – it's being driven by writers. I don't think it's a design issue, it's more that writers want control over their audience. It's frustrating to spend years building a platform on Facebook or Medium or Blogger or whatever, only to have them change their algorithm or suddenly require payment or fail entirely. A mailing list is just a list of email addresses – no one can take that away from you. It's decentralized, old-school internet in the best way.

Newsletters also feel more personal. They're often email-only, so they don't feel as "online" as most internet writing. It's refreshing to be able to write something for an interested audience without submitting it to the maelstrom of drive-by social media scrutiny. At the same time, it's easy for readers to reply – and they often do reply, because email is more intimate and private.

Email also just feels like home for writers – it's made of words, maybe some links or a photo or two, and that's it. There's no pressure to produce videos or snazzy interactive infographics, and you don't need to hire a designer or coder or audio technician to set up a newsletter.

I don't think it's a place to start from scratch, but for writers with an audience, it's not hard to see how Substack (which is more of a payment platform than a publisher) is a good fit.
posted by oulipian at 12:06 PM on November 16 [7 favorites]


I mean, it's pretty obvious it's going to be another Patreon - or, hell, OnlyFans

I'd call Substack OnlyFans for ugly people, but given the big names going to substack that seems like it would be terribly mean to ugly people.

This is where I like to propose the thesis that RSS failed not because Google killed it, but because there was never a meaningful monetization model around blog content distributed via RSS. Online advertising has been a failure for the long tail, unless you're willing to deal with the garbage that Taboola or Outbrain dish out. (and those two recently had a failed merger! ha! )

Bloggers migrated to bigger publications because those did a little better but ultimately the "1000 True Fans" theory (from 2008!) ended up being the truest and most profitable thing.

I see people on Patreon making stuff that's seemingly very simple and pulling in $3K a month! (like D&D maps). In the world of Starbucks and Doordash $5 a month for a subscription is nothing. I guess the only surprising thing is that it's taken this long for medium-form writers to catch up and adopt this model.
posted by GuyZero at 1:30 PM on November 16 [5 favorites]


> I agree with that, though possibly for slightly different reasons. But my main issue is that if you have, say, a genuine collective of writers who want some job security and also to do good journalism, they can agree to distribute income equitably among themselves in the interest of allowing everybody in the group to do journalism, while also looking out for their collective interests!

I've been watching (and am funding, through subscriptions) as the ex-Splinter and ex-Deadspin folks do this with a lot of interest. I'm real curious what the financials look like and how the democratic structure works when people have disagreements. I'm in tech, and a small group of friends and former co-workers and I are discussing forming a co-op of our own. There're so many questions to hammer out that just don't exist in a more standard business organization, but I fundamentally believe co-ops are the only just way to organize a business, and I'm really interested to see how these high profile ones work out.

I also subscribe to a couple of Substack newsletters, but there's a very clear gap in the pace and/or quality of the journalism there compared to dedicated sites, even for newsletters that are making a real concrete effort at high-quality journalistic work. Nick Martin's The Informant, for example, is a great newsletter and Martin's producing some of the best reporting about hate groups I know of. But the deeply reported features are heavily supplemented with link posts that kinda feel like they're juicing a weekly count, and I'm worried that, like a lot of the folks in the CJR article discussed, he's courting burnout.
posted by protocoach at 2:32 PM on November 16 [1 favorite]


there's a very clear gap in the pace and/or quality of the journalism there compared to dedicated sites, even for newsletters that are making a real concrete effort at high-quality journalistic work.

To me this is more proof that journalism is expensive and that editors exist for a reason.
posted by GuyZero at 3:12 PM on November 16 [6 favorites]


I'm really looking forward to the day that Substack creates an aggregator where you can read all the posts you have access to from all the people you subscribe to. It'll be like the glorious days of c. 2000 Livejournal, but with better formatting for my phone.
posted by yarntheory at 3:56 PM on November 16 [8 favorites]


> To me this is more proof that journalism is expensive and that editors exist for a reason.

Strongly agree. I also wonder what happens when a billionaire decides they don't like something that was published by a Substack author. How well funded is that Substack Defender program?
posted by protocoach at 5:27 PM on November 16 [1 favorite]


Pretty sure Substack will claim they don't exert editorial influence and they qualify for DMCA Safe Harbor coverage, but that also means they're going to need a claims system and block infringing materials and it will slowly morph into every other online social media platform.
posted by GuyZero at 5:58 PM on November 16


It's not a social media platform. At all. Do you consider MailChimp a social media platform?
posted by oulipian at 6:27 PM on November 16


Do you consider MailChimp a social media platform?

No, but MailChimp is also very much not what Substack is.
posted by GuyZero at 6:54 PM on November 16


Substack incidentally has RSS feeds. I use Bazqux with filters for some of the newsletters I only want to read specific content from. Works great.
posted by reenum at 8:02 PM on November 16 [3 favorites]


A few consider it a place to get weird (see: Ellie Shechet’s Horrible Lists, with entries like “How to give up on your dream of moving home to become an herb farmer in 11 easy steps”).

Ok this is the best thing I've read today.
posted by medusa at 8:26 PM on November 16 [1 favorite]


wait it gets better

What podcast episode synopses sound like sometimes

Ellie Shechet
Oct 19

Bagels, human fists, herbal tinctures. What do all of these things have in common? And what happens when a large bag of all three of them is dumped out of a window onto traffic? The mysterious story of a bag, and the guy it fell on, and the other person who was also there.

Angela Drawine hates people. But her job, at a human cloning factory, required her to make even more people. So one day she decided to do something a little out-there, and we won’t say it for 35 minutes.

An uproar at the Pepsi headquarters, a mysteriously shy horse, and 15 blood balloons. We’re back with this week’s edition of Thing Thing Thing.

Every morning, Pinky McShears flings off her bathrobe, picks up a helmet, and crawls into a hole in her basement where she’s discovered the secret of time.

Nobody likes to be called self-indulgent. But when one woman accidentally drowned her plant and got covered in soil water while writing pandemic poetry in the bathtub, she was forced to make a surprisingly difficult choice.

Question: When we close our eyes, do we disappear? You’d think the answer is no—but it’s a lot more complicated than that, although the answer is still no. For the real explanation, we talk to an 104-year-old beekeeper in the Canary Islands and my cat Patricia.

Caller Ashley Lewis can’t find her math notebook from 7th grade. The search took us all the way down to an unmarked grave in Patagonia.

In this moment of political chaos, we have a story about a person who was actually a piece of licorice, and their sister, who was also a piece of licorice, and a 10-year-old who braided the licorice pieces together and ate them, and all of us here began to wonder: Am I a piece of licorice, too?

A listener keeps seeing a man in a Spiderman costume outside of his bathroom window, holding a sign that says “I’M SPIDEY.” Brett, Jake and Josh investigate.
posted by medusa at 8:33 PM on November 16 [19 favorites]


medusa: "Ellie Shechet"

Your ideas are intriguing to me and I wish to subscribe to your newsletter.
posted by chavenet at 1:20 AM on November 17 [1 favorite]


Is there a reason that Substack can't be more like Mailchimp? A tool you pay for if you need that tool, rather than a platform for engaging an audience?
posted by harriet vane at 2:19 AM on November 17


And the overall driver for /all/ of this really feels like the web-view became too cluttered with adverts and bad design, which just makes me frustrated that the solution wasn't just to build a decent site that was fast and easily readable, instead we threw the webpage out, created an email, and then are slowly going to rebuild that crap website again.

I want to make a plug here for installing uMatrix(MeFi-specific notes) and simply switching off all images, scripts, and everything else. Not only is everything faster and text-only but it can make for a smaller “attack surface” for malware. It breaks some sites, but I just don't read those ones. (In reality, I just keep a second browser with more mild ad-blocking measures installed for sites I absolutely must look at.)

I used to carefully choose which sites I looked at and which I didn't, dutifully allowing ads to annoy me for the sake of journalistic business models, and even watched old Flash video sites where the ads would load perfectly but the content itself would continuously hang and make you reload the page and watch some new ads. Then a bit more than a decade ago I ran into my first video ad with audio embedded in a text article and that was the last straw. I installed uMatrix and never looked back.
posted by XMLicious at 2:51 AM on November 17 [3 favorites]


Other data: AskAKorean (I don't know his real name) discusses why he went with Ghost instead of Substack for his The Blue Roof newsletter on South Korean news (cheaper, more flexibility, ability to host his own archive).

I love the idea of Substack - I subscribe to a bunch of newsletters and then I never check my email anymore - it starts to seem more like a chore than something fun to entertain myself with. I'd rather just get RSS feeds and then read them in a blogreader or something like that at my own whim.

The other thing is that I don't know why Substack makes it so difficult to find their more interesting writers. I have no interest in their top 20 - Greenwald, Yglesias, etc (boring!). You can connect it to your Twitter account and find people that way, which is fine, but I really want to know about people I would not otherwise find on my own. I feel like they should have like a directory or something.
posted by toastyk at 8:10 AM on November 17 [2 favorites]


I'd rather just get RSS feeds and then read them in a blogreader or something like that at my own whim.
Requisite note that NewsBlur has a fantastic feature for this where it can set up an email address for you to set up forwarding for your newsletters; and then each newsletter becomes an RSS feed.
posted by CrystalDave at 8:47 AM on November 17 [3 favorites]


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