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A Critique Of Yesterday's New York Times Article About Substack (Updated)
Put away that microwave!
If you follow a debate closely enough, you start to understand the different sides’ arguments. Inevitably, certain catchphrases and slogans take root. This offers a useful shortcut for gauging a journalist’s trustworthiness: Do they amplify these catchphrases and slogans without interrogating them?
I was thinking about this when I read Tiffany Hsu’s latest article in the New York Times, headlined “Substack’s Growth Spurt Brings Growing Pains.” It usefully illustrates the subtle ways journalists can slant a story by selectively including or excluding certain details, and by taking certain individuals’ claims at face value without pushing back on them.
I’ve had a newsletter — this very one — on Substack since 2019. It’s now my second-largest source of income behind Blocked and Reported, the podcast I cohost. That podcast is also on Substack as of last fall, when Substack offered us an advance to poach us from Patreon, where our premium content was previously hosted. I also know and like the Substack guys and am generally down with their pro–free speech approach to everything. Because of all this, I’m certainly biased, so feel free to read what follows with as many grains of salt as you like.
Brief Background On The Substack Non-troversy From Last Year (Skip To The Next Section If You Are Already Aware Of This Nonsense)
I’m also biased because I think the “controversy” about Substack that exists in the minds of some media types is almost completely ginned up and ridiculous.
I will keep this brief out of respect for my own sanity.
About a year ago, there was a very, very stupid debate about Substack. A handful of people left in a huff, often as they bemoaned the site’s allegedly lax approach to content moderation. My name came up sometimes, among others, as someone whose mere presence on the site was a sign that it was a horrible haven for bigots and reactionaries, though the naysayers couldn’t point to anything from this newsletter that warranted my expulsion. I think they were mostly (still!) mad about this 2018 article I wrote, which I stand by.
Overall, it was a deeply dishonest and incoherent campaign. Some of the pundits and online activists involved simply lied to make their points sharper. Others badly misunderstood straightforward concepts like “what online platforms are” and “how capitalism works at the most basic level of people buying and selling stuff.” Still others pretended that it was strange or untoward for a start-up to toss some money at big-name journalists to try to draw eyeballs to that start-up. “Pyramid scheme” got thrown around as an earnest description of Substack, which is just profoundly bonkers if you, like, know what a pyramid scheme is.
Then, many journalists posing as (in theory) semi-dispassionate observers and chroniclers of this conflict disseminated the liars’ and misunderstanders’ most overheated claims about Substack, and they did so with almost enthusiastic credulity. To be clear, here and there journalists stepped up and actually covered the non-troversy with something like professional competence, and there was also a great post critiquing the “pyramid scheme” silliness that I can’t find but will link to if I do. Overall, though, it was a really good example of how journalism has become superficial, ideologically rigid, and click-focused: A bunch of random people were able to spin an incoherent controversy out of nothing and bray about it loud enough to get it covered by mainstream outlets — mainstream outlets that acted more like PR agencies for said brayers than actual journalists. (I did two newsletters critiquing the coverage of Substack-ghazi.)
The Present Article
Tiffany Hsu’s piece is, in part, a straightforward exploration of Substack’s plans as it matures, enters Phase Two (or Three, or whatever), adds new features, and so on. But she recycles some of the silly rumors from last year with very little skepticism. She also makes what feels like very deliberate journalistic decisions to highlight certain information and hide other information in service of the narrative that there’s something genuinely unseemly about Substack.
I’m going to try to breeze through this quickly — it’s not a long article and the problems are obvious.
The very top:
There are things that the newsletter writer Kirsten Han misses about Substack. They just aren’t enough to outweigh the downsides.
She disliked how the platform portrayed itself as a haven for independent writers with fewer resources while offering six-figure advances to several prominent white men. The hands-off content moderation policy, which allowed transphobic and anti-vaccine language, did not sit well with her. She also didn’t like earning $20,000 in subscription revenue, and then giving up $2,600 in fees to Substack and its payment processor.
So last year, Ms. Han moved her newsletter, We, The Citizens, to a competing service. She now pays $780 a year to publish through Ghost, but said she still made roughly the same in subscriptions.
“It wasn’t too hard,” she said. “I looked at a few options that people were talking about.”
Substack indeed takes a hands-off approach to content moderation, which I appreciate, but it does have some content guidelines banning violent threats, pornography, and certain other fairly narrow categories. Ghost, the platform Kirsten Han moved to, has even less content moderation. Its creators note that it “is decentralised, independent software which does not promote, expose or assist any particular content — nor do we have any control or ability to censor, or moderate what is published. The majority of Ghost websites in the world are not hosted by us.” The ones that are hosted by Ghost for its so-called Ghost(Pro) program are subject to thinner guidelines than what Substack users have to adhere to.
People pointed this out at the time, a year ago, as other complainers fled Substack for that platform. And yet here’s a New York Times article credulously passing along the same misguided decision — I’m mad about hate speech, so I’m leaving for a platform with less content moderation. Why doesn’t Tiffany Hsu pop up to note that Kirsten Han is mistaken, or perhaps find a better, more informed source with whom to lead the article? Because, I think, part of the point here is to make it seem like Substack is Problematic, inconvenient details be damned.
I’d also argue it’s a bit silly and misleading of Hsu to allow Han to complain about a “handful of white men” getting advances without making any mention, here or anywhere in the article, that Substack has at this point likely given millions in advances to non-white-man creators. We’ll return to that shortly.
A bit later, Hsu lays out the “host of challenges” facing the company. One is that “many popular writers left, such as the associate English professor Grace Lavery and the climate journalists Mary Annaïse Heglar and Amy Westervelt, often complaining about the company’s moderation policy or the pressure to constantly deliver.”
The bit about Lavery is a really good example of how missing context can render a story more misleading. The fact of the matter is that her newsletter, The Wazzock’s Review, never really caught on, in all likelihood because Lavery stopped writing for it regularly. By the time she left the platform, it was all-but-moribund, and the updates had become quite rare.
Why do I know this? Lavery’s newsletter was the source of a bit of fascination on the part of us Substack nerds. That’s because during last year’s drama, Ben Smith, writing in the same section as Hsu, reported that Lavery’s husband Daniel received a $430,000, two-year advance from Substack, and that prior to that, Grace herself had received a $125,000 advance for her own newsletter. Substack has traditionally given big advances to folks who already have very large platforms, so these numbers seemed high. Daniel Lavery is definitely a popular writer in some circles but, like me, his platform isn’t at the level of Matt Yglesias
or Glenn Greenwald or Andrew Sullivan or Roxane Gay or the other recipients of six-figure Substack advances (Smith reported that Daniel Lavery had 1,800 paid subscribers when he signed his deal, which is an enviable number since it means you can make a living as a Substacker, but it’s far from star territory — Smith also reported that Gay had about 7,200, and it’s well-known that Substack’s superstars have tens of thousands). Anyway, I can’t link to The Wazzock’s Review because it no longer exists, but for what it’s worth, the “Paid post popularity” numbers here support my argument that it withered because of a lack of new content. (Disclosure: I’ve been critical of Lavery’s work in the past.) (Correction: Greenwald didn’t get an advance! What’s funny is that this was one of the false rumors people were spreading during the uproar last year, and then it wormed its way into my brain and this newsletter. I struck out his name and added Sullivan’s as another example of someone with a very large platform getting a sizable advance.)
Both the fact that The Wazzock’s Review almost certainly faded away due to author absenteeism and the giant advances Lavery and her husband received go completely unmentioned in Hsu’s article. Think about these two very different ways to describe what happened here:
1) “Popular writer Grace Lavery left Substack, upset about the company’s moderation policy and/or the pressure to constantly deliver”
2) “Grace Lavery received a $125,000 advance to write a newsletter, more or less stopped writing that newsletter, likely leading to subscriber stagnation or attrition, and then left Substack.”
(1) makes Substack look worse, because in this telling it has shed a popular writer due to differences with that writer, which would be a bad sign for the platform. On the other hand, (2) makes Lavery look worse, and complicates the narrative that she had some major philosophical or labor issues with Substack (if she did, why did she sign an advance?). Hsu went with (1), which I just don’t think is an accident. She also doesn’t mention Gay or any of the other non-white-(cis)-male writers who got money, which would complicate the pat idea that the advances unfairly flowed to “white men.” It feels like there is some rather selective storytelling going on here, and it makes for questionable journalism. (Update: Grace Lavery emailed me, upset I didn’t include her statement about why she left Substack. She’s correct that I should have included it — it was a simple oversight on my part. I’m sorry about that, and here it is. That being said, this doesn’t detract from my point about how the Times article seriously oversimplified the nature of her relationship to Substack. More thoughts in the footnote.1)
Let’s wrap up with the bit about how in addition to Lavery, writers like “the climate journalists Mary Annaïse Heglar and Amy Westervelt [left Substack], often complaining about the company’s moderation policy or the pressure to constantly deliver.”
These are still more examples of Hsu simply handing the mic to aggrieved former Substackers and adding no pushback or context at all. Guess where Heglar and Westervelt went? It’s linked right there in the story:
Wait… so are moderation policies the problem or not? If they are, why are you fleeing to a platform that doesn’t really have any? Why isn’t Hsu popping up to point out to Times readers, who are likely unaware of these subtle points, that multiple Substack writers seem to be very confused about which platform has tighter moderation?
As for “the pressure to constantly deliver,” I don’t know what that could possibly mean. Yes, if you want to make money on Substack, you need to “deliver” content consistently. If that’s a knock on the platform, it’s also a knock on just about every job in the world. It’s a pretty meaningless complaint, in other words. Do Heglar and Westervelt think that there’s less pressure to produce a lot of content within a traditional media company than there is on Substack? That would be news to many of us who have worked under both systems.
It would arguably be more interesting to write an article about this brief mini–moral panic itself. People who claimed to be deeply concerned about content moderation fled to a platform with less content moderation! And they seemed to express very strange ideas about the nature of producing online content and getting paid for it — it wasn’t clear they understood the basic requirements of running a newsletter, at least if your hope is for that newsletter to generate significant revenue. Not that anyone should care what I think, but I’d much rather read an article explaining how all this happened than a microwaving of anti-Substack talking points that were rightly called out as silly and mostly debunked a full year ago. (If I had to guess, I’d bet that as with other pointless online outrages, there was a lot of behind-the-scenes social pressure — in this case, to get people to abandon and publicly denounce Substack.)
Anyway, this isn’t the end of the world. There have been much worse articles written by much worse journalists. But I hope the average Times reader will at least understand why it’s a bit frustrating to see this sort of coverage, and why it shouldn’t pass muster in what is supposedly the best, smartest, fairest newsroom in the world.
Image: The New York Times Building in New York City on February 1, 2022. - The New York Times announced on January 31, 2022, it had bought Wordle, a phenomenon played by millions just four months after the game burst onto the Internet, for an "undisclosed price in the low seven figures." Created by engineer Josh Wardle, the game consists of guessing one five-letter word per day in just six tries. (Photo by ANGELA WEISS / AFP) (Photo by ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images)
Lavery’s post notes that she “walked away from” her Substack deal. I asked if she gave the portion of the advance that she had already received back, and she said that she didn’t. Assuming her deal was structured as four payments, like ours was, that would mean that since she signed it “[a] little less than a year ago” as of her January 22 departure announcement, she received almost $94,000 from Substack, mostly stopped newslettering, and then announced that she was leaving the platform because the company had not cracked down hard enough on what she viewed as Graham Linehan’s libelous claims about her. Read her post for the details, but I don’t think this affects my argument that the New York Times offered a severely oversimplified gloss of ths situation that makes Substack look worse, and Lavery look better, than what is revealed by the full details. But again, I apologize: I should have included a link to her statement for transparency’s sake.