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Is Substack Too Good To Be True?
A brief inquiry into an implausible business model.
One week after he asked his readers, “Is Ronan Farrow Too Good To Be True?” New York Times press columnist Ben Smith reported that “China expert Bill Bishop and the liberal political writer Judd Legum … are earning well into six figures annually for sending regular newsletters to subscribers.” Emily Atkin, formerly of the New Republic, “said she was on track to gross $175,000 this year from more than 2,500 subscribers. Out of that, she’ll pay for health care, a research assistant and a 10 percent fee to Substack, among other costs.”
About Ronan Farrow I don’t know the first thing. But I am inclined to suspect that Substack, the platform on which these “newsletters” appear, is too good to be true.
There are multiple reasons to be skeptical. The newsletters in question appear in fact to be blogs, though perhaps a bit newsier than the blogs of yore. Blogs were killed off by social media. The most successful one, Andrew Sullivan’s the Dish, folded in 2015, with the proprietor declaring that the experience “broke me.”
Even discounting Andrew’s weakness for making sweeping pronouncements, the demands of running a daily blog appear to be brutal. The closest I got was writing an online column in Slate, and then the New Republic and MSNBC, that appeared two to three times a week (at TNR, in addition to a twice-monthly print column). I took great pains not to call what I wrote a blog because I wanted each post to be a free-standing, somewhat polished piece of reporting and writing about which I would not likely be embarrassed five or six years down the line, and also because the field was, when I started in the late 1990s, already getting pretty crowded with what we were still calling “weblogs,” including Andrew’s.
My own preferred model was I.F. Stone’s Weekly, much of which you can read today online. Looking over past issues, it’s striking how often Stone, though out of step with his times, agreed with what would eventually become the judgment of history. It took no great skill, perhaps, for Stone to spot Joseph McCarthy as a fraud. But look at what he had to say about Lyndon Johnson in the immediate aftermath of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. The words could have been written by Robert Caro:
The negative aspects of Johnson are these. In sophistication, education and taste, he is a sharp drop from Kennedy. He has hardly read a book in years; never reads when he can help it; prefers to get information by ear, but rarely listens. He is one of the most long-winded men in Washington; a Babbit, with a remarkably small stock of basic ideas; these consist of a few cliches about freedom, which he translates largely into the freedom of the entrepeneur to make a buck. Money and power have been the motivating passions of his life. He was a New Dealer when that was the road to power, he became a conservative when that was the way to stay in. He is the perfect extrovert, with no convictions and a passion for "getting things done," anything. He rose as rapidly as he did in the House and later the Senate by endless sitting-at- the feet, after hours, of Sam Rayburn and later Senator Russell. Then he listened, the respectful and flattering young man; he had a genius for ingratiating himself with the old men of the Southern oligarchy. But he kept his lines open to the liberals, in order to deal with them, too, and he likes to picture himself as a Westerner rather than a Southerner.
For all that, Stone had a pretty good inkling of what was coming:
Johnson is not a racist or a reactionary; he once told a visiting civil rights group that he had learned all he knew on the subject from Aubrey Williams (of the Southern Conference Educational Fund, once Johnson's boss in the New Deal's National Youth Administration) and Mary McLeod Bethune. As a shrewd politician, he knows he must move slightly leftward and make civil rights his No. 1 issue if he is to change the view of him as a Southern politician, with a basically standpat philosophy.
But of course Stone also ended up being one of Johnson’s most severe critics after he escalated the war in Vietnam.
Would I.F. Stone’s Weekly have made it on Substack? Certainly not as a weekly, no. The articles were too long for contemporary audiences, which is a shame, because they did an excellent job marshaling evidence from often-obscure sources, making the Weekly a valuable tipsheet even to journalists who disagreed with Stone’s left politics.
Stone also hewed largely (though not exclusively) to the persuasion model of political discourse, which has fallen out of fashion. Today political arguments are presented not to persuade but to instruct, and the brass ring goes to whoever can eliminate a fresh patch of previously common ground. The market appears to demand it. People read commentary not to learn something new or to challenge their fixed ideas so much as to delight in the discovery that they are even more right than they knew. (Ezra Klein has written a book about this.) There was always, of course, a subgroup within the reading public that took the “all right-thinking people believe X” approach. But today that group encompasses practically everyone.
The unanswered question is what happens when the Substack impresario who reinforces your preconceptions gets to be a bore. Will he or she still pull down a six-figure income? I predict not. In today’s fast-moving media environment, it’s a quick trip from provocateur to windbag, and there’s always another hungry Influencer waiting in the wings.