Man bites dog, quitting Substack to work for magazine.
A little more than a year ago I lost my job at a mainstream publication and put out my shingle on Substack. I titled my newsletter Backbencher, a term I knew many potential readers in the United States wouldn’t know, but I comforted myself that it was a lot less esoteric than the names of many other Substack offerings.
Matt Yglesias, for instance, titled his Substack thingamajig Slow Boring, a name derived from Max Weber’s description of politics as a “slow boring of hard boards,” but which to the uninitiated evoked the proverbial comedian who’s so funny he can elicit laughs reciting names out of the phonebook. Readers will flock to my Substack, Yglesias was in effect boasting, even if I tell them it’s slow and boring! Substack’s management can’t have been amused, having paid the man $250,000 in exchange for 85 percent of all subscription fees for a period of one year (after which time its take would drop to 10 percent). But Substack got the last laugh. According to Yglesias, it was he who accepted a mess of pottage, raking in $380,000 instead of the $775,000 he’d have taken home had the inducement never been proffered. The Lord works in mysterious ways.
I’d like to report that Backbencher followed a similar trajectory, but that would be a lie. No lighting of Montecristo cigars with $100 bills, no screaming bobby soxers massed on my front lawn. The dream passed me by. My earnings from Backbencher over the past 15 months total, hmm, let me see. Oh yes, zero. Some of my posts got picked up by the Washington Monthly, but when the magazine offered to pay me for these I declined with a haughty wave of the hand. That so impressed them that they installed me as guest web editor for six weeks this summer, bestowing for my labors a modest but much-appreciated stipend.
Perhaps my Substack mistake was not to get unloaded by my former employer for causing offense in one of the various ways at which we gray-haired white males excel. I was not crucified on an altar of political correctness, much less for any genuine offense. I was let go merely because my labor section wasn’t generating sufficient revenue as the economy dipped into recession. I won’t pretend the experience left me unbruised, but in retrospect I give the place (Politico) credit for allowing the experiment to continue five and a half years. Still, the very reasonableness of my dismissal put me at a disadvantage when I created Backbencher. Had I been able to claim martyrdom at the hands of #BlackLivesMatter or #MeToo I might have, like Bari Weiss, attracted legions of subscribers eager to express solidarity with their credit cards. (Never mind that Weiss, as I noted in a Backbencher piece, cancelled herself.)
But I am not embattled or aggrieved, as are legions of newsletter writers who have made “Substack” the new euphemism for “male menopause.” I just wanted to post some essays, partly, as I say, to amuse myself, and party to alert potential employers that I was still alive. Not asking people to subscribe permitted me to sign up friends and acquaintances in positions of influence without shaking them down for money. I lost count of how many Backbencher subscribers—as I write they number 902—were draftees. A pleasant surprise was that many, perhaps most, of my recruits read the thing anyway.
I never tried as hard as I might to make Backbencher a cash cow, because I never particularly believed in Substack as a business model. My first Backbencher piece was titled “Is Substack Too Good To Be True?,” and answered in the affirmative. Many Substack tycoons have emerged since I wrote that to prove me wrong, but I stand by my final paragraph:
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.
I tried to leaven Backbencher’s potentially oppressive Timothy-Noah-ness by running pieces from other people, either as book excerpts by experienced writer friends like Rosa Brooks, Alec MacGillis, and Louis Menand, or as original essays by less experienced writer friends like Holly Brewer and Roland Stephen—who had loads of expertise and interesting things to say but not much familiarity with the journalism format. Had I not found employment, I might have tried to make Backbencher even less like the Timothy Noah Show and more like a magazine, with multiple contributors coming at topics from different angles.
In the end, though, I was spared having to reinvent the wheel. There are plenty of perfectly good magazines already out there, and I will rejoin one of them, The New Republic, after Labor Day as a staff writer, having spent the same 15 months I labored over Backbencher freelancing a weekly online column for TNR. (I also wrote a bit for the Atlantic, Politico, Time, the New York Times Book Review, and the Washington Monthly; these are all retrievable at timothynoah.com.) I say “rejoin” because I worked at TNR twice before, most recently writing the “TRB From Washington” column, which I retired in 2013 when a previous owner showed me the door. (My first stint, under yet another owner, was in 1980-2, when giants roamed the earth.)
It will be excellent to earn a salary again, obviously, but it will also be a pleasure to return to the company of other writers who may or may not think the way I do about this or that, and will certainly know a lot more about many such things than I do. After 15 months even I have gotten a little bored spending so much time in the company of Timothy Noah.
Backbencher probably won’t disappear entirely. I may return periodically to explore personal obsessions that hold no interest elsewhere, or to excerpt a book, or to publish something by a friend. Mostly, though, Backbencher will be mothballed, its snob appeal uncompromised by excessive popularity. Thanks for keeping me company during this dreary pandemic. May its demise follow swiftly that of Backbencher.
I liked your Timothy Noah-ness and will look forward to your TNR writings. I only really read three Substack things (now two). Heather Cox Richardson, so I can keep up on the gist of things, and Anne Helen Peterson, because she lives where I do and writes about stuff like - Is Graduate School Necessary and at What Cost?
(Important topic to a mother of a surfer and a bar bouncer.)
I appreciate musings on obscure obsessions, most of all, but the world is spinning too fast lately, and these seem to fly off into space. Dammit.
Best of luck.
People could try, you know, not writing the same fucking thing over and over again every day. I frequently get put on Twitter lists of "Substackers who complain about cancel culture," but the last time I checked that topic came up maybe one out of every seven posts, and since I post about six times a week, that's a lot of content for people who aren't into that. Diversify.
Also, you know, it helps if you're good at writing.