Substack, Facebook and Twitter newsletters are already one

For more than a decade, Facebook and Twitter have hosted a series of mass media revolutions. The former destroyed the old business model of newsroom journalism and stoked global panic over political misinformation in the process. The latter brought together journalists, activists and consumers on a raucous live-blogging platform that has, for better or worse, laid bare the biases, processes and pressures that drive so much editorial judgment. in media institutions accountable to an algorithm.

These tech companies have helped turn journalists into personalities, and they’ve enabled those personalities to challenge those institutions both internally (as employees who control the public beyond the employer’s own pages) and externally (as freelance writers who now compete with full-staff publications for subscriptions). Facebook and Twitter have spent the past few years swearing (before Congress!) that they were platforms, not publishers; they don’t want to micromanage political discourse. But now, despite their better judgment, they are getting into the web newsletter business.

Newsletters may seem somewhat niche, not worthy of the attention of multi-billion dollar corporations. But the company has been booming for about a year, with Silicon Valley company Substack spearheading the most successful and controversial venture. Substack has raised more than $17 million in venture capital and signed several high-profile journalists to high-value contracts to further popularize the platform, which earns its most successful writers hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. year.

In its commercial expansion, Substack lives and dies by its awareness of the intellectual diversity available to its readers and its explicit reluctance to censor its writers. This makes Substack a tempting destination for mavericks who annoy progressives on other platforms, such as Twitter. But Substack is a small company, employing 20 people, intended to compete with the social media giants. Twitter has 192 million users, Facebook has 2.8 billion users; these are massive embedded audiences for centralized distribution of newsletters.

In January, The New York Times reported on Facebook’s plan to develop web tools for journalists and writers. Sources told the newspaper that it would allow writers to create followings on their Facebook pages, manage mailing lists and provide subscription features to help authors monetize their work, a model very similar to Substack. A few days before Facebook’s development, Twitter bought Revue, a Netherlands-based web newsletter service. While Revue’s relaunch date remains uncertain, Twitter has begun integrating the newsletter editor into the main social media platform. Users will be able to edit and publish newsletters to their subscribers – some authors of which have hundreds of thousands on Twitter – in a closed system. The company promises give writers the ability to monetize their subscribers while keeping site users informed about their interests.

What about this strange and belated benevolence of the worst enemies of the information industry? And why are an increasing number of journalists working outside the news sector anyway? Substack’s most popular political writers share a professional background and grievances against mainstream staff-run publications. Blogging godfather Andrew Sullivan has quit New York magazine and relaunched his old blog, The Dish, as a newsletter on Substack. Bari Weiss on the left The New York Times and launched its newsletter, Common Sense, on Substack. Matt Taibbi still writes and podcasts for rolling stone but considers his bi-weekly newsletter his main job. Glenn Greenwald on the left The interception, which he co-founded seven years ago, to launch his own eponymous newsletter. Matt Yglesias also left his own post, Voice, co-founded seven years ago, to publish its newsletter, Slow Boring, on Substack.

“In mainstream newsrooms across the country,” Taibbi said. noted in a recent tweet, “journalists and editors are being kicked out because staffers are increasingly insisting on the right to a cohesive political environment and being granted that right. Substack is not that, refuses to be that and therefore inspires outrage. But Substack co-founders Chris Best, Hamish McKenzie and Jairaj Sethi have repeatedly challenged the alleged duty to save journalism, which corporate champions and critics often impose on Substack. “A lot of people assume we started Substack to be the next big thing in journalism,” the co-founders wrote in a recent blog post. “But what we’re actually trying to do is subvert the power of the attention economy.” This should in theory be the main distinction between Substack and its impending competitors, Facebook and Twitter: the writer’s ability to cultivate an audience outside of the general population of a busy social media platform. “Take your mind back,” reads the Substack homepage.

But the platforms seem to have more similarities than Substack would like you to think. A few months ago, the Columbia Journalism Review published a provocative story about Substack and its so-called “Substackerati”. Journalist Clio Chang has profiled Patrice Peck, who writes the Coronavirus News for Black Folks newsletter, and she features Peck – a dedicated news gatherer and modest success on Substack – in contrast to the website’s more prominent and provocative writers. , such as Sullivan and Yglesias. “The most successful people on Substack are those who have already been well served by existing media power structures,” Chang writes. Chang describes why the company signed contracts with some writers. “They have a system,” Chang writes, “created by a former employee named Nathan Baschez, that measures a Twitter user’s level of engagement — retweets, likes, replies — among their followers. then assign a score on a logarithmic scale of fire emojis. Four fire emojis is fine – Understack material. Best and McKenzie will contact you and suggest the person try a newsletter.

So even then, while the co-founders posit Substack as an alternative to social media feeds that, in Best’s words, “end up amplifying all the things that drive us crazy,” Substack also seems designed to reward skill in social and personal media. branding at a premium. When it comes to the platform’s star writers and detractors, Substack doesn’t appear to be an alternative to Twitter but an extension of it, dedicated to taking Twitter into overtime.

No wonder Facebook and Twitter seem eager to co-opt the web newsletter trend. Twitter is explicit in touting its upcoming newsletter service as a powerful tool for independent journalism. Facebook is reportedly launching its newsletter service in association with the Facebook Journalism Project, which aims to “strengthen the connection between journalists and the communities they serve” — and likely also strengthen, or repair, the connection between newsrooms and Facebook itself. Of course, Facebook and Twitter are the very last companies a working journalist would trust to serve journalism in a principled sense. Take your pick of the reasons to doubt Facebook and Twitter: some will be wary of their commitment to content moderation, others will be wary of their commitment to free speech.

Web journalists distrust social media executives, but love social media platforms. It’s not hard to imagine Revue gaining traction among users who already spend hours each day scrolling through Twitter. It will serve some writers and readers. But will it be used for writing? How do you scale and sustain the model to serve the professional development of journalists as well as it currently serves the professional development of personalities? Substack hosts a variety of writers who recognized these perverse incentives, but then turned to a different business model that seems even more determined to deal with the same perversions. It’s easy to see how the model serves star writers, with so little overhead and so much profit. It’s harder to see how the model will overcome the supposed ruinous influence of militant fads, personal branding, Twitter addiction, echo chambers and hyperpolarization.

Facebook and Twitter risk further subsuming the newsletter trend into the very ecosystem that Substack might otherwise allow writers to escape from. But Substack has already become yet another inglorious outpost in the extended Twitter universe, reducing web journalism to an endless, all-consuming personality contest. You might as well escape the attention economy and restore rigor and dignity to their bylines, themselves.

Harry L. Blanchard