Substack Calls Itself a Newsletter Journalism Platform. The Virtual Reality Version Is More Like It.

Lou Carlozo March 25, 2021

Substack co-founder/CEO Chris Best wants to change journalism through his newsletter platform. His degree is in applied science-systems design engineering. He joins Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg as another programmer who thinks he knows what he doesn’t know about media.

As the debates and controversies surrounding the newsletter platform Substack continue to bubble and boil, I will admit to some knee-jerk pettiness. After all, I hate jargon and smug Silicon Valley portmanteaus. Like we’re in on the joke, or whatever it is. What the frig is a substack?

I like to think it’s the typical journalist’s stack that hides under another one. The top one, of course, is the mess of paper scraps and protein bar wraps on my desk. Beneath this, the “sub stack” contains the $1,000 check for my last freelance assignment that just grew legs and decided to play hide and seek.

Turns out the real Substack indeed contains a touch of the bizarre. It’s a platform where people post newsletters, sell subscriptions to them and give up a 10 percent cut. Nothing to get your designer undies emblazoned with the New Yorker top-hat dude in a bunch, right?

Right. Until you consider this…

The Substack brain trust sees itself in the heroic role of high-tech media “disruptor.” Yes, that’s good news if it means writers can kick down stuffy newsroom constructs and constraints to produce content that delights, surprises and informs. And in some cases, they do.

But Substack also invokes “journalism” in its manifesto. And with that, I have problems. Big problems. The kind that no sage editor or therapist can help me let go of.

Substack’s Subversive Smells-Like-Media Manifesto

When I read its 2017 mission statement as reproduced in an excellent New Yorker piece, I thought I was reading a deleted scene from “All The President’s Men,” with publisher Katherine Graham standing heroically on a desk in the Washington Post newsroom. Behold, the power of self importance!

The great journalistic totems of the last century are dying…

No shit. Did you mean “dying laughing”? Continue pontificating, gentlemen.

News organizations—and other entities that masquerade as them—are turning to increasingly desperate measures for survival.

Substack does a good bit of masquerading as well. We’ll get to that in a bit.

And so we have content farms, clickbait, listicles, inane but viral debates over optical illusions, and a “fake news” epidemic.

Sounds like the perfect recipe for a content platform that is so non-sectarian as to allow for anything. Even hateful content and conspiracies. Continue…

It’s easy to feel discouraged by these dire developments, but in every crisis there is opportunity. We believe that journalistic content has intrinsic value and that it doesn’t have to be given away for free.

No one ever said anything about giving content away for free. Again, we can file this under “no shit.” But what does “journalistic content” mean, exactly? Because hey, everyone’s a journalist these days! Even the troll who confined himself to his home office long before COVID-19 hit, and knows exactly how everything works.

Like journalism itself. And Substack, while it does boast some pretty fine journalists in its mix, is just a platform. That’s it. If you have a newsletter idea, want to sell subscriptions and are willing to fork over 10 cents on the dollar, you are in, baby.

The media mess and the programmer problem

If I ever tried to write code or do the kinds of things programmers do, it would be a joke. Therefore, I think it’s highly disconcerting that the top two leading social media platforms have assumed the role of media leaders as well … but are run by former programmers and coders. I wrote about the respective backgrounds of billionaires Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey here. And we all know what their blurring of the media lines meant. Sabotaged elections. Giving the hate speech and lies of the former president a Tweet trumpet.

Add to this mix (though he’s not a billionaire) Substack co-founder Chris Best. I’m not sure how much of the Substack Manifesto he wrote. But when asked about his background, he recently told The Verge’s Nilay Patel, “I’m sort of a programmer and technologist.” I love that specificity, don’t you?

I certainly hope my proctologist is “sort of” able to treat my hemorrhoids.

If not, I guess a programmer will have to do.

Which is my point. Does Best, or anyone in the Substack brain trust, deserve to tell us what’s wrong with journalism and how to fix it? If so, we should all barge in on our cardiologists and tell them how to diagnose a myocardial infarction. Or evaluate the transmission work of our mechanics over the last decade.

It’s beyond tiresome to hear how everyone else knows what ails the media. But can we, just for a moment, beg the past and present programmers of the world to shut up? To ask questions instead of bombard us with Wisdom Distilled From the Gods of Github? I have been at this for 30 years. I learn far more from asking questions than pretending I know even a fraction of the answers. Take a cue from the reporters. We only do our jobs well when we embrace the magic of an empty notepad and an open mind.

Still, that hardly makes for a smart business plan, venture capital raises and delicious, adrenalized disruption.

As in: Sort Of Journalism.

Survival by Desperation or Disruption

Vox/Recode’s  does what all talented reporters do when discussing a controversy: He leads with a real life example that shows instead of tells. He begins his March 19 piece on Substack by telling the story of Jude Doyle, a non-binary writer and early adopter of Substack, who joined in 2018. This month, though, Doyle left the platform to go with Ghost, a nonprofit publishing platform. Why? Kafka shares Doyle’s story as follows:

Doyle says they left Substack because they were upset that Substack was publishing — and in some cases offering money upfront to — authors they say are “people who actively hate trans people and women, argue ceaselessly against our civil rights, and in many cases, have a public history of directly, viciously abusing trans people and/or cis women in their industry.” 

Now, let’s look at that Substack Manifesto again. Remember that line?

News organizations—and other entities that masquerade as them—are turning to increasingly desperate measures for survival.

Substack may not be desperate in the traditional bleeding-red-ink sense. But is this how far it is willing to go to get those much coveted clicks, revenue and the like? Doyle is not the first to raise these concerns. True, the idea of news orgs wooing high-priced talent is hardly novel. But I like to think the responsible ones check the wined-and-dined to make sure they aren’t serial haters.

What’s more, if talent high-priced and low is making shit up, how in the name of Walter Cronkite is Substack going to fact check it, police it and force content specialists to hew to anything close to an ethical standard?

What’s more: I could publish columns singing the praises of a major coffee chain and take major money on the side from that chain. But Substack wouldn’t do a goddam thing to police it, contain it, call it out or institute a policy of full disclosure.

And that example, Mr. Best, illustrates a violation of journalism ethics of the very highest order. Not sort of. It is.

But you did not know that, did you?

All Checks (and Balances) Cash the Same

Still, I’m sure Best is ready to belt out the Silicon Valley version of “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina.” And hey, what did you expect? Someone starts a ride sharing business with “sort of” taxi divers, except that they get no health insurance, salary or retirement accounts. Their vehicles may not even be maintained nearly as well, either. Who’s watching? And who cares? You make this new thing, get it to masquerade as another, break all the rules and duck all the consequences. Substack, the Uber of Journalism.

And yet, Patel titled his podcast interview “Can Substack CEO Chris Best Build a New Model for Journalism?”

Hell, I though Zuck and Dorsey already did that.

But if you’re wondering what Herr Facebook and Monsieur Twitter think of this, they’re ready to either leap in Best’s lap or eat his lunch. Both want to start services that go head to head with Substack. Unless they buy out Substack. In which case, Russian bots and whoever the teenage prankster was that started QAnon can sell their newsletter musings for profit. Just like real journalists!

Here’s the irony: I might start a newsletter on Substack myself. Who doesn’t like to make money? But while “newsletter” contains the word “news,” it deserves the journalism imprimatur as much as “virtual reality” can be called “reality.” Sort of reality. As close to reality as it gets without being the real thing.

Substack is journalism as seen through a fun-and-profit-house mirror. The style I have used in every single Qwoted blog post since day one is to italicize the names of legitimate media outlets.

Just like I did here with Substack.

Lou Carlozo is Qwoted’s Editor In Chief. All opinions expressed are too cocky and convoluted for a newsletter. lou@qwoted.com or connect on LinkedIn

 

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