Substack has attracted quite a few high-profile writers to its publication platform — and it not a secret that the venture-backed startup has lured a few of them with sizable funds.
For instance, a New Yorker article late final yr recognized a number of writers (Anne Helen Petersen, Matthew Yglesias) who’d accepted “substantial” advances and others (Robert Christgau, Alison Roman) who’d began Substack newsletters with out putting offers with the firm.
However, quite a few writers publishing by way of Substack have begun arguing that this technique makes the firm appear much less like a know-how platform and extra like a media firm (a well-known debate round Facebook and different on-line giants) — or at the very least, like a know-how platform that additionally makes editorial choices topic to scrutiny and criticism.
Last week, the author Jude Ellison Sady Doyle pointed to writers like Yglesias, Glenn Greenwald and Freddie deBoer (a number of of whom departed larger publications, supposedly turning to Substack for larger editorial independence) and advised that the platform has turn out to be “famous for giving massive advances [ … ] to 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.”
Doyle initially mentioned that they might proceed publishing by way of Substack however wouldn’t cost a subscription charge to any readers who (like Doyle) determine as trans. Later, they added an replace saying they’d be transferring to a special platform referred to as Ghost.
Science journalist and science fiction author Annalee Newitz wrote yesterday that they might be leaving the platform as properly. As a part of their farewell, they described Substack as a “scam”: “For all we know, every single one of Substack’s top newsletters is supported by money from Substack. Until Substack reveals who exactly is on its payroll, its promises that anyone can make money on a newsletter are tainted.”
Substack has responded with two posts of its personal. In the first, published last week, co-founder Hamish McKenzie outlined the particulars of what the firm calls its Substack Pro program — it gives choose writers an advance cost for his or her first yr on the platform, then retains 85% of the writers’ subscription income. After that yr, there’s no assured cost, however writers get to maintain 90% of their income. (The firm additionally gives legal support and healthcare stipends.)
“We see these deals as business decisions, not editorial ones,” McKenzie wrote. “We don’t commission or edit stories. We don’t hire writers, or manage them. The writers, not Substack, are the owners. No one writes for Substack — they write for their own publications.”
The second post (bylined by McKenzie and his co-founders Chris Best and Jairaj Sethi) offers extra particulars about who’s in the program — greater than half ladies, greater than one-third folks of colour, various viewpoints however “none that can be reasonably construed as anti-trans” —with out really naming names.
“So far, the small number of writers who have chosen to share their deals — coupled with some wrong assumptions about who might be part of the program — has created a distorted perception of the overall makeup of the group, leading to incorrect inferences about Substack’s business strategy,” the Substack founders wrote.
As for whether or not these writers are being held to any requirements, the founders mentioned, “We will continue to require all writers to abide by Substack’s content guidelines, which guard against harassment and threats. But we will also stick to a hands-off approach to censorship, as laid out in our statement about our content moderation philosophy.”
Greenwald, for his half, dismissed the criticism as “petty Substack censors” whose place boils right down to, “because you refuse to remove from your platform the writers I hate who have built a very large readership of their own, I’m taking myself and my couple of dozen readers elsewhere in protest.”
But once I reached out to Newitz (a pal of mine) by way of electronic mail, they instructed me that the key problem is transparency.
“If Substack won’t tell us who they are paying, we can’t figure out who on the site has grown their audience organically, and who is getting juiced,” Newitz mentioned. “It’s blatantly misleading for people who are trying to figure out whether they can make money on the platform. Plus, keeping their Pro list secret means we can’t verify Substack’s claims about how its staff writers are on ‘all sides’ of the political spectrum.”