"He's Selling Subscriptions!" The Substack Model, Cancel Culture, and Legacy Media
First off, Happy Halloween!
Glenn Greenwald, one of the left’s most celebrated muckraking journalists, started his own Substack this week, hours after publicly resigning from The Intercept, the magazine he had co-founded in 2014. His own journal wouldn’t publish his own piece about Hunter Biden, not without edits he found unacceptable, so Glenn struck out on his own.
In 2020, Substack has become second-life for the cancelled and the controversial. The rag for which you write won’t publish your work because it’s too controversial? Start a newsletter like Glenn. Your views are too maddeningly centrist for your former employer? Be like Andrew Sullivan, and make far more money selling subscriptions than you ever did at New York Magazine.
You are still a toxic brand, because those who do remember your fall from grace still despise you? You do as I have done, following the nudgings from a kind friend or two. My former best known regular gigs – The Atlantic and Jezebel -- would face a torrent of outrage if they rehired me for a weekly column. As the photo that captions this piece indicates, even my return to a subscription-based newsletter has been greeted with a mix of incredulity and bile.
Just over three weeks after launching this newsletter, I have 56 paid subscriptions and just under 400 folks signed up for free newsletters. I’m not remotely close to making the kind of money that Andrew or Glenn will make, but for someone near the margins, this initial influx of money is a godsend. It is also the only way someone like me can make any money at all writing under his own name.
(I am so grateful to all who read, and the paid subscriptions are life changing at this point. I would welcome more. Thank you.)
Cancel culture is real. Twitter has the collective power to force the dismissal of even famous and well-regarded writers from their posts. (Andrew Sullivan, Ian Buruma, Bari Weiss – the list expands, inexorably, every week.) In this age of reckoning over sex and race, those who fall short of an ever-shifting mark can and will face calls to be “de-platformed.” If the goal is to make certain views unacceptable, cancel culture has proved a very real success, both in terms of those relative few who have lost their platforms – and the far greater, uncountable number of those who have wisely and quietly self-censored in order not to draw howls of outrage.
Substack exists to fill a niche – the place from which those who already had followings can presumably never be cancelled. If you write here, you have no editor, no corporate overlord, no one above you at whom the indignant can tweet, demanding your head. (I’m under no illusions, though – Substack itself could be bought by some conglomerate, and the mob could then try to demand a purge of newsletters. Capitalism being what it is, another platform would take its place, and those of us who have no other choice would migrate to the new outlet, taking subscribers with us. One could also imagine a hacker gaining access to the list of one’s subscribers, and then naming and shaming them for supporting someone the mob has declared “unclean.” Based on my own experience, I do not consider anything impossible anymore.)
I am lucky to have friends and family who support my writing, and I hope that number will grow. The likes of Andrew Sullivan, David French, and Glenn Greenwald have tens of thousands of paying fans, and can make a comfortable living writing in this way. (If they’re smart, they’ll hire editors – because there’s no writer so talented that their work doesn’t need a second set of eyes before it goes before the public. I miss having editors very much, and my writing is weaker for their absence.)
The problem, though, is what the Substack model means for traditional media – and for those talented folks far less well-known than Glenn, or Andrew, or even me. Very few people have the means to buy subscriptions to everyone selling one. $6 a month here, $10 a month there – it will get pricey very fast. (You can see that the folks at Substack have a genius revenue model.) Those who do have some cash to spend will subscribe to a few favorites, and have nothing left to spend on supporting up-and-comers who have never had a platform. As more folks subscribe to Substacks to support writers they admire, they may cancel subscriptions to journals and newspapers – the places where previously unknown writers are most likely to find their first audiences.
The Substack model encourages us to spend money only on what we already know and trust. It’s set up to be the ideal second (or 57th) chance for those who already had an excellent first chance, and can import at least some paying fans and friends post-cancellation. It reinforces privilege, in that sense; it’s not hard to conclude that young writers, women writers, and non-white writers will have a harder time making it in this subscription-based framework. In this sense, cancel culture may hurt the very people it intended to help. If Substack hastens the financial collapse of the legacy outlets, who will that help? What does it matter if Glenn Greenwald is replaced by a talented Black woman with “better views” if Greenwald’s departure makes it impossible for The Intercept to still pay her?
I started this Substack because my particular infamy means I have no alternative if I want to try to make a little money writing under my own name. I’d love to work as part of a community again, but I know that that’s not viable in today’s poisonous culture. (I accept that I may not be good enough to deserve a gig anywhere; one of the things about being canceled is that one can flatter oneself by attributing one’s professional frustrations to a combination of one’s own recklessness and a ruthlessly unforgiving culture, rather than to a simple lack of talent!)
Again, again, again – thank you for subscribing! It’s quite literally helping keep the lights on, and it will make for a better Christmas for bunnies. And yet, though I don’t want to bite this lovely new hand that’s helping feed me, I do worry about the long-term consequences for media culture if the Substack model continues to spread, and other sites lose paid subscribers. In other words, “cancel culture” may come to have an unintended and disastrous new meaning.
P.S: please, please, please do not contact or otherwise abuse the “blue check” who posted the tweet that frames this piece. However you feel about her view, let civility and amiability reign!