The Tenuous Promise of the Substack Dream

Plus: The threat of blogs, the balkanization of social media, and a new record for America’s mayor.

Illustration: Sam Whitney; Getty Images


Hi, folks. Has there ever been a worse year than 2020? Even crazier, with a month to go, everybody knows the worst is yet to come.

The Plain View

I used to write a column for Macworld magazine. People trying to butter me up would tell me they bought the magazine just to read my modest contribution. I didn’t believe them, but it got me thinking. It was the mid-’90s, the early days of the web, and pioneers were starting their own sites. What if I “went internet”—sold just my column and charged a buck for each edition? Cheaper than the magazine! If I were paid by only a fraction of Macworld’s several hundred thousand readers, the proceeds would far exceed the fee Macworld paid me. An interesting thought experiment. I put my calculations in a PowerPoint deck and made it part of a presentation about the internet I was giving back in those days, which ended with a promise that, sooner than they thought, many of the people in the room would have their own email addresses. Really!

Attempting to execute that plan in 1995 would have been preposterous. The audience hadn’t arrived. The tools weren’t there. How would people pay me? And besides, the big media companies I was working for were well established and secure.

Pre-Cyber Week Starts Now. Get WIRED for $10 $5. Subscribe Now

Twenty-five years later, though, that exact idea is suddenly in vogue. Everyone is on the internet. The tools are there. Stripe handles payments. And some companies, notably a 2017 startup called Substack, offer turnkey options to get going, even offering promising writers an advance to pay the utility bills while they build an audience. The preferred format is newsletters, sent to readers’ inboxes, where they’ll be wedged between Zoom meeting links, face-mask spam, and updates on your cousin’s wedding. (Postponed again! Jeez, why don’t you elope already?) Brand-name journalists are bailing from publications—whether because they didn’t like to be edited or felt that their political views were unpopular with colleagues—to peddle their prose directly to consumers. Other writers were simply thrust into the unemployment diaspora by cutbacks or shutdowns of their outlets and decided to go indie. The deal is that you hook people with a free version and then sign them up at 50 or maybe 100 bucks a year. We are in a Substack moment.

Substack CEO Chris Best tells me that while he’s not out to kill what’s left of big media, the ad-free newsletter model has advantages over what traditional journalism has become—a chase for clicks where “most people’s media diets get determined by social media,” he says. “And so we end up in this world where the things that everybody reads are not the things that you would choose to put into your mind if you were sitting back and making that decision thoughtfully.” If you are paying $100 a year to follow a single writer, you’d surely be more thoughtful about it!

That’s the price of Platformer, Casey Newton’s new Substack. He started it after writing a similar newsletter for his employer Vox, for two years. He saw other journalists take the leap, including Emily Atkin, who writes a popular newsletter about climate change. Plus, during the pandemic everyone is working from home anyway. “I felt like if it works, it could just be mine,” he tells me. “And I wouldn’t have to worry about what might happen to Vox Media in 10 years.” He says he sees newsletters as something he’ll be doing for his whole career. And if he draws a relatively modest paying audience, he can match his previous salary. “I only need to have 3,000 subscribers to have the best job in journalism,” he says.

Can paid newsletters scale to be an important part of journalism, as Substack hopes? Newton is right that only a few thousand readers can get him a star salary—even after Substack’s 10 percent fee, 3,000 readers at $100 a year would put him in the top tier of industry pay, and if he gets to five or six thousand readers, he’s definitely well into the penthouse region of journalistic paychecks. But getting those readers is hard, especially if the Substack model proves successful and hundreds of other writers are tempting readers to pay for their unique and glorious content. How many can people afford? Even in these nascent days, there’s a term for the problem:“subscription fatigue.” Substack’s Best says that having that problem would mean that the model is working, but he admits that it might affect his company’s growth. “How much people are going to want to spend on stuff is obviously not unlimited,” he admits. One thing is certain—to keep readers coming back, these newsletter writers must keep delivering tangible value. Otherwise they might wonder why they are paying more than half the standard subscription price of the New York Times for the musings of a single writer.

I suspect that in the long run, star writers like Newton or the former Rolling Stone scribe Matt Taibbi, another Substack luminary, will eventually rejoin bigger publications, just as orbiting objects in space are inevitably sucked in by Earth’s gravity. Among other things, it’s simply more fun to communicate with potentially millions of readers as opposed to a few thousand paying customers. And when Covid fades, there will be newsroom culture once more, with all its exhilirating intrigues and distractions.

Nonetheless, the Substack model has a future. It is perfect for enterprising reporters—ambitious newcomers, disgruntled mid-termers, and post-buyout veterans—to pick an unfilled niche that serves the obsessions or business needs of small groups of people with some cash to spend. Think of it as edge journalism: covering the hell out of beats that traditional publications haven’t even thought of, or if they did, wouldn’t assign a full-time reporter to obsessively research. Even this isn’t new; as a college student, Brian Stelter, for instance, got his start in media with his blog, TVNewser, which ventured deep into the weeds of an industry that loved to read gossip about itself. If he were doing it today, Stelter undoubtedly would have done it via Substack. I see a lot of absolute beginners pursuing that course in the years ahead. And some of them, like Stelter, who is now a CNN star, will be plucked up by bigger venues.

That’s why I suspect that in 2030, Substack will still be around. But I doubt that Casey Newton will be toiling on his newsletter four days a week. The audience is there, the tools are there, and there’s a way to get paid. But big talents ultimately seek bigger stacks.

Time Travel

There was a moment when “weblogs”—remember those?—were thought of as the same journalistic game-changers as newsletters are now. In May 2002 I asked, and answered, for Newsweek readers the question, “Will Blogs Kill Old Media?” The answer was no. (Other fingerprints were on the murder weapon.)

Weblogs are so easy to use that even a journalist can run a site—40,000 bloggers are up and running. But once you’ve created your blog and filled it with links to news accounts of the Pim Fortuyn assassination, snarky criticisms of Bill O’Reilly, and witty rants about airport security, how do you get visitors? Judging from the top blogs, the answer seems to be working hard, filling a niche, winning a reputation for accuracy, developing sources, and writing felicitously. This sounds a lot like the formula to succeed as a journalist inside the Big Media leviathan. With the difference that traditional journalists uh, get paid.

What makes blogs attractive—their immediacy, their personality and, these days, their hipness—just about ensures that Old Media, instead of being toppled by them, will successfully co-opt them. You might argue that it’s happened already. Some of the most popular blogs are those created not by disaffected outlaws, but by slumming professionals who apparently think that writing for big-time journals and bloviating on 24-hour cable is insufficient exposure for their views. So you have the likes of New York Times Magazine contributor Andrew Sullivan blogging on the church, sexuality, and his recent adoption of a beagle.

Ask Me One Thing

Desmond asks, “How widely accepted is the notion that the regulation of Facebook, Twitter, et al. will be balkanized? There is already regulation in Singapore, Turkey, and Thailand that targets social media companies specifically, and as far as I know, they are largely adhered to.”

Desmond, you are right. Facebook and Twitter have to enforce some uncomfortable rules in countries like Singapore, Turkey, and Thailand—basically banning speech that criticizes the authorities. When asked about this in a Senate hearing this week, Mark Zuckerberg stammered, “We try to follow all local laws.” But those companies don’t have much of a choice; if they didn’t enforce those rules, they would be booted from the countries. (Facebook normally likes to adhere to a single set of policy regulations across the globe.) But here’s something ironic about that hearing: Some of the legislators implicitly criticizing Facebook for the way it dealt with the dilemma seemed to be mimicking the behavior of those authoritarian governments, while simultaneously demanding that the platforms handle content depending on whether those senators liked it or not. At one point, a senator demanded that Facebook ban a specific user! OK, the user was Steve Bannon, but the idea that the federal government might be making those decisions is alarming.

You can submit questions to Write ASK LEVY in the subject line.

End Times Chronicle

In his campaign to “overturn the election” (his words!), the former Republican mayor of New York City charges a communist conspiracy and invokes the movie My Cousin Vinny while melting hair dye streams down his face. If this keeps up, we will have to present Rudy Giuliani with a lifetime trophy for signaling the apocalypse.

Last but Not Least

I went to Turkey to write about Huawei. Here’s my account of a breakthrough in information science that helps explain why we’re right to be worried about Chinese competition—but for the wrong reasons.

Epidemiologist Larry Brilliant explains why, in terms of Covid, we’re in the dark before the dawn.

What has Marissa Mayer been doing since she left Yahoo? Starting a company that will use AI to level up your contact game. It’s called Sunshine.

Hydroxychloroquine’s appearance in the news this year was only the denouement of a long and misbegotten history.

Next week Plaintext is off for Thanksgiving. Enjoy your small, socially distanced celebration, and I’ll see you in December!

Don't miss future subscriber-only editions of this column. Subscribe to WIRED (50% off for Plaintext readers) today.

More Great WIRED Stories