Saturday, April 24, 2021

Substack! Holy Crap!

This blows my mind. 

My tweets are set to private, but in response to Steven Perlberg's tweet, linking his Business Insider piece (which is behind a paywall, of course), I quote-tweeted: 

.@MelissaTweets Elizabeth Bruenig's a freakin' self-declared communist? Did she take the 100 percent boost in pay? Or did she decline on principle? Can't say, because the article's behind a paywall, hence, capitalism. I can't even. *Man facepalming.*

Now, while you probably can't read the article to which Perlberg is linking, it turns out Mediaite did read it, and they've written up a piece that reveals the mind-blowing information. See, "Substack Offered NYT Reporter Taylor Lorenz $300,000: Report." 

Now that's why I yelled holy crap! when I saw that headline. You may not recall, but Ms. Lorenz is a very bad terrible person, and Tucker Carlson called her out a few weeks back, and it was glorious. But I knew how bad and terrible a person she was long ago, because, for one reason, she's been an awful no-good person for a long time, and Robert Stacy McCain wrote about her years ago, after Ms. Lorenz doxxed Pamela "Atlas Shrugged" Geller's daughters. You can't make this stuff up. (And Ms. Lorenz has of late been accused of stalking teenagers for inside interviews without the kids' parents permission, she's that bad.)

But no! She's getting offered a $300,000 advance to quite the Old Gray Lady and start her own newsletter? Well, I guess you gotta love free-market competition, which is why the New York Times is so freaked and has basically declared all-out war on the newsletter hosting platform, and this Sulzberger fellow, the publisher (or at least he used to be), is putting up some big bucks to go after top talent (some at Substack!) and have his own "by-line" bigwig writers up their game to meet the challenges of the day. Hoo boy, this is interesting.

At NYT, "Why We’re Freaking Out About Substack":

Danny Lavery had just agreed to a two-year, $430,000 contract with the newsletter platform Substack when I met him for coffee last week in Brooklyn, and he was deciding what to do with the money.

“I think the thing that I’m the most looking forward to about this is to start a retirement account,” said Mr. Lavery, who founded the feminist humor blog The Toast and will be giving up an advice column in Slate.

Mr. Lavery already has about 1,800 paying subscribers to his Substack newsletter, The Shatner Chatner, whose most popular piece is written from the perspective of a goose. Annual subscriptions cost $50.

The contract is structured a bit like a book advance: Substack’s bet is that it will make back its money by taking most of Mr. Lavery’s subscription income for those two years. The deal now means Mr. Lavery’s household has two Substack incomes. His wife, Grace Lavery, an associate English professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who edits the Transgender Studies Quarterly, had already signed on for a $125,000 advance.

Along with the revenue the Laverys will bring in, the move is good media politics for the company. Substack has been facing a mutiny from a group of writers who objected to sharing the platform with people who they said were anti-transgender, including a writer who made fun of people’s appearances on a dating app. Signing up two high-profile transgender writers was a signal that Substack was trying to remain a platform for people who sometimes hate one another, and who sometimes, like Dr. Lavery, heatedly criticize the company.

Feuds among and about Substack writers were a major category of media drama during the pandemic winter — a lot of drama for a company that mostly just makes it easy to email large groups for free. For those who want to charge subscribers on their email list, Substack takes a 10 percent fee. “The mindshare Substack has in media right now is insane,” said Casey Newton, who left The Verge to start a newsletter on Substack called Platformer. Substack, he said, has become a target for “a lot of people to project their anxieties.”

Substack has captivated an anxious industry because it embodies larger forces and contradictions. For one, the new media economy promises both to make some writers rich and to turn others into the content-creation equivalent of Uber drivers, even as journalists turn increasingly to labor unions to level out pay scales.

This new direct-to-consumer media also means that battles over the boundaries of acceptable views and the ensuing arguments about “cancel culture” — for instance, in New York Magazine’s firing of Andrew Sullivan — are no longer the kind of devastating career blows they once were. (Only Twitter retains that power.) Big media cancellation is often an offramp to a bigger income. Though Substack paid advances to a few dozen writers, most are simply making money from readers. That includes most of the top figures on the platform, who make seven-figure sums from more than 10,000 paying subscribers — among them Mr. Sullivan, the liberal historian Heather Cox Richardson, and the confrontational libertarian Glenn Greenwald.

This new ability of individuals to make a living directly from their audiences isn’t just transforming journalism. It’s also been the case for adult performers on OnlyFans, musicians on Patreon, B-list celebrities on Cameo. In Hollywood, too, power has migrated toward talent, whether it’s marquee showrunners or actors. This power shift is a major headache for big institutions, from The New York Times to record labels. And Silicon Valley investors, eager to disrupt and angry at their portrayal in big media, have been gleefully backing it. Substack embodies this cultural shift, but it’s riding the wave, not creating it.

And despite a handful of departures over politics, that wave is growing for Substack. The writers moving there full time in recent days include not just Mr. Lavery, but also the former Yahoo News White House correspondent Hunter Walker, the legal writer David Lat and the columnist Heather Havrilesky, who told me she will be taking Ask Polly from New York Magazine to “regain some of the indie spirit and sense of freedom that drew me to want to write online in the first place.”

(Speaking of that spirit: Bustle Digital Group confirmed to me that it’s reviving the legendary blog Gawker under a former Gawker writer, Leah Finnegan.)

And a New York Times opinion writer, Charlie Warzel, is departing to start a publication on Substack called Galaxy Brain. (Substack has courted a number of Times writers. I turned down an offer of an advance well above my Times salary, in part because of the editing and the platform The Times gives me, and in part because I didn’t think I’d make it back — media types often overvalue media writers.)

The Times wouldn’t comment on his move, but is among the media companies trying to develop its own answer to Substack and recently brought the columnist Paul Krugman’s free Substack newsletter to the Times platform. And newsrooms can offer all sorts of support that solo writers don’t get. Jessica Lessin, the founder and editor in chief of The Information, a newsletter-centric Silicon Valley subscription publication, said part of its edge was “sophisticated marketing around acquiring and retaining subscribers.”

Substack’s thesis is, in part, that media companies underpay their most prominent writers. So far, that seems to be bearing out. Mr. Warzel isn’t taking an advance, and many of the writers who took advances now regret doing so: They would have made more money by simply collecting subscription revenue, and paying Substack 10 percent, than making the more complex deals with money up front.

The former Vox writer Matthew Yglesias calculated that taking the advance wound up costing him nearly $400,000 in subscription revenue paid to Substack. The writer Roxane Gay told me she earned back her advance within two months of starting The Audacity ($60 a year) with an audience of 36,000, about 20 percent of them paying. She also wrestles with what she sees as Substack “trying to have it both ways” as a neutral platform and a publisher that supports writers she finds “odious,” she said, but has concluded that her dislike of someone’s work is “not enough for them to not be allowed on the platform.”

Isaac Saul, who told me his nonpartisan political newsletter Tangle brought in $190,000 in its first year, wrote recently that he came to Substack “specifically to avoid being associated with anyone else” after being frustrated by readers’ assumptions about his biases when he worked for HuffPost...