Tech companies make editorial decisions all the time

Substack Pro is the latest example of how Silicon Valley firms try to have it both ways.

Last Friday, Substack co-founder Hamish McKenzie published a post to the company’s blog about Substack Pro, the program the newsletter company created to attract high-profile, independent-minded writers to the app and support them with a safety net while they ramp up their new mini-media empires. “After seeing a string of early successes with the first publishers on the platform, we became increasingly excited by the realization that writers could go solo, do important work and thrive from being paid by their happy readers,” McKenzie wrote. “By the time we raised money from venture capitalists, we did so in the knowledge that we could use it not to keep afloat while we searched for viability, but to fuel the growth of something that was already working.” (Disclosure: Substack provides the technology that powers The Supercreator.)

Substack Pro started as an experiment with cash advances of $10,000 to $30,000 to writers to cover the first few months of expenses while they established their publications. These writers then entered a revenue-sharing agreement with Substack to pay back the money. This was less than ideal for the company and writers. At best, Substack broke even on each deal, since as McKenzie explained, it was “effectively an interest-free loan that would never be paid back if the publication failed.” And although writers had a few months of runway, they had to get through the payback period before they began to see any meaningful revenue.

Now, Substack pays an upfront sum for a writer’s first year on the platform and keeps 85 percent of subscription revenue in year one; after that year, the writer keeps 90 percent, which is the standard split for all non-Pro writers. (A spokesperson for Substack did not respond when asked if these deals are negotiable and whether writers counter Substack’s offer with their own terms.) “It gives financially constrained writers the ability to start building a sustainable enterprise,” McKenzie wrote, while Substack takes on most of the risk in hopes that their top writers become long-term customers. He also conceded that “some who get these deals are already well off.”

While writers can approach Substack or refer their friends to Pro, the company also identifies current Substack writers with growth potential and reaches out to “well-established writers who feel like ‘good bets.’” The top consideration for Pro? According to McKenzie: “The writer’s likelihood of success with the Substack model.” A writer’s audience size, social media engagement, respect from readers and peers, what they cover and their posting frequency are also a part of the equation.

Substack notes that most of its writers, including the biggest names, take no money from the company: “For many writers, that’s the smarter financial decision, since the guaranteed payments we are willing to offer are often dwarfed by the amount of money they can make if they just stick with the standard terms,” McKenzie wrote. A few months into Substack Pro, the company is confident in its sustainability: “A good number of writers who have accepted Pro deals are well on track to make multiples of what they earned from their previous salaries.

Journalism is one of the whitest and elitist industries in our country. Last August, I argued in an essay that while Substack and other independent upstarts enable journalists to seamlessly transition from the instability of ad-supported media, corporate media is a white-washed male-dominated industry. This makes these indie publications as homogenous as the organizations from which top indie journalists left and excludes the majority of Black journalists from participating in the media’s great migration. McKenzie wrote in his post that it will continue to build on its fellowship program, which offered two cohorts of writers coaching, business advice and cash advances, and mentorship programs, educational resources and grants to help writers at all different stages in their careers. But writers typically have to apply to these offerings; in lots of cases, Substack invites writers to Pro, many of whom are the most popular or prestigious on their beats. A spokesperson from Substack did not respond when asked if it agrees with this characterization. (I sent McKenzie multiple emails with follow-up questions about Substack Pro. According to the out-of-office response my last email triggered, he’s currently on vacation.)

What’s been left to speculation (or voluntary disclosure) is which writers are Substack Pros. Per a running list of writers with whom Substack has done deals by freelance writer Rick Paulas, Vox co-founder and former columnist Matt Yglesias was paid $250,000 for one year. Former BuzzFeed News senior culture writer Anne-Helen Petersen was reportedly “given a substantial advance” to launch her newsletter Culture Study. (Petersen did not respond to a request for comment from The Supercreator.) When Casey Newton left The Verge to launch Platformer, he declined a cash advance book took a health-care stipend. In an email to The Supercreator, Newton told me he chose against accepting the advance because he thought he could make more in the first year than Substack was offering. He also said that he “probably” would have started his newsletter without SS support: “I was very motivated to do my own thing and was fortunate enough to have savings to rely on while I built my business.”

In a post explaining the logistics of his newsletter, Scott Alexander of Astral Codex Ten wrote, “The boring reason I'm at Substack is money" before referring readers to a post about Yglesias’s deal and inviting them to draw their own conclusions. And on a podcast, journalist Matt Tiabbi said he took an advance because he “was afraid it wasn’t going to work” but has “advised everyone who came after me not to do this.” It’s “unconfirmed but likely,” per Paulas’s record, two of Substack’s most controversial writers — Glenn Greenwald and Michael Tracey — accepted deals as well. The verdict is still out on Hunter Harris who left Vulture to launch Hung Up a few months ago and former New York magazine columnist Andrew Sullivan. (Harris did not respond to a request for comment.) Former New York Times columnist Bari Weiss tweeted out that she got “no deal, no advance.”

I’m also curious how competitors will respond to Substack Pro, as both professional newsletter author and avid newsletter reader. If you remember, Twitter acquired newsletter platform Revue in January and previewed plans to allow people to sign up for newsletters from their favorite follows and add new settings for writers to host conversations with their subscribers within Twitter and provide audience-based monetization features to make subscription revenue an additional income stream or the cornerstone of someone’s business. A spokesperson for Twitter declined to comment when asked if it would offer a program like Substack Pro to recruit and retain writers in the future but referred me to the acquisition announcement that I summarized in this post and executive remarks from the company’s investors event last month.

Substack claims it approaches Pro from the perspective of an investor “looking to stimulate a new generation of profitable media businesses,” not a publisher since it doesn’t commission or edit stories, hire writers or manage them. “The writers, not Substack, are the owners” of publications and exist outside the influence of the powers that be. In response, some writers applauded the program — with one commenter claiming they’d “buy stocks at Substack” if they could. Many went on to shoot their shot in hopes of being selected for Substack Pro: “This sounds great,” wrote one commenter. “So where do people sign up?” Among the mixed reactions to the post, one commenter bristled at the idea of Substack “taking the money that I (along with everyone else) has generated for Substack and using it to underwrite other writers,” especially those they would not have supported if “given the opportunity and agency” to do so.

Rusty Foster, who writes the popular newsletter Today in Tabs, challenged Substack’s argument against disclosing pro writers. “You have said you don’t intend to make editorial decisions with this program but recruiting writers and paying them to build an audience on your platform is an editorial decision, whatever your intent.” Co-founder Chris Best said that although it’s not a secret, it’s up to writers if they want to share. “We are helping them jumpstart their independence, but we don't require them to be ‘ambassadors’ for us unless they choose to be,” Best replied to Foster. “Some folks would rather avoid being in conversations like this one, and we respect that.” In a follow-up comment, Foster said that a simple roster of the current Substack Pro writers “would clear up a lot of the mistrust by simply being open about who's in the program.” Another commenter suggested Substack place badges on the accounts of Pro writers, which seems sensible to me.

I tend to agree with Foster. As writer Sari Botton tweeted, “The whole ‘we don't make editorial choices’ denial collapses under the recruitment of certain voices by offering big advances.” Substack isn’t alone. All social apps go to extraordinary lengths to market themselves as platforms like telecom companies — instead of publishers like The Times — when the reality is they make editorial decisions all the time. (Publishers are accountable for defamatory reporting or comments; social apps are considered digital “bulletin boards” to which anyone can post media for public consumption.) But whether it’s with technology, human editors or funding, these companies are picking winners and losers. And due to the rise in independent creativity, it’s time for us to rethink and revise the criteria for what constitutes editorial decision-making. Otherwise, tech companies will continue to earn money from journalism while enjoying the protections that media organizations are excluded from.

In The Know

Read All About It

James Parker at The Atlantic on the case against meditation:

The feeling is not unrelated to the pandemic, probably, because nothing is unrelated to the bloody pandemic. As the world went flat as a pancake, I became less interested in leveling myself out. No steady drone of mental health for me, no thank you, not today. Let’s have the spikes, let’s have the troughs. But there’s more to it than that. The practice of not meditating, as I have pursued it over these past few months—not meditating first thing in the morning, not meditating during the day, and taking particular care not to meditate in the evening—has brought me home. Sensations, nice and nasty, possess me. Moods run me. I’m not observing my thoughts as they arise one by one, unbidden, from the ever-bubbling bed of the brain; I’m thinking my thoughts. I’m not groping toward the white light of nothingness that irradiates all phenomena; I’m stewing in the somethingness. Am I a tad less tranquil? Uh, probably. But it’s worth it.

Zachary Siegel at The New Republic on how America segregates drug use:

Part of the answer is that pharmaceuticals aren’t seen as drugs—they’re medicine. “Medicine” is legal, prescribed by a doctor, and taken for legitimate reasons, like treating pain and relieving suffering. “Drugs” are perceived to be dangerous compounds with no therapeutic value, sold to “dope fiends” on the street chasing a high. The suburban homemaker taking Valium to stay on top of things does not generate the same ire, or punitive impulse, as a Black woman like Billie Holiday using heroin. Federal authorities loathed Holiday’s song about lynching, “Strange Fruit,” and her heroin use became a pretext for constant harassment by drug warriors.    

David Leonhardt at The New York Times on why moderate senators are the Most Valuable Democrats:

The structure of the Senate has not always favored Republicans. But in recent decades, heavily white and rural communities have moved to the political right. Because these communities dominate many small states, and because small states enjoy a lot of power in the Senate, it now has a large pro-Republican bias.

So how have Democrats nonetheless won control of the Senate, allowing them to pass an ambitious bill last week that will reduce povertylift middle-class incomescut the cost of health insurance and more? There are two main answers.

First, the Democratic Party has been the more popular political party nationwide for most of the past three decades, and this national edge sometimes allows it to overcome the Senate’s built-in bias. Last year, Joe Biden won the popular vote by 4.4 percentage points. That was enough for him to win exactly half of the country’s 50 states and for Democratic Senate candidates to flip seats in Arizona and Georgia.

Clay Skipper at GQ on Cal Newport’s new book, A World Without Email:

Newport says that understanding what’s broken about office work starts with understanding what’s broken about our communication. It’s bigger than email. In fact, as provocatively titled as his book might be, Newport is not actually suggesting we completely get rid of email. Instead, it's about reimagining a world in which we aren’t swimming in communication quicksand. And if there were ever a time to reimagine modern work, Newport says, it’s right now. When Newport was invited to speak to businesses after Deep Work’s success, he was surprised to find that executives thought all they needed to was make a few quick tweaks. “There was this real lack of imagination,” he told me, around thinking critically about how we work, and whether email and Slack might actually be hurting employee productivity on a deeper level. But now we’re one year into being forced to radically reconsider what it looks like—and perhaps more willing to carry that rethinking into a post-pandemic world.

Allison P. Davis at The Cut on post-pandemic body contact:

But as several million new people are inoculated each day, there is a palpable sense that touching and being touched will not be a solo act much longer. Each restriction lifted — restaurants can now have 50 percent occupancy, music venues will open in April, you can go to a movie theater — forces us to weigh what we’re psychologically ready to let back in. Sensitivities will be heightened, and I wonder how our excitement will affect our awareness of other people’s touch tolerance; will we be able to read signals as well as we had, or will we all be awkward and fumbling, unsure and hesitant? When the time comes, will we even know what to do anymore?

Angela Haupt at The Washington Post on manifestation:

Despite its popularity, there’s little evidence that manifesting works. There has been no scientific research into the concept and mixed results from studies into the related notion of the “self-fulfilling prophecy,” says Ariela Vasserman, a psychologist at NYU Langone Health. (Note: A self-fulfilling prophecy can be positive or negative.)

 “As someone who really trusts rigorous science, I’m like, ‘What is the actual data?’ ” says Thea Gallagher, director of the outpatient clinic at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety.

But not all mental health specialists dismiss the practice. Amanda Darnley, a psychologist based in Philadelphia, says manifesting has worked for her. “I believe in spirituality and the positive impact it can have on mental wellness,” she says. Displaying a vision board, for example, can help keep goals front of mind. But the practice’s success, Darnley says, is dependent on a few factors. For example, whatever someone is “manifesting” needs to be clear and specific, not some vague — or unattainable — wish.

Michael’s Pick

How to Do the Work: Recognize Your Patterns, Heal from Your Past, and Create Your Self by Nicole Lepera ($26): Deepening my self-awareness is directly connected to creating meaningful work so I’m looking forward to all the aha moments I’ll experience when I start this book this evening.