For a long time, success as a magazine writer meant getting your name on the masthead. It signaled you had arrived. Readers followed you; your name sold copies—often to people you weren’t related to. The position usually came with a stipend that gave you a certain amount of financial security. And you could pursue the ideas and stories you wanted.
Yet over the past year a number of prominent writers have chosen to abandon such positions to self-publish on Substack, a newsletter-publishing platform. For some, Substack offers financial stability that’s been lost in publishing’s great contraction, as authors receive a sizable cut of the subscriber revenue they bring in.
But for big-name writers such as Glenn Greenwald, who collaborated on a book with Edward Snowden, the attraction of Substack is that it lets them escape newsrooms where they find themselves on the outs with what they see as an increasingly strict ideological subculture, in which voices like theirs are outside of what they say is the “woke” mainstream and are actively suppressed. Which is why Greenwald, in dramatic fashion, last week quit the Intercept—which he had co-founded—and launched himself on Substack in order to give his version of the Hunter Biden story, which he claimed his editors were trying to “censor.” (The Intercept’s editor in chief, Betsy Reed, responded in kind, writing that Greenwald “believes that anyone who disagrees with him is corrupt, and anyone who presumes to edit his words is a censor.”)
In doing so, he joined émigrés such as Andrew Sullivan, who left New York magazine (where I am a contributor); Matt Taibbi, a contributing editor for Rolling Stone; Jesse Singal, who has contributed to The Atlantic; Wesley Yang, a National Magazine Award–winning essayist whose newsletter is in development; and Yascha Mounk, a political scientist and writer at The Atlantic, who recently convened a number of like-minded writers to contribute to his new outlet, Persuasion.
For big-name writers such as Glenn Greenwald, who collaborated on a book with Edward Snowden, the attraction of Substack is that it lets them escape newsrooms where they find themselves on the outs with what they see as an increasingly strict ideological subculture.
Many of them feel as Sullivan does, that journalists in some newsrooms are now expected to toe a line on topics such as race, gender, and sexuality, and questioning accepted opinion can get them cast out. For them, Substack has become something of a digital-era samizdat.
“It is always difficult to write,” said Sullivan. “But it is especially difficult when you are worried about every sentence being taken out of context, or your editor being fired because of something controversial you said instead of just focusing on the merits of the work and dealing with legitimate criticisms when they come back to you.” For him, Substack is the new future. “This is what journalists should do. They should air out the contours of the debate. Somehow, though, it is like everything became a symposium at Evergreen State College.”
For Mounk, who teaches at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, Substack means freedom. He says that while he did not feel censored at The Atlantic, he heard from colleagues at a variety of publications about pieces that would be conceived, written, edited, and near ready for publication, when a young editor or several young editors would disagree with the premise of the piece. Top editors, hoping to stave off a newsroom revolt, would agree to “revisit” it—or kill it entirely.
He says Persuasion will promote freedom of speech, due process, and a respect for “the basic rules of how we interact with one another” and is about making a home for philosophically liberal ideas in a way that is not possible at many mainstream publications, when they are in conflict with part of the left.
“The values that Persuasion stands for … are values that a majority of the American left stands for but that you can’t say inside most major newspapers or magazines without running the risk of getting fired.”
It’s that feeling that mainstream publications are no longer a place for robust debates that drove Jesse Singal to Substack. He sparked controversy after he wrote a piece for The Atlantic that questioned the wisdom of allowing children who want to change genders to take hormonal drugs. He says he would never pitch outlets on such topics now.
“I wouldn’t want to get any of my editors in trouble,” he said, “but it’s already been made pretty clear what you can and can’t write about just by looking at the behavior of a bunch of junior staffers on Twitter.”
His newsletter, Singal-Minded, allows him to write in depth on subjects that he would never get to explore otherwise. It also has nearly a thousand subscribers who pay between $48 and $100 a year for it. This is one other big draw of Substack: writers keep 90 percent of all subscription revenue. Substack gets the rest. In short, they can monetize their brand in a way traditional media never let them. “It’s like having a generous part-time-columnist gig without editors or anything,” Singal said.
Founded in 2017 by Chris Best, Jairaj Sethi, and Hamish McKenzie, Substack now has more than 100,000 subscribers who pay for at least one newsletter. There’s talk Twitter may buy it. Many newsletters are just a few dollars a month, such as Sullivan’s, which costs $5 a month or $50 a year. (The company collects a 10 percent fee from all subscriptions—there are no ads—and writers also own their newsletter.) Top users like Sullivan can make good money. (His subscriber base is more than 75,000.)
Another advantage: having a newsletter, these writers say, also means most of their readers are not coming to them in bad faith. They spend less time defending their work on Twitter since few trolls will “hate-subscribe.” It’s a walled garden, in other words, and the only people who can enter are those who paid for the privilege.
Still, many acknowledged that it is a bit of a baleful turn for the industry. Star writers, as each of these are, striking out on their own gives magazines even less of a reason to exist. A solo-operated newsletter can never devote the reportorial, copy-editing, and fact-checking resources that legacy magazines do. Plus, losing well-known writers can mean even less traffic and revenue for legacy media organizations already struggling to adjust to this difficult media environment.
“What does it tell you about the economics of journalism?” said Sullivan, who noted that his columns for New York were some of the most read on the site. “They are throwing a less predictable writer out of the place so that other people on staff can feel better. These publications are insecure about us. There is going to be payback.”
David Freedlander is a New York–based writer