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Critics Lambast Substack Over 'Pro' Program for Big-Name Writers

Even a cursory review of the trendy newsletter platform Substack reveals a vast and varied roster of topics and writers, ranging from the headline-grabbing musings of punk rock icon Patti Smith to the work of thousands of lesser-known hobbyists and self-styled experts.

Even a cursory review of the trendy newsletter platform Substack reveals a vast and varied roster of topics and writers, ranging from the headline-grabbing musings of punk rock icon Patti Smith to the work of thousands of lesser-known hobbyists and self-styled experts.

Typically, Substack takes 10% of any revenue a newsletter writer generates selling subscriptions. The digital payment processor Stripe gets another 3% from the writer. Substack pays some particularly desirable writers substantial fees up front: mainly name-brand journalists, pundits and personalities, some of whom have abandoned mainstream media outlets to focus on Substack.


That strategy differentiates Substack from other newsletter platforms – but it has also incited a backlash.

Flush with venture capital cash from the likes of Andreessen Horowitz, Substack has approached some writers with big money upfront — $250,000 in some cases — in order to seed the 3-year-old platform with people who will draw a crowd. The company describes these deals, part of its Substack Pro program, on its blog:

We see these deals as business decisions, not editorial ones. We don’t commission or edit stories. We don’t hire writers, or manage them. The writers, not Substack, are the owners. No-one writes for Substack – they write for their own publications. We cannot contact their readers without explicit permission, and we make no attempt to influence their content, other than requiring that they adhere to the content guidelines that apply to all writers on Substack (read our stance on content moderation for more).

That language strikes Sarah T. Roberts, who co-directs UCLA’s Center for Critical Internet Inquiry, as disingenuous.

Roberts' Twitter thread predating the above blog post is part of a vitriolic online debate about Substack's claim that it's yet another Silicon Valley savior swooping in to save journalism from the economic collapse set off by other Silicon Valley companies like Google and Facebook.


As Substack co-founder Hamish McKenzie wrote last May, "Some in the news business hope that Facebook and Google, under the right pressure from regulators, will send them rescue money. But no matter how much money can be squeezed out of the tech giants, it will never be enough to fix the broken parts of the support system that once sustained the free press. Instead, to find a way forward, those who care about the future of news need to play a different game – one that puts writers in control of their own destiny."

What's Old Is New Again

New media players scooping up headline-grabbing talent is nothing new. Print publishers have done it for centuries, as have Hollywood movie studios and social media platforms, too.

"I don't think anything's inherently wrong [with the practice]," Roberts said.

But there are other things she does object to, like the way she thinks Substack is encouraging journalists to flee the editorial oversight that comes with traditional media newsrooms; paired with Substack's light hand when it comes to content moderation.

"It's vetting and choosing certain people to give them a platform that it supports financially – and that is an editorial decision, which makes them something other than a neutral platform with no politics," Roberts said.

"The whiteness, the maleness, the libertarian, right-wingness of [Substack Pro writers] is... pretty self-evident."

She's referring to people like Matt Taibbi, Glenn Greenwald and Matthew Yglesias: men who used to operate — at least, some of the time — out of traditional newsrooms like the Guardian, Vox and The Atlantic.

Taibbi, who has reported on finance, media, politics and sports, wrote a response to Roberts' Twitter thread — on Substack, of course.

"Roberts has things backward. Greenwald and I (as well as many other prominent Substack writers) got our start as independents. He was a blogger and I edited my own print newspapers. We both built substantial readerships on our own before being scooped up by 'traditional' news organizations."

Substack declined to comment for this story. But company leaders have posted at length to counter some of the criticism directed at the select set of Substack writers who get the juicy deals:

More than 30 writers have now signed Pro deals and they cover a range of issues, including politics, climate change, pop culture, sociology, feminism, history, health, literature, art, sports, and music. The program has already helped many writers make a living from their work – and in some cases, a fantastic living. The group includes a diverse set of viewpoints ... More than half are women, and more than a third are people of color.

Substack will not release its list of Pro writers, leaders write in the blog post, out of concern for writers' privacy.

Last month, writer Jude Ellison Sady Doyle, who is non-binary, called out Substack for "giving massive advances" to "men who can’t work in diverse environments without getting calls from HR.” They took particular offense to “extreme trans-eliminationist rhetoric” observed in some of the writers’ work, left Substack, and encouraged readers to do the same.

It's unclear how many disaffected Substack writers and their readers are leaving the platform.

On Sunday, The New York Times reported Substack has signed up Danny and Grace Lavery, two high-profile transgender writers, a deal rather well-timed to counter the above-mentioned attacks. Doyle has responded to this news on Twitter.

In any case, Substack’s biggest problem may be the fact it’s proved it’s possible for people in the boardroom to make money off of newsletters. Now Facebook and Twitter are getting into the game, and they have a lot more eyeballs and cash to offer writers with established fan bases.