Apr 7, 2021

Why I'm *not* leaving Substack

Why I'm *not* leaving Substack

In response to reader inquiries.

I’m Isaac Saul, and you’re reading Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum — then “my take.” This write up is a special edition responding to the controversy surrounding Substack. You can subscribe by clicking here.

Today’s read: 9 minutes.

If you’ve spent any time on Twitter recently, you’ve probably seen an article pop up with a title that looks something like this: “Why I’m leaving Substack…”

As a Substack writer, I’ve been following a lot of this discourse closely. I’ve also been hesitant to chime in too much, given the nature of the way people handle themselves on Twitter. But after seeing so many articles pop up with writers explaining their departure, I had been feeling more and more inclined to write something. And then the issue got brought to my doorstep.

In every edition of my newsletter Tangle, I try to answer a reader question about politics. This week, an interesting one popped up from a reader in Illinois:

Have you thought about leaving Substack over the transphobia in their hiring for their premium version?”

The question was revealing.

It showed me how the discourse around Substack has filtered down to people who don’t spend all day on journalism Twitter. What started out as allegations that writers on Substack were publishing transphobic things with no repercussions turned into Substack’s transphobia in hiring people for their “premium version,” something that does not exist.

By now, most people who are reading this have probably heard about the controversy surrounding Substack. Still, I’ll explain the context of the reader question briefly: Substack, the platform I use to send newsletters, is host to thousands of writers besides me. Part of Substack’s business strategy is recruiting writers with large followings and offering them “pro deals” (note: not “premium”) to come to Substack and write. Usually, the deals guarantee those writers ‘X’ number of dollars in the first year to write on Substack, while Substack takes most of their subscription revenue. Then, after a year, it flips — Substack takes a small cut of their subscription revenue and writers get the bulk of it.

Substack has been mostly making these deals in private, though it recently published a post explaining the model.

For writers worried about the risks of jumping ship from their day jobs to go independent, it’s a good deal: a guaranteed salary while they build a newsletter audience. For Substack, it’s a great deal: big-time writers bring more readers, and more readers means more subscribers that Substack can take a cut from. Business.

One of the downsides of this program is that Substack’s process for recruiting writers has been, in part, targeting those who get a lot of interaction on social media. As anyone who spends time on social media knows, the people who get a lot of attention are often the most antagonistic. That has led to Substack picking up some fire breathing, culture war types. Some of those writers have been accused of transphobia. Some writers are leaving Substack because they don’t want to share a platform with those writers.

Best I can tell, a lot of the writers leaving are onto something more than just virtue signaling. Some are trans writers, some are trans allies, some are engaged to trans people, some are simply uncomfortable with the idea that Substack is recruiting writers in a secretive program. Nearly everyone who has left has coupled their departure with a post explaining why they are leaving, so I thought I’d explain why I’m not.

First, as far as I know, the only writer who has both gotten a pro deal and been accused of transphobia is Matty Yglesias. The allegation that Yglesias is a transphobe is quite flimsy. It seems to be rooted in the fact that a former colleague, a trans woman, said Yglesias’s decision to sign a letter supporting free speech made her feel less safe at her job with Yglesias (they worked together at Vox) because she felt the letter contained anti-trans dog whistles.

The colleague, Emily VanDerWerff, never actually accused him of being transphobic (she actually said he had been kind and supportive of her work), but the idea that Yglesias was transphobic has spread online, and any remotely controversial or inquisitive things he has written about trans issues have now been viewed through that lens.

The other writer drawing a lot of attention  — and accusations of transphobia — is Glenn Greenwald (who I actually don’t think got a pro deal). Hate him or love him, Glenn is a legendary reporter whose writing I have kept up with for years. From the Snowden leaks to reporting on Jair Bolsonaro to founding The Intercept, he’s done valuable journalism that has changed America, Brazil and the planet as a whole — all, in my opinion, for the better.

But I’ve soured a bit on him recently, mainly because I think his commitment to being a contrarian writer and an asshole on Twitter has poisoned a lot of the discourse around issues I care about. Still, he’s an openly gay man who has been outspoken in his writing about supporting trans rights, and — a few bizarre and offensive tweets aside — I’m not convinced he’s a transphobe.

There are other, more concerning writers, though they aren’t a part of Substack’s pro deals and they are relatively lesser-known on the platform. One of them is Graham Linehan, whose brave “journalism” includes scouring dating apps and posting photos of trans women and then asking his readers if they look like women. The posts are disgusting, cruel, childish, and seem like obvious violations of Substack’s content moderation policies (which prohibit targeted harassment based on someone’s gender identity). Grace Lavery, a trans woman, has made this case clearly in writing on Substack. That Substack has done nothing about the post(s) in question is upsetting, and I know of at least a dozen Substack writers who are currently pressuring Substack’s moderation team from the inside to take action.

Apart from Linehan, though, it’s hard to find obvious violations of Substack’s terms happening on the site without enforcement. And even if writers like Yglesias and Greenwald were what they have been accused of being, I’m not sure it would be good cause for me to leave the platform anyway.

I came to Substack specifically to avoid being associated with anyone else. My career started at The Huffington Post, not because I was a bleeding heart lib but because they offered me a job — and jobs in journalism are hard to come by. Ever since, anything I’ve ever published has been poisoned by the HuffPo tag, making conservative readers entirely inaccessible to my arguments.

This experience has happened everywhere: When I publish writing in a conservative news outlet or get cited by Fox News, I’m dismissed by the left. When I freelance for Vox, my story is dismissed by the right. The entire reason I started Tangle was to be independent. It’s in my tagline (“independent, ad-free, non-partisan”). I am not those writers, I am not associated with those writers, and — despite any claims to the contrary — none of my readers are in any way funding anyone on this platform except for me. Yes, Substack gets a cut of your subscription. But they’ve said repeatedly that money for the pro program has been drawn from sources like VC investment and that the pro deals also are paying for themselves, because it’s a good business model. I’m inclined to believe them, given my experience with the team.

But to put it differently: I share a platform with these writers the same way you share Twitter with people you despise. As Ben Thompson puts it, I’m a “sovereign writer.” I didn’t get a pro deal. 99.9% of Substack writers don’t. Instead, I’ve worked 14 hour days alongside a full-time job for nearly two years to build something that is mine and nobody else’s — Substack doesn’t own it, and my writing has absolutely nothing to do with Graham Linehan or Glenn Greenwald or anyone else.

What’s also so disheartening about this moment is watching writers and journalists eat themselves alive.

On a personal note, my entire career in journalism has been plagued by a constant fear of layoffs and unrelenting pressure to appease investors and advertisers. Being a journalist can be miserable. The media industry is bleeding out on the kitchen floor.

Substack has, for the first time in my professional life, offered me stability and financial independence. I am not a big-time writer. When I started on Substack, I had 12,000 followers on Twitter and a good idea. I was on the platform experimenting two years before most of these people now causing all this controversy. And two years later, my newsletter is driving well over six figures in revenue, has led to a podcast and a merchandise store, and has even given me the cash to hire a part-time social media manager and pay a few editors per newsletter.

I went from fearing a layoff to creating journalism jobs.

Yes, there are other platforms that send newsletters and I have considered them, mostly because Substack takes 10% of my revenue — more than most newsletter hosting websites — which means I lose about 45%-50% of all my revenue to taxes, Substack and Stripe fees (speaking of, please go subscribe!). Because of this, I even started the process of migrating to Ghost a few months ago, and the team there was incredible and kind, but migrations are a headache and their newsletter platform (at the time) wasn’t as advanced as Substack’s, so I pulled the plug.

It’s worth noting, though, that Ghost is an open-source platform without any content moderation guidelines, which means a lot of writers who are now fleeing Substack to go there are going to be sharing technology funded by users who are under no obligation to follow any content policies at all. Again: Ghost seems like a great product. I may very well end up there one day. But there’s nothing stopping the Graham Linehans of the world from starting a newsletter using Ghost’s platform (in all likelihood, people like Linehan are already using Ghost and we just don’t know it, because it’s easier to customize your website there).

Which brings me to another point: the writers who actually make up Substack. For all the framing of Substack as a new home for right-wing transphobes and culture war curators, the reality is basically the opposite. The leaderboard of Substack’s politics newsletters, for instance, is far more ideologically diverse than any platform or opinion page I know of.

My newsletter Tangle is currently #20 on that leaderboard. The concept of my newsletter is that I tell you the right and left’s best argument about the big political news of the day, then my own take on the issue. People really love this concept, which is why it’s a top 20 newsletter. I think it’s fair to describe what I do as an attempt at bridging political divides and turning the temperature down on our broken discourse, even though I do not hide what my own personal feelings and biases are. And yet, despite what everyone seems to believe about what readers want, people are flocking to my newsletter to get out of their own echo chambers.

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Aside from me, of the top 25 political newsletters on Substack, four are explicitly conservative. 15 are explicitly liberal. The others are Greenwald, Matt Taibbi (who appears twice for his podcast and newsletter), Yascha Mounk, Andrew Sullivan and Tangle. This is basically the opposite of the group you might expect from the discourse on Twitter.

So now my options amount to this: Stay on Substack, an ideologically diverse platform with thousands of writers doing unique work that has suddenly become hated by — of all people — liberal journalists, or go to a different newsletter platform where I will almost certainly find out soon after arriving is populated by all sorts of people who I think are doing gross and despicable things a la Graham Linehan. And, in all likelihood, will be inferior to the platform I’m using now for my business.

Or, finally, I could build my own custom newsletter delivery system, which I have neither the skills, time, funds, nor inclination to create.

All this is to say nothing of another actually worthwhile point: the Substack team has treated me very well! In fact, based on nearly every “Here’s why I’m leaving Substack” post I’ve read, this is a theme. They are treating a lot of writers really well. Without fail, almost all of the departure posts have included a line like “I should note here that Hamish [Substack’s founder] and the Substack team have been nothing but kind and helpful to me.” Which is kind of a funny and revealing thing about this moment.

My experience, of course, has been the same. Substack has added new features I’ve requested, they gave me a writing grant when I got started, they supported me at a time when very few people were interested in my writing, and as a result, I’ve built my dream job out of thin air: a political news outlet I own that is improving and not eroding the discourse online. Along the way, Hamish and his team have spent hours on the phone with me offering career advice, soliciting feedback, sharing their thoughts about the future of journalism, encouraging me to keep busting my ass, and genuinely caring about the state of the media.

So now, a lot of writers on Substack have a choice. Boycotts are not the only tool for action here. On the contrary, they’re often blunt and sometimes self-destructive tools. Take, for instance, the self-fulfilling prophecy happening now: A bunch of writers with different worldviews than Greenwald or Sullivan or Yglesias are abandoning Substack because of their concern for trans people or fear that Substack will be populated with more people like Greenwald or Sullivan or Yglesias, and thus are surrendering the entire platform to those very writers they are worried about having undue influence over Substack.

How do they suppose this is going to help?

For me, being one of the people shaping the content on Substack in a positive way is more productive than leaving it behind to be dominated by the folks causing all this controversy. And I hope some more writers start to make a similar calculation.

So for now, my answer is “no.” I have no plans to leave. But I do plan to continue to contribute to the content on Substack in a way that drives our political discourse forward, and I hope to continue to see the star-studded Substack roster of creators grow in the coming months.

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