Rough couple days for the media, mostly because the rules have been thrown out.
Over the last few weeks a bruhaha has been bubbling around Substack, the hot new email publishing tool that allows writers to charge subscription fees to readers. The substance of that is nicely summarized by Annalee Newitz:
Substack is not merely an app. It’s actually a publication. Why do I say that? Because Substack’s leadership pays a secret, select group of people to write for the platform. They call this group of writers the “Substack Pro” group, and they are rewarded with “advances” that Substack co-founder Hamish McKenzie calls “an upfront sum to cover their first year on the platform [that’s] more attractive to a writer than a salary, so they don’t have to stay in a job (or take one) that’s less interesting to them than being independent.” In other words, it’s enough money to quit their day jobs. They also get exposure through Substack’s now-considerable online reach.
Many writers in the last year or so have proactively exited publications to take their talents to Substack. In some high-profile cases, the rationale offered has included a desire to free themselves from editorial oversight, get back to their blogging roots or something similar.
Newitz is correct in calling Substack’s policy of paying a select group of high-profile names to publish on its platform an editorial choice, in much the same way The New York Times’ choice of who to include among its op-ed columnists and who to exclude from that group is an editorial choice. Substack then has a vested interest in promoting those writers in order to see an ROI on that investment and attract others.
(Oh, and there’s also the little issue of Substack seeming to attract a bunch of writers with a history of anti-trans opinions and positions.)
what are you..you you, you you
It’s a similar approach taken at various times by the blogging platform Medium, which has pivoted more since it was founded in 2012 than Disneyland’s Mad Tea Party. Years ago one of those pivots included offering publishers enhanced revenue opportunities to move their websites to that platform. It has also periodically started up its own publications, including hiring writers and editors to produce and manage them. Other platform companies like Instagram, Facebook and YouTube have paid “influencers” to create solely or primarily on their network as a way to attract users.
As Peter Kafka points out, Substack is the latest company unable to answer whether it’s a platform, publisher or something else. The key difference between the two is that a platform is egalitarian, open to anyone, while a publisher actively curates an editorial team as well as the content produced by that team.
Meanwhile, Facebook is making an active appeal to publishers with a Substack alternative as well as a report that compares their current mobile web revenue to what they might potentially earn if they migrated to the company’s Instant Articles format.
Medium itself is, in its latest shift of focus, deciding it’s no longer interested in funding journalism or investing in publication brands. That became clear when earlier this week – and just a short while after the journalists it had hired overwhelmingly voted to unionize – founder Ev Williams told everyone not interested in following it down this new path to gtfo.
The one thing both Medium and Substack have in common is they are both heavily funded by venture capital investors. So they have people breathing down their necks in anticipation of a profitable exit. In fact, Williams seems to have hung the idea that VCs would be less willing to fund the company if it was unionized. That’s just the latest media (or at least media-related) company to make a major change – up to and including going out of business – after employees vote to join a union.
Just earlier this month there was a terrible one-two punch when The Huffington Post laid off 47 employees after it was acquired by Buzzfeed, with those layoffs coming mere hours before news broke that Buzzfeed was exploring ways to go public through a special purpose acquisition company.
a whole lot of problems
I can’t really put it more succinctly than Ella Dawson does here, but let me offer a few thoughts on all these recent developments and how they fit together.
First, editors are invaluable. I’ve yet to come across a working writer (meaning someone who isn’t a big name columnist) who doesn’t believe their writing is better for having gone through an editor’s review. I’m inclined to agree with Spencer Ackerman in that editors and copyeditors should receive billing on articles alongside the writer/s. Most articles and pieces are a group effort and should be labeled as such.
Second, go back to blogging if you feel like you need to get back to your blogging roots. But remember that one of the original core tenets of blogging was linking out as part of an ongoing conversation, not just one-way publishing. But a return to “blogging roots” hasn’t really been the point of the current conversation. Instead it’s been about freeing one’s self from any sort of team environment where other people have different opinions and occasionally want to hold one accountable for one’s actions.
Third, you can tell how good an idea unions are by how hard some people fight against them. This is true in every industry.
Fourth, companies are simply avoiding accountability by claiming they’re not a media company when they clearly are. Any choice made by the owners or managers of a company regarding who gets paid and who doesn’t for editorial content, as well as what content is produced, is a media company. Similarly, if you are choosing to highlight X content on your front page or other discovery site, you’re making an editorial choice, something a media company does.
Fifth, avoiding editors wasn’t the goal of the early 2000s blogging movement. It was to add additional voices and perspectives to those that were part of the media establishment. Often those voices were from important groups and demographics who were under-represented in the existing dialogue and we were richer for those contributions. Self-publishing allowed anyone to be part of the conversation and while it still plays that role, the rise of algorithmic curation by social networks has stifled it significantly along with how blogging (and now email) became so insular. Human curation has also hurt things, making the discovery page of an app or website similar to the eye-level shelf at a grocery store, something big players pay lots of money to appear on while smaller independents are pushed to harder-to-find spots.
Finally, let’s dispel the notion of Silicon Valley being liberal and agree it’s actually conservative to libertarian on the political spectrum. A truly liberal industry wouldn’t spend so much time, energy and money busting union drives and probably wouldn’t leave its “shadow workforce” out to dry as it shifts away from massive corporate campuses. Instead, most of what’s passed for innovation in the last 20 years or so has come from companies that skirt or outright ignore labor laws and treat people as expendable “human capital.”