Thursday, April 15, 2021

Paying Woke-Tax To Read About Press Disintermediation By Substack

NYTimes  |  Danny Lavery had just agreed to a two-year, $430,000 contract with the newsletter platform Substack when I met him for coffee last week in Brooklyn, and he was deciding what to do with the money.

“I think the thing that I’m the most looking forward to about this is to start a retirement account,” said Mr. Lavery, who founded the feminist humor blog The Toast and will be giving up an advice column in Slate.

Mr. Lavery already has about 1,800 paying subscribers to his Substack newsletter, The Shatner Chatner, whose most popular piece is written from the perspective of a goose. Annual subscriptions cost $50.

The contract is structured a bit like a book advance: Substack’s bet is that it will make back its money by taking most of Mr. Lavery’s subscription income for those two years. The deal now means Mr. Lavery’s household has two Substack incomes. His wife, Grace Lavery, an associate English professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who edits the Transgender Studies Quarterly, had already signed on for a $125,000 advance.

Along with the revenue the Laverys will bring in, the move is good media politics for the company. Substack has been facing a mutiny from a group of writers who objected to sharing the platform with people who they said were anti-transgender, including a writer who made fun of people’s appearances on a dating app. Signing up two high-profile transgender writers was a signal that Substack was trying to remain a platform for people who sometimes hate one another, and who sometimes, like Dr. Lavery, heatedly criticize the company.

Feuds among and about Substack writers were a major category of media drama during the pandemic winter — a lot of drama for a company that mostly just makes it easy to email large groups for free. For those who want to charge subscribers on their email list, Substack takes a 10 percent fee. “The mindshare Substack has in media right now is insane,” said Casey Newton, who left The Verge to start a newsletter on Substack called Platformer. Substack, he said, has become a target for “a lot of people to project their anxieties.”

Substack has captivated an anxious industry because it embodies larger forces and contradictions. For one, the new media economy promises both to make some writers rich and to turn others into the content-creation equivalent of Uber drivers, even as journalists turn increasingly to labor unions to level out pay scales.

This new direct-to-consumer media also means that battles over the boundaries of acceptable views and the ensuing arguments about “cancel culture” — for instance, in New York Magazine’s firing of Andrew Sullivan — are no longer the kind of devastating career blows they once were. (Only Twitter retains that power.) Big media cancellation is often an offramp to a bigger income. Though Substack paid advances to a few dozen writers, most are simply making money from readers. That includes most of the top figures on the platform, who make seven-figure sums from more than 10,000 paying subscribers — among them Mr. Sullivan, the liberal historian Heather Cox Richardson, and the confrontational libertarian Glenn Greenwald.

This new ability of individuals to make a living directly from their audiences isn’t just transforming journalism. It’s also been the case for adult performers on OnlyFans, musicians on Patreon, B-list celebrities on Cameo. In Hollywood, too, power has migrated toward talent, whether it’s marquee showrunners or actors. This power shift is a major headache for big institutions, from The New York Times to record labels. And Silicon Valley investors, eager to disrupt and angry at their portrayal in big media, have been gleefully backing it. Substack embodies this cultural shift, but it’s riding the wave, not creating it.