Courtesy of Stephen Yang

May 5, 2021

YANG | The Romance of Substack and the Illusion of Meritocracy

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In the past year, several high-profile journalists have departed from major media outlets to join Substack, a newsletter platform that allows writers to send email newsletters to their subscribers with just a few clicks. Substack, which affords writers to directly reach their readers and monetize their work by putting it behind a paywall, has been growing steadily ever since its launch in 2017.

In an interview with NPR, Substack co-founder Chris Best emphasized how the platform affords writers to reclaim their creative and journalistic freedom by allowing them to not only say whatever they want but have the option to “[leave] the platform at any time and take their subscribers with them.” 

This significantly differs from how a traditional newsroom functions — even in the digital age. With Substack, journalists no longer have to go through the back and forth of Slack messages with their editors. In addition, the journalists, not the platform, “own” the content that is published. This mode of writing is similar to blogging, as journalists no longer have to be held accountable for the media outlets they write for. 

Rather, they are their own brand — the face of their own stories.Furthermore, Substack also offers journalists a mechanism to easily put their content behind a paywall — through email newsletters. Emails, the epitome of interpersonal communication since the advent of digital technologies, are decentralized by nature, which  allows writers to limit their subscribers’ access to their content.  

“You’re subscribing directly to a writer,” Best said in the NPR interview. “And we’re providing the plumbing that makes that happen.”

Media have been arguing that Substack fundamentally changes the incentives for writers. As Substack author Judd Legum said in an interview with Forbes, “It’s [no longer] about gaming the Google algorithm or the Facebook algorithm.” According to the Forbes contributor Falon Fatemi, the objective of journalism is now about “writing compelling content that wins hearts and minds.”

Sounds awesome so far, right? So why am I writing this article? Why am I still writing for The Cornell Daily Sun? Well, I’m nowhere near the level of popularity of high-profile journalists with hundreds of thousands of followers on Twitter. I, as an “aspirational” student journalist, still very much appreciate a platform like The Sun that amplifies my voice. 

My personal reflection highlights the politics embedded in the design of Substack. Overall, I found the egalitarian potential of Substack to be overly romanticized. 

Substack is not emancipatory in that it frees all journalists from the metric-driven ideals of the digital media ecology. Rather, it perpetuates, normalizes and further rewards the needs for entrepreneurial self-branding among journalists. This is precisely yet another manifestation of the neoliberal turn in the news industry that has brought journalists into a state of constant precarity, treading on the thin ice of gigs and freelancing.

Most journalists are still struggling with finding their next freelancing gigs. Echoing the rhetoric used by early pioneers in Silicon Valley to tout the openness of the tech industry, it is only the very few “elite” journalists that would really appreciate the greater demands of self-branding brought by Substack — because they are already popular, anyway.

Professor Brook Erin Duffy, an Associate Professor here in the Department of Communication at Cornell, has particularly probed into the rise of entrepreneurial self-branding among cultural and media workers. In her article, “Idols of Promotion: The Triumph of Self-Branding in an Age of Precarity,” she argues that the stories of success touted by such “cultural exemplars” particularly obscure the distinction between the struggle to stay famous and the struggle to earn a living wage.  

By analyzing these stories of individual successes, Professor Duffy conceptualizes the maintenance of success through self-branding and self-promotion as a form of “terrifying freedom.” She concludes by saying that “in both the media industries and the wider neoliberal economy, structural inequalities endure, barriers to entry remain staggeringly high, and meritocracy is — as many have shown — an enduring myth.”(If you would like to learn more about the changing landscape of the digital economy, check out her brilliant class, COMM/INFO 3200: New Media and Society.)

Against this backdrop of the illusion of meritocracy, contrary to what Best said in the interview, I argue that Substack does not free journalists from the need to game the social media algorithms. Instead, Substack primarily serves those who have already successfully “gamed” the algorithms — those that have already been rewarded with attention, fame and popularity on existing social media platforms, particularly Twitter.

As opposed to the networked potential of social media platforms, Substack affords writers with very limited potential to reach a wider audience. Therefore, I find it very unlikely for any aspirational journalist to suddenly be able to have a fulfilling career in journalism with the advance of Substack. 

It’s indeed awesome to see that people are increasingly more willing to pay for media content — this is a refreshing trend since the libertarian ethos of the free internet has long plagued journalism with the rhetoric of open access. But no, Substack is not the future of journalism. It merely perpetuates the present.

Stephen Yang is a junior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be reached at syang@cornellsun.com. Rewiring Technoculture runs alternate Thursdays this semester.