Here's why Substack's scam worked so well

They paid a secret group of writers to make newsletter authorship seem lucrative

I think of myself as having decent critical faculties, but somehow I got suckered again by a bog-standard publishing venture masquerading as a useful communications tool. I’m referring, of course, to the Substack debacle -- and my inadvertent role in it.

UPDATE 4/15: My newsletter has moved to Buttondown! If you’d like to subscribe, please go to Buttondown.

The debacle

As you may already know, Substack is a tool for publishing email newsletters like this one. The idea is that anyone can start a newsletter, using Substack’s (very nice) interface, and we have the option to charge subscribers. Substack advertises itself as a tool, an app, that functions like a marketplace. Using the app, readers can find topics of interest, and creators can get compensated for the labor we put into our creations. All that Substack asks is for a percentage of our subscription income, to pay for maintaining the site, support, etc. Honestly, a fair deal.

Except 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. 

By doing this, Substack is creating a de facto editorial policy. Their leadership -- let’s call them editors -- are deciding what kinds of writing and writers are worthy of financial compensation. And you don’t know who those people are. That’s right -- Substack is taking an editorial stance, paying writers who fit that stance, and refusing to be transparent about who those people are. Hamish writes:

We don’t disclose the names of the writers with whom we’ve done deals because it is their private information and up to them whether or not they want it publicly known.

He makes it sound like this is about protecting writers’ anonymity, but it’s not. Substack could easily allow their writers to publish anonymously, but still identify them by the names of their publications. 

This is an abdication of editorial responsibility that is both ethically repugnant and part of an overall scammy business practice. First, let me address the ethical issue and then I’ll get into the scam. 

One of the most important elements of ethical journalism is transparency at all levels. Writers should share who their sources are, or in those few cases where they can’t share, they should be honest about why they can’t reveal them. Writers should be explicit about any bias they have, too. Editors, for their part, must be honest about what their publication’s policies are, including who they are paying and what kinds of gatekeeping they do to hire those writers. This kind of openness is not complex. For example, newspapers generally share the names of their editorial staff, with ways to contact them, so that anyone can contact an editor with a story idea or question. There is a masthead with staff writers’ names on it. 

All of this is to say that when a story appears in a publication, we know that’s because it has passed through an editorial process -- usually involving payment, but possibly some other arrangement -- and that publication is putting its brand or imprimatur on the story. The publication takes responsibility for what it publishes, in both ethical and legal ways. When this process breaks down, it’s a big deal. People get fired. 

Not at Substack, where their editorial policy is to cover up who writes for them. How can Substack be held accountable for what they pay to publish if the writers they pay -- let’s call them staff writers -- could be literally anyone on the site? The answer is that they can’t. 

But, you might be saying, Substack mostly publishes tons of people who are not staff writers. Look at the thousands of newsletters on the site that are clearly not written by staff! No, it does not matter that technically anyone can jump on Substack and get paid by subscribers. Technically anyone can sing on the street corner and get paid by passerby, but that doesn’t mean they are on a level playing field with Megan Thee Stallion. An elite group of Substack Pro staffers, handpicked by editors, have been given the resources to write full time. Everyone else on Substack has to do it for free until they manage to claw and scrape their way into a subscriber base that pays. 

Realistically, almost nobody will reach that point. The vast majority of Substack newsletter writers will never make money that’s equivalent to a year’s salary, which is what the staffers get. Instead, they will provide Substack with free content, hoping to get that sweet subscriber cash one day. And Substack will dangle its “successful” writers in front of its rank-and-file membership to keep them going. You too could have a Substack that’s as financially successful as this guy’s Substack! Except you don’t know whether this “successful” Substack was bankrolled by the company or not. There’s no transparency about that. 

For all we know, every single one of Substack’s top newsletters is supported by money from Substack. Until Substack reveals who exactly is on its payroll, its promises that anyone can make money on a newsletter are tainted. We don’t have enough data to judge whether to invest our creative energies in Substack because the company is putting its thumb on the scale by, in Hamish’s own words, giving a secret group of “financially constrained writers the ability to start building a sustainable enterprise.” We are, not to put too fine a point on it, being scammed.

Here’s where I come into this awful tale

Like a lot of writers, I want to stay in touch with my readers on a semi-regular basis to let them know when I’ve published something new. But I can’t use my plain old email account to do that because nearly all email providers have anti-spam measures that prevent an individual from sending out the same email to more than a few dozen people at once.

So I needed a platform that would send out mail for me, and circumvent those spam filters. What about a blog? Been there, done that. I used to work for a company called Gawker Media, where I spent seven years running a blog called io9. It was fun! But for a whole variety of reasons -- the death of Google Reader, Facebook’s fraudulent “pivot to video” -- the media world moved away from blogs as a genre and so did I.

And so finally, last year, I started to consider Substack. Many writers I admire had started using it, and I thought: “Here’s a good way to send bulk email without getting caught in a spam filter.” That’s all I wanted -- a decent platform that wasn’t complicated like MailChimp, and didn’t charge high monthly rates to send more than 1,000 e-mails. 

I didn’t pay much attention to Substack’s subscriber model because I wasn’t going to use this newsletter as a revenue stream. I already have plenty of paying gigs. All I wanted was a way to let you folks know what I’m up to, and occasionally tell you a story for free that I personally wanted to tell. What clinched it for me was that Substack had attracted such a big, engaged readership with high-profile writers like Daniel M. Lavery, Emily Atkin, and Heather Cox Richardson. 

Substack’s nice interface and large community made it easy for content to go viral. And that’s what I wanted. I didn’t need to be paid, but I wanted to get some of my weirder ideas in front of a broad audience. What I’m saying is that Substack suckered me in with the promise of growing my readership, and the bait was that they had so many great writers with huge followings. But now I’m left wondering how many of those huge followings were made possible by payouts from Substack. 

And then things got really creepy

Before Substack came clean about its Pro program, I had already started to hear things from journalist friends about how certain people were getting massive amounts of money to write for the platform. Sure, they could call their newsletter by any name they wanted, but Substack was paying them to do it. And yet Substack was pretending that its successful newsletters were all bootstrapped. That sounded like shenanigans to me. 

It got worse when some of the Pro writers started to reveal themselves, because Substack’s secret paid elite all seemed to be cut from the same cloth.

As Jude Doyle explained in their newsletter:

Substack has become famous for giving massive advances — the kind that were never once offered to me or my colleagues, not up front and not after the platform took off — to people who actively hate trans people and women, argue ceaselessly against our civil rights, and in many cases, have a public history of directly, viciously abusing trans people and/or cis women in their industry. 

Glenn Greenwald started his Substack by inveighing against trans rights and/or ACLU lawyer Chase Strangio, is currently using it to direct harassment at a female New York Times reporter, and has repeatedly used his platform to whitewash alleged rapists and domestic abusers. Freddie de Boer is an anti-“identity politics” crusader who became so infamous for harassing colleagues, particularly women, that he briefly promised to retire from the Internet to avoid causing any more harm; he’s currently using his “generous financial offer” from Substack to argue against “censoring” Nazis while pursuing a personal vendetta against the cis writer Sarah Jones. Matt Yglesias, who publicly cites polite pushback from a trans femme colleague as the Problem With Media Today — exposing the woman he named to massive harassment from Fox News and online TERFs alike — reportedly got a $250,000 advance from Substack. It’s become the preferred platform for men who can’t work in diverse environments without getting calls from HR. 

Doyle notes that Substack also seems to have a secret list of writers who are allowed to violate the company’s terms of service. These people dish out hate speech, but remain on the platform with paid subscribers. Among them is Graham Linehan, who was already booted from Twitter for hate speech against trans people, and whose Substack is entirely devoted to the idea that trans women are a danger to cis women and should be stopped. 

This is precisely the kind of thing that happens in organizations that lack transparency and accountability.

Hamish and the other Substack editors have responded to their community’s concerns about transphobia by saying that their paid staff writers come from all across the political spectrum. Which, by the way, is an editorial policy. Of course, we can’t verify that it’s true because Substack refuses to be transparent about which newsletter writers are on staff. 

So Substack has an editorial policy, but no accountability. And they have terms of service, but no enforcement. If you listen to Hamish, they don’t even hire writers! They just give money to people who write things that happen to be on Substack. It’s the usual Silicon Valley sleight-of-hand move, very similar to Uber reps claiming drivers aren’t “core” to their business. I’m sure Substack is paying a writer right now to come up with a catchy way of saying that Substack doesn’t pay writers.

So what’s next?

Substack’s business is a scam. They claim to offer writers a level playing field for making a living, and instead they pay an elite, secret group of writers to be on the platform and make newsletter writing appear to be more lucrative than it is. They claim to be an app when they are a publication with an editorial policy. They claim in their terms of service that they will protect writers from abuse, but they don’t. 

I have never paid Substack anything. I never intended to pay them anything. I just wanted a way to send out my irregularly-updated newsletter to a couple thousand subscribers without getting caught in a spam filter. Still, I did give them some pretty damn good articles, a couple of which went viral and brought more subscribers to their scammy platform. I guess I’d call it a wash.

Obviously I can’t stay here. I’m still trying to figure out what I’m going to do about running a free newsletter because all the best options like Ghost require a pretty steep monthly payment -- essentially, they expect me to charge my subscribers, which I don’t want to do. For now I’m going to do more research, and I’ll be turning my upcoming newsletter ideas into segments on my podcast, Our Opinions Are Correct. So if you want more of this, definitely subscribe to the pod. And you can follow me on Twitter or Instagram.

This is all far from over.