A song to read by: “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” by Marlene Dietrich
What I’m reading: “Carceral Capitalism,” by Jackie Wang
Editor’s note: This is the last week I will be publishing on Substack. Next week (fingers crossed), I’ll be writing to you from my new home on Ghost.
In shutting down its owned and operated editorial arm yesterday, Medium succumbed to the same market factors that are increasingly guiding the decline of the publishing industry writ large.
Namely: That the same amenities that once advantaged publications — newsrooms full of journalists, teams of support staff, august office buildings — are now in many ways liabilities. Replacing these group institutions are charismatic individual writers who use social platforms for free, far-flung distribution, allowing them to reach just as many readers for a fraction of the cost and with far fewer intermediaries or middlemen.
The platforms have all seized on this realization, and it essentially forms the basis of the burgeoning creator economy: Give one pithy writer a way to monetize their fandom, take a cut of the proceeds, and watch the social tokens pile up.
Meanwhile, publications, still burdened with relics of a bygone era, like copy desks, fact checkers, human resource departments, and health care plans, find themselves locked in a losing battle against a nimbler opponent, one with none of the checks and balances that gum up the production of hot takes.
Whether you subscribe to the philosophies of Substack or not, the economics of its singles-serving system are unimpeachable. Star writers like Matthew Yglesias, who netted in the low-triple digits while working at Vox, cast off into the unknown waters of self-publishing and found an audience willing to pay him nearly $1 million a year for his thoughts.
In the face of such a lucrative return and buoyed by the promise of complete editorial freedom, why would he stay? The New York Times, no doubt motivated at least in part by the fear of losing all its top talent, sent a memo to its staff yesterday, informing them that all side projects — including newsletters — must undergo a vetting process before they are allowed to continue.
All throughout the media world, individual writers are finding that they can use social platforms for distribution, crank out writing coated in their signature style, and make far more money than they were able to when stuck behind the desk of a woebegone publisher.
These star writers climb to fame for reasons both good and bad. Sometimes, talented reporters known for their nuanced reporting and charm find success as free agents. Other times, fear mongering word-jockeys make liberal use of emotional appeals to cultivate audiences whose whole identity rests on smarmy takedown of Comrade Seuss.
Regardless of whether these lone stars should have the capacity to run an operation all by themselves, they can. And instead of beating them, people like Ev Williams are, understandably, joining them. Why go through twice the work for half the returns? Quality, obviously, is one reason, but it is called the attention economy, after all.
At the end of the day, everyone writing on the internet is still in the business of attracting eyeballs. Subscriptions make this relationship a little more diffuse, but they end up in the same place: what generates money is what draws attention. And individuals, unbound by institutional restraints and implicitly rewarded for sensationalism, are at greater liberty to attract that attention in whatever way possible.
In the next few years, this trend will only accelerate, leaving to a handful of institutions the lion’s share of all things journalism, while a couple hundred celebrity writers groom cult-of-personality followings who pay for the privilege of having their politics reinforced by blue check marks.
This is, to be sure, bad. The problem is that every day, it feels more inevitable. Money flows to what people click on or subscribe to, and people click on and subscribe to things that intrigue them. Any way I look at it, outside of receiving nonprofit support, every entity publishing on the internet — person or publication — is just chasing the same dragon in a different way.
How do you get the attention you need? Medium tried top-notch writing, but that failed. Now, like Substack, Patreon, and others, rather than get in the ring itself, the publishing platform has opted to take a back seat, delegating the process of content production to people with pre-baked audiences and quietly taking their cut.
For journalists, the question of how to fix this system is too often supplanted by a more immediate concern: How do I make sure, as the number of jobs dwindles year after year, that I keep mine?
The knee-jerk response is: produce quality journalism. Do your job well and provide value to your readers. But we see, time and time again, that who gets cut has nothing to do with who is talented. It’s a numbers game, always has been and always will be, and wishing it otherwise doesn’t make it so.
For a publication to meaningfully break through, it has to operate differently in some radical way. Few things give me more hope than the rise in horizontally owned publishers, because often the problem is less a lack of money than a proper distribution of it.
I wish there was a way to break the wheel, to divorce the value of writing from its ability to stop thumbs. But so long as the media industry remains in its unhappy marriage with attention, perverse incentives will always reward cheap, emotionally manipulative takes over meticulous, service-oriented writing.
Outside of a fundamental restructuring of the internet (here’s looking at you, Web 3.0!), the next best solution for journalists and writers of all stripes is to band together, insist on a more equitable distribution of resources, and begin wielding the considerable agency at our disposal for our own good, rather than that of the men behind the curtain.
Some good readin’
— Why people are leaving Substack. (Adweek)
— My piece on Decrypt and their inventive new way of making money: sponsoring sponsored in-house tokens. (Adweek)
— A timely piece about the mindset of billionaires. (Current Affairs)
— The family politics (and actual politics) of receiving an inheritance. (Vox)
— This wonderfully written review by Choire Sicha. (New York Review of Books)
Cover image: “Composition,” by Mark Rothko