The Substack brain drain might be just what the industry needs
6 min read

The Substack brain drain might be just what the industry needs

The departures create space for new writers and growth opportunities in an otherwise shrinking industry.
The Substack brain drain might be just what the industry needs

A song to read by: “Sunblind,” by Fleet Foxes

What I’m reading: “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” by Zora Neale Hurston

Publishers, wandering in the desert

Following in the footsteps of several prominent journalists, Casey Newton announced Wednesday that he was leaving The Verge, where he’d worked for seven years, to start a Substack newsletter, Platformer.

Like The Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi, New York Magazine’s Andrew Sullivan, and BuzzFeed’s Anne Helen Peterson, Newton built a sizable following during his years of work for The Verge.

He ran a must-read tech newsletter, The Interface, for the last three years, and published a number of groundbreaking stories, including a deeply reported piece on Facebook’s abysmal treatment of its content moderators. Newton’s exposé, published June 2019, helped the employees win a $52 million lawsuit against the social media goliath.

However, as Newton writes in his inaugural Substack post, the time was right for him to leave. The Verge let him take the email list he had accumulated over the last several years, which boasts more than 20,000 subscribers, a move of largesse that many journalists are praising.

In his explanatory note, Newton said that the promise of expanded creative freedom encouraged him to embark into the world of solo publishing, and he was excited to report on and critique Big Tech without having to rely on those very same platforms to reach his audience.

In light of Newton’s departure, some analysts have begun to shift perspectives on Substack.

The anonymous writers behind the newsletter Petition summarized the sentiment well.

“The irony, then, is that in its attempt to save journalism, Substack is now detracting from it by plucking top talent away from incumbent media outlets,” they write.

The authors go on to make a different point, rebutting the growing notion that Substack serves best the people with preexisting followings. Petition’s anonymous authors use their success as a counter-example, though that debate is far from settled.

A little deeper in the piece, they touch on the concept again, writing:

“One has to wonder whether, just a few years from now, we’ll see chapter 11 bankruptcy papers for a media company that blames Substack for a loss of talent, diminished revenue, and, in turn, an inability to service expensive debt.”

The platform once felt like a pure underdog, giving writers the tools they needed to make a proper wage off their labor. Now, Substack has shown a predilection for playing the role of the Pied Piper, luring prominent writer after prominent writer away from their former employers.

A handful of departures felt like a bold insurrection. But as the number of defecting writers increases, the question arises: What about the publishers?

Empty nesters

The Verge, like Rolling Stone, BuzzFeed, New York Magazine, and any other number of publications who have lost their best and brightest to Substack, might be a bit sour at the moment.

Presenting a show of magnanimity and support is, of course, the appropriate public relations tactic for these spurned publishers, but they are still losing some of their most prized assets. Make no mistake about it: The exodus of Casey Newton will set The Verge back, at least in the short term.

In very simple terms, when a publisher loses one of its star writers — or, its most recognizable writer — it is likely to see a drop in traffic. Where Newton’s newsletter once brought into thousands of reliable page views, some percentage of that readership is likely to disappear. This drop in traffic could translate to a drop in revenue. Given that most publications are already in a perpetual tango with insolvency, this loss will sting and could potentially be grave.

What’s more, if you live according to the rules of the attention economy, you understand that any new entity poses a threat to the status quo. Attention is a finite resource; people can only read so many things a day. If a fan of The Verge only has 10 minutes to catch up on the latest tech news, will they still turn to The Verge, or is Newton’s newsletter going to be a better use of their time?

Publications often target sufficiently different audiences that this kind of competition overlap is minute. Yes, technically, Blackbird Spyplane is competing with The New York Times for my eyeballs, but they serve different purposes for me as a reader. As a result, neither really cannibalizes the other.

When it comes to tech journalism, though, Newton’s new Platformer is in direct competition with The Verge. Many readers will choose one or the other. Or, readers might read half as much Verge as they used to in order to make time for Newton. Either way, the existence of Platformer is unlikely to lead to more traffic to The Verge; in all likelihood, it will siphon off a chunk of the readership that the publication has come to rely on.

In a more abstract sense, The Verge also loses one of its most prominent figureheads. If you asked any journalist to name the five most influential tech writers in the industry, chances are Newton would be on most lists. The halo effect The Verge enjoyed thanks to his clout likely brought millions of page views to its site. I know I found out about Casey Newton before I knew about The Verge.

In the wake of Newton’s departure, the publication will have to prove that it is still a powerhouse of tech journalism, a source that demands recognition and punches above its weight. Like the New England Patriots losing Tom Brady, or The Fugees losing Lauryn Hill, The Verge will have to prove that it is bigger than its most iconic figure.

Fresh blood

Luckily, the good news outweighs the bad.

What it boils down to is this: Substack has not poached a writer. Casey Newton did not make a lateral move. Through its tech, Substack created a new position.

At The Verge, Newton was on the top rung of the ladder. He commanded a massive personal audience, his writing moved needles, and his commentary helped set the agenda for tech journalism. A few years ago, Newton could have remained in that position for years, potentially for the rest of his career, steadily making more money and accruing seniority and gravitas.

Now, Substack has given Newton et al. the tools to take their following, monetize it, and use that income to make more money. What was formerly the ceiling, thanks to Substack, is no longer the ceiling.

When Newton climbs to the next rung of the ladder, everyone below him moves up a spot. A journalist who was likely fated to toil in obscurity for years in the shadow of Newton now has an opportunity to be The Verge’s next tentpole figure.

This upward mobility trickles all the way down. Now that The Verge has a Newton-sized budget surplus, it can hire a new writer, perhaps even several new writers. In doing so, the publication injects new blood into its system, a rare occurrence in an industry whose pea-sized profitability keeps it from hiring new writers until an old one dies.

It also presents a prime opportunity to hire the kind of writers that newsrooms are so sorely lacking. If there is any benefit to the glaring whiteness of the Substack superstar class, it’s that the publications these heavyweights leave can now hire writers of color to fill their ranks.

All of this is made possible because Substack, through either chicanery or financial magic, has figured out how to make two positions out of one. Where there was once Newton, there is now Newton and a writer to replace Newton. This phenomenon is called “job creation,” and it feels foreign because no one has seen it in the media industry in years.

What’s more, Newton himself might become a job creator. In an interview with OneZero’s Sarah Jeong, Newton alluded to the possibility of turning his solo project into a larger endeavor.

“I’m not going to get to 10,000 subscribers anytime soon, but if I can work toward that over time, not only will I be in a position where I’m doing well for myself, but I’ll be in a position where I can create media jobs,” said Newton.

“I can hire someone to go out and do more reporting. I can hire an editor. I can hire a graphics person. I can start to — in this tiny, tiny way — rebuild a little of what has been lost and figure some things out for the future.”

So in addition to creating room for growth at The Verge by leaving, Newton himself might also be able to give more writers jobs.

Substack didn’t do anything crazy; it just gave popular writers a way to make a living off of their popularity. But in doing so, by giving the Newtons of the world the ability to finance themselves, it creates openings for new writers, which means fresh eyes, new perspectives, and novel ideas.

Some good readin’

— The Times’ coverage of Newton’s departure is a good place to start if you want to understand the scope and impact of what Substack is doing to the media landscape. (New York Times)

— In arguably one of the hardest years for musicians in history, Spotify has been conspicuously quiet. Bandcamp, on the other hand, gives a shit. (Los Angeles Times)

— The inimitable Terry Nguyễn, who helped edit this post, wrote about the commodification of RBG and its interplay with grief, respect, and aspiration. (Vox)

— Don’t be fooled by the juvenile name, “Pen15” is one of the best shows of the year. Its second season just dropped last week, and this piece about one its character’s sexual discovery is beautiful. (BuzzFeed)

— The next wave of media companies is worker-owned, and that’s not an accident. (Influence)