A song to read by: “Doc” by Chocolate Milk
What I’m reading: “Conflict Is Not Abuse,” by Sarah Schulman
New York Times media critic Ben Smith has written a lot of sentences that have made him a lot of enemies, but perhaps the most gut-curdling noun-verb construction he’s ever stitched together came in his most recent profile of the newly self-exiled Andrew Sullivan.
“He was not, he emphasizes, ‘canceled,’” writes Smith, referring to Sullivan. “In fact, he said, his income has risen from less than $200,000 to around $500,000 as a result of the move.”
That’s right. Andrew Sullivan, the controversial ex-New York Magazine journalist who decamped from the eponymous publication not six weeks ago to start a Substack, has more than doubled his income and is now making half a million dollars.
Now, to be clear, Smith’s wording here is vague; he writes that Sullivan’s income has risen to $500,000 because of the move, not that Sullivan is now netting $500,000 from his Substack. And without reaching out to Sullivan directly, we can’t know how many subscribers he has or what his income breakdown looks like.
Still, the implication is clear: that Sullivan is doing just fine now that he’s on his own — better than fine, in fact! — after escaping the “woke coup” that he claims occurred at New York Magazine earlier this year.
The conservatives are getting rich
Sullivan is among a handful of conservative writers who have found a comfortable and lucrative new home on Substack.
Very famously, Substack’s No. 1 newsletter in terms of total revenue is The Dispatch, a network of conservative writers and newsletters that have united under one umbrella.
I have referenced The Dispatch a few times before because, to their credit, the kids-on-shoulders-in-a-trenchcoat situation they have going on there seems to be working out alright. Before Discourse Blog, or Everything, or Defector, or Study Hall or any of these cooperatively owned, subscription-based publications that I’ve written so highly of, before all of them was The Dispatch.
And coming up quickly in the Substack rankings, which they publicize very openly here, is Reporting by Matt Taibbi, a newsletter that is not only right-leaning but could be more accurately described as “left-bashing.”
Taibbi, a former Rolling Stone staff writer, just joined Substack in April, and he is now its third highest-earning newsletter. His accomplishment is more impressive than The Dispatch, in many ways, because Taibbi is a one-man show. He is presumably the sole beneficiary of what I could only assume is at least a six-digit income.
(This is a guess! But I know Bill Bishop of Sinocism makes six digits, and Taibbi’s newsletter grosses more than his, so it’s not a huge leap of faith.)
I don’t see Sullivan’s Substack on the list of top earners, and I’m assuming that’s because it’s very new, or perhaps because Sullivan has asked his numbers to remain private.
Still, the trend is very clear: Substack’s first- and third-highest earners are conservative. Sullivan, who is also on Substack and conservative, is making in the ballpark of $500,000. So the question arises: Why are all these right-leaning journalists making so much money?
The answer is pretty obvious: A lot of people feel that the media is too liberal and fails to represent them or their values. Many of these people are smart and do not like Fox News, because people with brains can generally make that decision pretty quickly. But they feel that their local newspapers, their national newspapers, and their entertainment publications are too liberal.
So, in a world that is failing to meet their content needs, they turn to the few conservative voices they can trust: people like Sullivan, Taibbi, and The Dispatch writers.
You might disagree with the writings of these people, but you must admit that they are more reasoned in their offerings than the state-media puppets dancing their nightly jig on Fox News. Every intelligent conservative I know is happy for any right-leaning content that has nothing to do with Tucker Carlson.
Plus, these conservative Substackers have a patina of respectability still glowing off them from their tenures at institutional publications; they did not ascend from the swamps of the alt-right. They are probably writing things that you, my precious reader, dislike, but they are imminently more balanced than the other conservative sources out there.
As a result, they are becoming very popular.
What does podcasting have to do with any of this?
There are articles out there that explain this better than I can, but the logic is pretty simple: Podcasts have given rise to conservative and non-traditional media figures because podcasting is a low-budget endeavor that has the potential to reach a massive audience.
Several years ago, when the Intellectual Dark Web or whatever the fuck steampunk name they gave themselves was a bigger deal, the carnivorous minds of Jordan Peterson, Ben Shapiro, and Sam Harris struck fear into the hearts of liberals.
Why? Because guys like these (and oh yes, they were almost exclusively men) were drawing in millions of fans and Trojan-horsing some very right-wing, misogynistic, fascistic ideologies into their brains under the guise of “ academic discourse” and “free speech.”
The most palatable of all these Dark Webbies was Joe Rogan, who ostensibly played the role of liaison between the worlds of left-leaning media and the DMT-pounding world of right-wing media. Rogan was a more moderate voice who brought name-brand recognition, chill-bro vibes, and a healthy skepticism to bear on both groups’ beliefs.
As a result, he has largely outlasted the other Dark Websters and recently signed a history-making $100-million deal with Spotify.
Connect Substack and podcasts already, Mark
Okay you maybe could have just skipped to this part, because you might have seen it coming from my subtitle. Podcasts make money off ads, but they also increasingly use subscriptions. Patreon, in many ways, found its primary use-case as the tech stack that helps podcast-makers monetize their audio babies.
When your primary income source is user-generated revenue, i.e. subscriptions, merchandise, etc., you find yourself immune to the vicissitudes of public opinion. Pressure from advertisers disappears; the need to appeal to a broad audience disappears; and the content regulation that governs more public-facing platforms disappears.
You give the right dude with a “dark humor” who likes “playing Devil’s advocate” a microphone and some audio-editing technology, and you have a media source capable of reaching a lot of people with virtually no overhead and no checks or balances.
You become, in the truly infamous but iconic words of one of the world’s worst people, Dave Portnoy, “uncancel-able.”
We have seen this with Dave Portnoy himself, as well as from other members of the Barstool Sports universe. We have also seen this on the far-left, i.e. the “dirtbag left” of the podcasting world.
And of course we have seen it with Rogan and several other of his Dark Web cronies. When you are funded by your fans through a subscription-platform like Patreon and communicating through a one-to-many platform, the result is unlimited reach with an absence of editing or financial constraint.
That’s what Patreon enables for podcasting, and now Substack could be bringing it to the world of editorial.
Substack’s role in the wars to come
Substack’s technology is doing for writers what Patreon did for right-wing and off-color podcasters. It gives conservative writers a way to monetize their product through subscriptions, which means the people who like what the conservative Substackers have to say can fund them ad infinitum.
Sullivan, Taibbi, and The Dispatch writers can continue their writing, reaching larger and larger audiences and making more and more money. They have no constraints, no oversights, no control system. Just their opinions and people paying to read their opinions.
If Sullivan’s numbers are as astronomical as reported, we might soon find that Substack’s three most lucrative newsletters are conservative. How Substack will respond to that potential reality will be interesting to watch.
They could follow the blueprint of basically every platform before them and say, “We’re a platform, not a publisher” and refuse to get involved.
However, given that Substack is so intertwined in the world of editorial, media, and publishing, this move could alienate much of its main user base.
Despite the fact that Substack’s most lucrative newsletters are conservative, I would imagine that the majority of its newsletters and readers are left-leaning. I’d bet the right-leaning readership is concentrated in a handful of newsletters, whereas the left-leaning readership is spread between thousands of offerings.
So, if Substack says fuck it caveat emptor and lets conservative writers continue unimpeded, they risk potentially losing their core clientele.
Let’s be better than 2016 Democrats
Now, doom and gloom aside, a left-leaning reader can survey this brilliantly argued essay and despair, or they can take it as a learning opportunity. We must strive to create a society that balances the right amount of prescription with the right amount of description.
If thousands of people are paying to read these conservative writers, that means that there is a massive audience of just-right-of-center conservatives who feel that they are not being served by the current media system. Instead of demonizing these readers and writers, the left-leaning media needs to think of how it can do a better job of reaching and reflecting these readers.
The media can grind its teeth and stomp its feet and come up with badass roasts that get a bunch of likes on Twitter, or it can look at the media landscape and see that there’s a problem that needs addressing.
And, the business side of me wants to shout it from the mountains: This means there is a huge market need for a balanced, right-of-center media company. If even half the people reading Fox News suddenly stopped doing that and started reading this new hypothetical publication, the American political climate would grow healthier almost overnight.
So, perhaps before we address this issue by wringing our hands about conservative writers and their corrosive effects on the minds of our impressionable citizenry, maybe we take stock of the situation and see how we can improve it in a way that works for everyone.
Some good readin’
— This once-again-wonderful Gen Yeet from Terry Nguyễn in which she talks about having to eat sandwiches at bars in New York City and the troubling politics of problematic Democratic politicians. (Gen Yeet)
— The title really gets it pretty well: Journalists Need to Remember that Not All News Readers are White. (Nieman Lab)
— This instant blassic from New York Magazine that I am retitling “When rich yogis turn out to be *gasp* hypocrites! And bad landlords.” (New York Magazine)
Cover image: “Parable of the Rich Fool,” by Rembrand van Rijn