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The Substackerati - Columbia Journalism Review:

It’s a bit of a brain twister: Substack, eager to attract customers over Mailchimp or WordPress, has begun to look like it’s reverse engineering a media company. But all the while, its founders insist that they simply provide a platform. By not acknowledging the ways in which they are actively encouraging (and discouraging) certain people to use Substack, and the ways they benefit monetarily from doing so, they obscure their role as publishers. As Study Hall’s Allegra Hobbs put it over the summer, “It seems the creators of Substack, in their zeal to become the future of media, are trying to have it both ways—to keep an appropriate editorial distance while also actively supporting writers beyond merely providing a space to publish.” In addition, like many media companies, Substack is dependent on large amounts of venture capital. Time and again, journalists have seen venture capitalists barge in on their newsrooms with claims that they’ll solve the industry’s problems, only to end up losing their jobs or being forced to churn out clickbait. (In the case of Substack, The Atlantic’s Kaitlyn Tiffany has argued that tech bros are monetizing an existing form of media—newsletters—that had long been used, especially by women, to foster communities that were “non-remunerative” and “artistically strange.”) Substack’s founders are open about the fact that media and VC money typically don’t mix well; McKenzie told me that journalists who are VC-skeptical feel “burned for good reasons.” But he said there was a difference between companies like BuzzFeed and Vox Media taking hundreds of millions in venture capital “on a big unproven bet that that can scale to a massive return” and Substack, which he calls “a platform that has a stable, transparent, and simple business model that is proven to work.” When I asked if Substack’s investors were looking for large returns, Best replied, “We have expectations for growth for ourselves that are at least as high as our investors’.”

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