The subscription-based news industry, the founders speculated, could someday “be much larger than the newspaper business ever was, much like the ride-hailing industry in San Francisco is bigger than the taxi industry was before Lyft and Uber.” These days, Substack’s founders, investors, and marketing materials all have different ways of describing the startup’s mission. Depending on which source you consult, Substack might be “reinventing publishing,” “pioneering a new ‘business model for culture,’ ” or “attempting to build an alternative media economy that gives journalists autonomy.” It is “writers firing their old business model” or “a better future for news.” Substack’s C.E.O., Chris Best, has said that the company’s intention is “to make it so that you could type into this box, and if the things you type are good, you’re going to get rich.” Hamish McKenzie, one of Substack’s co-founders, told me that he sees the company as an alternative to social-media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. “We started Substack because we were fed up about the effects of the social-media diet,” McKenzie said. Substack’s home page now reads, “Take back your mind.”
Substack, like Facebook, insists that it is not a media company; it is, instead, “a platform that enables writers and readers.” But other newsletter platforms, such as Revue, Lede, or TinyLetter (a service owned by Mailchimp, the e-mail-marketing company), have never offered incentives to attract writers. By piloting programs, like the legal-defense fund, that “re-create some of the value provided by newsrooms,” as McKenzie put it, Substack has made itself difficult to categorize: it’s a software company with the trappings of a digital-media concern. The company, which currently has twenty employees, has a lightweight content-moderation policy, which prohibits harassment, threats, spam, pornography, and calls for violence; moderation decisions are made by the founders, and, McKenzie told me, the company does not comment on them. Best has suggested that Substack contains a built-in moderation mechanism in the form of the Unsubscribe button.
I don’t understand how you write a piece that long without a single acknowledgement of Medium or any of the 700 other platforms that were also suppose going to be the future of media.
Maybe these sorts of hollow, context-free profile pieces are why we will never get to an actual, workable future of media.