Substack : how the game-changer turned poacher | Digital media | The Guardian
Substack has marketed itself aggressively to people such as Roughol as a new type of tech company, one that will let writers build their own brands and communities. The company offers software to help people set up free or paid-for newsletters and promises the people creating them that they can write what they want and that they own their own mailing list and can take it with them if they leave.
Initially, everything was great: Substack’s interface to make newsletters was much more intuitive than Mailchimp or other rivals and the company seemed keen to be friendly to small independent outlets such as Borderline, but then Substack started courting big-name writers and, with it, controversy.
Reports earlier this year revealed Substack has offered six-figure advances to a number of US writers to leave traditional media and go it alone on its platforms. Many are making more money than they ever did in traditional media, but concerns are emerging about what Substack is now, exactly. Is it a platform for hosting newsletters and helping people discover them? Or is it a new type of publication, one that relies on stoking the culture wars to help divisive writers build devoted followings?
The result of all this is that Substack finds itself in the middle of an identity crisis. Is it a cool online tool to help people outside legacy media build and write newsletters? Is it a publisher picking the journalists of the future? Or is it some combination of the two – and how much editorial control does it claim?
I don’t feel convinced that Substack has come up with something that is fundamentally new
Douglas McCabe, media analyst
Given its team offer some writers massive advances, while leaving others to work entirely off their own merits, they are making very similar hiring choices to those made by traditional editors. The company is also hoping investors value it as a fast-growing tech company, rather than as a dowdy old media company reliant on a large staff of journalists, web developers and back-room employees.
Substack rose to prominence among numerous rival newsletter services by positioning itself as a friend to people trying to set up solo media brands. The company takes a relatively small commission and to position itself as truly creator-friendly, it even started launching funds to help independent publishers tackle lawsuits.
But the bid to capture big-name writers changed the nature of the service. Where once Substack was a software tool, it started to become a brand in its own right, persuading big-name columnists to defect from traditional media and launch on Substack, perhaps changing how Substack itself was perceived.
If a company is talent-spotting for journalists and cherry-picking big names to offer them guaranteed minimum salaries of five or 10 times what most reporters could hope to earn, at what point does it stop being a technology company and start being just another new media outlet?