Facebook goes after Substack

Note: This was originally published in the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I’m the chief digital writer

If you’re an independent writer or journalist, Facebook would like you to know that it wants to help you. With what? Just about everything: it wants to give you easy to use writing and publishing tools, so you can create websites and newsletters, and publish them in multiple places (including on Facebook, of course), and it wants to help you connect those sites and newsletters you create to groups that it will also help you create (on Facebook, naturally). And it wants to give you tools to attract subscribers to your writing, and other ways of generating revenue (i.e., ads), and all kinds of other non-specific helpful advice. We know all this because Campbell Brown, Facebook’s head of news partnerships, and Anthea Watson Strong, the company’s product manager for news, wrote a blog post in which they described all of these features and the ways in which they want to “empower independent writers, helping them reach new audiences and grow their businesses.” But the part that really caught the attention of those in the media is that Facebook says it is going to jump-start this new program by paying a “small subset” of independent writers.

Nowhere in this long statement of intent does anyone mention the name Substack, which is probably not surprising, because what Facebook is offering sounds like a carbon copy of what Substack provides to independent writers and journalists: a platform for their posts and newsletters, one in which Substack not only provides back-office support for subscriptions, but also doles out cash to a select group of writers in order to convince them to try out the platform. This “Substack Pro” program has been the source of some controversy recently, due to the fact that some of the writers the company has chosen to fund have expressed a range of what some find to be offensive opinions. For example, Scott Alexander, who writes a blog known as Astral Codex Ten (and was the subject of a controversial New York Times profile), has written positively about the idea of “human biodiversity,” which is often a code word for pseudo-scientific racism and/or eugenics. The list of others on the Substack Pro list (which the company has not made public) reportedly include Frederik de Boer, who promised he would retreat from public writing after he falsely accused another journalist of rape, but has since restarted his political blog.

While he isn’t being paid by Substack, Glenn Greenwald — the former Intercept writer — has used Substack to write about about New York Times journalist Taylor Lorenz, making it clear that he doesn’t think the harassment she has faced is as important as the harassment he has faced. And Graham Linehan has reportedly used his Substack newsletter to mock, mis-gender, and harass trans women. Substack co-founder Hamish Mackenzie said in a blog post that who they decide to pay isn’t based on the content of what they write, but merely on whether they will be successful (i.e., generate revenue) and that therefore these are not editorial decisions, but critics have pointed out that these are exactly the kinds of editorial decisions traditional media outlets often make. In any event, several writers and journalists have said they are leaving Substack, because they don’t want the revenue they generate from subscriptions to be used to fund opinions they disagree with. In response, Substack co-founder Chris Best tweeted “defund the thought police” (Substack’s founders have since tried to clarify that the Pro program supports a wide range of writers).

It’s unclear whether Facebook created its new program as Substack was starting to come under fire, or started it after the company became popular. The giant social network has become notorious for copying successful products and services developed by others, including Snapchat and Twitter (which, coincidentally enough, recently announced its own Substack-style subscription newsletter offering). Regardless of how it came to be, Facebook likely sees an opportunity to appeal to writers and journalists with its own slate of similar offerings, and it has a number of features that Substack can’t offer. For example, Facebook doesn’t need to generate any revenue at all from its new platform — unlike Substack, which needs to justify the $17 million or so it has raised from Silicon Valley venture capitalists by producing significant financial returns. Also, Facebook can offer tools that allow writers who use its platform to reach a potential audience of hundreds of millions of people, something critics say Substack lacks (although it offers some writers health insurance and legal protection, neither of which are mentioned in Facebook’s blog post).

As for whether writers and journalists should hitch their star to this particular Facebook wagon, that is a much more complicated question. On the one hand, being paid to write is arguably a good thing regardless of who is doing the paying, especially if you are scraping by as an independent. On the other hand, Facebook has siphoned off and/or controls so much of the marketplace for writing and journalism already that even the most desperate journalist might feel loath to increase its dominance any further. Facebook has also tried in the past to offer tools that would help writers reach their audiences, and the number who have successfully done so is still relatively small — perhaps in part because a giant company like Facebook often gets distracted by other things, and its previous initiatives fall by the wayside. Some may take the social network up on its generous offer, but doing so may not be the guaranteed road to riches that they are hoping for.

Here’s more on Facebook and Substack:

Substack recreates media: In a piece written for CJR, Clio Chang writes that instead of creating a more equitable media system, Substack may have just replicated the flaws of the old one, by promoting and paying primarily white men who already have large audiences. “In general, will Substack replicate the patterns of marginalization found across the media industry, or will it help people locked out of the dominant media sphere to flourish? To a large extent, the answer depends on whether or not Substack’s founders believe they’re in the publishing business. When we spoke, they were adamant that Substack is a platform, not a media company—a familiar refrain of Silicon Valley media ventures.”

Substack defends itself: In a follow-up blog post on the Substack Pro system, the three founders of the company — Mackenzie, Best, and Jairaj Sethi — said that contrary to some of the criticism the service has received, it is not promoting anti-trans viewpoints. More than 30 writers have now signed Pro deals, they said, and they cover a range of issues including politics, climate change, pop culture, sociology, feminism, history, health, literature, art, sports, and music. More than half of those being paid are women, Substack said, and more than a third are people of color. The company also said that the Pro program is not funded out of the contributions from other Substack subscriptions.

Facebook ruins media: Jacob Silverman writes for The New Republic that Facebook’s entry into the subscription content business is not likely to bode well for journalism. “Imagine Facebook—with its data-driven, amoral attitude toward publishing, where everything truly is just “content” coming down the production line—deciding to give deals to some of its most popular media personalities. If Facebook’s building out a content operation, it would only be logical to cement business ties with right-wing personalities Ben Shapiro and Dan Bongino, whose posts—chock-full of hateful disinformation—are often among the most shared.”

Some writers get rich: In a December piece for the New York Times, media writer Ben Smith revealed that the highest-earning individual writer on Substack was Heather Cox Richardson, a professor of 19th century American history at Boston College. According to Smith: “By my conservative estimate based on public and private Substack figures, the $5 monthly subscriptions to participate in her comments section are on track to bring in more than a million dollars a year.” Richardson said that she “tries not to think too much about the size of her audience because that would be paralyzing.”

Other notable stories:

The Biden administration is restricting the information Border Patrol agents and sector chiefs can share with the media as a surge of migrants tests the agency’s capacity at the southern border, according to four current and two former Customs and Border Protection officials who spoke to NBC News. The officials, who requested anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to the media about the topic, say the restrictions are seen as an unofficial “gag order” and are often referred to that way among colleagues.

The Malaysian government has used its emergency powers to push through a new law it says is designed to control “fake news,” but critics fear will give it even more scope to crack down on online criticism. The government declared a state of emergency in January, suspending parliament until August, in what it said was a necessary move to control the spread of COVID-19. The new law includes a jail sentence of up to six years or fines of up to $120,000 for publishing anything that challenges the government’s official narrative about the state of emergency, according to Reuters.

Financial news site Quartz has turned one of its articles into an NFT, or nonfungible token, a cryptocurrency artefact that some are using to monetize art and other forms of content, including the first tweet posted by Twitter co-founder and CEO Jack Dorsey, and a recent album by the band Kings of Leon. “We converted an article—this very article, in fact—into an NFT, a digital asset that essentially serves as its own certificate of ownership and authenticity,” wrote Samanth Subramanian and David Yanofsky. There are currently no offers, and the reserve price is $18.27. Bidding will end on March 21 at 8 pm, and proceeds of the sale will be contributed to the International Women’s Media Foundation.

The Connecticut state legislature is meeting today to hold a hearing on a bill that would allow subscribers of the Hartford Courant to sue the paper’s owner if it takes on any debt or pays out dividends that are not “for the good of the company.” Supporters are hoping the bill will block the takeover of the paper by hedge fund Alden Global Capital. The hearing begins at 9 am, and among those testifying will be Courant reporter Rebecca Lurye, and Fraser Nelson, who helped the Salt Lake Tribune to achieve nonprofit status in 2019. Since the start of 2020, The Courant — the oldest continuously published newspaper in the US — has lost a third of its staff and had its newsroom shut down.

Ian Karbal writes for CJR about Tom Wheeler, who ran the Federal Communications Commission under Barack Obama and is now a Walter Shorenstein fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School. Most of the regulations that Wheeler promoted for net neutrality, privacy, and cybersecurity were rolled back under Donald Trump’s appointee, Ajit Pai. “It was painful,” Wheeler said. “You have the things you fought hard for and believe strongly in, and then you see the manufacturing of alternative facts that were misleading and designed to do away with these kinds of improvements.”

The McClatchy newspaper chain is trying to broaden the range of opinions it publishes by rolling out 12 community advisory boards, one for each of its opinion teams. It is also publishing five principles — including advocating for social justice and police reform, creating a roadmap for the post-pandemic economy, and examining the rural-urban divide in America — that it will use to guide its opinion coverage in newspapers across the country. “By the end of the year, all of our opinion teams will have advisory boards,” Peter St. Onge, McClatchy’s new national opinion editor, told the Nieman Journalism Lab.

A blogger and developer named Tom Cleveland used the New York Times API (application programming interface) to look at the way the paper rewrites and A/B tests different headlines for its news stories. According to the data he collected, almost 30 percent of Times stories have their headlines changed, and the one with the most changes had the headline replaced eight times. Some are just grammatical changes, he says, but most appear to be looking for more clicks, such as a Biden article that changed from “Speak Softly and Carry a Big Agenda” to “Biden Is the Anti-Trump and It’s Working.”

Google announced 11 projects that have received a collective $3 million in funding through the company’s News Initiative to fight misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines. They include interactive radio dramas in Senegal and Nigeria, a partnership with a music star in Uruguay, and a collaborative project in India that will distribute fact checks through a grassroots network of rural women. Google announced the fund in mid-January, and the company said that it received more than 300 applications from 74 countries.

2 Replies to “Facebook goes after Substack”

  1. Oh, where to start…
    From the “for example” sentence to the end of the next paragraph, there are just sentences with insinuations and little content. Should one dissect everyone of them?
    Let’s start with the first one. A has written positively about the idea of X, which is often a code word for pseudo-scientific Y and/or Z.
    So? Not always, then? Has A written positively about Y or Z?
    (spoiler: yes, Z, I doubt he has about Y)
    Y is a bad word which is constantly losing value due to overuse, but Z is a very bad word. Except when you remember that A is one of those guys who will argue something based on literal meanings, rather than added meanings and Z can actually mean something positive, if you define it rather strictly. Reading A, I suspect he would do so. I can understand how that can be infuriating.

    So what did that sentence convey? Someone has written positively about something, which someone else might have used to mean something else which in some cases is very bad but not in others.
    And so on.

    What are you trying to say here? Just like the article you linked about “human biodiversity”, which contains little actual information but lots of insinuations, what’s the point? Is Scott Alexander a bad person or do you just want leave the impression that he is?

    1. Thanks for the comment. Those examples were included to try and give a sense of why Substack funding Scott Alexander’s blog has been controversial. It’s not my place to determine conclusively whether he is or is not a) a racist, b) a bad person, etc. Just to explain why some people seem upset. I take it that you are not, which is fine.

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