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Are Newsletters the Future of Free Speech?

Substack founders Hamish McKenzie and Chris Best declared that society has a trust issue in a joint statement released late January. It will get worse if there is more censorship.”

Substack, an online newsletter publisher that features polarizing journalist Bari Weiss as well as Brown University economist Emily Oster and COVID-19 contrarian Alex Berenson were reaffirming their hands-off approach towards content moderation during a period of high pressure to “deplatform” controversial voices. The White House asked Spotify, and other media companies, to exercise greater “vigilance” when policing commentary and public health information.

McKenzie wrote that Substack is under increasing pressure to remove content they consider objectionable or dubious. He and his associates also stated, “Our answer stays the same. We make decisions on principles, not PR. We will protect free expression.”

These principles have proved to be beneficial for business. Substack launched in 2017. It now boasts more than one million paid subscribers and a $650m valuation. Substack also has venture capital funding coming from Andreessen Horowitz. Substack offers a compelling pitch to authors: Substack lets you set up a number of subscription tiers (5/month and $5/month), then Substack handles the payment processing. Substack gets a 10 per cent cut. The creators own all customer information, which is not owned by the platform. They can also leave the company at any point. Substack launched a Substack Pro program in 2021 to attract top writers from imploding unpaid blogs or media companies. Rolling Stone and Matthew Yglesias from Vox. Of late, the company has taken an interest in breaking into the lucrative podcasting biz, poaching Jesse Singal and Katie Herzog’s Blockade and Report from the market-leading Patreon payments service. (It could soon also make a deal with The Fifth ColumnIs this you? ReasonMatt Welch is co-hosting’s Matt Welch with Kmele Foord and Michael Moynihan.

Substack’s chief operational officer McKenzie is an experienced technology journalist who has previously worked as a reporter for Technology Journalists. PandoDaily and written the 2018 book The Insane Mode: Elon Musk’s Tesla Launched an Electric Revolution to End the Age of Oil. McKenzie shares the belief of his cofounders that the independent-operator model of podcasting and newsletter is better than legacy media outlets’ low quality and industrial neuroses. Substack was created to enhance discourse, restore financial dignity for writers, and to help readers regain their heads.

Welch spoke to McKenzie in San Francisco, February.

Reason: When journalists dream of making a new startup—newspaper, website, whatever—there’s always This special idea that this will be the one where all our favorite writers will actually all get rich, too. What is the secret to being a journalist that makes money for journalists?

McKenzie: It’s a relief that it can work. It feels like the economic system has undervalued writers over the past couple decades, but perhaps forever. This is despite the immense value that they bring to the world. It’s good to see that there is some movement on this front.

Substack has been openly anti-algorithm. Does Substack have a fundamental flaw in the advertisement model that makes it impossible to use the algorithm?

Our views are not anti-algorithm. Algorithms work in the same way as equations. These algorithms can be found all around the world and accomplish different things. However, we are very skeptical about how organizing the media ecosystem around engagement will impact our lives.

They have all said algorithms like those used by YouTube or Twitter create and encourage low-cost conflicts.

It’s not the algorithms, it’s actually their business models that are responsible. This artificial intelligence is designed to serve the best interests of the business model. Your attention must be monopolized in order to serve the business model. This is done by creating addictive experiences to increase engagement.

Sometimes the most entertaining stuff is not necessarily what’s conducive for sharing a common understanding or encouraging good faith discussions or sharing factual information. It is the provocative, controversial and contentious things that divide us. It’s a problem that exists in this world.  This is why we want to create an alternative.

However, most signups that are the largest and most talked about on Twitter come from people who were part of conflict-world Twitter or other locations. They’re still around, in fact, Glenn Greenwald and Bari Weiss.

The people who do well on Substack are often the same as those who play on Twitter and Facebook. We wouldn’t feel satisfied if this becomes a permanent thing, where only those who know how to play the game on Twitter and Facebook can succeed on Substack.

Even for the best brawlers on social media, Substack’s discussion quality and argument is quite different from what you will see on Twitter. There’s reward on Twitter for these performative arguments and outrage—instant reactions, pithy retorts, one-liners, takedowns. Substack requires you to make more arguments. Readers are more willing to debate with you in the comment section or write to you. But not on a Twitter in front of everyone, just in another post where there was a bit of heat.

In these areas, substacks will be more easily found. The quiet environment allows you to concentrate on your reading and gives you more time for reflection and thought. Substack does not appear to be completely immune from social media drama. Substack has a vastly improved discourse than what’s on social media.

Your profile demonstrates that you are champions for free speech in online media, regardless of whether or not it was intentional. Your January declaration about censorship reveals a variety of liberal foundational values. These shared values influenced the creation of the company.

We started Substack to improve discourse and help restore financial dignity to writers and help readers take back their minds—an alternative to the attention economy. These things can only be realized if you create a place that encourages discussion and allows everyone to speak freely.

We hold these values. The system’s design reflects these values. This is because the writers are responsible. Subscribers make money, which is a trust relationship. They must live up to their contracts with readers. They must respect their readers’ trust and show appreciation.

Substack must in return respect the trust and attention of writers. Substack belongs to the authors. Their mailing lists are theirs. They are the owners of their content. They control their Inhalte [intellectual property]. All of this could be taken with them any time. This is not Twitter. You can’t just leave Twitter but take your Twitter followers along with you.

This puts us in an excellent position. It’s a difficult position, because we can’t just lock the doors and keep everyone locked inside the house—we have to keep people by proving that we are worthy of their trust, that we add a lot of value.

Spotify is under immense pressure to address Joe Rogan’s concerns, even among lower-ranking staff. What can you do to create a culture that doesn’t face revolts from young 25-year olds with different views than you?

Yeah, that’s…a unique challenge of this time.

It was said very delicately.

We are very cautious when it comes to hiring. Our values should be clear. We write them and post them. Then we hire those who share our beliefs. So being careful of the hiring on that front to make sure that people know what they’re joining here, what they’re signing up for, and what they’re speaking for as well—that’s the place to do it.

Our stance is non-destructive on content moderation. We are not free speech absoluteists, but we believe that it fosters healthy discourse.

The alternatives—the positions that are being argued by people who advocate for a more interventionist approach—in our view seem to be making the problem worse. Misinformation is not the right focus. Your focus should actually be on trust and how to strengthen it.

Even if you only believed that misinformation was the problem, the actions that are being taken to correct misinformation could have the exact opposite effect. By eroding trust you are creating more misinformation.

COVID-19 was a significant turning point in the erosion of trust. What has this meant for your actions?

COVID brought much madness to the world. This has made it more difficult for some people to cope with the online pressures. It is like having a steel rod at your back when there is madness. Therefore, it is even more crucial to remain calm, clear-eyed, and to stick to your principles.

COVID introduced financial instability to the media sector. People, who may have felt safe in their jobs as media professionals, are now more open to exploring other income streams and more conscious of the possibility that their magazine or newspaper might be closed at any time.

There has been a lot of interest in COVID content. Find your local epidemiologistSubstack’s rocketship success story has included Katelyn Jetelina as a. Eric Topol has been working on his project. Ground Truths on Substack. All these voices who are being thoughtful and smart about COVID writing—they’re getting a ton of attention and a ton of play.

It felt like the media business was suffering a self-inflicted nervous breakdown after the George Floyd protests came up in 2020. A whole bunch of people, including people who are now on Substack, lost their jobs or felt pressured out by the conformity at big preexisting media institutions. Those moments seem to be made for you.

It’s not just COVID. It’s not just the Floyd protests. It’s this moment in the culture—and the moment has now been quite extended—where in certain institutions there’s more conformity of viewpoint. Whenever there’s that kind of culture, there’s an opportunity for the counterculture. Substack is where the counterculture is happening right now.

How do you then prevent yourself from being reactionary or anti-conformist?

We’ve been lucky. Since the early days of Substack, people from all walks of the political spectrum have seen value in the Substack model. It’s not a model that says you can only succeed if you’re from the left wing or the right wing. It’s agnostic in that sense.

You’re not agnostic in picking people. Surely you’re picking people, especially in the Pro program, who can be worth the investment. You’re putting a bit of a gamble on them, and not just a gamble of “Will they earn it back?” but “Will they stay?” after you’ve given them a nice year. That’s a conscious decision; you’re choosing that person. To what extent are you thinking in terms of balancing a diverse array of voices?

It’s much more a question of what is smart business-wise. Does this person have a devoted audience? Are they writing about something that people want? Are they writing about issues that are not well-covered elsewhere? Do they have a certain voice?

In the early days—this was true as well before Pro came into it, before we had any money to spend to help writers make the leap—I was on the phone and emailing people every day from all walks of life to just encourage them to think about Substack. We consider that seeding the ecosystem and getting people to learn about and fall in love with Substack, and we want that to not just be a group that represents one ideology or represents one particular position in the world. It’s not totally purist agnostic, but I would argue it’s not an editorial effort.

I was involved in the second wave of blogging. After 9/11, Henry Copeland started the Blogads company and said, “Can we try to monetize this?” People were always talking about micropayments, but it wasn’t quite congealing. In fact, a lot of people that you have got their starts in that era. Greenwald was a semi-early blogger. Andrew Sullivan too.

My intellectual upbringing is in that era. We are big fans of that era of blogging, which is why I love this. I think it’s not much of a coincidence that a lot of the voices who were prominent in those days are now prominentSubstack.

So what is the thing that finally unlocked that model? What made it physically possible to suddenly get into almost an affinity economy, where readers and podcast listeners want to declare their affection for a voice and have a mechanism to do it?

We’re a beneficiary of timing. When Greenwald was in his Salon and pre-Salon days and Yglesias was blogging in college, people weren’t going to pay for content.

When Spotify came along, people were wondering, “Are people going to pay for music?” And Netflix before that. I Take a look at these ideas people getting comfortable paying for content online just became clear and obvious at a certain point, probably not long after Netflix switched from DVDs to streaming. Patreon made it a well-known fact that people support creative people they care about. It was something that had never been done before. It wasn’t possible to pay individual authors, artists and podcasters that you loved. Patreon demonstrated that Patreon users are open to supporting creators they trust or love.

Then people started losing faith in media, and many smart people became turned off by the experience of social media—feeling bad after spending all their time reading a news feed or reading a stream of tweets, and longing for something better.

One old criticism against you in the media is “Is it so great for our industry to have a lot of people doing their thing here and no one sharing their experience?” This is bad for journalism.

Substack has already seen success with newsrooms: The DispatchBulwarkAnd Persuasion. They employ editors. Substack has no limitations for newsrooms. Substack has made it much easier to launch a media business. Substack is a great tool that allows you to start a media company. I urge more people to try it.

One thing we do know is that when you become independent, your business becomes a single operator. This means that you may not automatically receive some benefits you could have previously received. Substack is here to help you feel less isolated by providing some support and infrastructure. Substack Defender is a program that provides legal support to assist you in obtaining pre-publication reviews on sensitive stories or responding to cease-and-desist letters from people who are trying to intimidate or gain access Getty Images and access to designers. There is also a program for health insurance. These programs are still in their pilot phase. However, as more information becomes available, they will be scaled up to include more writers. It is becoming easier to make this work for everyone.

We are in a phase of rebuilding. Substack is a way to simplify things. Substack simplifies things to the atomic relation between writer and reader. This can also be called “unbundling”, and many do. This doesn’t necessarily mean it’s in its eternal state. The ecosystem was only around for four years. Substack has been around for only four years. I am confident there will be an economy built on it and rebundling which can lead to better media organisations than any that existed before. Although there is nothing to prove that it’s impossible, people might have limited imaginations.

It’s likely that there has been pressure from others about things that you own or the relationships you maintain with them. How do you feel about the pressure?

The people who are able to exert that kind of pressure can come from every part of society. They also represent all parties of the political spectrum. It’s indicative of the times we live in. That’s not something we want to allow distract us from our daily lives.

Society is slowly falling apart. Tensions are rising. People are losing their ability to communicate with each other. Substack has become a source of anxiety for many people. They look at Substack, and they think: “Here’s the next Facebook or Twitter thing.” They know these systems are full of problems, and they won’t let them make mistakes again. Substack, however, is not Facebook or Twitter in the slightest. We are the opposite.

You have still got guidelines to follow. Are you able to say, for example, that you have repeatedly violated the guidelines we set against illegal activity? Is there any amount of moderation you have done in your daily work?

There are content guidelines in place to protect our platform and ourselves. You cannot threaten people with death or urge others to do the same. It’s not possible to do porn. Substack is not the type of people who are completely hands off about porn. Substack adheres to the very narrow guidelines for content. We don’t want our culture to be open to other things.

Why no porn? Do you really hate freedom?

Substack would be a great place to find porn. We don’t want that kind of ecosystem. Instead of focusing on porn, we want to make it more conversational.

If you are successful, Congress will haul you in front to ask why Alex Berenson is on your site. You’ll be under constant pressure. Is it possible to think that you are immune? You think you are architecturally protected?

As Substack becomes more complex, those problems will only get worse. It’s unavoidable. However, I think the flavour of the problems we will encounter is qualitatively different from the ones that are posted on social media. The system is one where there’s a greater balance between the heat and calmer discourse. It might take time before people realize this. This architecture will be much more appealing once everyone realizes that it is. This doesn’t necessarily mean we won’t have problems. However, it will be better than social media. Substack was designed to provide an alternative to attention economies.

Joe Rogan was the topic we discussed. The lesson from the Spotify controversy? Is he trying to teach old media people about Spotify, or new-media folks who create their own stuff, such as Substack??

One of the most important lessons I have learned is to own your audience. Have a personal relationship with them or have them join a mailing list. This makes you irreplaceable.

The interview was edited and condensed for clarity and style.