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Substack is a blogging and email newsletter platform. It allows users to host written content and distribute it to subscribers via email. It also supports paid subscriptions, from which it collects a 10% fee. Anyone can create a Substack account and set the price for their work as they see fit. The message on Substack’s ‘about’ page is direct:

We believe that writers, bloggers, thinkers, and creatives of every background should be able to pursue their curiosity, generating income directly from their own audiences and on their own terms.

It seems to resonate. Substack has had a good year and now boasts half a million paying subscribers across the platform. Subscriptions to the top ten publications amount to over $15 million annually.

Some Substack critics note that the 10% fee (which does not include credit card processing fees) is steep and that writers can easily flee to similar platforms with more competitive pricing. Although Substack’s core product offering (a paid blogging platform) is fairly undifferentiated, the company is working to become uniquely attractive for writers. Last summer it began openly piloting a legal advisory and defense service for its writers and there are mentoring and fellowship programs as well. Expansions to the support that Substack offers its writers have the potential to improve recruitment as well as retention. To grow its platform, Substack must lure successful writers away from their current employers. For an established writer weighing the jump to editorial independence, the potential loss of their organizational support may be a significant factor.

While Substack is beginning to emulate some functions of a traditional news-media organization, its primary pitch to writers is well-represented above: own the relationship with your readers and we won’t get in your way. As the arguments (and counter-arguments, and counter-counter-arguments) about ‘cancel culture’ continue, writers may see a growing appeal to Substack’s measured approach to moderation:

We appreciate that there are reasonable arguments to be made on all sides of these questions. We just disagree with those who would seek to tightly constrain the bounds of acceptable discourse. We think the principles of free speech can not only survive the internet, but that they can help us survive as a society that now must live with all the good and bad that the internet brings. We welcome competition from anyone who thinks we’re wrong about this. Anyone can attempt to recreate the software platform we’ve made and we make it easy for readers and writers to opt out at any time. We are happy to compete with “Substack but with more controls on speech,” just as we are happy to compete with “Substack but with advertising.”

With that in mind, we commit to keeping Substack wide open as a platform, accepting of views from across the political spectrum. We will resist public pressure to suppress voices that loud objectors deem unacceptable. If you look at Substack’s leaderboards today, you’ll see writers from the left and the right, the populist and the elite, the low-brow and the high-brow, the secular and the faithful, the activist and the academic. We’re proud of this range and strongly believe that this breadth strengthens the discourse.

The other key component of Substack’s appeal is less philosophical: money. Imagine the roster of writers at organizations like the NYT or Vox. There is a distribution of value creation: some writers have strong personal brands and a devoted following while others are relative unknowns. Even setting aside the realities of skill, some writers bring more value to the business than others. Top performers at legacy media companies capture very little of the surplus value they create. Even in media hubs like New York it would be hard for a successful writer to gross much over $150k a year. If you imagine an entry-level salary is $50k, that’s only a 3x improvement for someone who may contribute ten or more times the value. Substack’s pitch to those people is simple: earn based on the value you create for readers. If you can convince 5,000 people to pay $5 per month, that’s $260k even after you give 10% to Substack and 3% to Visa. The limits are still being tested, but that may even be a modest hypothetical.

Still, it is a big risk to take that leap from steady, salaried employment to sink-or-swim independence. So Substack created Substack Pro to incentivize writers to jump ship, offering a 5-6 figure upfront payment in exchange for a much larger (e.g. 85%) share of first year subscription revenue, sort of like a book advance. After the first year, everything goes back to the normal 10% cut. The deals were secretive but some specifics have come to light. You can read a rough roundup here.

The headline deal went to Vox co-founder Matthew Yglesias. From Peter Kafka at Vox:

As Yglesias told me via Slack (he stopped working as a Vox writer last fall but still contributes to Vox’s Weeds podcast), the deal he took from Substack is actually costing him money, for now. Yglesias says he has around 9,800 paying subscribers, which might generate around $860,000 a year. Had he not taken the Substack payment, he would keep 90 percent of that, or $775,000, but under the current deal, where he’ll keep the $250,000 plus 15 percent of the gross subscription revenue, his take will be closer to $380,000.

Another notable signee was Scott Alexander (who we’ve talked about before). Some offers were much smaller, in the $50-60k range. Some people got all in a huff about this program but frankly I don’t see the issue. I don’t think Substack advancing money to individual writers (secretly or otherwise) invalidates the neutrality of their platform or makes them hypocrites. There are other complaints about Substack writers (both Pro and pedestrian) who left their previous jobs amidst controversy. Ben Thompson has a great review of the whole situation in Stratechery.

A simple conclusion to draw from all of this is that the best writers are undercompensated and Substack allows them to capture more of the value they were already creating. Certainly that is part of it, but I think an overlooked adjacent effect is that most media organizations simply cannot capture the value of their best writers. Just because Yglesias can bring in $800k in subscription fees by himself doesn’t mean that Vox could get the same value from him. It looks to be another sad story as the media industry — already contracting sharply after failing to innovate and being outcompeted in the online ad business by large tech companies — loses its best writers to newly-viable independence.


Editor’s Note: There are roughly three types of things I write about here: 1) news or technology that I’m uniquely qualified to discuss (because of my work or technical background), 2) news that’s interesting but not widely covered (i.e. cool things from Hacker News), and 3) stuff that’s Just My Opinion™. So far I’ve tried hard to avoid the third thing since I think it’s the least interesting (everyone has opinions) and the easiest to write (everyone thinks their opinions are the best). In this section I’m veering solidly into #3 territory — you have been warned.

I’m a big fan of intellectual honesty, which I would describe as an attitude where one approaches ideas with a good-faith attempt to understand their pros and cons without bias. In my own life this often manifests as a persistent thought that my opinions on any topic may be partly or completely wrong. Usually that’s coupled with a desire to earnestly explore any competing opinions on the chance they might shine a light on my potential ignorance. If my opinions are wrong or incomplete or based on faulty information I would rather find out as soon as possible and correct them.

Of course, most issues worthy of competing opinions are too complicated to be divided neatly into ‘opinion A’ vs. ‘opinion B’. The first sign that something I’m reading is devoid of intellectual honesty is when an author slices an issue neatly into the right vs. wrong dichotomy. This approach is as banal as it is unproductive. On the other hand, I find it deeply satisfying when an author approaches a difficult topic in an intellectually honest way[0]. This is both difficult and dangerous, as some readers are quick to misidentify honest discussion of a viewpoint (see above: pros and cons) as endorsement. An intellectually honest approach is usually obvious from the writing itself: an author may discuss different viewpoints on a spectrum without strawmanning one extreme or the other. This often includes hypothesizing what plausible factors could cause various opinions to form.

Another hallmark of an intellectually honest approach is an author’s self-consciousness of their own analysis. This might be a reminder designed to fend off the mob (‘I’m not endorsing this, just explaining why I think some people feel this way’) or an explicit acknowledgement of the author’s own biases. Sometimes that second one comes with frustration: the author knows they cannot fully avoid the influence of their own experiences and that this will always discolor their reasoning.

A side effect of intellectual honesty is that it tends to make written pieces long. It’s very hard to do a succinct, even-handed analysis of any complex issue. It also usually means that the conclusions may be unsatisfying; there is no panacea for most complicated problems. Because of all of this, I’ve often felt that any discussion of a difficult topic should start with a disclaimer:

[Topic] is really complicated. People have disagreed about it for a long time and still do today. There is almost certainly no easy answer to the problems that [topic] poses. Even if there were, there exists such disagreement on [topic] that the disagreement itself is now its own obstacle of considerable size. By earnestly examining the various aspects of [topic] and the origins of opinions about it, we may be able to modestly grow our understanding of the truth and of one another.

That could be about religion, abortion, the war in afghanistan, housing policy, tax policy, racism in america, the ~media~, and on and on.

I almost feel that any discussion of a complex topic that doesn’t begin by acknowledging that complexity is fundamentally dishonest. That’s a little too far, but still. I really do think that difficult issues cannot be effectively analyzed without some humility and respect for the task. Unfortunately, it’s usually more lucrative to write one-sided screeds bashing some relative outgroup than to carefully and humbly explore a complex topic. The most common lie is also the most palatable: ‘congratulations, you are completely right to think what you already think and everyone else is wrong and also evil.’

We just need everyone to look at everything with more nuance wow I am so brave and right I fixed it all you’re welcome you’re welcome you’re welcome. No, like everyone else I love to feel that I’m right and others are wrong. Maybe even more than most people. But I do try to always remember that I might be wrong and not know it.

There’s a question I like which gets at the heart of this: what’s a strongly held opinion that you once had but no longer agree with? It doesn’t have to be a complete 180, just a softening of opinion is enough (especially if the original viewpoint was extreme). Besides leading to interesting conversations, the question crystalizes the intellectually honest approach I often look for in writing. If the answer is ‘there is none’, then that’s revealing in its own way. Changing your opinions on difficult questions is often painful and the ability to do it is a skill: something that can be refined with practice. Willingness and ability to do it is also a necessary part of any rigorous approach to understanding an idea.


Beautiful audio hardware by teenage engineering. The crypto pyramid scheme. A beautiful website for learning about the internal combustion engine. Bespoke intergenerational communication hardware: Yayagram.

[0] My poster child for this is ‘I Can Tolerate Anything Except The Outgroup’ by Scott Alexander but I was inspired to write this section after reading this recent piece.