Isabelle Roughol was done with her day job at LinkedIn and was ready to start something of her own. She quit in early 2020 and launched Borderline, a podcast and newsletter aimed at “defiant global citizens”, and to help her build it she became an early user of a new online service: Substack.
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?
Substack, until recently a darling of the technology world, has left people wondering whether behind it all, it’s just another media company – with all the problems that brings.
“It’s funny to think there’s so many people in tech who think that they’re just going to reinvent the media economy and they’re going to figure out some things that decades of people in media haven’t figured out,” says Roughol.
“And then they get to the point, they’re like, ‘Oh, actually, it is hard to make money and have a business model in content.’”
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?
The controversial names Substack is hosting heighten that problem: one of the platform’s biggest draws, lawyer turned journalist Glenn Greenwald, has a reputation of a man able and willing to start 10 new lifelong grudges a day on Twitter, while the site has been much criticised for hosting Graham Linehan who has been banned from Twitter for trans hate speech.
Not only has Substack stopped being software hiding in the background for people to build their own brand, but being on Substack has for some become a tacit sign of being a partisan in the culture wars, not least because it’s a lot easier to build a devoted and paying following by stressing that you’re giving readers something the mainstream won’t.
For journalists such as Roughol, Substack’s emergence as a publisher of sorts and a brand in its own right is enough to make her rethink her position on the platform.
“For me, I was looking for a tool that could kind of recede in the background and allow my own brand to shine,” she says. “And that’s just not really what Substack is anymore. It’s increasingly a platform; people can even go and read on Substack rather than me reaching them directly with my brand in their inbox. So… some of those product changes, you know, are a bit concerning for me.”
Such is Substack’s recent notoriety that people are now worrying that it might be the latest thing that might kill traditional media. By offering star writers a bigger payday for going it alone, people fret it might break up traditional newsrooms and make it impossible to do the kind of journalism that needs reporters, editors, fact-checkers and lawyers.
Substack, they argue, is tearing apart that coalition of workers by ripping out the stars. But Douglas McCabe, media analyst at Enders Analysis, isn’t quite so sure.
“The internet just creates this endless cycle of aggregation, disaggregation, aggregation and disaggregation and that is an internet story, full stop,” he says. Substack “will end up aggregating particular kinds of content and trying to sell a single price point to access these 20 writers who talk about the environment or talk about the future of technology, or whatever it is they talk about”.
For those just trying to find something good to read, though, Substack’s foray into the culture wars is polluting other social networks. If you rely on people discovering your paid-for newsletter and giving it a try, you need to tempt new people into discovering who you are and what you’re offering.
One way to do that seems to be picking a fight. Charlie Warzel, a former opinion writer for the New York Times, left the newspaper to start a thoughtful Substack newsletter on technology and culture, Galaxy Brain.
Greenwald noted on Twitter that Warzel had only managed to attract “hundreds” of subscribers in his first week and suggested this showed the newsletter was failing. The Twitter spat led dozens of people to immediately subscribe to Warzel’s newsletter and prompted Warzel to write up the spat, knowing it would boost subscriptions.
“I can safely say that what I’m trying to create is the polar opposite of whatever it is he is doing,” said Warzel in his newsletter capitalising on that very row. But that statement is disingenuous: by capitalising on a Twitter fight for followers, Warzel is playing the exact same game as Greenwald, with the exact same business model.
Readers might tell themselves they’re there for the thoughtful conversation, but it’s the fighting talk that gets the social shares. Lines such as “CANCEL ME, GLENN! DADDY IS THINKING ABOUT INVESTING IN SOME NON-IKEA FURNITURE” are made for likes, shares and RTs, however much their author might protest otherwise.
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?
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.
“We’re a platform and in our model the writers are the publishers,” said a Substack spokeswoman in response to queries from the Observer. “So the intent is to enable writers to be their own bosses and shape their own brands. Our approach is to give them the platform and infrastructure, then stay out of their way.”
Substack started out offering writers a tool to build independent businesses. It’s now hiring editors and trying to poach talent and even offering a reading tool on its own website. The danger for the company is that it becomes just another new media outlet; while once it might have been fashionable to be BuzzFeed or HuffPost, the lustre has gone from both as they cut newsroom staff in a bid to be profitable.
“In the end, it’s a people business and journalism business,” says McCabe. “I don’t feel convinced that Substack has come up with something that is fundamentally new.”
Substack was supposed to be a tool, for people such as Isabelle Roughol, to help them build a brand and an audience, but now she’s unsure what it wants to be.
A product that won its early fans – like her – by having a much better and simpler interface than its rivals is itself increasingly bloated and unwieldy as more features are added. Being on Substack now carries connotations that you might be somehow aligned with its big-name writers. You’re competing with them for attention via the publishing tool.
But for all that, Roughol thinks the company might be getting a worse press than it deserves – it’s still a relatively young company, a smallish team, and she still has faith in its good intentions.
“They say if you stay in business long enough, there’s going to be a point where people think you’re the second coming,” she concludes. “And there’s going to be a point where people think you’re the devil incarnate – and that’s the business world we live in.”
THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN
¡Hola Papi! An LGBTQ+ advice column which originated on Grindr and is being adapted into a memoir.
Wild Holy & Free Author Austin Channing Brown and her takes on the black American experience.
Google, Apple and Microsoft reported record-breaking quarterly sales and profits on Tuesday night as the firms continue to benefit from a pandemic that has created a “perfect positive storm” for big tech.
Apple made a $21.7bn (£15.6bn) profit for the three-month period that ended in June, its best fiscal third quarter in its 45-year history, boosted by strong sales of the iPhone 12 and growth in its services business.
Alphabet, Google’s parent company, reported second-quarter revenue of $61.8bn (£44.5bn), a 62% increase on the same period a year earlier, and a profit of over $18.5bn (£13.3bn), more than twice its profits for the same period last year. The company’s advertising revenues rose 69% from last year.
Microsoft, too, beat expectations, reporting revenues of over $46bn (£33bn) for the quarter – a rise of 21% compared to the same quarter last year.
The results come after Tesla reported a record profit on Monday in one of the busiest ever weeks for quarterly US earnings results. The big tech blowout earnings continue with Facebook on Wednesday and Amazon on Thursday.
Collectively, the market value of Google, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft and Facebook is now worth more than a third of the entire S&P 500 index of America’s 500 largest traded companies, as their share prices have soared during the pandemic.
Thomas Philippon, an economist and professor of finance at New York University, said big tech firms have been the biggest economic winners from the pandemic as global lockdowns have pushed more businesses and consumers to use their services.
“They were already on the rise and had been for the best part of a decade, and the pandemic was unique,” Philippon said. “For them it was a perfect positive storm.”
Analysts at Morgan Stanley reckon Alphabet is on course to achieve full-year net income of $65bn, a 59% increase on 2020. Its annual sales are, the bank reckons, on track for $243bn – a $60bn increase on last year.
Alphabet’s shares have risen by 75% in the past year to a record $2,670, but analysts predict they could climb higher still despite regulators around the world threatening to curb its dominance of the internet search market. Morgan Stanley said the stock could reach as high as $3,060, and even under a worse case scenario is unlikely to fall below $1,800.
Morgan Stanley analyst Brian Nowak said pandemic lockdowns had boosted Google as consumers spent more time online researching potential purchases. He said survey data showed that 54% of retailers ranked Google search products, including YouTube, as “their first place to go to research products online, up from 50% in past surveys”.
“Google websites growth is likely to rebound in ’21 as we believe there are several underappreciated products driven by mobile search, strong YouTube contribution, and continued innovation, such as Maps monetisation,” Nowak said in a note to clients.
Apple has been making so much money that over the past eight years it has bought back $421bn worth of shares, but it still has about $80bn of cash sitting on its balance sheet.
When Microsoft reported a 31% rise in profits at its last quarterly results, its chief executive, Satya Nadella, said it was “just the beginning” as the shift to digital technology was “accelerating” fast.
The share price rise of the big tech firms has made billions for their super-rich founders and early investors. Forbes magazine calculated recently that there are now 365 billionaires who made their fortunes in technology, compared with 241 before the pandemic.
Collectively, the world’s tech billionaires hold personal fortunes of $2.5tn, up 80% on $1.4tn in March 2020. Amazon’s founder and chief executive, Jeff Bezos, remains the world’s richest person with an estimated $212bn fortune, and is closely followed in the league table of the wealthy by Tesla co-founder Elon Musk with $180bn, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates with $151bn, and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg with about $138bn.
Zuckerberg believes the internet will take on an even bigger role in people’s day-to-day lives in the future, and instead of interacting with it via mobile phones people will be immersed via virtual reality headsets.
He said Facebook would transition from a social media platform to a “metaverse company”, where people can work, play and communicate in a virtual environment. Zuckerberg said it would be “an embodied internet where instead of just viewing content – you are in it”.
The Tech Support Scams YouTube channel has been erased from existence in a blaze of irony as host and creator Jim Browning fell victim to a tech support scam that convinced him to secure his account – by deleting it.
“So to prove that anyone can be scammed,” Browning announced via Twitter following the attack, “I was convinced to delete my YouTube channel because I was convinced I was talking [to YouTube] support. I never lost control of the channel, but the sneaky s**t managed to get me to delete the channel. Hope to recover soon.”
To fool Browning, the ruse must have been convincing: “I track down the people who scam others on the Internet,” he writes on his Patreon page. “This is usually those ‘tech support’ call frauds using phone calls or pop-ups. I explain what I do by guiding others in how to recognise a scam and, more importantly, how to turn the tables on scammers by tracking them down.”
Browning has made a name for himself with self-described “scam baiting” videos, in which he sets up honeypot systems and pretends to fall for scams in which supposed support staffers need remote access to fix a problem or remove a virus – in reality scouring the hard drive for sensitive files or planting malware of their own.
“I am hoping that YouTube Support can recover the situation by 29th July,” Browning wrote in a Patreon update, “and I can get the channel back, but they’ve not promised anything as yet. I just hope it is recoverable.”
Whether Browning is able to recover the account, and the 3.28 million subscribers he had gathered over his career as a scam-baiter, he’s hoping to turn his misfortune into another lesson. “I will make a video on how all of this went down,” he pledged, “but suffice to say, it was pretty convincing until the very end.”
Tech support scams have been going on for about as long as people have needed technical support, but a report published by Microsoft last month suggested the volume may be declining. The same report found that the 18-37 age group was the most likely to fall victim – and that 10 per cent of those surveyed had lost money to a scammer.
YouTube was approached for an explanation of how deleted accounts could be restored and what precautions it has in place to prevent its users – even those with considerable experience in the field of con-artistry – from falling victim to tech support scams, but was unable to provide comment in time for publication.
Browning did not respond to a request for comment. ®
A member of the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group spotted the humpback whale while out conducting a survey on marine life off the Donegal coast.
Marine mammal observer Dr Justin Judge described the moment he spotted a lone humpback whale off the coast of Donegal as “a dream sighting.”
Judge spotted the whale at 9.30 on the morning of 9 July while representing the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG) on board the Marine Institute’s RV Celtic Explorer.
The group of researchers and observers was out on the waters around 60 kilometres north-northwest of Malin Head when they saw the whale. They were carrying out the annual Western European Shelf Pelagic Acoustic (WESPAS) survey.
“This is a dream sighting for a marine mammal observer,” Judge said. He explained that the creature would be nicknamed Orion – which had a personal meaning for Judge and his family.
“The individual humpback whale ‘Orion’ has been named after the Greek mythological hunter, since the whale was moving with the fish stocks for food. It is also my son’s middle name so fitting on both fronts,” Judge said.
He added that the team had also observed “a lot of feeding action from a multitude of cetacean species that day, including bottlenose, common, Risso’s and white-sided dolphins, grey seals and minke whales.”
To date, the IWDG has documented 112 individual humpback whales in Irish waters since 1999, many of which are recorded year after year. Humpback whales are frequent visitors to Irish waters as they are an ideal feeding area for humpback whales stopping off in the area on their migration across the Atlantic.
The beasts are identifiable thanks to the distinctive pattern on the underside, which is unique to every individual whale.
“Observing any apex predator in its natural environment is exciting but a new humpback whale for Irish waters, this is special,” WESPAS survey scientist, Ciaran O’Donnell of the Marine Institute said.
The Marine Institute’s WESPAS survey is carried out annually, and surveys shelf seas from France northwards to Scotland, and west of Ireland. WESPAS is the largest single vessel survey of its kind in the Northeast Atlantic, covering upwards of 60,000 nautical miles every summer. The survey is funded through the European Maritime Fisheries and Aquaculture Fund under the Data Collection Programme which is run by the Marine Institute.