Since launching in 2017, Substack has been touting itself as a “better future for news.” Their offering was simple: email newsletters with an option for subscribers to pay monthly fees for content – like Netflix for newsletters.
If you have something to write and a list of emails of people who want to read it, the thinking goes, there is nothing stopping you from making a living on your own. With a healthy Substack email list, freelancers are no longer beholden to flakey editors; staff reporters no longer have to be insecure about layoffs; small media companies no longer anxious about a tweak to an algorithm that would send them into oblivion.
All that the company asks for in return? A 10% cut of subscription dollars.
Substack’s vision is proving enticing. In the past 12 months, several high-profile journalists and writers have left jobs to go it alone with Substack: the New York Times’ Charlie Warzel, Vox’s Matthew Yglesias, New York Magazine’s Heather Havrilesky.
The number of poets, essayists, hobbyists, cooks, advice-givers, spiritual guides who charge a modest amount for their newsletters is growing. In a year when US media lost thousands of newsroom jobs, the company emerged as a seemingly viable alternative for journalists and writers to earn money. But then, over the past months, several revelations about Substack’s policies have led many to question whether it ought to be entrusted with crafting a vision for the future of news.
The controversy began in response to reports that the company was luring writers to the platform through a program called Substack Pro, which offered lump sums of money – as much as $250,000 – for writers to leave their jobs and take up newsletter writing. Some writers were also offered access to editors, health insurance, and a legal defender program.
On the face of it, Substack Pro was simply offering writers the benefits that usually come with full-time employment. But the program was seen as controversial for a number of reasons.
To begin, the cohort of writers selected by the company remained undisclosed. This created an invisible tiered system dividing those who were actively supported, and those who were taking a risk in trying to build their own subscriber base.
According to journalist Annalee Newitz, this made Substack into something of a pyramid scheme. Some anonymous writers were destined to succeed while the vast majority were providing Substack with free content, hoping to one day be able to monetize. As New York Times columnist Ben Smith put it, Substack was surreptitiously making some writers rich and turning others into “the content-creation equivalent of Uber drivers.”
The second and perhaps more fundamental problem with Substack Pro was that it contravened the company’s claims to editorial neutrality. Since launching, Substack has insisted that it is not a media company but a software company that builds tools to help writers publish newsletters, the content of which was none of their business —like a printing press for the digital age. This differentiated the company from social media platforms, which organize content algorithmically to increase engagement, and media companies, which make active editorial decisions about what they publish.
In reality, though, Substack was doing both. They were using metrics from Twitter to identify writers with a proven ability to draw attention to themselves, and then actively poaching them. Substack’s founders, a journalist and two developers, said they wanted to provide an alternative to the instability of digital media companies and the toxicity of social media platforms. And yet, the company was actively choosing writers who had come to prominence through those channels.
Substack was, in other words, skimming the fat off the top of what they called a toxic media environment all while claiming to offer an alternative. In the process, the company inherited some of digital media’s most trenchant issues. After it was revealed that Substack Pro had signed controversial writers Glenn Greenwald and Jesse Singal, a number of Substack writers voiced their opposition. Substack tried to avoid accountability for their selections by maintaining a veneer of neutrality, claiming to merely be a platform not a publisher. They were trying to have their media cake and eat it, too.
The revelations about Substack Pro led to a broader conversation about the company’s content moderation policies. At the very end of last year the company clarified their position: no porn. No spam. No doxxing or harassment. No attacks on people based on race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sex, gender, sexual orientation, age, disability, medical condition. But the company also took the opportunity to assert their commitment to free speech. “We believe dissent and debate is important,” co-founder Hamish McKenzie wrote. “We celebrate nonconformity.”
Some saw this a welcoming invitation in what they perceive as an increasingly “woke” media landscape. Dana Loesch, the former NRA spokesperson, moved her newsletter from Mailchimp to Substack, claiming that the former “deplatforms conservatives.” Writer Andrew Sullivan, who has been criticized for his views on race and IQ, moved his column from New York Magazine over to the newsletter format.
For others, though, Substack’s position on content moderation was alienating, demonstrating that the company had little interest in actively addressing some of the thorny questions about how to host healthy media communities online. Many have decided to leave and take their newsletters, and their email lists, elsewhere.
Of course, Substack Pro represents only a very small proportion of people using the platform to write. Most write brief letters for micro-communities from whom they ask for no payment. There is an intimacy in the newsletter format that is not available on social media. I love receiving the poet and essayist Anne Boyer’s meditations in my inbox every now and then. Likewise the occasional musings and book recommendations from writer and critic Joanne McNeil.
Substack does have an interest in helping these smaller-scale writers level up to taking payment from subscribers, though. Every dollar earned by a writer on the platform contributes to their revenue. For this reason, they have offered no-strings-attached grants, between $500 and $5,000 in cash, to help writers take more time to commit to building an audience.
The concept of creators earning money directly from a cohort of followers is certainly not new; Patreon, OnlyFans, Cameo, Clubhouse all work from a similar paradigm. Digital media might be moving away from a model where creators toil for free, trying to accumulate as many followers as possible and somehow earning a living through ad-revenue or product placement. We seem, rather, to approaching what Kevin Kelly calls the 1,000 true fans principle: if you find 1,000 people who will pay you for what you create, you can make a living as an independent creator.
But the company wants to do more: they want to be the future of news. In this quest, the company has become the nexus for bigger questions that will define the future of digital media. What is the line between a journalist and an influencer? Are readers consumers or fans? How do we create a shared sense of reality in a media landscape comprised mostly of individual writers and their loyal followers?
Despite the controversy, Substack will be part of this conversation.
A non-fungible token (NFT) marketplace has introduced policies to ban insider trading, after an executive at the company was discovered to be buying artworks shortly before they were promoted on the site’s front page.
OpenSea, one of the leading sites for trading the digital assets, will now prevent team members buying or selling from featured collections and from using confidential information to trade NFTs. Neither practice was previously banned.
“Yesterday we learned that one of our employees purchased items that they knew were set to display on our front page before they appeared there publicly,” said Devin Finzer, the co-founder and chief executive of the site.
“This is incredibly disappointing. We want to be clear that this behaviour does not represent our values as a team. We are taking this very seriously and are conducting an immediate and thorough third-party review of this incident so that we have a full understanding of the facts and additional steps we need to take.”
NFTs are digital assets whose ownership is recorded and traced using a bitcoin-style blockchain. The NFT market boomed earlier this year as celebrities including Grimes, Andy Murray and Sir Tim Berners-Lee sold collectibles and artworks using the format. But the underlying technology has questionable utility, with some dismissing the field as a purely speculative bubble.
The insider trading came to light thanks to the public nature of the Ethereum blockchain, on which most NFT trades occur. Crypto traders noticed that an anonymous user was regularly buying items from the public marketplace shortly before they were promoted on the site’s front page, a prestigious slot that often brings significant interest from would-be buyers. The anonymous user would then sell the assets on, making vast sums in a matter of hours.
One trade, for instance, saw an artwork called Spectrum of a Ramenification Theory bought for about £600. It was then advertised on the front page and sold on for $4,000 a few hours later.
One Twitter user, ZuwuTV, linked the transactions to the public wallet of Nate Chastain, OpenSea’s head of product, demonstrating, using public records, that the profits from the trades were sent back to a wallet owned by Chastain.
While some, including ZuwuTV, described the process as “insider trading”, the loosely regulated market for NFTs has few restrictions on what participants can do. Some critics argue that even that terminology demonstrates that the sector is more about speculation than creativity.
“The fact that people are responding to this as insider trading shows that this is securities trading (or just gambling), not something designed to support artists,” said Anil Dash, the chief executive of the software company Glitch. “There are no similar public statements when artists get ripped off on the platform.
“If Etsy employees bought featured products from creators on their platform (or Patreon or Kickstarter workers backed new creators etc) that’d be great! Nobody would balk. Because they’d be supporting their goal,” Dash added.
Sir Clive Sinclair died on Thursday at home in London after a long illness, his family said today. He was 81.
The British entrepreneur is perhaps best known for launching the ZX range of 8-bit microcomputers, which helped bring computing, games, and programming into UK homes in the 1980s, at least. This included the ZX80, said to be the UK’s first mass-market home computer for under £100, the ZX81, and the trusty ZX Spectrum. A whole generation grew up in Britain mastering coding on these kinds of systems in their bedrooms.
And before all that, Sir Clive founded Sinclair Radionics, which produced amplifiers, calculators, and watches, and was a forerunner to his Spectrum-making Sinclair Research. The tech pioneer, who eventually sold his computing biz to Amstrad, was knighted during his computing heyday, in 1983.
“He was a rather amazing person,” his daughter, Belinda Sinclair, 57, told The Guardian this evening. “Of course, he was so clever and he was always interested in everything. My daughter and her husband are engineers so he’d be chatting engineering with them.”
Sir Clive is survived by Belinda, his sons, Crispin and Bartholomew, aged 55 and 52 respectively, five grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren. ®
‘AI tech can have negative, even catastrophic, effects if they are used without sufficient regard to how they affect people’s human rights.’
The UN’s human rights chief Michelle Bachelet called for a moratorium on the sale and use of artificial intelligence technology until safeguards are put in place to prevent potential human rights violations.
Bachelet made the appeal on Wednesday (15 September) to accompany a report released by the UN’s Human Rights Office, which analysed how AI systems affect people’s right to privacy. The violation of their privacy rights had knock-on impacts on other rights such as rights to health, education and freedom of movement, the report found.
“Artificial intelligence can be a force for good, helping societies overcome some of the great challenges of our times. But AI technologies can have negative, even catastrophic, effects if they are used without sufficient regard to how they affect people’s human rights,” Bachelet said.
“Artificial intelligence now reaches into almost every corner of our physical and mental lives and even emotional states,” Bachelet added.
The report was critical of justice systems which had made wrongful arrests because of flawed facial recognition tools. It appealed to countries to ban any AI tools which did not meet international human rights standards. A 2019 study from the UK found that 81pc of suspects flagged by the facial recognition technology used by London’s Metropolitan Police force were innocent.
Bachelet also highlighted the report’s concerns on the future use of data once it has been collected and stored, calling it “one of the most urgent human rights questions we face.”
The UN’s report echoes previous appeals made by European data protection regulators.
The European Data Protection Board (EDPB) and the European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS) called for a ban on facial recognition in public places in June. They urged EU lawmakers to consider banning the use of such technology in public spaces, after the European Commission released its proposed regulations on the matter.
The EU’s proposed regulations did not recommend an outright ban. The commission instead emphasised the importance of creating “trustworthy AI.”