Matt Gurney: Actually, journalists, you aren't serfs who owe your toil to some feudal lord
If you don't understand why journalists are fleeing to Substack, you haven't been paying attention. (Hint: It's not greed.)
It wasn't long ago that Jen Gerson and I wrote damn similar columns within days of each other. She was writing here, at The Line, and I was writing at my personal blog, Code 47. We both discussed Substack, the digital publishing company you’re reading at this very moment — The Line is currently hosted on Substack.
Or, if you prefer, Substack is a "a dangerous direct threat to traditional news media" and "a threat to journalism."
That is the view of Dr. Sarah T. Roberts, a professor of information studies at UCLA, who unloaded on Substack (and some of those who use it) in a recent Twitter thread. You can read it here, and should, but for our purposes, Roberts argues that Substack is bad because it lets journalists who have come up through the traditional newsroom system bail on it, stop bothering with the trouble of an editor, "cash out" on the reputation they earned in newsrooms, and transform themselves from a "journalist" to that vastly lower order of life, "an opinion writer, at best." Ouch!
Roberts makes an explicit appeal to her Twitter followers: do not pay for Substack content. Do not write for Substack. (She does carve out exceptions for purely personal blogs on trivial topics.) But Substack as a journalism venture is, in her view, "incredibly dangerous and damaging" to "one of the few failsafes against anti-democratic maneuvers … We really can’t afford to lose [journalism] right now."
This is my summary of what she said — perhaps she'd quibble with it, which is why I'm encouraging you, all of you, to go read her original thread. Get it in her own words and judge for yourself if I’ve been fair.
Assuming I’ve passed your muster, like, yikes. Where to start?
Roberts is, of course, as entitled to her views as any one, and if she hates Substack with a fiery passion, that's totally fine. And I think there is some truth to her argument, as Jen and I both noted in our earlier pieces: there no doubt are some people with big profiles, who built those profiles working for traditional newsrooms, who will bail on that job to go make money — maybe lots of money! — on Substack. This is a threat to legacy media organizations, who are more reliant than ever on a few key contributors, who serve not only as click magnets, but also human avatars of an outlet’s brand. Roberts' argument is on the money here.
But the sum of what she left out of her argument is so gigantic that it practically warrants a Substack of its own.
The overriding failure of Roberts' position is the suggestion that individuals who've been successful in media somehow owe the legacy media outlets their undying fealty, in some permanent career version of dancing with the one who brung ya, or at least someone interchangeable with the one who brung ya. How else to explain Roberts' apparent disdain for those who "cash out" to go make bucks without an editor? This is fantastically wrongheaded and, to borrow from Roberts, a "dangerous direct threat" to many people working in media today. You should respect your employers, but you should not be blindly loyal to them. They won't be loyal to you — not because the bosses aren't nice people (most of them honestly are), but because journalism is a business, and a dying one.
There’s no reason to go into all of that again — The Line explained the economic woes of the traditional journalism industry just weeks ago. I have nothing to add to that. But Roberts’ comments cannot be separated from this context: Substack (and other similar venues, should they form) isn’t some magical elevator to superstardom for a few famous journalists crass enough to take the ride. For thousands of journos trying to make good on the month’s bills, Substack is a possible lifeboat, a way to continue practicing their craft as best they can without taking a job in PR or comms. A laid-off journalist, or one who concludes that journalism cannot provide the job security they need to start a family, for instance, or even actually retire some day, doesn’t have a ton of options beyond “bail on journalism” or “stick it out and hope to be spared.” Substack gives them one more — an option, I stress, not a guarantee.
What is Roberts offering other than scorn?
Has she not noticed what’s happening out there? When I first began writing this column last week — yeah, it took a while, there's a lot going on, OK? — I told Jen that I'd recap some of the brutal stories we've had in recent years of journalists being treated like absolute garbage by their (former) employers. "I'll do a greatest hits," I assured her. But on Tuesday afternoon, that became superfluous when BuzzFeed, the new owner (as of just a few weeks ago) of HuffPost, dragged HuffPost Canada out behind the barn and shot it. The entire site has been turned into an archive, the entire staff reportedly let go. There were broader cutbacks across the whole HuffPost organization, including layoffs in their U.S. operations, and it didn't take long for staff there to begin tweeting about the astonishingly callous way their terminations were handled.
This is the most recent such story, but it's not the only one. The legacy media companies do stuff like this with depressing regularity; indeed, often the best you can hope for in this biz is to be laid off nicely instead of cruelly.
And Roberts thinks journalists somehow owe their blood and toil to this?
There's a more basic problem with her position, which is that all of us are our own people, and should never hesitate to pursue opportunities that suit our lifestyles, when possible. (And I of course grant that it won’t be possible for all, particularly those just trying to get established in their careers.) If for some, your best bet is sticking with a legacy company, well, by all means, please do so, as long as they can afford to keep you. For others, if that means striking out on your own, with a Substack or a podcast or something else, well, good luck to you. Make the best call you can for yourself, and not for what someone else thinks society needs you to do. It’s strange that this need be said, but colleagues: you don’t owe me or anyone else a life of stress, low wages and precarious employment.
What Roberts is proposing, meanwhile, is a weird form of journalism serfdom, where your labour is owned by some feudal lord in the C-suite who’ll throw you off the land the moment it’s prudent to do so. Even for those who've earned enough of a loyal fanbase to possibly escape and be their own boss, Roberts seems to be believe that they owe it to … someone, I guess, but it's not entirely clear whom, to stick around and just keep grinding it out in increasingly uncertain job.
Because democracy, or something.
There's another missing piece that Roberts completely ignores: many of these legacy orgs are increasingly miserable places to work. I was blessed to spend most of my career with the National Post, which has a reputation for being a pleasantly non-miserable place to work. But the collision of the horrific fiscal picture and culture-war polarization are now sapping what little fun there ever was from journalism. There are days I'm amazed that anyone has hung on this long. I can think of little explanation other than path dependency. It ain’t the pay or the work-life balance folks, believe me.
Roberts isn’t entirely wrong. I don’t think Substack alone is the future. This platform could suddenly change directions, or simply go bust, stranding those who’d sought its safety. Roberts is also right that most of the best journalism involves collaboration, the advice of colleagues and the deft hand of editors.
But that’s the problem, right? The collapse of traditional media, and even the newer digital successors like HuffPost, is gutting that model. Most journalists won’t survive this transition; they’ll have to go do something else. For those who seek another path, Substack is an option — not a perfect one, but it’s something. And, of course, there’s nothing about Substack that mandates it only be used by solo big shots. The Line is just one example of an alternate path: an attempt to recreate the best of the newsroom experience without the economic dysfunction.
And it’s strange that Roberts overlooked that, because it’s an enormous part of the puzzle — those that can are choosing to leave for a reason, and it ain’t all greed and the naughty thrill of writing without an editor.
Substack didn’t create the crisis flattening modern journalism, which has been unfolding slowly for years. It won’t solve the crisis, either, but let’s not get ourselves confused here. The problem with journalism today isn’t that successful journalists are deciding they want to strike out on their own. It’s that the revenue collapse is killing the industry, and making what’s left of it a terrible place to work for those still trying to cling on. Until you actually get what the problem is, you don’t have a chance in hell of suggesting a way to solve it. Roberts, alas, doesn’t get it.
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