Some thoughts on the Substack controversy
Pondering a series of bad choices
Since the revelation that Substack has been profiting from newsletters by white supremacists, Nazis, and other idiots and weirdos, a number of people have understandably decided that they no longer wish to subscribe to newsletters hosted here — including the work of writers they otherwise want to support.
I completely understand the sentiment. As he often does, Ken “Popehat” White pretty much sums up my own thinking about all of this. But here’s the short version of where I’m at: I’d be fine with using a platform that hosted horrible people as part of a general philosophy that was “we aren’t going to prohibit any content at all, except for the stuff that is clearly illegal.” This is what Substack claims to be doing.
I also think it’s true that, as Ken writes, once a platform starts prohibiting the worst people and the worst ideas, they’ve now established that they are willing to prohibit some content, which then opens them up to criticism and judgment about what content they continue to allow, and why they continue to allow it. So this is why I could buy into a “let everyone in” approach.
The problem is that Substack hasn’t been letting everyone in. They’ve been drawing lines all along. They do moderate some content — sex worker newsletters, for example — which makes it harder to swallow the argument that the decision to keep hosting newsletters by Nazis (yes — actual Nazis) is grounded in some purist devotion to free speech. As Mike Masnick writes, like it or not, once your bar starts allowing Nazis, you’re going to be known as the Nazi bar.
Similarly, once you ban consensual porn, nudity, or sex work while still allowing Nazism, it isn’t unfair to conclude that you find porn, nudity, and sex work more offensive than Nazism. And it’s perfectly reasonable to conclude that those are some pretty fucked up priorities.
Personally, I found the Substack brass’s decision to not just host, but actively promote and recommend a mainstream bigot like Richard Hanania more disappointing than merely hosting the racist stuff. And Substack’s explanation for that decision — the laughable, easily disprovable claim that Hanania’s bigotry was a youthful indiscretion that he has since denounced — wan’t just hopelessly naive, it was contemptuous of anyone they thought would buy it.
Here’s where it gets difficult: This newsletter is my primary source of income. And while the support I’ve received from readers has been immensely humbling and gratifying, I’m not yet in a position to easily jump platforms. Last summer, I had accumulated enough subscribers to make up about 90 percent of my salary when I left the Washington Post. That was incredibly gratifying and flattering, but it still wasn’t quite enough to put me where I was when I left, particularly when you factor in the self-employment tax (the extra 15 percent you pay the IRS for the privilege of not having a boss*). And it wasn’t enough to let me also hire an editor, as I had hoped.
(*Yes, I’m being facetious here. And I’m aware that this isn’t really an “extra” tax, it’s the employer half of payroll taxes, and that it was likely factored into my salary at the Post. Still hurts!)
Then, when the annual subscriptions started coming up for renewal in October, I lost another 15 percent of my income to credit card issues. These weren’t people who wanted to unsubscribe, they were people whose original cards expired, had been canceled, or otherwise no longer worked, and never got around to putting in a new card. Inertia, basically.
I’m of course not entitled to do what I love for a living. So my point here is not to complain. I’m immensely grateful and overwhelmed that I have the number of paid subscribers that I do. The point is that Substack is a well-established platform with a huge base of built-in readers. It’s stable, intuitive, and easy to use. And inside the Substack ecosystem, you consistently get referrals from the thousands of other Substack newsletters. Readers of other newsletters already have a payment method on file. So new readers referred from other newsletters can subscribe to yours with just a click.
So switching to another platform comes with some risk. No one else has that sort of built-in audience, so it will be more difficult to attract new subscribers. Newer, untested platforms could prove less user-friendly or less stable — more subject to bugs, glitches, and crashes. There’s also a risk I could lose a significant number of subscribers in the transition.
To lose too many more subscribers to these sorts of problems would make it more difficult to fund the longer, investigative pieces that I think make this site unique. To lose another 15 or 20 percent would probably mean I’d need to start looking for full-time employment elsewhere, which would likely be the end of this newsletter.
There’s also always the chance that whatever platform I switch to could later be revealed to have its own political issues, at which point we’d have to do this all over again. I’ve already stopped posting at Twitter (other than just to link to my work) because it started to feel dirty to contribute to what that site has become. But that decision itself meant abandoning a 120,000-user following I spent a decade building and starting from scratch on a new platform (I’m now using Bluesky). Facebook has become fairly useless for engagement on any content that isn’t hosted on Facebook. So the tools upon which I’ve relied upon for the last decade to promote my work have become increasingly useless. And that makes it all the more daunting to abandoned the only one that still seems to be working.
For these reasons, I’m going to continue using Substack, at least for now. But I was already looking into other options after the Hanania stuff, months before this latest blow-up. And I’ll continue to do so. But so far, I’ve yet to find a replacement with which I’m comfortable.
The best outcome would be for Substack to adopt a better policy. Perhaps they could donate the revenue they get from explicitly racist newsletters to causes that fight the destructive ideas those newsletters promote. Maybe they could just stop taking a cut from those newsletters altogether. But so far there’s no sign of that, or even that the controversy has done much harm to the company.
So far, I’ve personally lost about 35 subscribers who say they’ll no longer support any writer on Substack. That’s not an insignificant number. And I get it. I do. But I hope this post at least offers a little insight into what those of us who make a living from Substack are grappling with right now. It’s a difficult predicament.
In the meantime, here’s a suggestion for those of you who’d like to support writers and journalists who use Substack but don’t want your money going to the company itself:
We authors can give out complimentary subscriptions. So you might consider emailing the writers you want to support to ask if they’ll give you complimentary "paid subscription” status in exchange for a monthly or annual contribution via an outside payment processor like Venmo or PayPal.
I don’t paywall my posts, so the only extra you get from a paid subscription is the ability to comment (and I only do that as a way of keeping the comments civil and troll-free). My paid subscribers just want to support my work.
But if commenting is important to you, let me know and I’d be happy to help out if you’d prefer to support my work by other means.
But if you’d rather support my work in a different way, here’s my Venmo info: @Radley-Balko
And here’s my PayPal info (and primary email): @firstname.lastname@example.org
And as always, thank you for reading!