A growing number of Americans subscribe to a Substack newsletter. Most of the successful ones are written by well-known journalists who have left our rapidly disappearing newspapers and taken their reportorial skills or well-received punditry to Substack, where they can earn considerably more. (An exception is the much-read, much quoted Heather Cox Richardson, who is a historian and has gained an enormous and lucrative following by providing historic context for the various insanities of our day.)
A recent essay has addressed this movement to the newsletter format, focusing on the “celebrity” element involved, and the effect on traditional journalism.
These high-profile defections from legacy publications have roiled the media world this year, posing a threat to more traditional publishing models. But Substack also sits at the nexus of deeper concerns about American culture: our individualistic view of work, the massive rewards that accrue to highflyers, and our willingness to invest ourselves in one-way relationships with public figures. Together, these concerns coalesce into a question: Should the people we rely on to inform us be celebrities?…
As is true across Internet culture, a writer who wants to make good money through Substack must become an influencer. Even if journalists have made their names with the assistance of rarely seen editors, fact checkers, and photographers, their personal brands are what entice fans to sign up for their newsletters. By helping writers monetize their bylines, Substack maintains the fiction that writing––or any profession, for that matter—is a solitary pursuit. Because subscribers pay writers directly, they cut around all the labor that makes good journalism possible. It’s like going to see your favorite actors perform, but with no stage manager, costume shop, or lighting crew.
These are absolutely valid concerns, but I have a different one.
I have posted several times about the unifying impact of “legacy” newspapers and other forms of genuinely mass media. Here in Indianapolis, even though we have never had anything approaching a truly first-rate daily newspaper, citizens saw the same headlines, read the same stories (if they did read past the headlines) and occupied a more-or-less common reality. Even when they disagreed with what they were reading, they were arguing about the same information.
The Internet has pretty well destroyed that common reality–and Substack, with its highly individualized approach to “news” is eroding it further. Just choose the “celebrity journalists” who share your general worldview and confirm your biases, and get your “news” straight from him or her.
Want evidence that the election was rigged, just like Trump said? Or would you prefer to read about the investigations into Trump’s fraudulent business practices, and the fact that Eric Trump “took the fifth” five hundred times during a deposition? Maybe you aren’t really interested in the imminent demise of American democracy, and ignore political news entirely, choosing to follow Kardasians and other chosen “influencers.”
It’s the balkanization of evidence and information, and it leads to–or at least supports– the divisiveness and polarization that threaten to take America down.
On the plus side, as we struggle to revive a common information environment, there is some promising news on the newspaper front, in what might be a new model for the industry.
In an unusual merger that some hope could serve as a national model to preserve local journalism, Chicago’s NPR station plans to acquire one of the city’s major daily newspapers.
On Tuesday, the board of directors for Chicago Public Media, the umbrella organization for WBEZ, approved moving forward with the acquisition of the Chicago Sun-Times. The deal is expected to be complete by Jan. 31.
Chicago is one of the nation’s largest media markets, and WBEZ — which started in the 1940s as an arm of the Chicago Board of Education — is where some of public radio’s most notable programs were formed, including “This American Life,” “Wait, Wait … Don’t Tell Me” and “Serial.”
The Sun-Times has also been publishing since the 1940s. It is known as much for its hard-hitting tabloid-like coverage as its eight Pulitzer prizes — and being the longtime home of celebrated film critic Roger Ebert. Lately, however, it has endured the same financial tumult as many other local newspapers.
One observer quoted in the story called the acquisition “a landmark deal in American local media,” and noted that it will allow the paper to access financial backing from local foundations. “This approach has worked well in Philadelphia and is off to a promising start in Chicago,” he said.
I keep reminding myself that we are in an era of transition, and that–eventually–these changes will “shake out” into a new news environment. The best-case scenario will create a generally-accepted reality enriched–but not dominated– by newsletters, blogs and internet sites.
We can only hope…..