Substack: A New Platform for Free Speech?

Written by: Julie

Edited by: Chris

Visual by: Summer

Substack is an online platform developed in 2017 that allows individuals to publish and garner income from newsletters and other forms of journalism. Founded by Chris Best, Hamish McKenzie, and Jairaj Seth, the platform aims to eliminate the plights of modern corporate journalism and allow writers to directly monetize work that only they have a hand in producing. While the initial response to Substack was overwhelmingly positive, the platform has since been surrounded by controversy and criticisms for a variety of editorial decisions. Since the rise of social media and consumer culture, pure journalism has been dying out, being replaced with clickbait and false news, among other things. With the average attention span decreasing, the spread of information begins to evolve — leading to a rise in  provocative half-truths in everything from newspapers to “retweets,” all tailored for quick consumption. With unfair wages stemming from management issues and the capitalistic motives of many major news outlets, it’s no surprise that  journalists have been moving to Substack and taking their audience with them.

Popular creators on Substack include whistleblower Edward Snowden and author Matt Taibi. Snowden has utilized the platform to continue his well-known exploration into technological surveillance and analysis of current events. His content ranges from pieces on worryingly intrusive software in Apple products to the treatment of fellow whistleblower Julian Assange, and even personal accounts of his experiences following the September 11th attacks. Taibi pursues similar endeavors, using his Substack newsletter to investigate developments involving the ongoing global pandemic and the rising tensions surrounding Ukraine. 

While it is true that Substack is potentially revolutionizing the future of journalism, the idea behind it isn’t anything original. The platform is simply a product of the new culture of consumerism shifting towards giving individuals opportunities  to generate their own income — or so it seems. Comparable to OnlyFans, a subscription-based platform that allows creators, especially those in the adult industry, to monetise their content, Substack allows journalists to earn six figures and publish their newsletters without being associated with an outside news outlet. While this supposedly transfers power away from large companies and to the individuals who actually perform the labor, this unfortunately only works in theory. Substack takes 10% of all income generated, and even more concerningly, the editorial team at Substack have the power to control the spread of information based on their own personal agendas. 

Recently, Substack has been surrounded by a controversy in which the editorial has been allegedly pushing an anti-transgender agenda, giving massive support and featuring prominent writers with anti-trans voices on the platform. The team was critisized for not taking any action even when transgender women on the platform became subject to doxxing, and even more so after it was revealed that the company earned substantial revenue during the peak of the controversy due to increased traction on the platform. Substack should have moderated the comment section and responded to the controversy, neither of which they have done yet, indirectly supporting the controversy and the allegations. While freedom of speech is important in journalism, it should be moderated to protect individuals and vulnerable minority groups. 

However, this isn’t to say the impact of Substack has been all detrimental. The platform, regardless of its controversies, has allowed hundreds of journalists to generate income, incomparable to their salary at their previous news outlet jobs, bringing in journalists from the New Yorker, Buzzfeed, The Rolling Stone, to name a few. Only time can reveal how Substack will continue to evolve, and whether its benefits will outweigh its potential flaws.