Traditional media has produced yet another anti-Substack piece, this time by Helen Lewis in The Atlantic. Lewis’s take is that Substack is monetizing internet drama, giving writers free rein to start beefs that fickle readers will reward with cash. Against this, she poses… traditional media, which as anyone can tell you never sees petty bitchiness between writers, nor publications cynically exploiting that dynamic for clicks. Nope, never.
I benefitted immensely from precisely the dynamics Lewis describes in my work as a freelance writer for legacy publications. I’d get in some stupid internet drama about what I wrote (never fully intentionally, never explicitly for professional gain, but never unaware of the likely consequences either) and the whole profession would say I was a worthless loser and at the end of it there would be an email from an editor in my inbox saying “come write for us.” Like clockwork. Was I a successful writer in traditional media? Not my place to say, I guess, but I wrote for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, Harper’s, The New Republic, Foreign Policy, Politico, Playboy, n+1, and a couple dozen I’m forgetting. I got those opportunities because I can write. But I got noticed enough to get people aware of my writing because of the stupid internet feuds that Lewis pretends traditional media disdains. It’s the same exact dynamic. Is it good? Probably not. Is it something traditional media can criticize without hypocrisy? No. Media people just look down their nose at the platform where it’s happening now. Substack people aren’t even on Slack, those uncultured apes!
This notion of cynical profit-seeking is being applied very selectively, these days. Substack’s supposed cynicism, and the supposed cynicism of being anti-cancel culture, are never meaningfully posed against a less cynical traditional media or woke culture. That would be absurd because those cultures are profoundly cynically motivated. (The notion that someone would look at the current incentives in media and say “my best financial interest lies in being anti woke” is absurd.) Look, I care about the integrity of my work too, but can we stop pretending we’re writing the Holy fucking Koran here? This is a business. You’re selling a product in a market. You generate publicity however you can. Cynical? I think yet another “Harry Potter podcast, but from a social justice perspective” is as cynical as it gets. I think “These Three Tik Toks Explain 21st Century Gender Norms” is cynical. We’re all self-interested so we define cynicism however we would like. You don’t like the writing that gets sold on Substack, cool, write better shit and sell it to more people. That’s it, that’s your mandate. Write better that the stuff you don’t like, if you’ve got the chops. The rest is crying because not everybody had to play by the same dumb rules you did.