Law in the Internet Society

Substack and the Future of Journalism

-- By BenWeissler - 20 Nov 2020 // 2nd draft 4 Jan 2021

The Times, They Are A-Changin'

News media in the late 19th and 20th centuries developed under a certain set of conditions. Journalism during that era was a costly, capital intensive enterprise: foreign bureaus, expensive telegraphy / newswire networks, printing plants and raw material inputs, and vast distribution networks to get newspaper from plants into readers’ hands. The internet and zero-marginal-cost distribution of digital goods changed all that, sweeping aside those historical conditions and rendering the old modes of production and distribution obsolete.

Much of the turbulence in news media over the last twenty years is the continuing fallout from that change. Most media organizations responded to the internet by embracing (or more charitably, capitulating to) an advertising-based “surveillance capitalism” model. They have lived and died by this model’s dictates: an insatiable need for eyeballs; listicles and other junk keyed to go viral; and a dangerous dependence on social media platforms to generate traffic. As a result, most news today is buried under a mountain of ads and spyware, both metaphorically and literally. A few “national brands” (NYT, WaPo) have managed to thrive and are tacking back into a digital paywall / subscription strategy, all while local journalism undergoes a mass extinction-level event.

In the midst of this ferment, the meteoric rise of Substack, a newsletter company, has occasioned some introspection about the future of journalism. Substack is facilitating the disintermediation of traditional news publishers, and that warrants careful attention; in a way, the direct connection of reader and writer is the long-heralded “disruptive” potential of the internet finally coming to fruition on journalism's doorstep.

What It Takes to Break a Story

The creation and distribution of news — that is, timely information about what is happening and how to understand its implications — is a complicated undertaking. This remains true, even when news is a bitstream rather than a physical newspaper. Can alternative models of journalism, whether fully “anarchist” in nature or “disintermediated” la Substack, ever accomplish what the New York Times does every single day?

Before turning to this question, it is necessary to dwell on some features (social and economic) of newsmaking which make it a tough nut to crack:

  • Coordination issues: News requires a large team of collaborators, especially in the case of original reporting vs. “personal” writing (commentary and the like). The newsroom of yore provided journalists with a range of different services, both front-office and back-office. Some of these services (health care, legal protection) can more easily be unbundled and provided to standalone writers, while others (fact checking, copy editing) are more bespoke and harder to pool.
  • Temporal issues / delayed gratification: “shoe-leather” reporting can take lots of time (months) and lots of deep investigation to develop. Writers of course need a living income during this fallow period. What is needed, then, is a way of inducing readers to continue paying writers for work when the “payoff” lies far in the future (or indeed, when the reporting is a deadend and the payoff is destined to never arrive).
    • On the other end of the temporal spectrum, fast-breaking news presents its own coordination and payoff problems. Stale news, even when it is only one day behind, is dramatically less valuable than fresh news.
  • Professionalism: covering big national stories requires full-time dedication to the journalistic enterprise and a wealth of journalistic experience (if not formal training). While “citizen journalists” can — and should — help extend news coverage to local matters, national stories (and unfortunately, access journalism) depend on the Maggie Habermans of the world. (Moreover, so long as, e.g., the White House press pool requires formal credentials, we shouldn’t expect professionalism to decline in any material way.)
  • Talent development: new writers need an environment of support and apprenticeship to launch their careers. The “disintermediated” Substack model complicates this: established writers who attract large audiences of paying readers can afford to strike out on their own, while newer writers who are still building their reputations cannot support themselves this way.

One takeaway from the above is how collaboration and collectivization provide a solution to these problems. If collectivized, writers can easily work on big stories with each other. Collectivization also means that writers can bundle their work, so that readers receive a continuous stream of news they are willing to pay for (even as individual writers put in the months of legwork needed to track down a story). Collectivized environments also make the development of professionalism and talent more likely.

Is Substack the Answer?

The presently existing alternative models of journalism — whether anarchic or “disintermediated” — are only partially responsive to the demands of newsmaking outlined above. As such, the ability of these alternatives to truly reshape journalism is limited, at least until further changes are made.

Wikinews (a sister project to Wikipedia) is an admirable attempt at “anarchic” journalism, but its failures demonstrate the limitations of this model. Wikinews is written by a corps of unpaid amateur writers (with weak credentialing). With no semblance of professionalism or talent development, the results are predictably weak: Wikinews’s original reporting publishes a rather anemic collection of 3-5 articles per month, often of low quality and niche interest.

The disintermediated model (Substack) — a mixture of professional and semi-professional writers cultivating direct relationships with paying readers — has some promise to it, and the provisioning of “institutional” services (like health care and legal protection) to writers is one key to Substack’s apparent success. As many have noted, Substack seems particularly well suited to “personal writing” and commentary. But Substack, as currently composed, will never deliver great original reporting so long as it is oriented toward lone writers rather that collaborative / collective work. Seen in that light, the fact that "few of Substack's newsletters publish original reporting" is less a temporary embarrassment of the platform than an intrinsic limitation of its individualistic model.

Of course, the choice is not really a simplistic one between Wikinews and Substack on the one hand, and the New York Times on the other. Other models, like the non-profit newsroom will have an important role to play. (ProPublica comes to mind as a non-profit doing impressive journalism, albeit one that’s been forced to incorporate advertising.) Nor is it even really a “choice” to begin with. There is no reason to expect that conventional news publishers will simply die off, nor should they. Certain of them have built up large reservoirs of public trust and have carved out hallowed positions in our cultural-political understanding (e.g., “paper of record,” “The Gray Lady”) — all that will not disappear overnight.

In a way, all of this has happened before and will happen again. The built-in advantages that FOSS enjoys over non-anarchic software has not meant that propertarian-based software goes away outright. A burgeoning music scene based on self-recording and self-release does not immediately drive a stake through the records labels’ hearts. Coexistence is the name of the game, in software, music, and journalism. The flourishing of alternative models, like Substack, is a welcome development even if those alternatives do not immediately revolutionize the news industry.


 

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r5 - 04 Jan 2021 - 21:14:44 - BenWeissler
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