Opinion | Is the Rise of the Substack Economy Bad for Democracy?

Taibbi locates the origins of this betrayal in the lead-up to the Iraq war, when mainstream news organizations credulously reported the George W. Bush administration’s false claims about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. “It was bad enough when the traditional newsrooms Roberts so esteems near-universally swallowed the W.M.D. lie, but the real kicker was when the worst offenders in that episode were promoted, and given the helm at major magazines and journalistic supertankers like The Times,” Taibbi writes.

There’s good reason to believe that a more diverse press could puncture such bubbles of false consensus. Socolow, for instance, cites I.F. Stone, a muckraker who began self-publishing his own subscription-based newsletter in the early 1950s. “His skeptical reporting on the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident, questioning the idea of an unprovoked North Vietnamese naval attack, for example, challenged the U.S. government’s official story, and was later vindicated as more accurate than comparable reportage produced by larger news organizations,” Socolow explains. More recently, the proliferation of social media and newsletter platforms has allowed independent writers to challenge groupthink around Covid-19 within parts of the professional press.

But perhaps the most valuable function of the paid newsletter is to remind people that journalism costs money. “Web surfing made us forget this,” Socolow writes. “If Substack can help correct this misapprehension, and ensure that journalists are properly remunerated for their labor, it could help remedy our damaged news environment, which is riddled with misinformation.”

Tech companies may be betting big on the subscription journalism model, but it’s not clear how much of a market for it there really is. “From the consumer side, the proposition is scattered at best,” Hannah Kahlert writes at MIDiA Research. “To be successful, and before it can offer brand partners an audience, the Bulletin rollout will have to build that audience by providing something they cannot find elsewhere — and there are many, many email newsletters on the market, most far more tailored to niche audiences and perspectives than the mainstream considerations of Facebook will likely be able to afford.”

If newsletters remain primarily a form for commentary, the model could soon run into the same problems as the rest of the journalism industry. “Honestly, there are a lot of people out there who do good opinion writing,” Bill Grueskin, a professor at Columbia Journalism School, told Slate. “If anything, the supply exceeds the demand.”

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