On Substack, You Can Never Go Too Far

The popular newsletter service is changing the media business—and selling soap operas to people who think they’re above soap operas.

A soap-opera-style title card featuring an hourglass and the word "Substack"
Getty / The Atlantic

About the author: Helen Lewis is a London-based staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of Difficult Women: A History of Feminism in 11 Fights.

Normal people—with regular lives and real jobs—have soap operas and reality shows. People who are Extremely Online have Substack.

Over the past few months, the PR travails of the newsletter start-up have become a reliable source of media gossip. Jude Doyle is leaving! Grace Lavery has joined! Oh man, Matt Yglesias shouldn’t have taken that advance; he’d have made far more money purely from subscriptions!

Perhaps those names don’t mean anything to you. Why should they? Doyle has 43,000 Twitter followers, a fan base 20 times smaller than that of the Sarcastic Mars Rover parody account. Lavery is an English professor, an expert on Japanese Victoriana, and one-third of a Brooklyn throuple that also includes Daniel Lavery, who has a Substack named after William Shatner. (Together, the Laverys have received $555,000 in advances from the platform.) Yglesias was an old-school blogger, then co-founded Vox, and has now returned to his independent roots.

But for a certain subset of the American elite—a group of people who are concentrated in journalism, academia, and related fields; who are likely to be active on Twitter; and who have strong opinions on the 1619 Project and the ACLU’s Chase Strangio—following the lives of these people is what they do instead of watching General Hospital or The Bachelor. Many of the authors now showing up on Substack are known for fighting with journalists at other outlets, and one another. By supporting their newsletters, readers get endless feuds, dramatic exits, high-profile guest stars, ambitious crossover events, and compelling villains. Yes, Substack is selling soap operas to people who think they’re above soap operas.

This reveals a fundamental problem for modern journalism. Many readers love bullish, controversial superstars—and will pay serious money to follow their work—but legacy publications struggle to contain such figures. In a polarized media environment, editors face considerable pressure from advertisers, activist groups, politically engaged staff members, and purist readers to eject troublemakers and iconoclasts. Then, when the superstars go to independent platforms, newspapers and magazines lose the varied menu they once offered, ratcheting up polarization even further. The stars’ departures also risk driving a significant number of consumers (and their money) to Substack, which, despite its venture-capital funding, cannot support shoe-leather reporting, deep investigations, and FOIA requests—those fundamental checks on democracy that rarely drive clicks by the million.

Substack was founded in 2017, and has efficiently capitalized on both the attention economy and the desire for personality-led journalism. In a world awash with content, why not choose to hear only from people you trust, direct to your inbox? For writers—both big and small—Substack offers a clean interface, a reliable service, and a simple route to making money. You can have a free newsletter on the site and pay nothing, or you can charge for subscriptions, of which Substack takes a cut. (Disclosure: I have a free newsletter on Substack, where I post links to stuff I’ve read.) More controversially, Substack also has a “Pro” deal, in which select writers are offered advances in exchange for the majority of their subscription income for a fixed period while they build an audience.

Every so often, someone points out that the most popular individual writer on Substack is Heather Cox Richardson, a levelheaded historian who writes on American politics. One of my own favorite Substacks is the Common Reader, a nerdy literature newsletter. But these are not the newsletters that have made the service such a source of media gossip. The platform has achieved prominence as an emporium of internet beefs, a refuge for heterodox authors who have fallen out with their editors or run afoul of the prevailing ideology in their former newsrooms.

Here is one small but telling example. On March 10, Ryan Broderick, who has written independently since being fired from BuzzFeed for not properly crediting the sources of his work, attacked an “increasingly emboldened group of power users” on Substack. (He did this in his Substack newsletter, naturally.) One of his complaints was that Substack hosts writers whom Broderick considers transphobic, including not only Graham Linehan, who has mockingly posted photographs of transgender people and often disregards the pronouns that they use, but also mere dissenters from the liberal orthodoxy such as Jesse Singal, the author of a deeply researched and fact-checked Atlantic cover story on youth transition. After Broderick’s post appeared, the feminist author Jude Doyle said he could not stay on a platform with such writers. Substack responded by offering Doyle a Pro deal. He declined, and left for a rival service, Ghost. “You could pay me a quarter-million dollars,” Doyle wrote, “but I couldn’t use it to bring a single suicidal trans kid back to life.” Then, when it was revealed that Grace Lavery had accepted a Substack Pro deal for a publication called The Wazzock’s Review, Doyle criticized her for a lack of solidarity, saying the Laverys “were asked to help make Substack better for trans people and they chose instead to make themselves wealthier.”

Andrew Sullivan weighed in—did I mention he has a Substack?—as did Yglesias and Singal. (I don’t think Bari Weiss, who left the New York Times opinion section for Substack after saying the former was effectively edited by social-media mobs, said anything, so we should probably send someone over to check her Wi-Fi connection.) With grim inevitability, the Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Glenn Greenwald—a veteran of online flame wars since about the time human beings discovered fire—also got involved. Greenwald, who left The Intercept for Substack after an editing disagreement, unloaded his rhetorical cannon on Doyle, calling the latter’s allegations against the newsletter platform “deranged and pitiful” but full of “so much illustrative pathology about woke sickness that it’s almost worth it to wallow in.” In the midst of making a series of unsubstantiated allegations about Singal, Doyle then criticized Greenwald for having a much younger husband, which Doyle seemed to think was creepy.

The participants in these battles surely think they are advancing good causes, and perhaps they see this drama as merely an unfortunate diversion dragging them away from their real work. But can you be a successful writer in this environment and stay out of internet warfare? What are Substack’s most discussed writers really selling?

The dynamic they represent—personal feuds as professional marketing—is becoming an ever more important part of our media ecosystem. Everyone loves conflict, and sometimes the pettier, the better. To explain, let me describe to you some plotlines from the second season of The Sopranos, a drama regularly lauded as one of the greatest ever made. Richie Aprile, newly released from prison, wants to reclaim his place in the Mob. He gives Tony Soprano a leather jacket he treasures, and Tony gives it to his cleaner. Richie sees the jacket on the cleaner’s husband, and is deeply offended. He begins to run cocaine on Tony’s waste-disposal routes, angering Tony. (Did I mention Richie is engaged to Tony’s sister?) In the final episodes of the season, Tony orders a hit on Richie, but before it can be carried out, Tony’s sister shoots Richie during an argument, leaving Tony to order his lieutenants to feed Richie’s dead body into a meat grinder. Then Tony eats some dodgy curry and a talking fish tells him that one of his crew is collaborating with the FBI.

You get my point? Disagreements don’t have to be deeply intellectual to be compelling and enjoyable. The Substack wars are ostensibly about free speech and LGBTQ rights and “woke madness” and “cancel culture,” but quite a lot of the feuds are no more noble than Richie getting pissed that Tony didn’t appreciate the leather jacket he gave him. Some of this is about the unequal distribution of money and attention, and some of these people just don’t like one another. (Doyle and Greenwald have been antagonists since the former was a pro–Hillary Clinton scourge of Bernie bros.) Just like in the 94th season of a soap opera, the inciting incident for any particular Substack feud is usually lost in the mists of internet time, or hotly disputed by the participants. And because everyone involved is a self-regarding journalist, they will never admit, not even to themselves, that a healthy dose of performance is involved. Their deadly seriousness has the helpful side effect of allowing onlookers to pretend that their prurient love of online slap fights is actually a lively interest in current affairs.

Also, no one is losing here. Why would these intra-Substack fights end, when they are generating revenue for the writers involved, and for the platform itself? If you have the time, energy, and relentless appetite for conflict necessary to survive in this economy, there are literally millions of dunk dollars to be made. Portraying yourself as a martyr also helps. (I experienced this myself a few years ago, when a fellow journalist posted some weird, late-night sexist tweets about how everyone hated me, and what a terrible person I was. The sympathy of outraged onlookers translated directly into preorders for my book.) In a recent newsletter, Charlie Warzel, formerly of The New York Times, posted a graph of his paid-subscriber numbers after Greenwald dissed him. It was all up, up, up. Warzel’s annual income jumped by $14,000 that day, he told me, although these “rage subscriptions” made him feel dirty. “There’s a lot of people who subscribed to me as a ‘fuck you’ to Glenn Greenwald. Is that worth $65 a year?”

Last month, Singal tweeted that whenever he writes on transgender issues, it provokes an angry backlash on Twitter—and an uptick in subscribers. “One of my concerns about the silo-ization of everything is how the very blunt/visible financial incentives could drive people to just hit the same notes over and over and over,” he wrote. The key to a successful drama-based Substack offering, then, is to present yourself as a plucky warrior under attack from either the “censorious woke mob” or reactionary “harassment influencers.” You are the central character in this soap opera, and like any protagonist, your plotline is most dramatic when you have enemies to defeat.

Of course, a great deal of journalists’ energy has always been expended on arguing, implicitly or explicitly, with writers at other publications. Substack’s galaxy-brain innovation is to allow its contributors to profit directly from arguing with one another. We are looking at a perpetual-motion machine of internet beefs. No media loop has been this closed since the members of the intellectual dark web all went on one another’s podcasts to argue that we should be exposed to divergent opinions.

In some ways, Substack is less a new phenomenon than a revival of the unruly blogosphere of the early 2000s. In that period, The Atlantic was home to a cast of writers—including Sullivan, Yglesias, and Ta-Nehisi Coates—who jostled in public with little editorial supervision. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a bunch of other prominent Substackers were also blogging 15 years ago,” Yglesias told me. The success of Richardson’s measured newsletter suggested to him that the dunk economy is not the only viable financial model, although he added, “I do think the lifestyle tends to attract difficult personality types, and we get into fights with each other. But I wouldn’t mistake that for savvy decision making.”

In today’s more censorious media climate, Substack’s direct-subscription model gives individuals more latitude than they would receive elsewhere. Why don’t legacy publications adopt this model of letting contributors rip one another to shreds? (I mean, apart from the fact that editing a website composed only of opinion writers is something to which you would not be appointed, but sentenced.) Because if this sort of infighting happened at a traditional newspaper or magazine, one or another side would complain to the editor, who—like the weary parent of toddlers crying over a slice of birthday cake—would then feel obliged to rule on who started it and what the redress should be. Substack has entirely done away with this necessity by presenting itself (Facebook-like) as a platform rather than a publisher, despite backing certain writers with its Pro deals. Substack’s bosses have not booted Linehan off the platform, for example, arguing instead that subscriptions allow users to choose which writers they read and support. Caveat emptor. Outside the most egregious examples of harassment and hate speech, readers will decide the limits of what is acceptable.

The emergence of Substack has a positive side: This is how the free market is supposed to work. If readers find gaps in liberal publications’ coverage of, say, gender or critical race theory, then they can find those missing viewpoints in other places. If Glenn Greenwald doesn’t like how he is edited, he should be free to take the (successful) gamble that readers will enjoy his work at far greater length elsewhere. Yglesias said that since his initial flurry of self-promotion has died down, he now feels less pressured to chase clicks than when he was on the “viral content hamster wheel,” while Warzel said he was relieved to escape the lightning-rod atmosphere of The New York Times, where screenshots of his headlines and even offhand Twitter comments became “ammunition” for conservative commentators and politicians.

The creation of the Substack Cinematic Universe, however, is less good for public discourse. Linehan, who was banned from Twitter last year, has adopted a crueler tone since he moved to Substack, where he addresses an audience of sycophantic courtiers. The self-promotion-through-conflict model also requires writers to engage with, and be outraged by, online opponents—puffing them up, if necessary, into enemies worthy of righteous denunciation. Writers are motivated to follow their worst instincts, aware that every time they choose to write something nutritious but uncontroversial, their bottom line takes a hit. Greenwald is a brave reporter, standing up to both the National Security Agency and Brazil’s authoritarian government. But Substack does not have the infrastructure to handle the legal, ethical, and technological conundrums of an Edward Snowden–size scoop, and Greenwald risks going down in history not as a champion of truth, but as the emperor of beefs. Other writers have to choose consciously not to follow the perma-war path he and others have taken (I try, and sometimes fail). As Warzel wrote, “I’d love for my work to reach a huge audience and I hope it will. But I’m fine sacrificing some of that if it means not having to constantly fight and chase engagement, often by amplifying the people whose opinions I find shitty or straight up abhorrent.”

Last year, the blogger Venkatesh Rao described how the culture wars had created “a stable, endemic, background societal condition of continuous conflict.” Within this structure, highly charismatic knights clash with one another, spurred on by low-ranking armies of supporters: “a feudal structure, at the heart of which is an involuntarily anonymous, fungible, angry figure desperate to be seen as significant.” This is Substack’s final innovation: The soap opera is interactive. People use their dollars as a vote to keep their chosen knights on the board. The point is not to win—that’s impossible—but to keep playing. By its very nature, this structure does not encourage productive disagreement leading to resolution.

Just think. If the Extremely Online could only bring themselves to watch good, honest froth on television, everyone else could be spared all this. Have they not heard about Selling Sunset? In the meantime, you’ll have to excuse me. My book has just come out in paperback, so I’m off to call Glenn Greenwald a jerk.