Substack, The New York Times, and Nuance

Substack, The New York Times, and Nuance
Photo by camilo jimenez / Unsplash

While everyone has been up in arms about Elon Musk and the Twitter takeover, I wanted to talk about something else from this past week.

I have been reading up on a new tiff between Substack and The New York Times that I feel essentially is a tit for tat shouting match. However, this quarrel has made me think about nuance, publications, and whether I am part of the problem or not.

The Article

Tiffany Hsu, a writer for The New York Times, wrote an article that many called a “hit piece,” claiming Substack is dealing with “growing pains” in gaining new streams of revenue and an “exodus” of writers leaving amid controversies. By recruiting writers from major publications, expressing a primarily hands-off approach to content moderation, and expanding to the podcasting space, Substack has made waves. Yet, I don’t think this is inherently a Substack problem.

Hsu, who has written for the LA Times, wrote a piece about Substack portrayed as objective reporting while peppering in many subjective things. For one thing, Hsu alluded to Substack allowing for transphobic and COVID misinformation to be a part of the success of Substack.

Critics say the platform recruits (and therefore endorses) culture war provocateurs and is a hotbed for hate speech and misinformation. Last year, many writers abandoned Substack over its inaction on transphobic content. This year, The Center for Countering Digital Hate said anti-vaccine newsletters on Substack generate at least $2.5 million in annual revenue. The technology writer Charlie Warzel, who left a job at The New York Times to write a Substack newsletter, described the platform as a place for “internecine internet beefs.”

While I agree that controversy gets clicks on Substack, I think Hsu misses the mark here. This story is less about Substack and more about nuance in media. Substack isn’t the only publishing platform that allows for hateful and hurtful rhetoric on their platform. Just visit any Facebook group that unironically uses a Gadsden flag as their profile pic.

In fact, Lulu Cheng Meservey, Vice-President of Communications (VP Comms) at Substack, shared a Twitter thread that I felt gave a fair and honest retort to Hsu’s piece. I also feel like the examples given are worth looking at here.

I don’t think that Hsu wrote a fair assessment of Substack, nor did she fairly represent the direct competition The New York Times has with it. I think she erred on the side of The Times rather than offer a fair balance between the two.

Moderating content is complex; that isn’t something anyone can argue. I don’t envy anyone who creates a publishing platform on the internet today. The responsibilities, politics, and more would make me permanently disassociate from reality.

I am not here to say that all content should be allowed online. There are obvious things you should not allow on your platform, but it is a lot less than what some may want to see. Of course, not everyone will agree with me on that belief, and you know what: that’s okay.

It is okay to be offended.

I don’t enjoy seeing pieces written on Substack that bring COVID misinformation, transphobic rhetoric, or hate of any kind (except hatred towards nazis, because duh). I am not that kind of person, and I try to show that publicly and privately. I am not perfect, though. I occasionally need to be explained things when I don’t understand them fully. I have also found myself asking people who are more attune to the LGBT+ community if I am being insensitive. Again, I try my best, but that isn’t always good enough without guidance from friends and family.

As a cis white male, I feel it is my responsibility to educate other cis people and share my experiences in hopes that I can dissuade anyone from choosing malice over acceptance. That being said, I wholeheartedly believe that someone who disagrees with my political, social, and economic beliefs has the same right as me to express their beliefs. My only caveat is that they do so in a civil, respectful way.

Civil discourse is something I believe is healthy and helpful for both sides. There are many things happening in the world that I disagree with, and I know there is an entire side of the aisle that hates how I feel about things. Someone with differing views from mine could say the same. The problem is that it is effortless for us to isolate ourselves from the challenging articles and rhetoric and only consume the things that align with our points of view. It is also hard to have anything civil nowadays as things have become significantly more partisan and divided.

Now, I am not saying that every liberal person needs to watch Fox News every day or that conservatives should be watching MSNBC. However, finding and reading content that doesn’t align with your views isn’t a bad thing, and I believe it’s now being viewed as such.

I am not saying that “cancel culture” is wrong; there is a time and a place for the pitchforks and torches to come out. There are many people from the Me Too movement that I felt deserved to have their lives turned upside down. They were monsters who did monstrous things. But that shouldn’t be the status quo.

Am I Part of the Problem?

As someone that does not individually condone hate speech of any kind, it does affect me to see posts on other Substacks with that kind of speech. I don’t stand for it, I don’t condone it, and I certainly don’t want to read it.

When I am on a platform that anyone can join, I have to acknowledge that there will be people that present their side of the argument here.

Let me be clear; Substack profits from sensationalized, fake news, and hateful speech. I am sure you have seen a headline or two on a Substack that made you cringe. It’s almost a given that you will find the latest sensational and over-the-top conservative opinion piece from a Substack. It is one of the few places they have left after the mass banning on Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit. But, Substack also makes money from good journalism, reporting like no other, voices that otherwise wouldn’t be heard, and creators making money from their hard work independently.

Does having a Substack automatically endorse the sleaze bags on Substack? This has been a struggle I have dealt with as I continue researching more and more about this issue. There have been things I’ve read on Substack that made me wince with discouragement and disbelief. I won’t be sharing the articles here, but you can probably find them if you look for yourself; there are plenty to choose from.

So am I endorsing this profiting by being on Substack? My answer is no.

I can still be a creator here without endorsing that kind of content. I will continue to assess Substack and where they stand, and I will still support writers on the platform. I can't entirely agree with every user on this platform, but that is the same on all social media. Once enough people start sharing their beliefs and values on a platform, it is an inherent problem.

I have since moved to Ghost, but now because of Substack's politics or views on free speech. I move to Ghost because I felt that blogging was something more my speed and I wanted a god-honest blog rather than something hybrid like what Substack gives you.

I love the newsletter format, and I want to continue with it, which is why you can subscribe to the newsletter version of Clicked and get all of the articles I write in the week, plus extra goodies like links to stories and websites I didn't feature, and good Tweets.

For now, I acknowledge that those who have left have valid reasons for leaving, but it is also not the only option you have to show Substack that you aren’t pleased with their actions/inactions. Being critical of a platform whilst still on it isn't hypocritical, it is necessary to keep checks and balances.