Substack Is Trying to Be a Social Media Network. That’s Why I Had to Leave.

This story is being published in collaboration with the Food Section, which covers food and drink in the American Southeast. The Food Section just relaunched as a publication independent from Substack.

In retrospect, I probably should have had an inkling that Substack had flaws from the start.

I launched the Food Section, a newsletter covering food and drink across the American South, in September 2021 with the backing of a Substack Local grant. The program, designed to support community journalism, offered a quarterly paycheck, editing services, Getty Images access, and a customized logo—far more than most legacy newsrooms could scrape together.

While I wasn’t looking to leave my job at the Post and Courier in Charleston, South Carolina, I couldn’t turn down a $70,000 package, especially if it allowed me to practice food journalism in more places. I knew our region was desperate for more rigorous coverage of issues central to what we eat and why, such as labor practices, race relations, climate change, income inequality, and public health. Outside of media circles, very few people at that point had ever heard the expression “Substack,” which is perhaps why the platform was trying to attract attention with a golden ticket–type contest. (Now, of course, “Substack” is almost a generic noun for online newsletters.)

What I didn’t consider at the time, though, was that the way Substack was hand-picking writers to showcase in its local news incubator foreshadowed the company’s transition from a neutral publishing platform to a social media network. And a social media network is a fraught place for journalists to set up shop—and not just because few of us need the private publication and in-app chat functionalities that Substack touted. The initiative also signaled Substack’s intent to build up its own brand, which poses special problems for people trying to report the news in even glancing association with it.

Putting aside questions about corporate trajectory, though, I failed to recognize that Substack’s much-publicized program validated a sad reality of the media landscape. Namely, that throwing money at the local news crisis won’t quell it.

Within just a few years of its inception, Substack has quietly discontinued its Substack Local effort after bankrolling its first round of winners. Presumably, the company reached the same conclusion as the dozen publishers it funded, who gamely invested in highway billboards and digital kiosks to help build their readership. (I took a slightly different tack and told nonpaying readers to get lost.) Substack is a terrific platform for writing, but a lousy one for business—which is how a news outlet has to operate if it hopes to succeed.

The problem with audience development started early. In simplifying the publication process, Substack did away with nearly all the customization and engagement tools that typical media organizations use to attract and retain subscribers. Since the Food Section launched, the platform has introduced various referral and recommendation systems, but those function primarily to draw readers deeper into the Substack universe, rather than promote allegiance to the one publication that got them there. (To be fair, it’s also introduced a few of the features that Substack Local grantees requested in a co-signed letter on Jan. 25, 2022, including saved templates and photo galleries.)

I did the best I could during my two and a half years on Substack, with the Food Section becoming the first solo newsletter to win an award from the Society for Features Journalism (finishing second only to the Los Angeles Times in the Food Criticism category), and the first solo newsletter honored with a James Beard award. The publication also picked up Best Newsletter honors from organizations including the International Association of Culinary Professionals and New York University’s Arthur. L. Carter Journalism Institute.

But on the revenue side, I only acquired 728 paying subscribers. The size of that number doesn’t matter to my ego, but it has journalistic consequences. Unlike the personal essays that occupy a huge swath of Substack space, reported stories can’t be produced for free. Traveling to meet with sources, obtaining government documents, and purchasing access to newspaper archives or academic journals is costly—and a few hundred readers can’t shoulder those expenses forever.

By the time I cashed my last Substack check in 2022, I knew staying on the platform would ultimately inhibit the Food Section’s growth. But the decision to take on the added time, expenses, and headaches associated with putting together my own tech stack (confidential to the geeks who care—that meant cobbling together WordPress, Memberful, Campaign Monitor, and Stripe) came down to five factors:

  • Brand identity. As the analyst who conducted my LION Publishers audit (more on that later) wrote, “The Food Section has quickly become one of the publications that people in the journalism industry point to as an example for others to follow. Founder Hanna Raskin has a crystal-clear vision for her coverage.”

    In other words, the Food Section has a defined and unique brand, but that’s not apparent from its Substack site, which looks like the roughly 50,000 other Substack sites. Creating a website from scratch solves that problem.

  • Revenue potential. Folks who’ve kept an eye on efforts to reinvigorate local media know there’s been a recent surge in nonprofit news. The Food Section is staunchly for-profit because I don’t want to be beholden to the whims of grant-giving boards: This publication serves its readers, not another organization’s interests. As a result, subscriptions are central to its revenue picture.

    But readers shouldn’t have to bear the financial burden alone. While I’m committed to keeping the paid newsletter ad-free, selling ads and sponsorships in the unpaid version—which requires wonky workarounds on Substack—would allow the Food Section to produce more quality journalism without taxing subscribers for it.

    As the LION auditor wrote of another Substack shortcoming, “The inability to segment her audiences and collect data on reader behaviors prevents [Raskin] from exploring advertising and making data-driven editorial and revenue decisions.”

  • Reader service. Regarding those aforementioned “data-driven editorial decisions,” I’m sure longtime readers are tired of hearing me carp about how Substack doesn’t collect basic information, such as home addresses. But having no idea where my audience lives makes it difficult for me to decide between reviewing a restaurant in Kentucky and previewing a food festival in Louisiana.

    To put it another way: Learning more about readers when they subscribe will help me publish a newsletter that’s highly relevant and deeply meaningful to its supporters.

  • Audience reach. Did I just say “me”? In a matter of weeks, the Food Section will be a “we,” with three new bureau chiefs putting out city-based newsletters. That kind of sub-specialization, which is core to the Food Section’s mission of delivering meaningful food journalism to underserved communities across the South, isn’t technically possible on Substack.

    Another way in which Substack has limited the Food Section’s reach is by keeping it out of search engines’ sight. While a Substack post will sometimes pop up in response to a Google prompt, that’s not the norm. The Food Section will have a much better shot at being found by potential subscribers once it has a domain of its own.

  • Journalistic integrity. I’m a journalist, not a seer, but I got extra nervous about Substack when Twitter rebranded as X in July 2023. In fact, that’s the month in which I started my audit with LION Publishers, which generously awards up to $20,000 in connection with each sustainability audit it conducts. (You can check out my initial funding request for migration here.)

    What Elon Musk demonstrated is that social media platforms don’t belong to their users. They reflect their founders’ values and serve their founders’ purposes. There’s nothing to stop Substack from adopting a financial strategy that entails limiting publishers to 250 words at a time, shutting down without warning, or advancing white supremacy.

    That last example isn’t theoretical. As the New York Times reported in December (headline: “Substack Says It Will Not Ban Nazis or Extremist Speech”), the platform’s co-founders have concluded that censoring racist and antisemitic rhetoric would speed the spread of hate—even though scholarly research suggests otherwise, and Substack’s own policies prohibit “publish[ing] content … that incite violence based on protected classes.”

    On Jan. 10, Substack did ban five small, openly pro-Nazi accounts. But it was already too late—several prominent writers have since left the platform, including Casey Newton of Platformer, who accused Substack of trying to minimize the serious threat of unchecked extremism.

    It’s important to know here when evaluating Substack’s stance that the platform takes a 10 percent cut of publication revenue, which means Substack isn’t just a passive vehicle for extremism. The company makes money every time a Nazi sells a subscription. While I don’t know if that’s why the company has propped up white supremacists by listing their publications on popularity leaderboards, it’s not an arrangement I want to support with my money or my readers’.

So, for that reason and all the rest, I’m done with Substack.

Getting off Substack is far more complicated than deleting a Twitter account, particularly if a newsletter is the publisher’s main source of income. In my case, the process took six months and $20,000, which I never could have scared up without LION’s help. Please know that writers who continue to publish on Substack aren’t necessarily Nazi sympathizers, and many of them are busy figuring out how to relocate their publications to platforms that don’t nurture hate.

As for me, I’ll be at

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