You Knew I‘d Get Here Eventually
Oh look, everybody: another deeply problematic journo launches his own substack
There’s a reason it took me so long to do this: The word substack is triggering to me.
As I mentioned during my first Quillette podcast interview with Substack Inc. CEO and co-founder Chris Best, I once had an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of this company. It was about six years ago, I’m guessing. Chris and I had breakfast at Patrician Grill on King Street, around the corner from my old office. That’s where he laid out his bold vision for…a newsletter.
I was like, “Um, what?” It sounded like a mash-up of an old UNIX listserv with an email spambot. Fast forward to 2022, and Substack is now a big deal, of course. And Chris is probably off somewhere picking out new vanity plates (SUBSTAKD, STAKTHIS, CASHSTAK, etc.) for his soon-to-be-delivered Purosangues.
And yes, that throwaway line was just a naked excuse to include a photo of Ferrari’s absolutely sick new SUV. Which I’m going to namedrop several times. It’s called SEO, people. And I don’t care if it’s tacky. This is my substack, so I can do stuff like that. Claire can’t stop me.
The other reason I delayed this move (joining Substack, not gushing about the Purosangue) is that I think this site can have decidedly mixed effects on a journalist’s career path.
I’m not talking about the free-speech issue. (That was the subject of the second Quillette podcast I did with Chris, earlier this year—which followed various freakouts from gender gendarmes who objected to Substack’s scandalous platforming of sexual dimorphism, aka biology, aka science). Rather, I’m talking about the financial incentives embedded in the Substack model. (Also, I’m going to capitalize Substack when I’m talking about the company, but not when I’m talking about an actual substack newsletter. I have no idea if this is the general practice, but it feels right to me, and I’m the head copy editor.)
If you’re a general-interest journalist working at a mainstream media outlet, and you start a $5-a-month substack devoted to a controversial, highly specialized subject like, oh I dunno, the Leutonian independence movement, or the horrors of Cordovian terrorism, you can rack up a lot of followers in a big hurry. Pretty soon, you’re wondering why you still have to show up at your day job, where some lame-ass self-described “editor” is sending you off to cover press conferences and car crashes. I don’t need editing! you tell yourself. Look at all the fan mail I’m getting. LeutoniaLovr27 and FCKCordovitards each just sent me fifity bucks!
So you drift off into your profitable little echo chamber, making enough money to pay the bills, but cutting off your exposure to the wider industry, thereby turning you into more of a paid activist than a developing writer. This is a great gig for many people, and I don’t want to disparage it. But it’s hard to get back into mainstream journalism after you’ve gone down this route. And it’s never a healthy thing—I’ve seen it many times—when a newly influential writer suddenly decides s/he no longer needs to be edited. Everyone needs to be edited.
A separate (and, indeed, opposite) problem arises when the subject of your substack crosses over with your day-job journalism. This would be the municipal newspaper reporter who starts up a substack about…municipal news. So every time this substacker get a scoop, there’s a question of divided loyalties. Who gets the choicest cuts: substack or day job? That can lead to awkward conversations with your superiors. And it’s one of the reasons why I checked in with my own Quillette day-job boss before starting up this substack.
So what I’ve decided is that I won’t be charging anything for my substack. Everything will be free. I don’t want this to feel like a second job, with all the above-described moral dilemnas. For similar reasons, I’m not going to publish anything on this site that’s of a form and quality standard suitable for Quillette. (Pro tip to my trolls: I wrote that last line in an easily trollable way. Think about it.) What you’ll find here instead are odds and ends, burgers and board games, disc golf without disquisitions, teasers and follow-ups to our best Quillete pieces, maybe a few podcast outtakes, random book recommendations, and shout-outs to my fav writers (no, not you—get over yourself). I might also occassionally use this space to take a victory lap around some of my more successful tweets.
Plus: ass shots of the sickest cars!
But seriously though, “Purosangue”? Really? … I mean, I get it that it’s probably some thoroughbred horse thing in Italian. But as an English-speaker, you read it as a deatheater going off about Muggle half-bloods. Mamma Mia! What were they thinking?
P.s. I should mention that I do have a pre-existing, very obscure substack called Let’s Get BOARD, with 17 subscribers or something pitiful like that, which is dedicated entirely to hardcore boardgaming. I will probably run the two substacks in parallel, though I’m guessing that the nerd one will eventually get rolled into its problematic cousin.
Sign up for Jonathan Kay’s Deeply Problematic email spam:
Also the best counter argument I've seen to the "paid activist" idea comes from the amazing Ethan Strauss
> But what about when the fans are correct? What about when they want something good? There are many audiences out there. Not all of them demand that a guy gorge himself. I sense that such stories are deemphasized in an ossified legacy media that wishes to mystify the connection between quality and results.
> Okay, maybe some bad people want bad things, but I’m more of the opinion that a paying audience keeps a good kind of pressure on the performer. People might enjoy shock value or shallow affirmation, but they can find that on social media for free. Paywall is a different game. Whatever’s back there had better be something that can’t quite be found elsewhere.
> You’ve made me better than I would have been, were I just yelling into a void, and that’s before we even get into the tips and thought-provoking feedback subscribers have offered. Not only do I thank you for hiring me to do what is, in my opinion, the best job in America, but I thank you for making me better at it.
Fun trivia: the other favourite Canadian writer who slammed the door in my face around that time was Jen Gerson. She saw the light too and now has The Line https://theline.substack.com/