Want to read Dominic Cummings’ innermost thoughts? That’s going to cost you

Once upon a time, Dominic Cummings had a blog and a very interesting one it was too. Adesso, he has a different kind of blog, which takes the form of a Substack newsletter. This comes in two flavours: one is free; the other is for subscribers who pay £10 a month for the privilege of having “premium” access to his thoughts. Di tanto in tanto, as last week, Dom gives free users a generous helping of his incendiary opinions, but more often the “free” version just contains teasers to the more interesting content that lies behind the £10 tollgate. Another word for this is clickbait.

I have no idea how many subscribers Mr Cummings has, but I’d guess it’s quite a lot, so at £10 per person per month he’s on to a nice little earner. And who can blame him, since he doesn’t seem to have a proper job and in the old days people could read his old blog on the web for free, thereby contributing nothing to his income? But his shift from the web to Substack shows what a canny operator he is, for lots of other public intellectuals and journalists have been travelling in the same direction, sometimes making tons of money in the process.

In terms of media ecology, it seems only yesterday that public-facing, subscriber-funded newsletters were the New New Thing. Adesso, tuttavia, they are definitely a big deal. The leader in this genre is Substack, but there are lots of others – Twitter’s Revue, per esempio, Facebook’s Bulletin e Ghost, to name just a few. Substack seems to be the market leader, partly because it was lavishly funded by venture capitalists, but also because early on it attracted a number of very prominent journalists and writers, including Glenn Greenwald, Andrew Sullivan, Noah Smith, Zeynep Tufekci , Michael Moore, Garrison Keillor, Patti Smith and Anand Giridharadas.

One very smart move by Substack was to join up with Stripe, the online payment company, to make it easy for writers to levy a subscription fee on those of their followers who are willing to pay. It’s basically a single keyclick to activate paid subscriptions. And for writers who have dedicated followings, even if only a fraction fork out, the money can be good. Just do the maths: if you have 800 subscribers willing to pay £5 a month, that translates into £4,000 a month before Substack takes its 10% cut and Stripe gets its small processing fee. And those fees can mount up. Per esempio, Heather Cox Richardson, a thoughtful New England history professor whose Substack blog Letters from an American has tens of thousands of followers, is believed to earn $1m a year from a $5-a-month subscription plan.

So Substack is clearly good for writers (not to mention for Substack, which has 500,000 paying subscribers). And there’s no doubt that this renaissance of newsletters represents a significant change in our media ecosystem. But anyone who sees it as the solution to society’s polluted public sphere hasn’t been paying attention. Of course paid newsletters are good for journalists and writers who can attract significant followingsthey can now earn a living from their work, rather than having to kowtow to editorial or ideological gatekeepers. They are liberated from the tyranny of clickbait, which was the downside of information “wanting to be free”, as Stewart Brand’s cliche put it. They can write what they think without having to second guess a proprietor’s likely response. The result is that, every morning, they provide reminders of the astonishing vitality, diversity and intellectual wealth of the blogosphere. And that’s great.

On the other hand… newsletters introduce a new digital divide into society’s information flow. If the best thinking and writing is reserved for those who can afford the monthly subscription, then the egalitarian potential of the web is diminished, leaving poorer users condemned to “free” offerings contaminated by clickbait and algorithmic manipulation. Most importantly, newsletters do nothing to counteract the decline in local news organisations or the way social media has leeched the advertising revenues that once supported the independent journalism on which any liberal democracy depends. After all, no amount of clever, thoughtful commentary on paid-for Substack blogs compensates for the fact that, often, nobody is now reporting what goes on in local authority meetings, magistrates’ courts, hospitals and businesses and so on.

This is because most of what one finds on Substack or its counterparts is actually just opinion. It’s pure commentary. And so the growth of newsletters suggests that CP Scott’s famous dictum – that comment is free but facts are sacred – needs to be updated: facts are increasingly rare and hard to come by and commentary is increasingly expensive. Just like Dominic Cummings’s stream of consciousness.

On a learning curve
What is aptitude? And how do we measure it? Characteristically thoughtful post by Venkatesh Rao on his Ribbonfarm blog.

China crisis?
Seeing Red is a terrific essay by Scott Galloway about the eastern powerhouse and the emerging geopolitical world order.

To boldly go…
Against Incrementalism is Martin O’Neill’s appraisal nel Boston Review of Ed Miliband’s new book, Go Big: How to Fix Our World.

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