Oct 30, 2020 - Economy & Business

Intercept founder's move spotlights solo journalism's lure and limits

Illustration of drooping pencils in a cup.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

More high-profile journalists — most of them white men — are leaving newsrooms to launch newsletters on Substack and other independent publishing platforms.

Driving the news: Glenn Greenwald, a columnist at The Intercept, is quitting the publication he co-founded after seven years, citing efforts by his editors to "censor" articles critical of former Vice President Joe Biden.

Details: In a 3,300 word post on Substack, Greenwald said he had no choice but to resign after his editors violated his "contractual right of editorial freedom."

  • He went on to say that a "repressive mentality" has taken over most center-left newsrooms and academic institutions.
  • The Intercept quickly fired back, writing that Greenwald "was attempting to recycle the dubious claims of a political campaign — the Trump campaign — and launder them as journalism" and that his efforts "to smear his longtime colleagues and friends as partisan hacks" made "good business sense" as he goes solo.

Between the lines: Greenwald's lengthy announcement, some joked on Twitter, serves as a good reminder of the value of editors.

The big picture: Greenwald's shift to Substack follows similar moves by a slew of mostly white, male writers. That homogeneity raises the question of whether the solo-independent model is viable for those with less access to capital and resources — mainly minorities and women.

  • Yes, but: Some notable Substack users are women — including Emily Atkin, formerly of The New Republic, and Anne Helen Petersen, formerly of Buzzfeed.

There's also a different question: whether these independent platforms will hold the greatest appeal for mavericks, contrarians and people who just have a hard time working with teams and editors.

  • Greenwald is legendarily brash and stubborn.
  • Andrew Sullivan, formerly of New York Magazine, left to start his own newsletter on Substack in July after it became clear that his views clashed with those of many of his colleagues.
  • Both writers have hopscotched between blogging and more traditional newsrooms for decades.

Be smart: Independent journalism platforms offer virtually no editorial oversight. Greenwald may see that as a feature, but for many others it is a bug.

  • Platforms like Substack are looking at ways to offer journalists more support, including legal support and advances to help journalists cover support costs.
  • Zeynep Tufekci, a sociologist and writer who recently joined Substack, said in an interview with Axios that Substack is helping her cover the costs of an editor for a short time. "They will pay for somebody to help edit this for a little, but the idea is that this is something that I will do after an initial period," she said.

What's next: Like tech's bigger social platforms, independent writing platforms will also begin to face tough calls about what types of creators and content they will harbor.

  • Mailchimp, for example — an email marketing platform — has policies that explicitly forbids the distribution content, based off of its discretion, that it finds is "materially false, inaccurate, or misleading in a way that could deceive or confuse others about important events, topics, or circumstances."

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