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Weekly reads from CJR for November 19, 2020

Clio Chang on the Substackerati

When Substack’s founders set out to recruit a potential contributor, they use a system called “the Baschez score.” Named for Nathan Baschez, a former employee, it works like this: A writer is measured on the basis of social media engagement, then assigned a score on a logarithmic scale of fire emojis. If someone has a high score—four fire emojis—the founders will reach out and suggest that the person start a newsletter. When new Substack writers sign up, the founders call it “giving them the religion.” The top performers are rewarded with six-figure salaries. In her profile of Substack, Clio Chang makes an observation: “The most successful people on Substack are those who have already been well-served by existing media power structures,” she writes. “Most are white and male; several are conservative”; and a few “offer similar screeds about the dangers of cancel culture and the left.” 

That’s not to minimize the potential in what Substack provides—there are all kinds of newsletters to be found, including Coronavirus News for Black Folks, by Patrice Peck, with whom Chang speaks at length about Substack’s pros and cons. Ultimately, the question that propels her piece is: “Will Substack replicate the patterns of marginalization found across the media industry, or will it help people locked out of the dominant media sphere to flourish?” The answer, Chang finds, largely depends on “whether or not Substack’s founders believe they’re in the publishing business.” She writes, “If ‘be your own boss’ is a nice slogan in the abstract, it ignores the fact that power dynamics always exist, even where they’re not formalized.”
—Betsy Morais, managing editor


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