TAYLOR LORENZ David Dobrik is in no ways unique.
BOB GARFIELD New York Times Internet and culture reporter Taylor Lorenz.
TAYLOR LORENZ The stuff that succeeds best on YouTube is often sensationalist, there's a lot of disinformation, and then, you know, this type of fratty bro-stuff, and this is what YouTube rewards. YouTube has a very tight partnership with its top creators. They know that the top creators generate an enormous amount of attention and engagement on their platforms. So these are people that they feature in their YouTube rewind videos every year that they do, they invite these people to the company. They help broker ad deals. The algorithms reward this stuff the most.
BOB GARFIELD Suddenly, David Dobrik is the MeToo boogey-man of social media and may be facing potential career destruction. What was his reputation, say, two weeks ago?
TAYLOR LORENZ David had a really, really good reputation. He was seen as an incredibly family friendly creator, had partnerships with Chipotle, Nickelodeon, and was seen as kind of like a brand safe creator. The irony is, of course, his content has never been that way.
BOB GARFIELD How can it be that a potential sexual assault had not reached the this level of scandal before this?
TAYLOR LORENZ There's so many other videos like this from other creators. The only different thing is that the girl spoke out about it, but are there similar videos where women, young women, are drunk and being joked about in really gross, sexist ways and potentially taken advantage of? Yes, there's examples of that on a million different other popular male creators’ YouTube channels, especially in this prank world. But nobody covers the online creator world and the people that cover it, rarely, if ever, through the lens of treating these people like the juggernauts in the entertainment and tech and media world that they are. Instead, you have fluff coverage: "wow, can you believe this person got 18 million followers on YouTube?" It's not looking at this industry critically and reporting on all of the many ills of it. If you think that the sexual assault stuff is bad, this is a completely unregulated industry. I cannot express how unregulated it is. If you took like the worst of tech culture, media culture and entertainment culture and combined it into one and dumped money on it and had no oversight and almost no reporting on it. That's the creator world.
BOB GARFIELD Taylor Lorenz is a culture and technology reporter for The New York Times. She's hard to avoid on this subject because as Insider.com's Tenbarge observes, Lorenz is a bit of a living legend.
KAT TENBARGE Her work really set the example for what Insider modeled the digital culture team after. If she hadn't been reporting on this beat for several years and doing so in such a way that attracted so much attention and praise from her colleagues, then Insider probably wouldn't have seen as much value in doing this type of work at all.
BOB GARFIELD Lorenz is among the most battle-scarred veterans on the front lines of disruption, which digital content was borne of, and which continues to claim victims. Just this month, BuzzFeed laid off 47 workers at HuffPost, which it acquired less than a month earlier. On Tuesday, the self-publishing site Medium offered buyouts to some 75 of its small cadre of paid staffers. The next day, a yet unknown number of writers at the online MEL magazine lost their jobs. This is perhaps what Lorenz foresaw back in 2018 when she cautioned journalists to build up their personal brands just as influencers do, to stay in the game when their outlets collapse. That advice is now more salient than ever.
TAYLOR LORENZ Being a really good writer is not the same skill as being a really good marketer or audience development manager or businessperson, which is what you have to be when you're an independent contractor basically, and its sole proprietor, where you kind of run your own business.
BOB GARFIELD Sure enough, the personal journalism brand has very much become a thing. With a newsletter platform called Substack that allows those formerly under heel of their struggling employers to go it on their own. The writers offered their work by subscription and Substack distributes it for a 10 percent commission.
TAYLOR LORENZ Substack is overall a fantastic safety net for so many of these writers that have been laid off. For instance, I used to write for Mic.com. You know, Mic basically shut down, laid off the entire staff. Some people went to Substack and I think are able to make a great living on there that they could never make and have a sense of job security that they could never have at media organization.
BOB GARFIELD Yes, for a handful of stars, it has been a very lucrative deal, for the long tail of contributors, however, not so much. And now on the subject of objectionable content, controversy has broken out. Some Substack writers are abandoning the platform for hosting certain high-profile writers whose worldviews they cannot abide. Among the most prominent critiques and or departures have come from Vox critic at large Emily VanderWerff, writer Emily Gould, journalist and science fiction writer Annalee Newitz, and writer Jude Ellison Doyle.
PETER KAFKA A trans writer named Jude Doyle wrote in a post that they were upset at a whole series of men that Jude Doyle, considered anti trans, were on the platform. Their argument was that revenue from their subscribers was being used to subsidize the likes of Glenn Greenwald et al.
BOB GARFIELD Peter Kafka is a senior correspondent at Recode.
PETER KAFKA So I'm quoting from Jude Doyle's blog post here. They are upset that authors, they say, are, quote, "people who actively hate trans people and women, counter argue ceaselessly against our civil rights and in many cases have a public history of directly, viciously abusing trans people and or cis women in their industry. And then goes on to list several people, including Glenn Greenwald, Matthew Yglesias, Graham Linehan, British TV writer who's been kicked off Twitter last year for, quote, repeated violations of Twitter's rules against hateful conduct and platform manipulation. To be clear, I'm quoting Jude Doyle here, and as we say on Twitter, not all retweets are endorsements. A lot of folks would take issue with some of the names on that list of people Jude Doyle doesn't like and say there's a difference between not liking what someone writes and saying that so-and-so is deliberately attacking trans people.
BOB GARFIELD Now, there's another issue which is distinct, but nonetheless entwined with anger over, you know, who some writers are sharing a platform with, and it's a thing called the Substack Pro program. Which is, as I understand it, a come on for big name writers meant to lure them away from their W2 jobs at media companies by offering them a big fat paycheck in the first year. The number that's been bandied about is 30 writers who are Substack Pros.
PETER KAFKA Yeah, I mean, Substack has been playing around with versions of this. In some cases, it gave them a relatively small fee just to get them up and running. In some cases, it's offered other writers other incentives. This Substack Pro program was formally christened in the last week or so, and I think that's what generated a lot of attention.
BOB GARFIELD When you sign a book deal, the chances are pretty high that your publisher will also be platforming a lot of authors whom you don't like. I myself have shared a publisher with Michele Bachmann. And loathsome as I find her, I had no impulse to walk away from my deal. Is that a legitimate analogy?
PETER KAFKA The difference is that you're well aware that when you signed with your publisher, the publisher also was working with Michele Bachmann. On Substack, at least up until now, there's no way of knowing what kind of writers have Substack Pro deals, and what kind of writers are just people who showed up on Substack and started publishing. Substack has said that they're not in a position to disclose that because they didn't make that a condition of the deal, and they don't want to go back on that. The writers who have those deals are free to tell people about them, and that in the future they might figure out some form of disclosure for people who get these deals. Generally, when you do business with a traditional book publisher, you get a pretty good idea of who else they're working with.
BOB GARFIELD But not necessarily what their advances are.
PETER KAFKA You don't have any idea what their advances are.
BOB GARFIELD Returning to the Graham Linehan anti-trans question. Substack's content guidelines do pretty clearly ban content that, quote, calls for exclusion based on protected classes. And just as an aside, they on their list leave out gender identity, though the Supreme Court affirmed last year that it is in fact protected under the Civil Rights Act. Chris Best, the CEO, has been quoted as saying, no, Substack has a great content moderation system, and it's called the unsubscribe button. Doesn't that really mean that someone seeking to report, let's just say a doxxing in progress would have to what? Email a Substack co-founder?
PETER KAFKA Probably. I don't think this is something that the substack guys, and they are guys, had thought through when they started this. But again, it's kind of a problem they would be lucky to have because it means there's enough people using the platform for someone to get upset. It's also kind of a model we have seen many times before in Silicon Valley. There's a reason that you have venture capitalists subsidizing substack when they're loathe to do it with traditional media companies. They don't want to be directly employing people who make media, they want to fund the platform that allows media creators to sort of make the stuff and then find an audience and then they take a cut in the middle. But you've seen this over the years with everything from MySpace to Facebook to YouTube to Airbnb to Uber, which considers itself a platform. And they say, look, we're just connecting someone who has something to sell with someone who wants to buy it. And then inevitably, you have bad actors and inevitably they have to scale up systems that are meant to sort of police this stuff belatedly, but it's always sort of chasing after the latest problem they've had. And by the way, this is ongoing right now. You have the CEOs of Twitter and Google and Facebook all testifying again in Congress this week about disinformation on their platforms, and it's kind of an endless whack-a-mole game. Substack is much, much, much, much smaller than all these platforms. So you could imagine that sort of spinning up a platform policing business is way down on their list.
BOB GARFIELD I want to get back to Taylor Lorenz, because in an online content world, how can you not get back to Taylor Lorenz. And in a Substack world, she's clearly right about the necessity for journalists to build their following. But, once again, that click bait problem. In the Columbia Journalism Review, Clio Chang reported that Substack ranks potential recruits by numbers of fire emojis based on how much Twitter engagement they got. Is that not a prescription for generating heat instead of illumination?
PETER KAFKA It certainly is. It's also a reasonable proxy when you're starting up and you're trying to find people that have audiences and have engaged audiences. All of that said, remember that the patron saint of Substack is a guy named Ben Thompson, who writes a tech and business newsletter out of Taiwan. Who is provocative but is not a bomb thrower, he's got a very long essay out today about the CEO of Intel and his new plan of attack. It's quite stultifying, I think.
PETER KAFKA There's other folks doing environmental coverage. The most successful Substack writer, at least as of late last year, was Heather Cox Richardson, who is sort of adamantly not political. She's a history professor at Boston College and does sort of a daily explainer putting today's news in historical context. It's just something people like and want to pay for, so it doesn't have to be takes. I think it's an interesting business. I think it's also a business that could easily go away. Substack essentially is charging writers 10 percent for something that other people can and will charge less for. Jude Doyle, who we talked about earlier, has gone to Ghost, it's a nonprofit platform and they're paying a very small fee, certainly less than a few percent to do that. Twitter has bought a competitive product called Review. They're going to be charging five percent to create your own newsletter enabled through Twitter. Facebook now has its own paid product that'll be launching at some point. And Facebook won't say what it's going to charge, but it's been sort of nudging and winking and suggesting it may not charge anything at all. It's Facebook. It doesn't need to charge you anything, it'll find other ways to profit from you. There's a world where a lot of these writers who are at substack now eventually say, it's been great working with you. I'm heading off to a different platform, I'm taking my mailing list because you allow me to do that and I'm going to get a better deal somewhere else.
BOB GARFIELD In other words, to do to Substack what substitute did to their previous employers.
PETER KAFKA That's one way of putting it.
BOB GARFIELD Peter, thank you as always.
PETER KAFKA Thanks, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD Peter Kafka is a senior correspondent at Recode.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Coming up, 5 degrees of Taylor Lorenz.
BOB GARFIELD This is On the Media.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of programming is the audio record.