When I was a kid learning to read beyond the newspaper’s Sports section, I started with the Comics. They were funny. Then I discovered that some columnists could be funny too. Gradually I came to appreciate that columns were well written, even when they weren’t funny. It took many, many years before I came to appreciate news stories, which provided the facts from which the columnists worked, and which tried to portray not only one writer’s take, but the opinions of those who disagreed. As my brain evolved, I eventually came to see the news story as having more value.
Substack reverses that evolution. On this platform, the opinion and the well-written take rule. Microtargeting audiences allows Substackers to communicate only with people they already agree with, who don’t care much about the opinions of those who disagree. Despite its attempts to spin otherwise, Substack is not set up as a journalist’s site, but as a columnist’s site.
The old-school columnist may have been one of the highest-paid people at the newspaper, but he still brought revenue to the paper. (Yes, it was too often “he.”) Now the columnist is an entrepreneur. Good for him! (Among today’s top 10 paid Substacks associated with a single name, six are male and one is female.) Bad for the institutions built to provide him with the facts on which to build his opinions.
There’s a place in the world for columnists. That’s especially true as we increasingly understand the fragile foundations of the place where journalists used to comfortably sit—the “view from nowhere” is sometimes as biased as a boisterous columnist. But one of the things that journalism experts worry about is a world where opinion crowds out news. The only opinions worth having are those that get challenged by facts. Yet when you set up a platform designed for the opinionators instead of the fact-collectors, you are making the problem worse.
Especially when the columnist doesn’t have a larger institution to answer to, as we’ll consider tomorrow.