For many decades in the post-World War Two era, sociologists and social psychologists believed the media only had “minimal effects” on public opinion and behavior. This point of view was challenged by later scholars, who found that media does, in fact, influence public opinion in significant ways – by priming, framing, and agenda-setting. On the issue of public knowledge and awareness, the public is viewed as rational and able to make reasoned judgments about policy, even though they lack expertise. Still, media and elites’ power to control the narrative is of substantial consequence in determining the climate of what is deemed important. It seems, nevertheless, that an interesting trend is developing, whereby some of the most influential writers and “opinion formers” are moving to a realm in which they are free from the shackles of the “narrative control machine.”
Free to Think and Speak
Presently, the majority of the public is at the mercy of the big platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, where content creators have to operate within the outer margins of what a particular platform says are acceptable. Otherwise, people will be eliminated or suspended from the platform, (as evidenced by the removal of President Trump and others), giving those companies a means to assert narrative control over those who dare go against it.
Now though, two important rivals are growing that thwart this dominance. First is the Locals platform. Locals operates as a subscription service, where the consumer pays a small subscription to the creators. Second, and even bigger is the Substack platform for writers who want the freedom to set their own narratives. Their motto: “Substack is a place for independent writing. Subscribe directly to writers you trust.” Substack is attractive, too, because writers can often earn more than they did in legacy media outlets, and it still gives them the opportunity for a large reach with no one dictating a narrative.
Substack writers offer a mixture of paid and free email newsletters. They make money through subscriptions, writers remain the owner of their newsletters, and the platform takes a 10 percent cut. Substack founder Hamish McKenzie said Substack writers could make $100,000 a year if they bring in “a couple thousand people” who spend $5 a month on a subscription. “It’s not easy,” he said, “it takes time, dedication, and care, but it’s more doable than ever.”
Some writers are even offered advances to join the platform; for example, instead of giving Substack say a 10 percent cut of income from subscribers, they can negotiate to take upfront money and an agreement to give a slightly larger portion of the subscription revenue to substack in return. For example, to incentivize Matthew Yglesias to become a Substack writer last year; Substack offered a deal where they agreed to pay him $250,000 along with 15 percent of any subscription revenue he generates. After a year, Substack’s portion will go to the standard 10 percent of his revenue and there will be no more additional payments.
Writers from various fields have set themselves up at Substack over the past two years: Glenn Greenwald, often associated with a leftist but honest point of view, Andrew Sullivan, Matthew Yglesias (above), Bari Weiss, who felt the narrative control of the New York Times was unsustainable, cultural writer Anne Helen Petersen and political commentator, Matt Taibbi. Others include the former editor-in-chief at Think Progress – Judd Legum, climate reporter Emily Atkin, Joe Posnanski, who writes about sports, Hollywood commentator Richard Rushfield, and historian Heather Cox Richardson. The trend seems to be moving back to one of following individual stars or writers, rather than following a platform that controls the narrative, taking the mainstream outlets out of the power structure.
In fact, a University of North Carolina study found that the last two decades have seen about half of all newspaper jobs in the United States eliminated. Furthermore, 30,000 American journalists have been laid off, been furloughed, or had their pay reduced during the coronavirus pandemic.
Currently, the top paid subscription on Substack is the Conservative newsletter, The Dispatch, written by Steve Hayes, the former editor-in-chief of now-defunct The Weekly Standard, Jonah Goldberg, formerly an editor at National Review, and Toby Stock, from the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank. The Dispatch outfit has 12 employees, along with almost 100,000 subscribers, 18,000 of which are paid, subscribers. Hayes said they would likely hit $2 million for their first-year revenue, most of which came from the Substack subscriptions.
There is also evidence that rather than getting caught up in the demarcation between operating as a publisher or platform, Substack overtly promoted its services as a publisher, by offering editing services, access to Getty Images photographs, and even health insurance to some writers. It is now home to over 100,000 newsletters on every and any possible topic.
Competitors Back in the Mix
We got indications that chipping away at the big platform dominance is never going to be easy, when in January, Twitter bought Revue, a Substack competitor that only takes a five percent cut, and began actively aiming to recruit writers. Then, just this week, Facebook said it too would have a paid newsletter product coming soon. Facebook has not announced what level of a cut it may take, but Peter Kafka said there were murmurings that Facebook may not take anything at all – such as the extent of their current financial security one might muse.
Nevertheless, as the number of people who escape the big platforms grow, they will become the new opinion formers and makers. Possibly, given the proliferation of companies in the media/infotainment realm, as well as the rush for free speech alternatives, future news products will take a different form. This could look like people choosing who to subscribe to, a key component of which would be trust, then an aggregator providing an app or means through which they would access their subscriptions in the one place.
Alternative Media and the Future
Estimates made by the Pew Center show that ninety-six percent of people between age 18-29 have a smartphone as do ninety-two percent between ages of 30-49. Content can be downloaded from anywhere, anytime, with channels for accessing context burgeoning. Additionally, the fast pace of technological change is heading towards differing means of interaction, such as interacting with technology by voice. A research paper from ATTN.live discusses how voice tech will disrupt centralized interfaces. It explained how voice technology is decentralizing and will consequently stimulate creativity and enable the participation of even more Americans and entrepreneurs in the digital economy. Using voice as an interface saves time, increases productivity, and expands access.
Trends presently show that news preference outside the legacy media is growing, with alternative media outlets becoming more established and relied on for information. Like UncoverDC and Conservative Treehouse, these sites use donations or subscriptions to fund them, as in the Substack model. This user-funded aspect cuts out corporate owners, like Jeff Bezos of the Washington Post or Jeff Zucker at CNN, who infuse narratives to frame their enterprises’ content. Alternative media tend to frame their content as terms of pro-liberty, truth, content you can trust, reminding you to do your own research too.
For 2021, a year when so many feel betrayed by the media, Visionlaunch.com lists two hundred and sixty alternative news sites. Some may be more reliable than others, but it shows a shift away from the typical legacy sources that come across as pro-establishment public relations departments. For them, the current control structure works in tandem with their interests, and they would like that structure to stay. Free thought that falls outside the mainstream narrative is unacceptable to them, hence the suspension of popular alternative media accounts. They don’t consider how essential free speech and the free-flow of information is for liberty; if people see and hear all of the information, opinions will be formed via critical thought. Censorship, by contrast, is typically associated with trying to control what people see and thus think.
Alternative media outlets that are really reaching large audiences include: The Epoch Times with a range of breaking news, analysis, opinion, and YouTube channel for exclusive interviews. The Epoch Media Group, which includes The Epoch Times and New Tang Dynasty (NTD), has 3 billion views on Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, according to the analytics company Tubular, and is ahead of any other traditional news publisher, according to NBC News. One America News Network has had massive growth over the past year, too, especially when Election 2020 further damaged mainstream outlets’ credibility with a large number of Americans. The award-winning journalist, John Solomon, launched his own “Just the News” site. Its growth is due to compelling reporting covering what the mainstream leaves out. Conservative Treehouse offers more opinion than anything but is fueled by readers and attracting a substantial audience.
Alternative social media companies have been popping up too, and even on Facebook, statistics show alternative media growing at the cost of the mainstream outlets. For example, Newswhip.com reviews the top articles and publishers on Facebook each month to assess engagement. For February they found The Daily Wire at the top of the top publishers on Facebook, a position it regularly holds. Although numbers were slightly down, Newswhip says some of this dip is likely because February is a shorter month, so there is less time for stories to be published and engaged with. Daily Wire’s numbers fell by about nine million – from 76 million in January to 67 million in February. When compared to the mainstream outlets, though, we find a far greater fall in engagements by CNN, which dropped from 71 million to 42 million in February. NBC News went from 69 million to 40 million in January. In terms of regular channel viewership, CNN has lost 45 percent of its prime-time viewership since January, MSNBC went down 26 percent, and Fox News lost 6 percent. This trend will speed up so long as the mainstream media produce content that people can see as disingenuous or agenda pushing. Greater competition can only further chip into the mainstream monopoly, and it is evolving now.