Substack has taken advantage of a new model for the internet, where subscriptions for content are increasingly becoming the norm. The website is the current king of paid newsletters, where writers publish directly to subscribers without the standards of newsroom editors.
But as social media sites struggle to monitor misinformation, CEO Chris Best doubled down on the site’s hands-off approach to content moderation.
“I think the magical piece is that the readers and writers are in charge, and you have this direct paid relationship,” Best told Brian Stelter on “Reliable Sources” Sunday.
Substack has attracted high profile writers, from former New York Times op-ed columnist Bari Weiss to “Top Chef” host Padma Lakshmi. But it has also attracted controversial personalities who might not otherwise find platforms online.
Former New York Times writer Alex Berenson, a vaccine and coronavirus contrarian, has more than 10,000 paying subscribers on Substack.
The platform was also criticized earlier this year for allowing anti-transgender content, causing some writers to leave the platform.
“I do think there are some people who thrive on Substack who found it hard to thrive in traditional media,” Best said.
He doubled down on the site’s commitment to a free press and the relationship between the writer and subscriber — even if what the writer publishes is wrong.
“If I want to sign up for your emails and you want to send me those emails, that’s between you and me, and that should be allowed,” Best said.
Substack has to reach a “high, high bar” before intervening in content, he added, and an information ecosystem where subscribers can debate differing sides is important. “That’s something that’s become a little bit unfashionable,” Best said.
He doesn’t believe that censoring content will put an end to disinformation, framing Substack as a “thoughtful” place where “great stuff is rewarded.” But it’s not the platform’s place to decide what’s true and what isn’t, he added, or what’s politically acceptable to publish — or not.
In contrast, he criticized Twitter and Facebook for what what he considers optimizing cheap engagement over everything else. He said it creates an environment where users scroll through toxic content, which he defines as “the things that push people’s buttons, that make people anxious and afraid and hate each other,” Best said.
Facebook itself is cashing in on the newsletter hype, having launched a similar service called “Bulletin” late June. The platform courted influential writers wanting to go independent and local news writers.
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