One of the most formative publications of my upbringing, MAD Magazine, had no advertising at all until the 21st century. It had no ads both because having ads would potentially limit the magazine's satirical purview and because they just didn't want to deal with advertiser complaints and expectations (like, say, expensive full-color printing). Principle and convenience sometimes walk hand-in-hand, at least when you don't have to worry about going broke following your principles.
Of course, when people bemoan the death of the 20th-century journalism model, they are mostly not talking about MAD Magazine. Some of them are just talking about a perceived mainstream monopoly on what "the news" and "the truth" are for America writ large. Others miss the way that regional audience monopolies forced advertisers to subsidize a wide variety of journalism, across the entire country, giving (some) citizens access to vital information about the workings of government at every level, providing a check on corruption and malfeasance through investigative reporting that newspapers provided as a service even if it wasn't what their advertisers and subscribers were very interested in. That seems to me more worthy of missing.
But that's not really what the newsletter—as a format—is for, is it? Not to say that people aren't trying to do some form of that with newsletters, but the newsletter is not a thing subsidized by a more popular thing. It's supposed to be the popular thing. There are enough people interested in, and willing to pay for, "real news" and investigative journalism to make it sustainable to do with a subscriber model, of course. But is there enough of an audience to make that sustainable for every region in the country, from Pima County to Duluth? In a media and political environment where more Angelenos subscribe to the New York Times than the Los Angeles Times?
To put it another way, I am personally interested enough in (for example) the makeup of the Kings County (Brooklyn) Democratic Party to read news accounts of contentious 13-hour committee meetings. I am interested enough to wish to popularize those news accounts, even, to write about them for my more generalist and national readership. But it is absurd to imagine there being a large enough potential audience for news about corruption in the Kings County Democratic Party for anyone to make a living doing a newsletter about it, as opposed to that being one beat covered by a larger news organization, facing all the exact subscriber and advertising pressures that decimated the newspaper business. When The Daily Compass, a subscriber-based (and millionaire-funded) left-wing newspaper, went under in 1952, I.F. Stone started his legendary national politics newsletter. What did the city hall stringers do? Political junkies, to borrow Claire Bond Potter's argument, have always been the audience for this stuff—this stuff might have created them to become its audience—and no matter what they might tell themselves, they are not actually looking for pure public interest journalism.
The Substack-like subscriber model, then, is not the answer to whatever people broadly conceive of as the "problem" of American journalism, except when the problem is put in fairly personal terms. The problem of the media “for me,” for example, has historically been figuring out what all Alex Pareene can directly insult—publications, editors, cable news hosts, cable news executives, publishers, and politicians whom publishers fundraise for—while still remaining employable. Substack has indeed seemingly solved that problem (well, we'll see). But I am not sure anyone besides Alex Pareene needed that problem solved.
The AP (Alex Pareene) Newsletter will be a weekly (or more) newsletter, mostly free at first, with more posts (letters?) for subscribers later on. (I should note that I will still be co-hosting with Laura Marsh the The Politics of Everything podcast for The New Republic, and you should subscribe, review it, recommend it to your friends, etc.) Here is where I could say that twice a week I will bring you deeply researched thoughts about the Ottoman Empire, or the surprising history of pickling, or that this is simply a place to put my less-polished casual thoughts on, say, streaming television while I save my more important interventions for the magazines and newspapers. But there are basically just a few things I do, and now I’m going to do them here. The AP (Alex Pareene) Newsletter is home to my thoughts on national (and sometimes New York) politics, the state of the political press, media guys I don't like, and so on.
As a former boss once said, back to blogging. A common refrain among people in my broadly defined cohort, who came of age reading (or writing) a particular kind of ephemeral political writing, is that blogging was good, and it's sad that it mostly ended, and it's good that newsletters are bringing it back. These people are wrong. Most blogging was very lousy. I've written thousands and thousands of words in my career, and the couple thousand I'm happiest with were written slowly, with the benefit of time for thought, research, and careful editing. A lot of the blogging was, you know, stuff like this. I'm reliably told that it's good to go back to doing stuff like that, to boost engagement. The market has demanded that I revive this dead format in a new shell.
As we embark on this newsletter experiment together, these are my promises to you, the subscriber: I will issue half-baked takes on things I haven’t done the reading on. I will have fervid knee-jerk opinions on issues I formerly had no strong feelings about. I will take crash courses, in public, in various histories and fields, and then accuse experts in those fields of stealing my takes on them.
I will flatter you, the reader, into thinking your most conventional positions are dangerous and against-the-grain. I will consistently muddle existing power dynamics in my industry and in society at large to permit you to believe you are fighting an entrenched elite no matter what people or institutions I either ruthlessly target or completely ignore.
I will regularly argue for policies and political strategies as savvy rather than defend them on the merits. I will sometimes just print things readers send me without verifying any of the details if those things seem to lend credence to some argument I made the other day. I will constantly treat arcane personal vendettas as principled disagreements. I will never challenge you while constantly claiming to be challenging everyone else. I will make you mad about things—so, so mad—for the sake of analytics and in the service of maintaining my lifestyle.
I will never log off.
The AP (Alex Pareene) Newsletter will arrive in your inboxes around twice a week. Please subscribe, and tell your friends!
The AP (Alex Pareene) Newsletter’s logo and design are by the peerless Jim Cooke.