Last August, Substack approached me about writing a newsletter under the terms of what they’re now calling Substack Pro. I declined at the time, mostly because I was burned out and on the verge of quitting my job to work on a very personal, very emotionally taxing book. But then, about two months ago, Substack approached me again, and by that point, I’d learned that constantly miring yourself in your most traumatic memories isn’t actually all that great for one’s emotional wellbeing. A more lighthearted, twice-weekly distraction seemed like exactly what I needed. A lot’s happened since then. I won’t get into all of it here, but Vox has a decent breakdown for those who need it.
First, the bad stuff
There’s a lot I don’t love about how Substack has built its business. It's an editorial operation that refuses to acknowledge that it's an editorial operation. The company makes decisions about whom to recruit and whom to pay—editorial decisions—while disclaiming the notion that it’s something other than a value-neutral platform for the free exchange of ideas. Substack was never going to be able to have it both ways—not for long, anyway.
In building Substack Pro, as my friend Brian Feldman points out in his own excellent newsletter, the company made the active decision to privilege certain voices that had won followings on other platforms, while remaining entirely agnostic about how those followings were won in the first place. Substack says these deals are business decisions, not editorial ones. To the extent that there is a coherent distinction to be made, the upshot is that Substack, in chasing high-follower media personalities, has essentially outsourced editorial considerations to the other platforms—Twitter, mainly—where those reputations were cultivated. I assume that's why I'm here. It's also why so many woke-bashing, gender-critical culture warriors are here. Substack is longform media Twitter, for good and for ill.
Substack's whole gambit—soaking up the audiences of big-name writers while remaining unaccountable for anything they might publish—creates fuzziness even where the company tries to draw sharp lines. Take, for instance, a recent post in which Substack attempted to push back on some of the recent criticism of its hosting of anti-trans writers, at one point writing, “We will continue to require all writers to abide by Substack’s content guidelines, which guard against harassment and threats.” And yet, Graham Linehan—not a member of the Pro program, as my very nice contact at Substack is quick to remind me—was allowed to doxx and harass trans women when he did a post consisting entirely of screenshots from their dating profiles. The dating app itself even tweeted that it had contacted Substack in an effort to get the post removed. At the time of publication, that post and all the photos in it are still very much live.
So what now?
What does any of the preceding obligate me to do? I honestly don’t know. No answer feels great. But then, nothing in this industry has felt good for a while, and I do largely agree with Anne Trubek’s argument that “many companies have problematic business practices” and “if you are going to only work for companies you 100% endorse, then, well, it’s gonna be hella hard not to be hypocritical.” I know this well. I used to work for a company owned by Verizon.
But nothing about Substack right now is inevitable. Before it started filling its pages with angry, interchangeable screeds, Substack’s biggest star was a largely unknown history professor who simply and calmly explains the news to her hundreds of thousands of readers. There is nothing intrinsic to the idea of a newsletter platform that ensures it swings to the right. There are no algorithms here favoring angry disputation and reactionary shit-stirring. This is why I really do believe Substack is up for grabs. Maybe this becomes untenable eventually, maybe it doesn’t. For now, here I am.
All that said, I completely understand if people don’t feel comfortable giving Substack money. Trashberg posts will be free for the first few months, after which some paywalls will go up. For people who want to spend money, I'm going to try something a little different. The way Substack Pro works is that, for the first year, 85 percent of subscription revenue goes to Substack while 15 percent goes to me. And whatever that amount ends up being, I’d like to use the money to do some good. Every month, I’ll ask paying subscribers to suggest and ultimately vote on a cause that will get that month’s chunk of revenue. Charity, a highway billboard, something that will torment Ted Cruz without getting me arrested—you literally name it. I figure, since Substack is already giving me more than I need, we might as well use that 15 percent to make everything suck a little less.
So, what are you going to be writing about?
That’s a great question, thank you so much for asking. Whenever anyone asks me what sorts of things I like to write about or what my “beat” is or why am I writing about Newt Gingrich’s neck and will I please stop, I have a hard time coming up with an easy response.
I’m fascinated by the ways politicians use social media—not in a “wow, look at how the information age has democratized our access to lawmakers” sort of way, but in a “wow, this senator keeps accidentally faving amateur drawings of Mario eating Bowser’s ass” sort of way. I love solving virtual mysteries that allow me to get into excruciating detail about absurd topics, like which Supreme Court Justice accidentally flushed during a virtual session or which politicians have secret social media accounts. I’m interested in major media institutions and the ways they attempt to perform respectability. And more than anything, I’m still deeply dedicated to getting Kellogg’s to admit that they killed Tony the Tiger’s Twitter account over a constant barrage of aggressively horny replies.
In every job I’ve had, I’ve had a good amount of freedom in what I could write about, but there were always going to be those things that were just a little too dumb or weird or viscerally upsetting to ever make it on the page. At Trashberg, I hope to rectify that.
Have you ever wondered when the Queen last had sex? I sure have, and I swear to you, I’ll do everything in my power to find out. Has Bernie ever watched one of Cardi B’s music videos? Are any of Lena Dunham’s pets still alive? Whatever happened to Bradd Jaffy and why did Kyle Griffin murder him? We’re going to get to the bottom of all of these and more. But most importantly, I will never, ever write about cancel culture—this is my sacred promise to you.
Trashberg will come out with a full post every Tuesday or Wednesday, and an open thread featuring a grab bag of recurring bits every Friday. Friends, it’s been a hell of a year. Let’s try and have some fun.
You can send any tips or questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Trashberg logo by the inimitable Jim Cooke.