What the Recent Public Statement by Jerry Saltz of New York Magazine Means for the Future of American Media

The high-profile refusal of a $250,000 Substack Pro offer by a NYC art critic confirms that Americans don't know how to talk about newsletters—and maybe still don't know anything about them at all.

Introduction

There’s a group of content creators in America that for decades have found themselves in what might be termed the “Bermuda Triangle” of bad circumstances: they work for institutions that substantially inflect what they’re allowed to say; they’re contractually required to perpetually “advertise” and “sell” products under their own names (and in their own voices) to monetize their content creation for their institutional overseers; and what they’re advertising and selling on a regular basis, in explicit terms and under their own names, is neither content they created nor even content that their employer created—but third-party products these content creators might not even believe in at all.

Who are these unfortunate souls? They’re called radio hosts.

But how often do you hear a content creator—or, more specifically, a journalist—say, “Wow, I’d never want to host a national radio program”? Never. Journalists don’t balk at the idea at having to read from a card ads for baby food or homeowner’s insurance as the price for being a content creator on a platform owned and operated by a giant private corporation that can fire you if they don’t like what you say and how you say it.

But enough about radio hosts.

As I’ve implied, given the hostility within major media to Substack—which requires none of the gross self-erasures of radio—we can be certain that no one in major media wants to host a national radio program. The thought wouldn’t even cross the mind of anyone who’s made it in major media.

And I won’t stop there, either. I’ll tell you what else no one in major media wants: a gig hosting a national television program.

Can you imagine having your continued employment determined not only by the whims of a giant private corporation that values you purely based on esoteric market considerations, but also tracks how telegenic you remain, interrupts your content creation every seven or eight minutes to sells goods and services whose nature you have no control over—though at least you don’t have to read the ads yourself—and shapes your content not with an eye toward its righteousness or even accuracy but how well it will sell to the choice demographic du jour? Who’d want to work in such a fickle medium? One in which you don’t own or control your content, you’re judged based on considerations that have nothing to do with the actual value of your content, and your content is systematically interrupted by low-grade, cynical advertisements?

Well—I’ll answer my own sarcastic question. I’ll tell you who has no interest in ever having a national TV program: anyone in media who’s criticizing Substack right now.

Because Substack doesn’t require any of the above things from anyone. Substack won’t control creators’ content, it doesn’t sell ads, doesn’t interrupt you, doesn’t judge your pretty face (or in my case, my radio good looks). So if you’ve got an issue with Substack, the problems you have with national television programming must be unimaginable.

So if radio hosts and television hosts—and for that matter, podcast hosts, who fall under the same advertising-and-sales rubric as radio hosts do—couldn’t possibly have a beef with Substack, who does? Who could? Well, one group in particular has been raising its hand of late: columnists who work for giant media corporations. Columnists like Jerry Saltz, a highly respected art critic at New York Magazine. This article is partially about Jerry, but much more about (as the title above implies) the future of U.S. media.

The Jerry Saltz Dilemma

This week, New York Magazine art critic Saltz—who, lest you doubt it from anything I may say hereafter, I admire, and who also happens to follow my Twitter feed—made a startling declaration on Twitter.

To understand the dilemma that Saltz describes—and has somewhat inexplicably made public—we first have to work through a few potential points of confusion here.

First, it’s almost certain that Substack didn’t offer Jerry Saltz a regular annual salary (“$250,000 a year”), as that’s simply not Substack’s business model—it never has been and, per the company, it never will be (unless they wanted to hire Saltz to do coding for them). What Substack does, rather, through its Substack Pro program, is offer a very small percentage of Substack creators (disclaimer: I am not among them) a one- or two-year deal in which Substack pays the creator a lump sum per annum in exchange for getting 85% or 90% of the creator’s subscription revenues for that period of time, after which the deal ends and the creator is free to either (a) leave the platform entirely, along with their subscriber list, or (b) stay on Substack’s platform on the same terms as everyone else: keeping all their subscription revenues minus the 10% taken off the top by Substack and the 3% (plus thirty cents per transaction) taken by payment processor Stripe. The foregoing is an important clarification of Jerry Saltz’s public statement, as if Substack offered annual salaries to creators not only would it be an entirely different business (and be working in an entirely different business model and even industry), but none of the concerns that Saltz expresses above about Substack would be relevant—as creators would make a steady salary no matter how many readers they attracted.

A second point of clarification—and as with everything I’ve said so far, none of this is really intended as a critique of Saltz, as newsletters in their current format are indeed a new phenomenon (see more below), so no one can be expected to grok how they work yet—is that it’s incorrect to say that Substack asked Jerry Saltz to “go with them.” This would imply that Substack asks for non-compete clauses and exclusionary rights to the work of creators to write on their platform. They do not. In other words, no one “goes with Substack” in the sense of choosing Substack “over” other options—you can be under a big Substack Pro deal and still publish your creative content in countless other ways, including in books and podcasts and online book clubs and, yes, even magazines.

So why is this a critical distinction, besides the obvious reason (that Substack is merely a platform that asks for little from even those it strikes contracts with)? Because in this situation it was actually New York Magazine, not Substack, that was asking Saltz to “go with them”—demanding, as corporations that own content creators’ work product are wont to do, that if you’re “with them” you can’t be “with” anyone else. Indeed, that’s why, unlike Substack, magazines like New York Magazine do offer up annual “salaries.”

{Note: If you doubt how free Substack Pro authors really are to share their content however and whenever they like, look no further than the immensely talented author Roxane Gay, who not only has a highly ranked and well-regarded Substack but also book deals, a magazine she runs, a book club, a podcast, and more. Substack doesn’t control any of this, nor would it ever try to.}

A third clarification relates to Jerry Saltz’s rather odd statement that “it is not my real work to write for ‘subscribers.’”

Well, actually, it is. And don’t take my word for it:

Now, to be clear, we all understand what Saltz was really saying here, and can admire it as well as accept it: he was saying that he’s built a sufficient relationship with New York Magazine that he believes they will continue to employ him with a steady salary—even as major media is in a state of historic collapse—no matter how bad things get for New York Magazine and no matter how many (or few) consumers read Saltz’s content there.

And who among us wouldn’t have significant respect for a private media corporation that makes employment decisions irrespective of whether it has the monthly budget to continue operating—I mean, if such a thing existed, and wasn’t a fey childlike fantasy?

Well… you may see what I’m doing here. What Saltz is saying is not really that it isn’t his job to write for subscribers, as it literally is, but rather that New York Magazine doesn’t (a) presently, (b) make him feel like he is writing for subscribers, (c) despite the fact that he definitely is, and (d) despite the fact that how a corporate employer makes you feel tends to change—if history is any guide whatsoever—depending upon how your corporate employer is feeling about its own ability to continue business operations.

Jerry Saltz knows, and I know, and you know that the moment New York Magazine finds itself in dire financial straits—which may be sooner than either Saltz or I would like—it will violently remind Saltz that (indeed) he has always been writing for subscribers.

To be clear, all of this is separate from what Saltz wrote on Twitter on July 9: “I’d stink and be embarrassed at trying to drum up new paying subscribers [on Substack].”

As I say, this is a very distinct claim indeed. Generally speaking, television hosts don’t worry about “stinking” at advertising on behalf of their corporate overseers because that role—despite them being absolutely integral to it, structurally speaking—was long ago taken out of their hands. I may like Jim Acosta of CNN, and in fact I do, but CNN does not trust Jim Acosta to personally sell Depends undergarments at the level that the corporation and its advertising partners require. Just so, radio and podcast hosts—while more directly responsible for selling, say, undergarments, and actually being compelled to do so in their own voice—have little to worry about, relatively speaking, in terms of “stinking” as advertisers of third-party products they may not actually believe in, because they are reading someone else’s words off a card like a paid automaton (which is what they are, at least for the duration of the said ad, though sometimes they’re allowed by their corporate bosses to “liven things up a bit” with their own language, as long as they don’t stray too far from the copy provided to them).

Substack is different, as Saltz avers. It’s different because with Substack you don’t have to sell anything made by anyone else. Ever. You don’t have to read anyone’s marketing copy. Ever. What you do have to do is stop outsourcing advertising to an index card that has been placed in front of you or, for that matter, to the subscription department at New York Magazine. You have to be, in short, the sort of content creator that all “sole proprietors” of any sort are—which is a scary proposition for some, even if it’s arguably well within the wheelhouse of any content creator. (Much more on this in a moment.)

What Substack Actually Is (Part 1)

Still, it’s useful to consider the second point that Saltz makes in the public statement above, which is that a content creator who acts as a sole proprietor and therefore does what all sole proprietors in the thousands-of-years-long history of sole proprietorships have done—advertise and sell their own work—may well feel “embarrassed” by having to do so, especially when corporations have helpfully made it so convenient for content creators to rely instead (and this really underscores the pure love inside their corporate hearts) on subscription departments, pop-up ads, four-minute ad blocks, and the little index cards that get shoved in the faces of radio hosts and podcast hosts when the time to make money for the faceless entities in the equation that really matter finally arrives.

In view of all this, isn’t it, as Jerry Saltz indicates, a little embarrassing when a content creator with sole custody of their own content and the means of its transmission has to do for themselves rather than relying on far-off corporate cogs to act as their agents?

Saltz says yes. And I’ll be honest, many people on social media would agree with him.

Saltz, a postmodernist, communicates in what mass communications professors refer to as the “postmodern” mode, which is defined by being self-conscious and reflexive and deeming embarrassment the worst thing that can possibly happen to anyone ever. So if corporate-run social media platforms deem self-promotion embarrassing, while these same corporate-run social media platforms also (very conveniently) condone the outsourcing of this embarrassment to nameless and faceless corporate workers, the postmodern content creator—working from a position of enormous privilege—is able to say that they have remained blissfully free of embarrassment, in so doing answering the highest call of postmodernism: to avoid ever looking foolish or credulous in public.

{Note: For those curious, the alternative to postmodernism in digital culture—as I teach as a professor of digital culture—is metamodernism, which was implicitly heralded by late novelist David Foster Wallace as a new cultural paradigm when he spoke of U.S. culture’s “real rebels” as being those few creators willing to undergo public embarrassment for the sake of their work.}

On Twitter, I’m regularly told by anonymous users with quite a lot of numbers in their user handles that if I cared about America—even a whit—I’d have extended my period of free content creation on Twitter, which lasted for about six years (from May 2015 to January 2021) in perpetuity. They express certainty, with almost histrionic confidence, that any working journalist who charges for their professional work product couldn’t actually believe that the United States is in crisis.

Sorry, I should make one minor correction to the above: the Twitter users who issue this attack daily and in numbers do so only against sole-proprietor content creators.

Those who, like Saltz, have nameless and faceless corporate workers selling a product on their behalf are spared the embarrassment of being called out in this way, which I’m certain must be a bug—rather than a feature—of the corporate-controlled media ecosystem we’ve created in the United States. Left to their own devices, I’m sure giant media corporations would want their content creators to face the same public attacks as sole-proprietor content creators, the better to ensure that there’s no distinction left between the groups and no reason for content creators not to become sole proprietors.

What I’m saying—to now nix this heavy sarcasm—is that after Donald Trump came to power, no one in corporate media stopped charging for their professional work product.

Journalists continued to get paid. Advertisers continued to get paid. Media orgs kept getting paid. Writers like Jerry Saltz continued to get paid. The only folks who started to make their work free were sole proprietors like me—I’m sure in some cases because they had other means of income, in some cases because (lacking the protection of the “corporate veil”) they didn’t want to risk being seen self-promoting, and in some cases because they truly believed America was in mortal peril and, unlike corporations, have a conscience. In a large percentage of cases, I’m sure pieces of all three of these understandable motivations were in play.

But here’s one thing I know for certain: corporate media saw the national emergency America underwent from 2015 through 2021 as the perfect time to try to destroy sole-proprietor content-creators—something such institutions have wanted to do since corporate journalism arose around 200 years ago—and did so by decrying as “grifters” anyone who didn’t have a corporate veil to hide behind. Indeed, I personally was called a “grifter” even from 2015 to 2021, when my research on Trump’s presidency was free.

This corporate ploy, often executed by the youngest and most vulnerable freelancers and part-timers and new hires in legacy media, wasn’t really much of a surprise, from a certain view, as its aim, echoed across hundreds and hundreds of think-pieces libeling content creators lacking the means to defend themselves in court against vile and false attacks from media corporations, was transparent: it wasn’t really to identify bad actors, but to eliminate a paradigm that had since time immemorial been in avid competition with their own—a paradigm that Jerry Saltz, in his public statement, went so far as to (without any embarrassment) profess his love for… using a heart emoji.

The Patronage Versus Sole Proprietorship Debate

None of this really has anything to do with me, or Substack, or Saltz, or even, perhaps more surprisingly, contemporary corporate media. The battle between artists and institutions of patronage has been ongoing for hundreds of years. Saltz loves New York Magazine the same way artists funded by the de Medicis loved their patrons; that rich Italian family relieved the content creators they patronized from having to bear the horrid burden of fully controlling (and therefore advertising and/or selling) their work.

It’s always amusing when major media underlines for its readers that the Substack phenomenon is nothing new because “blogs” were a thing in the 2000s. {Note: The fact that blogs had no capacity whatsoever to intervene in the journalistic economy goes unsaid.} To their credit, some more enterprising major-media columnists sometimes compare Substack to the broadsheets of journalism’s early decades in the 1800s, though they do this, invariably, as a means of dismissing digital newsletters as retrograde. In fact, the newsletter phenomenon is far more retrograde than even that—some might say it’s the detritus of a timeless tilt—as ever since there have been creators there have been entities seeking to profit off creation, and ever since there’s been art there’s been a sufficient difficulty in monetizing it sustainably (meaning, providing enough for an artist to live on while continuing to make more art) that public institutions of varying degrees of goodwill, and in the era of corporations private entities with varying degrees of ill will, have been able to find an outsized and unwarranted place in the ecosystem of creation.

In fact, Substack Pro is no more or less than a “bridge-loan” program to encourage sole proprietors to shuffle out from under their institutional auspices in the very same way thousands of years’ worth of content creators have wanted to do and been able to do (though more frequently been unable to do and been discouraged from doing, with the contemporary and particularly malevolent iteration of this being consumers who attack sole proprietors while leaving corporate interests and their many agents alone).

Substack—while of course itself a corporation, and so liable to the same widespread suspicion all corporations are heir to—is just an attempt to monetize a bridge rather than the land on either side of it. That’s still disorienting to the corporate media that’s laid claim to one of those two sides, however. While monetizing the bridge rather than the land itself isn’t heroic per se, it’s immeasurably better than the thousands of years of alternatives. Why? Because the end result is the movement of content creators from third-party ownership to self-ownership—and if they’re digital-age metamodernists rather than self-conscious postmodernists, this movement occurs with minimal extra shame (even as corporate media stokes a culture of shaming aimed exclusively at sole-proprietor content creators).

None of this has anything to do with blogs, or broadsheets funded by wealthy patrons in the 1800s. And as a journalism professor who teaches the history of journalism, it is truly embarrassing to read contemporary journalists with no capacity—or any will—to draw distinctions between what Substack is doing in 2021 and the handbills scattered across the dirty cobblestones of Fleet Street by an army of orphans hired by His Grace the Lord Curtilage of Whimsby Downs (or whomever) over two hundred years ago.

The Creator Economy

It’s in this context that the term “creator economy” arises, and corporate media begins to be concerned that instead of the bracketed word “[corporate]” being added to the start of that phrase, perhaps the only “corporation” [artificial legal construct granted obscene levels of limited liability by monied interests via government legislation and the courts] will be a company called Substack that’s running a fairly benign toll system on content creators’ highway to creative freedom.

So yes, if Saltz or anyone else can implicitly or explicitly ensure that we harp on how very “embarrassing” it is for artists to sell their work—or for journalists to sell their output—it does yeoman’s work keeping the corporate media structure in place. And I use the term “yeoman” here advisedly, as this bullshit has been going on for hundreds and hundreds and even thousands and thousands of years, ever since yeomen weren’t even a glimmer in the eye of what today we would recognize as a corporate “master.”

{Note: I am going to ignore here, and gleefully so, a self-destructive argument artists have been making for thousands of years to ashamedly cast doubt not only on the provenance and utility of their own work but the capacity of artists to be functioning members of society: the idea that artists are meant to be poor, meant to feel alienated and culturally addled, meant to suffer the angst and ravages of mental illness, homelessness, and extreme poverty, and that therefore any procedure devised to slightly lighten the already staggering existential burden all artists carry is necessarily evil, whether it be in the form of public institutional support, private patronage, a corporate sponsorship, or a new model like the one now offered by Substack. I’ve encountered enough artists to know that these deeply held “principles”—which have quite literally killed millions of artists over the course of human history—are abandoned the moment an artist is offered a chance to continue making art rather than starving to death in a gutter. The only thing we must remove, now, is the supposed shame of refusing to starve to death in a gutter.}

Jerry Saltz’s Public Statement

With all this in view, we return to Jerry Saltz’s public statement, which I’d feel worse about making the subject of an article—as I do, again, respect Saltz himself, if not this action of his—were it not, well, a public declaration that Saltz has decided to turn into news by making a private contractual offer from Substack a matter of public record.

Besides calling sole-proprietor content-creators “fishy”—while saying (using the heart emoji) that he “loves” his big corporate employer—Saltz also compares sole-proprietor content-creators to circus freaks, saying that they “bark” (i.e. just like carnival barkers) at passersby.

But Saltz goes further: he says that Substack authors have a “paying audience”—this is the anodyne part of the statement, as Saltz of course has a paying audience also—who if it is reading their work by definition “already…likes [them]”, whereas any who work for corporations can have some confidence that they are, unlike any Substack author, “reaching strangers.” Saltz says that New York Magazine, which anyone can read if you have a subscription to it, allows him to “talk about art to anyone, anywhere, anyhow”, even though the magazine would fire him if he tried to talk about art using Substack. Meanwhile, Substack, which you can usually read without a subscription—see below—actually allows authors to “talk about [their passions] to anyone, anywhere, anyhow” without facing a violation of their contract or being summarily fired.

In other words, Saltz has it exactly backwards.

So how did such a very smart person come to be so wrong about an issue of such grave importance to himself and those he loves? What makes a noted art critic analogize the corporation he works for to a “huge department store…where people find me who have no idea who I am or what I do or [have] even thought about art before”? What produces such delirious enthusiasm over living in service to such a “store,” even when doing so (Saltz says) leaves him perpetually “three paychecks away [from] oblivion”? For that matter, what causes such a very smart person to wrongly deem Substack as, in contrast to New York Magazine, a platform that a content creator would only ever go to “for the money”?

Let’s take a look.

The easiest place to start is with Heather Cox Richardson, the highest-paid creator on Substack, and perhaps the highest-paid columnist in the world—with an estimated annual salary, just from writing on Substack, that’s in the millions. {Note: Not a typo.}

Richardson’s work on Substack is free.

“Sorry, what did you say?” (This is me imagining a reader’s response to the paragraph above.) “What do you mean the highest-paid creator on Substack publishes her work, unlike Saltz, for ‘free’? Was that a typo?”

No, it’s not a typo. Richardson’s work is free. And it’s free because, like the best sole-proprietor content creators, Richardson developed a community around her incredibly valuable work prior to coming to Substack, which allowed her to keep her content free—charging only for the ability to comment in her comment sections. And how much does she charge for the latter right? Less than the cost of a cup of coffee at Starbuck’s.

Per month.

To take another case—someone with a dramatically smaller readership than Richardson—you could look at the publication you’re reading right now. As subscribers of Proof know, and as anonymous trolls remind me daily while not hassling those who work for subscription-charging corporations, Proof is not free. But that comes with an asterisk.

Because Saltz is a postmodernist, he doesn’t include the fourth dimension—time—in his analyses of journalistic ecosystems, an error that metamodernists never make. The truth is that no article on Substack, whether at Proof or anywhere else, is ever “either” free “or” paywalled. These sorts of dialectics—or a “binary push-pull system,” to use a simpler vernacular—are meaningful to postmodernists, but not to metamodernists. Metamodernists talk about all digital artifacts existing in a “both/and” state, instead.

Lest I start losing folks, let me simplify yet again: no Substack article is conclusively “free” or conclusively “paywalled” because every piece of writing exists in time as well as space, so its status can change multiple times over its lifespan. {Note: This is a notion that was first really drilled down on by the postmodernist Jacques Derrida through the term “iterability”, one which has since been bizarrely tossed aside by contemporary postmodernists.}

Substack articles move in and out of paywalled status in a way legacy media content almost never does, as corporations have to capture revenue with a ruthlessness that sole-proprietor content creators don’t really have to contend with.

Right now, about 70% of the content here at Proof is free, including two dozen articles listed in the right-hand sidebar of this publication’s main page. Many of these articles weren’t free when they were first published; they were subscriber-only content, then. But they later became free. {Note: And of course some were indeed free upon their creation.} By the same token, just as Marc Maron makes current episodes of his podcast WTF free but offers his archives only to subscribers, there may be some (in fact quite a lot) of content at Proof that was free to everyone when it was published which at a future point no longer will be. And who knows—life is strange—there may be some content that moves in and out of availability at Proof over the years, with only full subscribers always having access to it (with it being one of my jobs, now, to alert the public to the changing state of important content at Proof).

In short, a Substack author—really like any sole-proprietor—has to choose the part of their work that will be accessible when and to whom, without ever being locked into giving any conclusive status to any one piece of work. By comparison, when you work at a “huge department store” you don’t get to make this call about any of your work, ever.

So if New York Magazine is currently making Jerry Saltz’s work free, that is a decision that’s being made by New York Magazine. If New York Magazine later changes its mind about that, that too will be a decision made by New York Magazine. Saltz doesn’t come into the equation at all, nor can he make conclusive statements (though he has anyway) about what part of his body of work will be free or not in the future, and when and to whom and on what conditions. His work exists in the public—as does the work of anyone who produces work for a corporate entity—at the whim of a “huge department store” that owns his work product but that he presently (if maybe not eternally) loves.

At Proof, I’ve decided to keep about 70% of my work free to the public. But as I’ll likely change the statuses of different works at different times, the total percentage of the site’s content that will be free at some point will likely end up being around 80%. And because, unlike Saltz, I don’t have to run all my work product through the gauntlet of a corporate bureaucracy, I produce much more content than he does. Which means that the 80% of all my content that I offer for free to the public via Substack at some point during its lifespan is far more content than the content Saltz now or will ever offer for free. The key differences here are that I both make considerably more than Saltz, have exponentially more say about how and when my work is presented, and have infinitely more ownership and control over my work and my own continued ability to be a hard-working content creator. New York Magazine may well go bankrupt—and I suspect that a betting person would conclude that it will, in the middle term—and it may downsize Saltz while it’s in its death throes no matter how much he loves it now. Meanwhile, though the success of Proof is likewise not guaranteed, I’m certainly not forced to sit back and do nothing as my platform disappears. Yet that’s the fate most journalists are looking at right now over the next twenty-five years, which is a big part of why they’re so invested in calling Substack authors “embarrassing.” I suppose I would lash out, too.

What Substack Actually Is (Part 2)

By focusing so far on myself, Heather Cox Richardson, and Roxane Gay, I’m flattening the conversation about Substack considerably.

Substack also allows authors to pause all billing during periods of incapacitation—allowing a timespan for battery-recharging that Jerry Saltz would likely try in vain to negotiate with New York Magazine—or to do so in the midst of a national emergency, which also isn’t really possible with corporate media. This is why, during the period in American history when 3,000 Americans were dying daily of asphyxiation—during the first few months of the global pandemic—folks like Jerry Saltz were still pumping out articles about stuff that was, candidly, offensively irrelevant at that point. But again, they didn’t get hassled, even as most of the sole proprietors were (a) working for free and (b) focused on answering a national emergency, because (c) unlike Saltz they had the freedom to make that moral choice. But the entertainment reporters at CNN? They kept covering BTS like the rest of the corporate entertainment reporters—as they would’ve been unemployed and out on the proverbial street had they done otherwise.

All this only skims the surface of Substack. You have Substack authors who paywall all their content except their Q&As, which means that whenever they want to have a wide-ranging conversation with the public, as Saltz romanticizes, they can and do. You have Substack authors who summarize their paywalled content on social media platforms like Twitter or Facebook so a significant portion of the critical conversations they’re interested in having are not only public but happen—as Saltz wisely recommends—with strangers. You have Substack authors like Roxane Gay for whom their writing on Substack is only a small portion of the public conversation they’re having with and about the world. You have Substack authors like Tressie McMillan Cottam or Heather Havrilesky or Colin Wright or Matt Taibbi who have multiple substacks and are free to monetize or not monetize them using entirely different models; rumor has it that even Substack Pro authors use this bifurcated method of being public communicators.

And you have publications like Proof that comprise various sections and have different monetization policies for different sections, or even—and Proof is also in this category, with its new AFOL section—sections that readers sign up for separately, so they’re a separate (internal and free) newsletter. And need I mention that the very existence of a “sections” feature on Substack underscores the fact that if Jerry Saltz suddenly wanted to write about his passion for prune juice at New York Magazine he probably couldn’t, whereas if I wanted to start a section at Proof entitled Prune Juice I could, or moreover could start an entirely new publication by that name? So how does that fit into Saltz’s claim that it’s easier to reach readers on topics you care about as a “senior art critic” at a glossy magazine than being completely unrestrained as to what you write about and when? {Note: That’s right—Substack doesn’t even direct the content of Substack Pro authors.}

And then you have Substack authors who wrote under a paywall for a couple years and then “retired,” making their content free thereafter. You have Substack authors with dramatic discounting programs for certain categories of subscribers, and of course all Substack authors have an authority Saltz will never have: they can “gift” time-limited or permanent access to their publications to whoever they want, whenever they want. No matter what restrictive covenants Saltz’s agreement with Substack would have had, they would’ve expired in 12 or 24 months, putting control of even these minute pricing policies in Saltz’s hands for the rest of his professional career.

But he said no; made it public; and made his derision for Substack authors public, too.

And I’ve been around journalism long enough (over twenty-seven years) to know why: cultural cachet. Many creators, including many creators that I care about dearly, make decisions that hurt them gravely just to avoid offending the sad, delicate and backward sensibilities of peers they really shouldn’t have respected in the first instance. For so much of history, this sort of behavior was simply deemed a lack of courage; in today’s society—and isn’t this useful to corporations, too—it’s deemed professional discretion.

{Note: As a New Englander, “loyalty” is a watchword for me. So to the extent Saltz’s decision was motivated by the fact that he feels “fairly treated” by his employer, and marvels at “who else would pay a full-time art critic”—I suppose he means, besides Substack—despite the “useless[ness]” of his calling, I respect his loyalty to his “store” and do not intend to denigrate that character trait, which is one I consider indispensable.}

Conclusion

Important conversations are starting to happen—and most importantly, are starting to happen within Substack, according to its press releases—on how to make the “bridge” activities Substack is engaged in fruitful not only for folks like Jerry and me who have developed a readership on other platforms, but for those just starting out as content creators. I suppose it goes without saying that in this assessment, too, Substack starts about ten miles down the track from a place like New York Magazine; whereas New York Magazine won’t acknowledge a young, aspiring content creator—unless it’s to write a hit-piece about them, as New York Magazine did to me as soon as I started writing on U.S. politics (pro bono) for The Huffington Post—no matter who you are, you can start trying to build a readership on Substack tonight. The purportedly hyper-democratic New York Magazine, accessible (with a subscription) to “anyone anywhere anyhow”, is of course off-limits to content creators who haven’t been in their chosen field for years or perhaps even decades. Saltz is in a position such aspirants to his status can’t imagine.

There’s no question that the “creator economy” has a long way to go—especially to ensure that its model is not just generative but sustainable, and not just workable for those with a pre-existing readership but profitable for those still building one for the first time. If Saltz had said that he just doesn’t have the courage to leave last century’s economy; if he’d said that he doesn’t have the creative energy to produce the amount of content Substack creators habitually produce, which is far more than their corporate peers do; if he’d said that he doesn’t have the administrative skills to edit and maintain and monitor his own content and publication; if he’d publicly confessed that he favors corporate control of creative content over creator control; if he’d said that Substack is more accessible to consumers than almost any platform in the U.S. as a matter of cost and logistics and frequency of publication and ability to dialogue with a creator and much else, but that he prefers a more antiquated and less accessible journalistc model, I probably wouldn’t have written this article. Instead, I read in Saltz’s public statement a series of contentions that, beyond being insulting, included misstatements about, of all things, art history and the torturous history of art as an inherent public good.

I read in Saltz’s public statement, too, grave misunderstandings about the very entity he chose to publicly distance himself from—Substack—and, candidly, a disturbingly advertising-forward approach to the entity he’s publicly professed his undying love for. I found a blithe perpetuation of old stereotypes about content creators that only exist to suppress and malign and harry and isolate content creators, and do so only for the benefit of large institutional patrons of creation, most particularly corporate patrons.

All this cut really deep, by way of being so melodramatically unnecessary and—worse—false. Especially when, if Saltz had said “yes” to Substack, it would undoubtedly have had little issue with him continuing to write for New York Magazine (just as Substack Pro recipient Roxane Gay has continued to produce excellent content across a wide range of platforms). The dilemma Saltz found himself in, that is, was one created by New York Magazine. And New York Magazine, much like the New York Times—which forbids its employees from having substacks—created the problem that Saltz faced because it was (and is) terrified that its model of content creation is dying (which it is) and not because Substack doubted it could quickly find someone to accept the offer it made to Saltz (it didn’t and doesn’t). Refusing an offer from Substack, or a similar offer from another bridge-management outfit, is like refusing a raincoat when it’s raining: the rain doesn’t give a damn whether you said yes or no; it keeps raining either way.

So what’s the answer to the question asked atop this article? What does the recent public statement by Jerry Saltz of New York Magazine mean for the future of American media? Or, more succinctly, what does Saltz’s ill-considered refusal and ill-mannered decision to publicize that refusal signify about the giant corporate content-creation manifold he decided to cling to instead, despite its dramatic, ongoing, public collapse?

I think what it means is this: as long as content creators project their own fears as others’ folly or failure; as long as creators are satiated by the stability of corporate control of their output; as long as they celebrate the culture of artist-shaming that corporations cynically created by way of calling it not only extant and profound but morally just; as long as creators believe the “huge department stores” have the same loyalty to them that they do to a for-profit “legal fiction” dependent on the whims of the free market; as long as anywhere in America someone who works for a recognized media brand can claim an easy win by defecating on independent artists who lack the same ready-made pedigree; as long as all these things keep happening, then…

…well, nothing, actually.

America’s corporate media structure is living on borrowed time—and the creator economy can’t possibly be forestalled by Jerry Saltz or a whole department store packed Hats to Menswear to Luggage with Jerry Saltzes. So what does the public declination of a content creator to join the economy of the current century, and depart the one owned and clung to by the last century, mean to the future of American media? Well, nothing.

Nothing at all.