Matt Yglesias leaves Vox for Substack: is he doing a Newton or a Sullivan?

Another writer mired in controversy leaves a Vox Media publication to start his own newsletter. What’s happening here?

Adam Tinworth
Adam Tinworth

Another big name US journalist has quit his job to set up a Substack newsletter. The question is this: is he doing a Newton or a Sullivan?

Doing a Newton

While I'm over-simplifying a little, to do a Newton is to be like Casey Newton: building an engaged audience through popular journalism, and leveraging that to start building your own thing.

Doing a Sullivan

To do a Sullivan is to leave for Substack because you no longer feel welcome in the media institutions you were once part of, confident that you have enough readers that will follow you, as Andrew Sullivan did. Glenn Greenwald was a clear example of a Sullivan, for example.

The Harpers question

So, which is this latest defection?

I'm calling this one as a Sullivan, and here's why: Yglesias had clearly caused tension at the site he co-founded by signing the Harpers letter on free speech earlier in the year. He was called out by a member of staff, who said that his signature on the letter made her feel unsafe:

While it's impossible to know exactly what happened within the organisation, there was plenty of reporting about the issue, and the tension was evident in one of Ezra Klein's podcasts when the internal debate over the situationwas mentioned. There was a tone, a stress, to Klein's voice I've never heard before or since on the podcast.

It's also worth noting that New York Magazine, which was Sullivan's former home, is owned by Vox Media, who also owns (obviously) Vox.

I'm  not the only one to see the controversy that erupted over Yglesias and that letter as the root problem that led to this move:

I'm not going to do anything crass like claiming that Yglesias is being silenced, as some are doing, because clearly he isn't. He'll take an audience with him to Substack, and he'll more than likely make a decent living there. Not everything will be behind the paywall, and his other pieces will no doubt circulate around politics Twitter.

But something interesting is happening here, beyond this one move.

A resurgent Indie Media

What I find fascinating about this is that people on the Sullivan end of the equation are often people who were indie bloggers back in the early 2000s, and are essentially returning to their roots (although, admittedly, Sullivan was a journalist before he was a blogger, and has thus been through this cycle twice.) What's changed in the last 10 years that means that the welcome they found in the traditional media has now evaporated?

There's a dynamic here beyond the rise of the newsletter, and it will be very interesting to see how that develops over time. At some point, bundling of these friendly-to-each-other voices into a form of loosely aggregated newsletter “magazine” seems quite possible. An alternative form of media is emerging — and it will continue to develop if the financial support for it exists amongst readers. And I suspect it does.

The Substack story is only beginning.

(Thanks to Esther  for bringing this to my notice.)

If you want to follow Yglesias to Substack, his newsletter is called Slow Boring.

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Adam is a lecturer, trainer and writer. He's been a blogger for over 20 years, and a journalist for more than 30. He lectures on audience strategy and engagement at City, University of London.