Thank you for checking out my newsletter! You can read the archives and subscribe. I published three books in 2021 (I know!). There's my young adult space fantasy Victories Greater Than Death, and Never Say You Can’t Survive: How to Get Through Hard Times By Making Up Stories, a writing advice book for scary dark times. And my first full-length short story collection, Even Greater Mistakes, featuring tales that won the Hugo, Sturgeon and Locus Awards. Also, check out the podcast I co-host, Our Opinions Are Correct.
If you have a limited media budget and you can only afford to subscribe to one or two things, you should make them journalistic outlets.
I personally give my money to the Washington Post, Mother Jones, 48 Hills, and a few other outlets. (I also do have paid subscriptions to a few newsletters written by authors I admire, but I think of them more as being like Patreon subscriptions. And I'm in a financial position where I can afford to pay for both newspapers/magazines and also some other creators.) Right now is a crucial moment for real journalism, and we desperately need to strengthen it for our own sakes.
The other day, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Washington Post is struggling to win subscribers in the post-Trump era, because people are tuning out. (Is this the post-Trump era? Is it?) This scares me, almost as much as a bunch of other recent developments do. [Full disclosure: I have been a contributor to the Washington Post.]
Why am I writing a newsletter article to tell you to support newspapers instead of newsletters? It's pretty simple.
This past year has seen two big trends.
Democracy is being systematically shredded by, more or less, the same people who attacked the U.S. Capitol in January. Nineteen states have passed laws to make it harder for people to vote. And it's increasingly obvious that there's going to be a lot more Jan. 6-style violence, in response to the Big Lie about the 2020 election.
A lot of veteran opinion writers and other employees of newspapers and online magazines have left to go write for Substack and other newsletter sites like this one. And it seems like readers have followed — Substack now has a million paid subscribers. There is real journalism on Substack, but there's also a lot of opinion writing, by people who no longer have to worry about being fact-checked.
I'm sure there are plenty of newsletters covering the collapse of democracy — I myself subscribe to Heather Cox-Richardson's excellent Letters From an American — but I still get a lot more context and original reporting from reading the Post and Mother Jones. Off the top of my head, I've read some great articles that went in-depth into the history of right-wing militias, and the rancid "constitutional sheriff" movement, and exactly what the plausible options are for reforming the filibuster so we can pass voting rights legislation before it's too late. The most recent few issues of Mother Jones, in particular, have been essential reading. [Full disclosure: I wrote for Mother Jones back in 2007.]
And local journalism is even more endangered than the national kind, which means that politicians and business leaders in your area can pull whatever shenanigans they want, and you'll never even know (until it's too late.) That's why I support 48 Hills here in San Francisco, our main progressive publication and the heir to the San Francisco Bay Guardian's mantle.
And meanwhile, I'm afraid that my stereotype of a Substack writer is a cis white man who whines that the woke mob won't let him say whatever pops into his head. It's a cartoonish oversimplification to say that in the midst of an unprecedented crisis of democracy, a lot of white people are overly worried about the mythical beast called "cancel culture." But it's not entirely inaccurate, either.
Even if a newsletter writer is doing what Cox-Richardson does, painstakingly noting and explaining the rise of autocracy in America, chances are they are drawing on the original reporting being done elsewhere. If the original reporting is no longer financially viable, then those newsletters will, by necessity, become a lot less informative.
I got my start as a writer at newspapers, and I know first-hand how expensive it is to do real reporting. Especially reporting on stuff that powerful people don't want you to know about. Sometimes a reporter spends days, or weeks, chasing a lead that doesn't pan out. Sometimes you get handed some leaked documents, and you have to figure out if they're genuine — and sometimes, after you painstakingly check, you find that they're forgeries, and you nearly ran with a story that would have been easily debunked after the fact. (This has happened to me.)
Longtime Wall Street Journal investigative journalist Stanley Penn wrote an entertaining book called Have I Got a Tip For You. In one chapter, he talks about the time he spent months chasing a tip that then-vice president Dan Quayle had used cocaine, and that Quayle had pulled strings to get a cushy prison transfer for his alleged cocaine dealer. This would have been a major scandal, especially back then. Penn did everything he could to report out the story, but in the end he couldn't prove it, and the story was killed.
But even when journalism pans out, it's still incredibly labor-intensive, requiring hours and hours of reporting, followed by fact-checking, editing, etc. Especially given how trigger-happy the world's worst people are with lawsuits, and how devastating a lawsuit can be.
One example of successful, but labor-intensive, reporting is Mother Jones' piece on private prisons. Shane Bauer spent four months undercover as a guard in a private prison, in order to write a hair-raising expose. Soon afterward, the Obama administration announced it was ending its contracts with private prison companies—but when Donald Trump took office, he reversed this move, and the private prison industry made colossal profits under his administration. Mother Jones is now being hit with expensive lawsuits right and left by right-wing activists.
And that's the other thing that's expensive about journalism these days: defending against lawsuits.
I know first-hand how a lawsuit can destroy a media company, because I was still working at Gawker Media during the infamous Hulk Hogan lawsuit. Most legal observers seemed to agree that Gawker had a strong First Amendment case, and would likely have prevailed on appeal, but the case never made it to appeal. This was an extreme situation, but the ensuing carnage have had a noticeable chilling effect on every other media company in the United States, because it provided a roadmap on how to destroy a publication.
Back when I was a business journalist, I used to write about legal compliance a lot, and one attorney I talked to regularly would say that it's always better to avoid going to court if you can. He used to say: "You can beat the rap, but can you afford to take the ride?"
Before anyone says it, it's also true that a lot of political journalism has dug its own grave, by trying to be sports journalism. Which team is winning? Which team fumbled the ball? Which player has the best haircut or endorsement deal? Etc. And yeah, that's awful, when we're talking about life-or-death issues that affect millions of people — like whether abortion will remain legal, and whether working people will be able to take care of their kids. But there is still good journalism out there, if you know where to look.
And here's the thing. At mainstream news outlets like newspapers and magazines, opinion writing has always subsidized reporting to some extent. When I was right out of college, I subscribed to the local newspaper because that seemed like a thing grown-ups did, and I always flipped to the op-ed pages first. Reading a bunch of fire-breathing opinions got my blood flowing, made me feel righteous and activated. And then I would flip back to the front page and read the actual details about what was going on in the world. I still read the Plum Line and op-eds by people like Perry Bacon when I go to the Post's website. But I also make a point of reading the actual reporting.
The rise of Substack and other newsletter sites has basically continued a trend that started with a lot of professional blogs—peeling opinion writing away from fact-based reporting, and allowing people to support the former and not the latter. But right now, our democracy is at stake, and I'm asking you to support publications that do both.
Top image: Michael Newman (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
I've been a fan of jazzy Mandopop singer 9m88 ever since I heard her delightful guest vocals on "B.O." by ØZI and "SWAG午覺" by Outlander, back in 2018. Her debut album Beyond Mediocrity in 2019 was lovely, and used her Ella Fitzgerald-tinged voice to good effect. But the brand new EP, A Temporary Ensemble, is the record I've been waiting for from 9m88 (her name is pronounced "Joanne Baba.") As the name suggests, 9m88 has pulled together a jazz ensemble, featuring a xylophone player, and the result is a bit lounge-y but with a nice sharp edge to it. Three of the four songs on A Temporary Ensemble also appeared on Beyond Mediocrity, but I like these new versions way better. She's heavily influenced by Erykah Badu, D'Angelo, De La Soul, John Coltrane, and Sun Ra, and this new EP feels like she's making those influences her own. You can get A Temporary Ensemble on iTunes for just $1.99! I've been listening to it obsessively.
The return of the 10-minute eviction (Washington Post)
Cast Away: why Jeffrey Lieber has a credit on every episode of Lost (Chicago Magazine)