Matt Yglesias Leaving Vox for Substack

A trend continues.

I was surprised to see today’s announcement by the longtime blogger and political commenter that he’s leaving a publication he co-founded for the freedom (and risk!) of Substack.

Today is my last day as a senior correspondent at Vox.com (still hosting The Weeds though!). I love Vox, but there was an inherent tension between my status as a co-founder of the site and my desire to be a fiercely independent and at times contentious voice.

My first media love is blogging, and while Vox has evolved over the years into many things, it is really not a blog.

Substack offers the opportunity to create genuinely social media not stuff driven by algorithms, virality, tech platforms, or fads — and I’m incredibly excited to throw my hat in the ring with a new publication I’m calling Slow Boring.

Yglesias is the latest of the old-school bloggers to make the move to substack, joining Andrew Sullivan and Glenn Greenwald. But, while those two are well-known controversialists with well-earned reputations for pissing people off, Yglesias is at heart a centrist policy wonk. Indeed, Sullivan for years offered an award in his honor to recognize “writers, politicians, columnists or pundits who actually criticize their own side, make enemies among political allies, and generally risk something for the sake of saying what they believe.”

But, perhaps, in the current climate that’s no longer tolerable. Like Sullivan, Yglesias was a signatory to the much-ballyhooed Harper’s article calling for toleration of free expression and decrying cancel culture. While seemingly innocuous, it was widely denounced on the left as implicitly providing cover for racists and transphobic individuals. A trans Vox staffer complained that Ygelias’ signature created a hostile work environment and multiple Vox writers, including Zach Beauchamp, wrote strong pieces denouncing it.

Fellow co-founder and editor-at-large Ezra Klein apparently issued an edict for Vox staffers to stop fighting with one another publicly about the matter, seemed to subtweet Yglesias after that, and then denied that was his intent (I took him at his word). Regardless, Yglesias deleted a series of tweets on the matter.

I knew Matt and Ezra a little bit a long time ago, in the early days of blogging, and hope they indeed remain friends. But, as Yglesias has long acknowledged, while they both started as bloggers and public intellectuals, Klein has become something much more. He’s an entrepreneur with a brand to protect and, like it or not, there’s simply less room for deviation from the orthodoxy in the current climate.

To be clear: neither Klein nor Yglesias were ever hard left even by the standards of Democrats of their generation (they’re 36 and 39, respectively). They’re both solid analysts well worth a read by people across the political spectrum. But, even in his early 20s, Klein was always much more circumspect than Yglesias as to how his writing would land. Yglesias, like Sullivan, has always come across as someone who writes prolifically about whatever interests him, unafraid of offending orthodox sensibilities or of changing his mind the next day.

Given that sensibility, I understand the desire for a return to the complete freedom of blogging. He’s spent close to two decades building himself into a brand, so it’s conceivable that he’ll be able to make a living through donations on Substack.

UPDATE (14 November): Conor Friedersdorf interviews Yglesias to get more insights into the move.

His managers wanted him to maintain a “restrained, institutional, statesmanlike voice,” he told me in a phone interview, in part because he was a co-founder of Vox. But as a relative moderate at the publication, he felt at times that it was important to challenge what he called the “dominant sensibility” in the “young-college-graduate bubble” that now sets the tone at many digital-media organizations.

[…]

n our interview, Yglesias explained why pushing back against the “dominant sensibility” in digital journalism is important to him. He said he believes that certain voguish positions are substantively wrong—for instance, abolishing or defunding police—and that such arguments, as well as rhetorical fights over terms like Latinx, alienate many people from progressive politics and the Democratic Party.

“There’s been endless talk since the election about House Democrats being mad at the ‘Squad,’ and others saying, ‘What do you want, for activists to just not exist? For there to be no left-wing members of Congress?'” Yglesias told me. “But there’s a dynamic where there’s media people who really elevated the profile of [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] and a couple of other members way above their actual numerical standing.”

Many outlets, he argued, are missing something important. “The people making the media are young college graduates in big cities, and that kind of politics makes a lot of sense to them,” he said. “And we keep seeing that older people, and working-class people of all races and ethnicities, just don’t share that entire worldview. It’s important to me to be in a position to step outside that dynamic … That was challenging as someone who was a founder of a media outlet but not a manager of it.”

There’s more there, including Friedersdorf’s thoughts on the climate of debate.

FILED UNDER: Media
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Jay L Gischer says:

    Sigh. I do understand the desire to escape the oppression of “the algorithm”. For sure.

    I am certainly not interested, though, in paying to read the daily writings of Greenwald, Sullivan or yes, Matthew Yglesias. It’s not like I don’t have the money. It’s just that I don’t see any of them as adding much value.

    In Yglesias’ case, I read him and nod along, but it is rare that he will make me go, “Oh, I didn’t think of that. Good point!” I will get that from Ezra Klein sometimes. Maybe Matthew is too much like me?

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  2. Sleeping Dog says:

    It seems that Yglesias has been writing less at Vox in the past year as I haven’t noticed his by-line as frequently. Even forgot he was a founder. But like @Jay L Gischer:, can’t imagine subscribing to them, there is a lot of opinion and analysis on the web and I’m pretty satisfied with the sources I am subscribing to.

    Good luck to them though

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  3. James Joyner says:

    @Jay L Gischer: In addition of being more calculating in how things will land, Ezra is also a deep-dive guy. He spent years specializing in healthcare and later in polarization. Matt, on the other hand, provides smart reactions to a whole lot of issues but at a much more superficial level. (And, indeed, I do more of that, at least in my blog/Twitter presence.) That’s less likely to provide unique insight.

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  4. MarkedMan says:

    I like both Klein and Yglesias.

    He’s an entrepreneur with a brand to protect

    One thing that doesn’t get enough appreciation is just how much pressure there is on an executive to actually deliver on the business side of things (and I’m not talking only or even primarily money here) and how much all these other issues take away from that. Some of them have to be dealt with and need that time – actual sexual harassment, for example. But when you have a team full of adults who simply get cross wise of each other and start sniping, you have a few choices. You can spend hours and hours of precious time trying to get them to resolve their issues so everyone can get back in the game. You can fire everyone and start over and try to live with the chaos that ensues. You can spend hours trying to get to the bottom of all the issues, pick who you think is most in the right, and “manage out” (i.e. slowly fire) the other(s). If there is no clear or obvious right or wrong and the sides can’t act as professionals, you can just go by weighing each factions worth to the organization and “manage out” the ones that are worth less. None of these options are good and none of them contribute to the actual purpose of the organization, but that’s the choices managers face. The general public likes to pretend everyone in a business has infinite time to devote to these things and can put aside their regular job while they are dealt with, but that’s just fantasy.

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  5. Andy says:

    At this rate, Substack will be like Taco Bell in Demolition Man.

    Seriously though, I much, much prefer the long-form style that the substack format promotes, as opposed to the clickbaity and overedited content that dominates most outlets. And let’s not even speak of the cancer that is Twitter.

    This actually doesn’t surprise me at all. It’s been clear for some time Yglesias and Vox were going in different directions. I wish him well.

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  6. MarkedMan says:

    I think this is also an indication of the end of the investor’s money. NY Magazine, Slate, and Salon seem to be 30% “Look at these deals and if you click to buy we get a cut”, 30% transcribed interviews that are about ten times longer than the content was worth, 30% Sexy Aunt Agony letters (“My male partner wants to use sex toys but our female third says they represent gender repression. I’m torn! What should I do?!”) That last 10% of actual content is getting harder and harder to find. I’m not blaming them – once the checks stop coming in EVERYONE gets sent home.

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  7. Gustopher says:

    Looks like his hair departed for Substack a long time ago. I hope they are reunited. Ok, seriously though, since he is still going to be on “The Weeds”, I won’t notice. Vox has print? They aren’t just podcasts?

    @Andy:

    And let’s not even speak of the cancer that is Twitter

    Then you would love Matt Yglesias’s twitter! It’s 90% trolling twitter liberals. Very subtle trolling to “no Latinos actually use Latinx as a word, it was invented in Ivory towers by white people.”

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  8. EddieInCA says:

    @Jay L Gischer:

    I am certainly not interested, though, in paying to read the daily writings of Greenwald, Sullivan or yes, Matthew Yglesias. It’s not like I don’t have the money. It’s just that I don’t see any of them as adding much value.

    Exactly. While I do enjoy the occasional bits from all of them, they offer only opinions – none which are any different than 100’s of others. I’d rather read wr, Reynolds, Joyner, Taylor, Mu, Ozark, and the rest of the motley crew here. Sullivan has been more wrong than right the last decade, and Greenwald is a crank to the nth degree. Yglesias offers me nothing I can’t get on twitter from many others.

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  9. Gustopher says:

    Like Sullivan, Yglesias was a signatory to the much-ballyhooed Harper’s article calling for toleration of free expression and decrying cancel culture. While seemingly innocuous, it was widely denounced on the left as implicitly providing cover for racists and transphobic individuals.

    Well, it did provide cover for bigots. Just like the BDS provides cover for antisemetic bigots. That doesn’t mean either is entirely wrong, just that you have to be careful. (I think the current Israeli government is on a path that can only lead to atrocities, and atrocities never really work out for the Jews, so I support the goals of BDS, but not all my so-called allies)

    I think Yglesias was very much in the wrong on that letter. But that he had good intentions.

    How much you tolerate intolerance is an open question with a big fuzzy boundary. It only really becomes clear with nazis — you punch nazis, you don’t engage them and risk normalizing them.

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  10. Andy says:

    @Gustopher:

    Then you would love Matt Yglesias’s twitter! It’s 90% trolling twitter liberals. Very subtle trolling to “no Latinos actually use Latinx as a word, it was invented in Ivory towers by white people.”

    I very rarely even look at Twitter anymore – maybe a couple of times a month. But I don’t have to because so much political content is just tweet embeds combined with some “analysis” like how 20k likes makes something “viral.”

    But his “trolling” of Twitter liberals is likely a big reason he’s leaving now on his own terms before he’s kicked out as a heretic.

  11. Kathy says:

    Maybe it’s because I’ve been on the internet since before it was popular, or maybe I’m too cheap (always possible), or maybe there are other sources, but I’ve yet to pay a cent for an online subscription for content, other than streaming TV and books (ebooks and audiobooks)

    Paying for individual columnists strikes me as bizarre.

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  12. EddieInCA says:

    @Kathy:

    Paying for individual columnists strikes me as bizarre.

    Bingo.

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  13. MarkedMan says:

    @EddieInCA: Hmm. The old models are failing. The “New Things” are failing. If there is a demand for their output there will be a market somewhere. I wish them all the luck in the world.

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  14. Dutchgirl says:

    I read the departure/welcome post, which was fine. But then in the comments, Yglesias makes some rather silly arguments, for example about Prohibition and gun rights. Not impressed.

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  15. Kathy says:

    @MarkedMan:

    There’s a ton of content few people pay a cent for. Podcasts make do with ads and donations, and few make a living off that.

    I pay a subscription to Audible and to Scribd. The latter lets you download as many audiobooks, ebooks, magazine articles, and documents as you want (at least I’ve found no limits, though I don’t download that much monthly). The former includes one credit, which is good for any audiobook in the store, and the new Audible Plus selection (which is vast but tends to be shallow).

    I see the future more like Scribd, especially as Audible, the Amazon-owned 800 lb gorilla in the room, is moving in that direction. I hope authors get paid enough.

    Audible is about $15 and Scribd like $9. I’d pay even more than that for a service that offered unlimited title per month, or even a large amount, say 50, assuming it held rights to every book ever published (or at any rate such books I’m interested in which I can’t find anywhere).

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  16. Andy says:

    Personally, I think this is pointing to the future of a lot of journalism and the circular firing squad in progressive journalism right now is only hastening that. That more and more writers see the need to establish their own independence is indicative of problems with the existing models. It also reminds me a bit of the music industry.

    Young people who’ve grown up on Twitch and similar platforms will understand Substack very well. And it’s also good for many writers. Sullivan, Greenwald and others there have “tens of thousands” of subscribers each – at $5/month that adds up to a pretty nice income that comes on top of the huge benefit of journalistic independence.

    MY certainly has enough name recognition and following to do very well there.

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  17. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Much ado about nothing.

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  18. Modulo Myself says:

    Dreams of success on Substack are the equivalent of Fuck You money. A few will get it and boy howdy does a guy Glenn Greenwald like to spend it, but it is not sustainable as a model for journalists who have to survive in this world. You can’t treat an editor (or boss) like Greenwald did to his, basically, and you can’t run the con that Sullivan does, i.e. just asking endless numbers of non-racist questions about the IQ and penis size of black people.

    For example, I logged into Facebook and the first thing that came up was a high-school classmate posting a screenshot of a message to her from another classmate. The just is–she has a child who is trans and this other guy went out of his way to lecture her about there being only two genders. She unfriended him and then he continued to go after her. He said he was a Christian and not a transphobe but there are only two genders. She told him to go fuck himself and asked everyone who was his friend to defriend him.

    I’m sure in the psycho world of cancel culture this guy is complaining about being cancelled. All he did, after all, was act like every piece of shit who is paid to act like that on the internet about trans people or woke progressive or whatever and how oppressive their ‘ideology’ is. But in real life, where you aren’t getting paid to be a bigot, that stuff has social consequences.

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  19. Andre Kenji de Sousa says:

    There is the cliché joke that Substack is Onlyfans for ugly people, but I don’t see how this is going to be sustainable. There are plenty of free hot takes and free porn all over the internet. You are basically paying for takes, not for that Lima or La Paz bureau(Just to point two places where there are relevant news happening right now but very few foreign correspondents there).

    And there is the elephant in the room, editing.

    Old school blogging worked in part because in general people would write short posts – Greenwald long posts were repetitive and tiring precisely because they lacked proper editing. He left The Intercept because he did not want to be edited, but it’s easy to see that from his Bushloving days his work required editors.

    With Substack there are no editors, no copydesk no fact-checking. It’s easy to see that these things are missing from reading what Taibbi and Andrew Sullivan are posting there.

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  20. Teve says:

    I stopped reading Yglesias many years ago. He’s a Harvard grad who has trouble spellings words. I’m betting his dad had money.

  21. James Joyner says:

    @Teve:

    I stopped reading Yglesias many years ago. He’s a Harvard grad who has trouble spellings words. I’m betting his dad had money.

    He grew up in the age of spellcheck and dashing off quick thoughts on blogs and Twitter. He’s just sloppy on first draft. I’m a pretty decent self-editor and nonetheless find lots of typos and the like on my posts here–and I even have Grammarly installed.

    But, yes, he comes from privilege: “Yglesias’s father Rafael Yglesias is a screenwriter and novelist . . . . His paternal grandparents were novelists Jose Yglesias and Helen Yglesias (née Bassine).”

  22. de stijl says:

    Not only was Greenwald underedited, he was always insufferably correct.

    Any divergent opinion was wrong and evil.

    He has always been an asshole. He has been a crackpot. It was there in the beginning.