McKenzie focuses his emotions through the lens of Luke O'Neil, a writer he personally recruited to Substack. O'Neil’s “Welcome to Hell World” newsletter
would go on to be not just brilliant, but a big financial success. McKenzie describes O'Neil with journalistic detachment, but clear admiration–and an emphasis on his own proximity:
I was there to convince him to start a newsletter. Luke’s friend Judd Legum, who had recently started Popular Information, thought Luke could do well on Substack because of his distinctive voice, cracked sense of humor, and livewire Twitter presence. Luke wore a fitted baseball cap and smoked cigarettes as if it were 1994. Tattoos crawled over his arms.
Over cocktails, I gave him my best pitch.
McKenzie might have been a businessman trying to land a client, but he wants you to know he was also out drinking with a Cool Guy at a bar in his hometown. McKenzie was talking shop, writer-to-writer, with an influential chronicler of late-capitalist America.
His pitch was right over the plate: A handful of mega-outlets were devouring the news-media ecosystem, book publishers had consolidated to squeeze more profits out of authors and staffers, and it was harder than ever for freelancers to make a living consistent and comfortable enough to focus on doing the work.
“It was a shitty time to be a writer,” McKenzie writes. It still is.
McKenzie went on to hold up O'Neil’s success as proof Substack could change everything.
But McKenzie didn’t really want to change everything.
As we sit here blogging, U.S. state and local governments are trying to separate queer parents and/or kids, gender-affirming health care, forbid trans kids from playing in sports, and even take LGBTQ+ books off the shelves of libraries and bookstores alike. It’s a movement of hate platformed online and enabled by media executives too chickenshit pass up the clicks.
Yet McKenzie’s post contains all the same giant obvious dots everyone else connected, albeit obfuscatingly scattered around the post. He also added a big one: An admission Substack saw the rise of MAGA not as a threat to the progressive platform they’d built, but an opportunity to stop being progressive.
“For a while, we worried that Substack’s left-wing lean would make the platform an unwelcoming place for people with different points of view,” he admitted.
“We could attract great writers, get them set up with thriving businesses, and sometimes we’d even make money on the deals,” he said about their Substack Pro concept.
“In the space of a few months,” he later added, as if it was some kind of accident, “[Bari] Weiss, [Andrew] Sullivan, and [Glenn] Greenwald subsequently moved to Substack and massively increased their income and influence.”
Throughout the criticism, McKenzie and PR chief Lulu Meservey have pretend Substack’s policies of secrecy around Pro are hand-tying laws of nature.
If the world can’t prove any particular writer was given a six-figure check from Substack, Inc., they think, we can’t criticize them for platforming (and profiting off of) a bunch of odious right-wingers directly responsible for fomenting this civil-rights rollback: