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Stacked against you
A Times columnist's move to Substack was aided by VIP treatment and comes with insulting metaphors.
Previously: The columnist leaves the court
David Aaronovitch's departure from The Times raises questions (and only one of them is about fake leather jackets)
This newsletter turns three years old on June 16. I started it with no budget, no advertising, no revenue, and no plan. It now has 9,445 subscribers overall, with 706 paid subscribers. The only advice I got from Substack on how to make this work came from the standard instructions. It has never paid me a penny I didn’t bring in myself and has never promoted my newsletter.
That’s okay; Substack is a platform and I’m happy with its tools and the network effects that come with it. I had an audience on Twitter and a reputation as a freelance journalist that brought me readers from day one and slowly helped me build the readership here. I’m grateful that you’re among them.
For ‘stars’ who come to Substack though the experience is different. When the company can lure a ‘big’ name columnist or reporter from a legacy media title, it will roll out the red pixel carpet in every way possible. While it is no longer giving out advances to lure hacks into this brave new world, recently ‘freed’ (read: sacked, shitcanned, surplus to requirements) journalists are given all sorts of extra support and guidance.
David Aaronovitch left The Times in a ‘pistol and glass of whiskey left on the table’ manner; he was cleared out to allow Tony ‘Gollum’ Gallagher to further put his stamp on the paper; crooked off stage so The Telegraph’s Juliet Samuel — who had worked with Gallagher before — could be allowed to do her soft-shoe crypto-fascist shuffle across the stage.
As I’ve written previously, like Nick ‘The Octopus’ Cohen before him, Aaronovitch must pretend that his arrival on Substack is something he has dreamed of for a long time and that he is now a free-minded independent, even as he spent 18 years at The Times sweatily assuring us that no one told him what to write.
He told Press Gazette that he was lured onto Substack by Farrah Storr, the former editor of Elle and Cosmopolitan UK who is now Substack’s head of writer partnerships in the UK. She’s also married to his friend Will Storr, the journalist and author who has written for numerous publications, including The Times.
Aaronovitch’s Substack recommendations to Press Gazette also show how much he sees it as a lifeboat or additional vessel for established figures:
What helped him get started was looking at “terrific” writers who were already on Substack. Aaronovitch singled out for praise Sam Freedman “who has suddenly gone from being a policy wonk to a really lucid commentator”, Joshua Rozenberg KC who he says is “wonderful for one-stop shops to try and understand what’s going on in the legal world”, and The Atlantic’s Helen Lewis who, he reveals, is the person he secretly wishes had replaced him at The Times as he describes her as “one of the most talented journalistic writers of our current generation”.
Sam Freedman (former advisor to ex-Times hack turned minister Michael Gove); Joshua Rozenberg KC (ex-BBC, husband of Times columnist Melanie Phillips); and Helen Lewis (The Atlantic,ex-New Statesman, a fellow Radio 4 contributor with Aaronovitch and his chosen successor).
Asked by Press Gazette if he would recommend Substack to other writers, Aaronovitch reaches for the most patronising analogy possible:
[It’s like] discovering a really nice holidaying place. Are you going to recommend it to everybody, so they all turn up? It’s really nice, it’s got all the amenities, et cetera, but it’s not overcrowded right now. You can still find, you know, plenty of room on the beach to have a swim. So are you going to write a great big piece saying everybody, you should get down to this beach because it is just fantastic…?
I don’t mind the gentrifiers coming that much but don’t pretend you discovered the sea or that nice little trattoria at the bottom of the hill. And best you don’t wander too far into this quarter, where the houses are rougher, the drinks are stronger, and Farrah Storr can’t give you a handy map to navigate by.
My problem with the Press Gazette interview came when Aaronovitch compared Substack to having “a dressing up box”. He might be playing around but I’ve been here for almost 3 years, putting together outfits that might, at first, appear clownish but are deadly serious.
That Press Gazette treated Aaronovitch as a freshly minted Substack expert with his three weeks of writing here and his extensive support from Storr shows again that the trade paper is often deeply unserious and more interested in sucking up to ‘stars’ and getting tables at its events sold than it is in reflecting the reality of journalism in Britain and beyond.
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