June 10, 2021   6 mins

What really illustrates the difference between American and British journalists is the case of Ghislaine Maxwell. Jeffrey Epstein’s “partner” — the most wanted woman in the world by July 2020 — was found by the FBI sequestered in a luxurious New Hampshire compound. If Maxwell had been in Hampshire, England, a crack squad of hacks would have been going through her bins before she’d made her first trip to the supermarket. Then the hooting front page: “PEDO MAXWELL’S HAMPSHIRE HIDEAWAY” — justice done. Another superb day for the British tabloids.

The cream of American journalism was not much interested in slathering itself over the Maxwell story last summer. They were more invested in tone-policing each other’s language, or playing the game of labelling their colleagues racist following the murder of George Floyd.

Star byline American hacks are so much grander than their British cousins. They are celebrated, and become celebrities. In Britain the successful journalist is the one who has enough money to (finally) fix their boiler next month. Maybe, after nearly losing their mind several times, and surrendering all their hair to a stress-related-disorder, they scratch together the words for a political thriller that nobody reads. If they’re really, truly successful they move to America. In the land of the bald eagle, the British accent — even if it’s a Welsh one — makes them sound attractive, funny and clever.

American journalists want to be liked. They think of themselves, in the good guys busting the corrupt guys Watergate tradition, as ethical. British journalists would certainly like to be more ethical, but deep down I suspect that many of them would still hack a grieving mother’s phone if you gave them a promise from an editor and the assurances of a lawyer.

Anyway, all those battles over racism in the US press in 2020 did have one major consequence: a flock of big American journalists fled their perches at the biggest papers and magazines. Famous old classical liberal journalists like Andrew Sullivan exchanged berths in the mainstream media for new homes at the subscription newsletter service Substack. And the consequence of that move is to make US journalism resemble British journalism — albeit the British journalism of the 18th century.

Substack was founded in 2017 by Chris Best, Jairaj Sethi, and Hamish McKenzie. Each is a parody of the Silicon Valley tech bro, a type that in my imagination eats cicada tacos for lunch and speculates on the impact of Bitcoin on developing economies after dinner. Ultramodern then. But Substack, an online platform that provides writers with the infrastructure to send newsletters to paying subscribers, isn’t modern at all. It’s a throwback. Best, Sethi and McKenzie’s use of new-ish technology is retrieving and reviving an old form of publishing: the 18th century literary periodical.

In the 18th century there were no hard borders between philosophy, journalism, memoirs, confessions, sermons, travelogues, ephemera, satires, screeds, and squibs. London publishing was like one of those pictures of a murky pre-Cambrian swamp, swarming with colourful oddities and crudely formed clusters of life. There was little distinction between fiction and non-fiction; personal prejudice was indistinguishable from social critique. There was, thank God, not a data journalist in sight. Objectivity was less important than fantasy.

The most popular form of all in this period was the periodical literary essay, which survived well into the 19th century. These short essays were driven by personalities. Like Substack’s top newsletters today, they were sold to the public on the reputational strength of superstar writers who were not above satirising each other.

There was Richard Steele’s Tatler (1709-11), a breezy gossip rag, and Joseph Addison’s Spectator (1711-12), which spied on politicians in coffee houses. Dr Johnson published The Rambler (1750-2) and The Idler (1758-60) as homes for his most meandering, self-conscious essays. The periodicals were about taste, war, history, manners, and fashion — the news in other words — but through a lens that was semi-fictional. The writers usually performed a character. So, Dr Johnson was not Dr Johnson, but “The Rambler” — a man with his own peculiar notions, his own unique, desultory angle on the world. The most successful periodicals, and this is the case with Substacks too, were defined by the character of the writer and the strength of their voice.

Whether any of it was true or not was beside the point. The 18th century politician, diarist and letter writer Horace Walpole can be found moaning somewhere that journalism was full of “nothing but lies, every one of which fifty persons could contradict and disprove”.

As James Boswell, Johnson’s biographer and a periodical essayist himself with The Hypochondriak (1777-83) announced: “We may be in some degree whatever character we choose.” The periodical writers were offering more than information to their readers. They offered their public a fantasy persona to read about. If the Mail Online sidebar has taught us anything about human nature at all, it is that people enjoy feasting on the lives of others. The ups, the downs, the pratfalls, the implosions, the HR-bothering opinions. Objective news cannot compete with fleshy human drama, or splenetic POVs — the key insight shared by Substack, which is full of writers feuding with other writers, and the literary periodicals.

One critic of Substack has described America’s digital media ecosystem as a “feudal structure”. Here “highly charismatic knights” — like say, Matt Taibbi, who has an enormous Substack following — are the winners who take it all. An interesting idea, but it would be difficult to find a time when this wasn’t;’t true. Public taste in the 21st century is as unpredictable as it was in the 18th century. Then, as now, those who invested in writing and publishing looked for safe returns and backed pedigreed racers. At the top of the industry, whichever century you choose to look at, you will always find a blessed, golden circle of proven champs.

For every Dr Johnson selling out his Rambler and Matthew Yglesias with his tens of thousands of Substack subscribers, there will always be a dozen writers sinking into penury, disgrace and madness. The age of the literary periodical was the age of Grub Street too. This semi-mythical area of London was immiserated and impoverished, garrisoned by a cast of indigent poets, semi-literate dead beats, half-professional plagiarists, their tarts and the bailiffs who were out to hunt them down. William Hogarth could have spent his entire career drawing endless versions of his The Distressed Poet (1737).

Ambition was the evil star that burned over Grub Street. The vast surplus pool of writerly labour drove wages down (a painful phenomenon that anyone who makes a living by their words will recognise immediately). One writer summed it up with true journalistic melodrama in 1758: “there is no Difference between the Writer in his Garret, and the Slave in the Mines;… Both have their Tasks assigned to them alike: Both must drudge and starve; and neither can hope for Deliverance.”

Only the names have changed since then. Today’s starving journalists live in overpriced flats in London’s Hackney or Brooklyn’s Williamsburg. They dream of topping the Substack leaderboard; they’ll be lucky to crank out five listicles a day for Buzzfeed. Even at The New Yorker — the journalistic equivalent of Mount Olympus — just the other day the junior staff were threatening to go on strike. Outside Anna Wintour’s house they chanted, “Bosses wear Prada, workers get nada!” Wintour could sack them all right now and replace each and every one of them before breakfast tomorrow.

It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that the mental agony of journalism has always been something that journalism refers back to. (Here’s a Substack about that by Freddie de Boer, who is very much in the winner’s enclosure of the platform.) “We should not find it astonishing,” wrote Max Weber years ago, “that so many journalists have gone off the rails or have otherwise lost their value as human beings.”

Journalists today — largely due to recency bias — imagine that they have it harder, and that their careers are that much tougher, due to the ruthless competition fostered by Substack, or other platforms like Twitter. They might feel like they need to talk about their mental health (fair enough), but they — I hope — have never been paid for their articles with loaves of bread, like their ancestors in Grub Street often were.

Johnson’s Rambler, just like the discussion around Substack across the American press, served as a meta-commentary on the struggles of journalism itself. The world is endlessly competitive writes Johnson, who rose from the depths of Grub Street to the top of his profession: “Every one wishes for the distinctions for which thousands are wishing at the same time.” There is only ever a scarce supply of fame, so success necessarily entails victory over others. Otherwise, all that remained for the failed writer was, as Johnson put it in a poem: “Toil, envy, want, the patron, and the jail.”

Substack is taking American journalists — and inevitably, British ones — back to Johnson’s world. It is not very hard to imagine a scurrilous Rod Liddle newsletter, once he has finally nuked himself in the pages of The Sunday Times. Perhaps the most promising development for Substack on this side of the Atlantic is Joshi Herrmann’s Manchester Mill. Hermann is using Substack to create a thoughtful, ultra-local, story-driven paper that serves Manchester alone. Barely a year old, it’s already better than any local newspaper in Britain.

Still, if there’s any lesson in the similarities between Substack and the literary periodicals, it’s that trends run in cycles, not straight lines. Substack won’t last forever, even if it is generating a flurry of attacks on it from envious, non-Substack writers now. It will be lame eventually. That’s what happened to the periodicals.

In Barchester Towers (1857) Anthony Trollope pokes fun at a moth-eaten country squire who possesses a complete set of Dr Johnson’s periodicals. He yacks on about how The Idler is superior to anything produced before or since. In forty years there’ll be a hack talking about Substack like that, and another hack taking the piss out of them for it.