Our Favorite Newsletters of the Year

Aside from our own that is

Good day it’s Luke O’Neil from Welcome to Hell World. As I’m writing all of Google is down which is extremely annoying for anyone trying to get a newsletter off or preparing to teach a remote third grade class like everyone in my household is, but it’s also a pretty good reminder that maybe so much of the critical internet shouldn’t be in the hands of one virtual monopoly? Something to look into perhaps.

As we noted in here the other day, one of the things we find frustrating about Substack, the platform that we all use, is that they don’t do a good enough job highlighting lesser known newsletters. We thought this week we’d better put our money where are mouths are and share some of our own favorites. But first some other shit.

At least part of what I do over on my newsletter is highlight news stories meant to ruin everyone’s day, so please join me in spitting in the fucking faces of the trash people at the New York Post for running a piece this weekend about an emergency medic working for an ambulance company in the city who… also has an OnlyFans account on the side. The piece required the work of two whole reporters — Dean Balsamini and Susan Edelman — to attempt to shame a young woman, literally one of the frontline heroes we were all just so supportive of, and put her job in jeopardy.

“I know I did nothing wrong and I have nothing to be ashamed of,” the woman wrote on a GoFundMe that has been set up to support her in case she loses her job while taking care of her ailing father. “Most of the quotes in that article are me defending myself to this reporter. He did not include that I begged him to remain anonymous (which was never agreed to) and that I told him my safety and job were going to be at risk if he posted this article. He truly did not care.”

Nowhere in the Post story does it mention that it’s a fuckng outrage and an indictment of this piece of shit country that paramedics, the people we’ve entrusted to save our lives, do not make enough money, so they’re often forced into taking gig work on the side. Only in New York baby!! And also everywhere in America.

Speaking of which, in Hell World yesterday I pointed to another horrific failure of our country in the form of our continuously skyrocketing Covid deaths.

The seven day average of deaths in the United States this past week — including a new record of 3,000 in one day — was 2,249 per day. That amounts to 15,743 people dead from this virus within a single week. By comparison let us look to our neighbors to the north in Canada where they’ve suffered the loss of 13,350 of their people. Not in one week to be clear that’s over the entire course of the pandemic. We are lapping other countries almost weekly now we are the sickest dumbest fucks on earth.

That comes as millions of Americans will soon be in debt when it comes to back rent and 26 million are saying they do not have enough food.

I quoted at length from a speech given by Emma Goldman during the Panic of 1893, a severe economic depression that put millions out of work, which you can read over there if you like, but this quote, which many of you already know, is always worth repeating.

“Well, then, demonstrate before the palaces of the rich; demand work. If they do not give you work, demand bread. If they deny you both, take bread. It is your sacred right!”

I know the point of today’s Discontents was supposed to be sharing good newsletters we like, but before we do that real quick, take a look at this dog shit one you do not need to read unless you were meaning to smash your head in with a hammer today and you can’t remember where you left the hammer.

Ah ok never mind then!

A Lonely Impulse of Delight

Connor Wroe Southard

Last week I ended up writing about Never Let Me Go. In particular, I focused on how a quiet, unobtrusive, arguably rambling opening paragraph actually works:

The opening of Never Let Me Go will never be iconic. It’s the opposite of electric, and it’s not at all aphoristic or otherwise quotable. What it does do is subtly initiate us not only into the tensions within a world, but into the tensions within a character. Rambling becomes intrigue. Simple language becomes a cloak. We want to uncover what lies beneath.

I keep saying I’m going to write about a samurai movie, and I always find something else to write about. One of these days, I’ll actually do Sanjuro or Yojimbo, I promise. I’m taking this week off because I have too much going on and I don’t want to burn out on the newsletter, or do a bad one. But I’ll be back soon…

Others are going to introduce you to some great underrated newsletters. I have a few weird recs of my own:

  • Getting into this draft first means I get to be the first to suggest Nathan Tankus on finance and related policy. Here’s a particularly great explainer he did a few weeks ago.

  • Most of you probably aren’t Michigan football fans, but if you are—or if you just like good college football deep dives—Scott Bell is doing some interesting work.

  • Not on Substack, but a friend of mine recently launched a very interesting blog that centers on living in possibly the strangest apartment building in the United States. Highly recommend checking it out.

Wars of Future Past

Kelsey D. Atherton

This weekend my family drove 90 or so miles northwest of Albuquerque to collect a tree, stopping only briefly en route for a gas station bathroom. It was the farthest we’d traveled from home since the start of the pandemic. New Mexico is vast and beautiful and it is also profoundly under-resourced, and all roads out of Albuquerque pass through Indigenous land.

In the snow and the sun in the shadow of the Jemez, it was easy to forget the larger world. Some day, the masks on our faces in photo albums will mark the year, a novel entry point to our luck and privilege in enduring an entirely preventable tragedy. I used the occasion to write about nuclear war and Christmas.

It’s light, cheery, only a little bit about the pandemic.

Holding fast to our promise that Substack should be about introducing readers to writers they don't know yet, I want to point y’all to Friday Letters by Melissa Gira Grant.

Her latest newsletter offers more context on how Nick Kristof, Times columnist and Professional Concerned Man, failed to name the far-right group whose research drove his attack on online pornography. In a just world, such obvious malpractice should oblige Kristof to surrender his column to Gira Grant.

Welcome to Hell World

Luke O’Neil

  • Being a lapsed music journalist myself it’s hard for me to enjoy much music writing anymore but there’s something about Music Journalism Insider by Todd L. Burns, a sort of one-stop roundup of everything significant in music media in any given week, that keeps my attention. It’s also chock full of interviews with other music writers. Like, a lot of them. No idea how he does so many at once.

  • Fingers, the newsletter from Dave Infante, is largely focused on the spirits and drinking world, but it’s also got a very healthy muckraking streak to it, and reports on a lot of labor issues in the beverage industry that anyone who cares about working conditions will find fascinating whether or not you know what a double IPA is which I still do not to be honest.

  • Rave New World is a newsletter about drugs, nightlife, and politics by Michelle Lhooq, and it’s just a fascinating look at the overlap between parties and political protests around the country right now. Lhooq has done a great job being almost everywhere over the course of this tumultuous year bringing readers inside communities they might not otherwise have access to or even know exist.

  • All Cops Are Posters by Katie Way is not only a hilarious concept to begin with, but she also follows through with what it says on the can, rounding up some of the funniest, and most enraging, acts of capital-P Posting from the pigs.

  • The End of the World Review by Dana Snitzy covers a lot of ground, but by and large it’s a great resource for the literary-minded among us who might like to keep up on everything in the world of books, from essays and interviews to excerpts from forthcoming works.

Foreign Exchanges

Derek Davison

At Foreign Exchanges this week I covered the Trump administration’s latest diplomatic initiative on behalf of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, convincing the Moroccan government to normalize relations with Israel in exchange for US recognition of its claim on Western Sahara. As was the case for the “Abraham Accords,” this agreement doesn’t really change much practically-speaking, since Israel and Morocco already got along quite well regardless. But it does twist the knife a little deeper into the Palestinian cause and it also abandons any pretense of protecting the interests of the Sahrawi people in the name of Donald Trump’s legacy and Netanyahu’s political needs.

But enough about FX—what we’re really here to talk about is other newsletters you should be reading. Here are a few I like:

  • Diplomatic, by Laura Rozen: Some of you may know Laura’s work from Al-Monitor, or perhaps you recall when a former Obama administration flack referred to her Twitter account as “my RSS feed,” which I think was meant as a compliment though it came off a little dodgy. Laura is a tremendous reporter and her work on the negotiations around the 2015 Iran nuclear talks was for me at least the best reporting available at the time. Her Substack is a great source for US foreign policy news that isn’t filtered through the consent machine.

  • Cutting Through: I’ve been reading Mitchell Plitnick going back to my days as a freelancer writing for, then later editing, LobeLog. He offers a deeply thoughtful perspective on US foreign policy, Israel-Palestine, and US politics. I also want to say something about Peter Beinart’s The Beinart Notebook, which also covers Israel-Palestine and US foreign policy from the perspective of someone who’s come from a more interventionist perspective to embrace foreign policy restraint. I realize this is two recommendations in one, but if you think that’s cheating wait until you see what I do later in this list.

  • Roy Edroso Breaks it Down: If you lived through the intense fever dream that was the Bush 43 administration, which I genuinely thought was the worst this country’s politics could get until Trump came along, then you may already know Roy’s work from the Village Voice. He makes fun of people who deserve it and cuts through a lot of right wing bullshit at a time when both of those things are sorely needed.

  • Brutal South: Paul Bowers has been a journalist in South Carolina for several years. Here at Substack he writes and podcasts about life and politics in the American South, the state of journalism, and has even dabbled in fiction as well. Definitely worth checking out.

  • Local News: So this one is my big cheat. One of the areas where Substack has tried to position itself as an important asset has been in local news. It hasn’t caught on the way I think they’d hoped, and this is another area where I think it would behoove this site to do more to support smaller newsletters. But in an environment in which local media has been absolutely pulverized by consolidation and corporatization, I do think there’s potential for a site like Substack to fill the breach—it’s not a perfect solution to this growing problem, but it could be part of a bigger solution. There are reporters covering local beats on Substack right now, but they need support. Please go to the main Substack page and search for “local news” or for a particular community and see who’s out there doing that work. And if you can, please subscribe and/or share their newsletter and help them build their audience base.

Air Gordon pt. 2

Jeremy Gordon

Hello, it’s been a while, though I promise it’s not due to laziness; instead I’ve mostly been busy with work, that thing that provides money to pay for good and services. My new newsletter is a round-up of what I wrote in 2020, in case you’d like to catch up on some of that work, with hopes of returning to form in 2021.

  • Luke already covered Music Journalism Insider, so my picks for favorite newsletters are: Blackbird Spyplane, Jonah Weiner and Erin Wylie’s dizzying fashion newsletter that’s always in on some joke I barely understand; TrueHoop, Henry Abbott’s basketball newsletter that revives his old ESPN pen name to present some of the most engaging and informed basketball analysis around; The Compilation Album, the one-stop shop for all things Justin Charity now that he’s no longer on Twitter; Foster Talk, Foster Kamer’s sprawling media newsletter that is so insidery and gossipy that even saying I like it could put me on someone’s shit list, but every issue could either break some gigantic story that everyone in media knows about but isn’t willing to say out loud, or lead to Foster’s complete exit from polite society. A truly exhilarating range of possibilities, for the neutral reader.

Perspectives: Past, Present, and Future

Patrick Wyman

This week I wrote about East Asia in prehistory, from its first hominin inhabitants up to the dawn of agriculture. People have lived there for a long time, including the mysterious Denisovans, a previously unknown species that interbred with ancient humans and which we know almost entirely through ancient DNA. I’ll have a follow-up shortly talking about how people domesticated rice and millet and laid down the foundations of societies that survive in East Asia to the present day. On an entirely different note, I wrote a long essay on bro culture and American ethnonationalism.

I wish I had more Substacks to highlight, but I can only recommend my two favorites: first, as Connor mentioned, Nathan Tankus’s invaluable Notes on the Crises, which makes finance accessible to laypeople and has some real cutting insights into the economic state of the world; and second, the historian Anton Howes’s Age of Invention, on the British Industrial Revolution.

The Flashpoint

Eoin Higgins

The Lincoln Project's Steve Schmidt—a former Dick Cheney aide who helped deliver Sarah Palin to the country in 2008—tweeted late Friday night an appeal to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to join the group "in defense of democracy," whatever that means. 

I'm not going to go over all the reasons that this is stupid or why Ocasio-Cortez shouldn't join their grift. This tweet sums up my position:

What I am going to say is that Schmidt's claim that he and the other Lincoln Project men are "the types of guys who always tip at 50% or more" is the kind of bullshit braggadocio that indicates that they tip 15% at best. 

I worked for two decades in the service industry, you get a sense for these kind of things. The Lincoln Project guys are the type of "guest" (read: customer in restaurant industry speak) that get a little too familiar and then tip right on the line. The boasting about tipping 50%? That's a bribe to ensure service staff stay overly attentive, and one that’s never delivered on. 

Anyway, this week I wrote about Tulsi Gabbard, the outgoing Democratic congresswoman from Hawaii whose recent actions indicate she's going all in on social conservatism. The reason, I opine, is a pivot to the right for her future political career.

I recommend readers check out Tom Scocca's Hmm Weekly, which has all kinds of well written and interesting articles, and Amy Brown's hey it's amy.

The Insurgents

Jordan Uhl & Rob Rousseau

This week the tragic story of Brandon Bernard’s execution made international headlines, so we did a deep dive into the details of the case with The Intercept senior reporter Liliana Segura. We talked about why the story attracted so much attention, Donald Trump’s obscene rush to execute as many death row inmates as possible before he leaves office, how it all fits into the broader context of America’s brutal and bipartisan criminal justice system, and what activists are doing to push back.

We also debate the merits of a plan being floated by certain progressive commentators to force Nancy Pelosi into holding a vote on Medicare For All.

And for our Substack recommendation, friend of the show Matthew Gault runs Angry Planet, a newsletter and podcast that examines foreign affairs and global militarization with a critical eye. A must read (& listen).


Gaby Del Valle & Felipe De La Hoz

Trump’s got less than a month in office, and he (and Stephen Miller, that weird little ghoul) clearly plan on causing as much fucking chaos as they can until then. Last week, we wrote about a new, expansive asylum rule that will sharply limit access to protections in the U.S. We also looked at the immigration courts’ insistence on staying open amid the pandemic, leading to more infections, inevitable court closures, and hearing postponements for immigrants in deportation proceedings, and at the latest DACA news.

All of that sucks. All of this sucks, constantly. (Actually, the DACA news is pretty good—the government has to process new applications for the first time since 2017—but the fact that DACA exists rather than, say, the DREAM Act, also sucks.) Now on to some things that don’t suck: newsletters I think are cool.

First up is Alicia Kennedy’s newsletter, which is about food and labor but also about capitalism and The Way We Live Today. I’ve learned so much from her, and she’s also an incredible writer.

I also love Meredith Haggerty’s Heir Mail, which is about heirs and heiresses, but mostly heiresses, obscene wealth, capitalism, etc. It’s so good and so funny.

Discourse Blog

Jack Crosbie (representing the whole group).

When reached for comment for this post, Discourse Blog editor Jack Mirkinson said “Good newsletters that aren’t Discourse Blog? I don’t understand the question.” While that is a good own, fortunately I do understand the question.

In the past few months I’ve really enjoyed Nathan Tankus’s Notes on the Crisis, which breaks down exactly why the economy is fucked for working people in both a stunning amount of detail and a readable format. (Just scrolled up. Everyone loves Nathan. Great, so do we.)

We’re also fans of ExxonKnews, which covers legal challenges to Big Oil and the greater fossil fuel industry overall.

Over in our world, I want to highlight Paul Blest’s phenomenal review of Barack Obama’s latest book, as well as Sam Grasso’s piece on the depressing future of the Postal Service’s Operation Santa program.

Ok that’s all for today. While we’re here please enjoy the anniversary of this glorious moment in history.

Rest in peace to Charley Pride.