Substack Hires Google Alum, Media Law Veteran as Legal Chief

Aug. 23, 2021, 9:32 AM

Substack Inc., a subscription-based online media company that’s assembled a stable of high-profile writers, added its first-ever legal chief last month in Tim Hwang.

Hwang said he joined Substack working remotely as the startup’s general counsel in mid-July, having most recently advised the company while working in private practice as a name partner at Rosen, Wolfe & Hwang in San Francisco.

Substack’s new top lawyer once spent two years working in the public policy division at Alphabet Inc.’s Google, where he took the lead on artificial intelligence and machine learning. Hwang said that position often had him interacting with governments and policy makers.

Hwang’s move to Substack, which had not been publicly disclosed, comes after he spent four years in private practice. During that time Hwang became familiar with freedom of the press and ethics matters, as well as the thicket of legal issues related to online advertising and the internet.

Bloomberg Businessweek reported in February on the substantial growth of Substack’s business within the past year. Top scribes on Substack’s platform include Matthew Yglesias, Bari Weiss, Matt Taibbi, Andrew Sullivan, and David Lat, founder of the legal news website Above the Law.

Writers can earn well over $1 million per year working for Substack, which has more than 500,000 paying subscribers, according to Bloomberg Businessweek.

Substack closed a $65 million in Series B financing earlier this year and was valued at $650 million after that fundraising. Andreessen Horowitz, a venture capital firm, led the fundraising and has also backed other media startups, like the audio-focused Clubhouse. That company made one of its first in-house legal hires this year after a Series C fundraising that valued the company at $4 billion.

A “collision of interests” drew Hwang to Substack, a newsletter-focused platform founded in 2017, he said. Much of the work Hwang was doing for the San Francisco-based company at his small law firm involved technology and transactions, he said.

Media law and policy have also become personally interesting to Hwang, who published a book last year looking at the potential problems posed by programmatic advertising in the media space. Hwang noted that Substack, whose business model is based solely on subscriptions, could emerge as an interesting case study in how online media could have evolved differently within the last decade.

“There’s a question of how the law can play a role in reshaping some of those norms and policies that have guided the media industry for a really long time,” Hwang said. “The big belief at Substack is that writers can make it in building these small—and sometimes quite large—media businesses for themselves.”

Solo at Substack

Hwang is currently the sole lawyer at Substack. The purpose of having in-house lawyers is to “facilitate the business,” he said, adding that there are no immediate plans to expand the legal group. That will likely come as Substack expands, he said. Hwang declined to discuss the outside law firms advising the company.

Asked about Substack’s competition, Hwang said he sees his new employer’s rivals as the large social media companies, not the likes of Google or Amazon.com Inc.

In January, Twitter Inc. bought newsletter publisher Revue, as the acquirer sought to expand its network and give more services to writers on its platform. Facebook Inc. announced this summer plans for its own newsletter product called Bulletin.

Hwang said he isn’t worried.

“Maybe the ad-driven, social-media based platform that seems to be driving everybody nuts and making them feel terrible is maybe not a good model for community and discussion online,” he said.

Hwang himself is comfortable in the digital medium. He has his own website. And prior to graduating from law school in 2013, Hwang started a fake law firm—Robot, Robot & Hwang—that acted as a conference and meetup series for those interested in computer code and its intersection with the law.

A 2014 story about Hwang by Forbes.com, titled “The Busiest Man on the Internet,” noted his role starting ROFLCon, a biennial gathering for those interested in internet memes and viral media content, while still an undergraduate at Harvard University.

Hwang, who also served as a research associate and eventually director of an AI-themed ethics and governance initiative at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, has also written for more traditional media outlets like Foreign Policy, Medium, and The Atlantic.

One interest that Hwang has had to give up since joining Substack is his private practice. Rosen, Wolfe & Hwang, which has offices in New York and San Francisco, will move forward without him, he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Brian Baxter in New York at bbaxter@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Chris Opfer at copfer@bloomberglaw.com;
John Hughes at jhughes@bloombergindustry.com

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