Substack recently fired one of their freelance editors, Sam Thielman, in an explicit retaliation for the fact that one of the writers with whom Thielman had been working had chosen not to renew his contract with the popular email newsletter platform.
This is not only petty, but a horrifying omen from a company that claims to stand for "free speech."
Of course, it's impossible to talk about Substack without talking about the controversies around the company — which are the true root cause of the problem here. By most metrics, the popular email newsletter platform has been a phenomenal success in the realm of "content creation," and the company has certainly enabled plenty of writers to make a decent living off their work without signing away the rights or making too many moral compromises.
That "too many" part is key, however. The founders of the company have been known to make lofty claims about free speech — the kind of generic platitudes that are hard to disagree with on the surface, but are also incredible hollow, and willfully ignore the roles of capital and platforms, which are conveniently the very things that Substack provides and works with. This inherent conflict became particular apparent when Substack began offering special grants to a high-profile writers to encourage them to use the platform. The company put up the initial cash to lure these writers away from their other jobs, with the agreement that Substack would take 85% of the income from subscriptions in the first year in order to recoup their up-front investment, and the writers would retain all the rights to everything they wrote. After one year, the cuts would flip, with the writer taking all of their subscription income, less a 10% cut for Substack.
To hear Substack co-founder Hamisk McKenzie tell it, the company wanted this "Substack Pro" program to present a diverse range of voices. So, despite the company's claims to free speech and editorial independence, it made a conscious editorial choice to court "other perspectives," so it could be a "home" for "leftists" as well as Glenn Greenwalds and Bari Weisses and all the antivaxxers and transphobes who followed.
This, understandably, pissed some people off. Writers like Luke O'Neil were no longer comfortable taking that blood money from Substack. And so, when their one-year pro contracts with the company expired, they left … pursuant to the terms of the contract. 'Cause, ya know, that's how contracts work.
And this, in turn, made Substack very mad. They insisted that they had made an editorial decision based on business in the name of free speech, dammit! Co-founder McKenzie even wrote a novella-length rant about how sad and betrayed he felt by O'Neil's departure. He thought they were friends, why would his friends who love free speech diss his editorial business decisions like that?
It should be noted that a blog rant about someone who honored the terms of their contract and then moved on is not a good look professionally. Nor is it a good look for free speech, as it very clearly implies that financial relationships are personal relationships, and that anyone who profited from Substack owes Substack beyond the scope of their contract. Which is an absolutely horrifying power position to stake out.
But instead of stepping back from this, Substack made it worse.
After Reign of Terror author Spencer Ackerman completed the terms of his own Substack Pro contract, he, too, left the platform and moved his newsletter elsewhere. In the move, Ackerman hoped to retain the freelance editing of Sam Thielman — who Substack had brought in as a freelance editor to work with a number of popular newsletters, in addition to Ackerman's. Since Thielman was a freelancer, and thus needs income, he agreed to keep working with Ackerman, even as he continued his other freelance work through Substack. Because that's how freelancing and contracts both work.
Here's what happened next, in Thielman's words:
Separately, I edit other newsletters published on Substack, including Jonathan Katz's and Aaron Rupar's. Substack paid me directly for those two, and for a short stint editing Indian dissident Rana Ayyub, and other Substackers hired me directly. On July 23, a Saturday, I noticed I had been locked out of the shared accounts Substack uses, and wrote [Dan] Stone [Substack's head of Writer Partnerships] asking what was up, since as far as I knew I was still working for two of their writers. Stone replied saying he would tell me on Monday.
Substack's brass had evidently taken Spencer's voluntary departure as a personal betrayal, even though as of July 21, he was free to take this newsletter elsewhere. On Monday the 25th, Stone cc'ed the company lawyer on a notice of termination saying that "[c]onsidering your and Spencer's post about the move off the platform, we are glad to release you from future commitments to work with Substack. I'm sure you'll agree it makes sense for both sides. As such, we'll be winding down your other Substack-funded editing relationships."
In other words: Substack, the self-proclaimed bastion of free speech, demands extra-contractual loyalty from its workers, and retaliates through linguistic and financial censorship when they don't get their way. I guess it's a good thing for Substack that they employ so may contractors, because if they kept people on as staff, they'd be deep into all kinds of union-busting nonsense. But still: who could imagine that a so-called "neutral" platform would have trouble being neutral after money and editorial decision-making got involved?
Substack Retaliates Against FOREVER WARS Editor [Sam Thielman / Forever Wars]
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