Substack recently fired one of its freelance writers, Sam Thielman, in a explicit retaliation for the fact that one of the writers Thielman had worked with had chosen not to renew his contract with the popular email newsletter platform.
This is not just mean-spirited, but a horrible 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 surrounding the company – which is the real root cause of the problem here. By most measures, the popular email newsletter platform has been a phenomenal success in the “content creation” arena, and the company has certainly enabled many writers to make a decent living from their work without waive the rights or do too moral compromises.
This “too much” part is however essential. The company’s founders are known to do noble pretensions about free speech – the kind of generic platitudes that are hard to disagree with on the surface, but are also incredibly hollow, and deliberately ignoring the roles of capital and platforms, which are conveniently the very things that Substack provides and works with. This inherent conflict became particularly apparent when Substack began offering special grants to high-profile writers to encourage them to use the platform. The company set up the upfront money to entice these writers away from their other jobs, with the agreement that Substack would take 85% of subscription revenue in the first year in order to recoup their initial investment, and the writers would retain all rights. on everything they wrote. After a year, the cuts would reverse, with the writer taking all of their subscription revenue, minus a 10% cut for Substack.
To hear from the co-founder of Substack Hamisk McKenzie say it, the company wanted this “Substack Pro” program to feature 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 that it could be a “home” for “leftists” as well as Glenn Greenwalds and Bari Weisses and all the antivaxxers and transphobes that followed.
This, understandably, pissed off some people. 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…according to the terms of the contract. Because, you know, that’s how contracts work.
And that, in turn, drove Substack very crazy. They insisted they made a business-based editorial decision in the name of free speech, damn it! Co-founder McKenzie even wrote a rant the length of a short story how sad and betrayed he felt by O’Neil’s departure. He thought they were friendswhy his friends who likes freedom of speech diss its editorial business decisions like that?
It should be noted that a blog rant about someone honoring the terms of their contract and then moving on is not a good professional look. It’s also not a good idea of freedom of speech, because it very clearly implies that financial relationships are personal relationships and anyone who benefits from Substack must Sub-stack beyond the scope of their contract. Which is an absolutely horrifying position of power to implant.
But instead of taking a step back, Substack made the situation worse.
After reign of terror author Spencer Ackerman has finished the terms of his own Substack Pro contract, he too has left the platform and moved his newsletter elsewhere. In the move, Ackerman hoped to retain Sam Thielman’s independent publishing—whom Substack had brought in as an independent editor to work with a number of popular newsletters, in addition to Ackerman’s. Since Thielman was a freelancer and therefore needed an income, he agreed to continue working with Ackerman, even as he continued his other freelance work through Substack. Because that’s how freelancing and contracts work.
Here’s what happened next, in Thielman’s words:
Separately, I edit other newsletters published on Substack, including those from Jonathan Katz and Aaron Rupar. Substack paid me directly for those two, and for a short stint writing Indian dissident Rana Ayyub, and other Substackers hired me directly. On July 23, a Saturday, I noticed that I had been blocked from shared accounts used by Substack and wrote [Dan] Rock [Substack’s head of Writer Partnerships] asking what was going on, because as far as I know I was still working for two of their writers. Stone responded by saying he would tell me on Monday.
Substack’s brass had obviously took Spencer’s voluntary departure as a personal betrayal, although from July 21 he was free to take that bulletin elsewhere. On Monday, the 25th, Stone copied the company’s attorney on a termination notice saying that “[c]Given your and Spencer’s message about leaving the platform, we are happy to release you from future commitments to work with Substack. I’m sure you’ll agree that it makes sense for both parties. As such, we will be terminating your other publishing relationships funded by Substack.”
In other words: Substack, the self-proclaimed bastion of free speech, demands extra-contractual loyalty from its workers and retaliates with linguistic and financial censorship when they don’t get what they want. I guess it’s a good thing for Substack that they employ so many contractors, because if they kept people as staff, they’d get into all sorts of union-busting nonsense. But still: who could imagine that a so-called “neutral” platform would struggle to be neutral after money and editorial decision-making got involved?
Substack hits back at FOREVER WARS publisher [Sam Thielman / Forever Wars]
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