Substack’s promise to be different from a newsroom gets messy
By most measures, eternal wars should have been a Substack success story. The newsletter, which documents the War on Terror, began last year after Substack struck a deal with a veteran journalist to write on the platform, build an audience and – if all goes well – start a business. backed by readers that made the switch from newsroom to newsletter worth the bet. The usual Substack promise applied: if a writer wants to leave, they can, and it will be easy to do. And, at the end of July, a day after the expiry of a one-year contract, that is what Spencer Ackerman did, moving eternal wars to the Ghost newsletter platform as transparently as possible.
But the change got much more complicated this week when Substack delivered on its ongoing promise to stay out of editorial decisions by firing eternal wars editor Sam Thielman of other editing work he had done for various Substack writers. The offending action, by Substack, was that he edited Ackerman’s latest Ghost article that criticized Substack and the deal they made. In other words: Substack wasn’t reacting so differently than a disgruntled editorial manager.
This kind of tension has been at the heart of debates about Substack’s place in publishing and journalism for the past two years. Positioning itself as a cure for many ills plaguing the media industry, Substack is committed to moderating writers as little as possible, offering monetary and other perks that dwarf what’s offered in most venues. editorial staff and to provide the kind of stability to writers that is becoming increasingly rare. With Thielman’s firing, the image of security and protection that Substack offers writers is losing its luster.
“It was immediately a big and scary success,” said Thielman, who initially did not share the news of the shooting publicly. “I was just gonna put my head down and apply for jobs and hope they didn’t say bad things to me. [behind closed doors].”
Substack markets itself as a powerful tool and work platform that people want to read. But to entice journalists and writers to use the platform and publish regularly, Substack began to strike deals with select writers that offered some of the protections of traditional newsrooms. The simplest was a guaranteed income, often well above what they could earn in the media. Other benefits included a dedicated editor, health benefits, and legal assistance. The program was labeled Substack Pro, and the company officially announced the deals in March last year.
In the case of eternal wars, Ackerman entered into a publishing deal independent of Substack in which he would pay Thielman to edit the newsletter with his Pro lump sum money. Thielman would continue to be paired with other writers through Substack, creating a solid gig for himself by editing Substack writers who were a good professional match.
Some benefits have been extended to writers without a Pro contract. Substack provided editing, design and audio support for writers who weren’t part of the Pro cohort but the company wanted on the platform, according to a person familiar with the matter. In addition to editorial support, the company announced last November that it was creating a new program open to more writers in which they could apply for a one-time $500 health allowance.
“Healthcare – or lack thereof – is just one more stress a freelance writer really shouldn’t have to deal with,” writes Substack co-founder Hamish McKenzie in a post announcing the expanded program. . “So we’re trying to do something about it.”
The Pro offerings and their many benefits seemed to signal a commitment to a narrative that Substack was trying to present at every turn: we know what’s wrong with journalism and what writers need to get out of the rut. The company has, of course, taken care to define the relationship. Although it offered many of the material benefits of a full-time journalism job, the writers were not employees, even though Substack had effectively poached them.
In places it is starting to fall apart. Earlier this month, newsletter editor Anne Helen Petersen said on Twitter that Substack had cut its healthcare grant after two years and wondered how that was different from a “newspaper chain reducing insurance benefits”. McKenzie replied with a much less idealistic tone. “We are not the writer’s employer,” he wrote. “Writer Starts Own Business on Substack.”
Substack spokesperson Lulu Cheng Meservey said the company would honor existing healthcare commitments, but did not respond to repeated questions about whether the health benefits end for others. Pro editors and whether its public health care program would continue. But writers still worry what else could be on the chopping block, with Substack laying off its own employees in June, blaming “market conditions.”
Perhaps Substack’s greatest source of pride – and the cause of most of its criticism from the public – is the promise of hands-off moderation, including allowing content banned on other platforms, such as vaccine misinformation and anti-trans writing, in the name of free speech. In blog posts and more public communicationSubstack’s founders defended their approach, pointing out that even opinions the founders disagree with have a right to exist on the platform.
“We started with this very strong commitment to free speech,” Substack co-founder Chris Best told Joe Rogan last week. “We have arrived at a time when not everyone believes in it at all.”
But in the case of eternal wars, Substack reneged on his assurance that he would not meddle in the writers’ editorial affairs without offering an explanation of how it happened. The post written by Ackerman, edited by Thielman, and posted on Ghost drew the ire of someone at Substack, so much so that the resulting action became its own media cycle.
“It’s about punishing Spencer by making him feel bad, because something he did caused them to hurt me,” Thielman says. “It’s punishing someone for criticizing Substack on another platform.”
Substack’s Meservey did not respond to questions about how the decision to fire Thielman was made, or by whom, and directed The edge to McKenzie and Thielman’s tweets when contacted for a response.
“Hamish wouldn’t want to throw his colleagues under the bus and he takes full responsibility for all of this personally,” Meservey says. The day after Thielman publicly spoke about his dismissal, McKenzie wrote on Twitter that the company had “damnapologized for overstepping and promised to pay for Thielman’s remaining contracts with Substack writers, though he would not continue editing work with other writers. (Thielman didn’t ask for this and Substack didn’t offer.)
Substack’s pitch to writers — that it’s significantly different from places they’ve worked before and free from many industry pitfalls — rings hollow for Thielman. The same goes for the original promise that Pro Deals and other funding deals were an unconditional chance for writers to start their own businesses without interference from CEOs, strict terms of service, or templates. failing business.
“When people say, ‘It’s seed funding for journalists’ — no, it’s a shitty newsroom with one editor,” Thielman says.