By most measures Forever wars should have been a Substack success story. The newsletter, which documents the war on terror, started last year after Substack struck a deal with a veteran reporter to write on the platform, build an audience and — if all went well — launched a reader-backed venture that would made the switch from newsroom to newsletter worth the gamble. Substack’s usual promise applies: if a writer wants to leave, they can, and it will be easy to do. And in late July, a day after the expiration of a one-year contract, Spencer Ackerman did: Forever wars seamlessly as possible to the Ghost newsletter platform.
But the switch got a lot messier this week as Substack kept its firm promise to stay out of editorial decisions by firing Forever wars editor Sam Thielman of other editing work he had done for various Substack writers. The insulting action, per Substack, was that he was Ackerman’s latest post on Ghost who was critical of Substack and the deal they struck. In other words, Substack didn’t react that differently than a disgruntled editor.
This kind of tension has been at the center of discussions over the past two years about Substack’s place in publishing and journalism. Positioning itself as a cure for many of the ills that plague the media industry, Substack has vowed to moderate writers as little as possible, offering monetary and other benefits that are better than what is offered in most newsrooms, and the kind of provide stability for writers which is becoming rarer. With Thielman’s resignation, the image of security and protection that Substack offers writers loses its luster.
“It was an instant hit, and scary,” says Thielman, who initially did not do it publicly share news of shooting. “I just wanted to bow my head and apply for jobs and hope they wouldn’t pit me badly.” [behind closed doors].”
Substack markets itself as a powerful tool and platform for work people want to read. But in order to entice journalists and writers to use the platform and publish regularly, Substack began making deals with select writers that offered some of the protections of traditional newsrooms. The most straightforward was a guaranteed income, often much more than what they could earn from the media. Other benefits included a dedicated editor, health benefits, and legal support. The program was called Substack Pro and the company formally announced the deals from March last year.
In case of Forever wars, Independent of Substack, Ackerman arranged an editorial deal in which he would pay Thielman to edit the newsletter out of his flat-rate Pro deal money. Thielman would be paired up with other writers through Substack, creating a solid gig for himself crafting Substack writers who were a good professional match.
Some benefits were extended to writers without a Pro deal. Substack provided editing, design, and audio support to writers who weren’t part of the Pro cohort but wanted the company to have on the platform, according to a person familiar with the matter. In addition to editorial support, 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 grant.
“Healthcare — or lack of it — is just one more stress that an independent writer really shouldn’t have to deal with,” writes Substack co-founder Hamish McKenzie in a post announcement of the extended programme. “So we’re trying to do something about it.”
The Pro deals and their many perks seemed to signify a commitment to a story Substack tried to present at every turn: we know what’s wrong with journalism and what writers need to get out of the rut. The company was, of course, careful about defining the relationship. While it offered many of the material benefits of a full-time journalism job, writers were not employees, even if Substack effectively poached them.
In some places it is starting to crumble. Earlier this month, newsletter writer Anne Helen Petersen said on Twitter that Substack had cut its health subsidy after two years, wondering how it was different from “a newspaper chain cutting insurance benefits.” McKenzie responded with a much less idealistic tone. “We are not the writer’s employer,” he wrote. “A writer builds his own business on Substack.”
Substack did not respond to repeated questions about whether the health benefits for other Pro writers were ceasing and whether the public health program was still up and running. But writers still worry what else could be on the chopping block, with Substack firing its own employees in June, blaming “market conditions.”
Perhaps Substack’s greatest source of pride — and the cause of most of the public’s criticism — is its promise of hands-off moderation, including allowing content banned on other platforms such as misinformation about vaccines and anti trans writing, in the name of freedom of expression. In blog posts and others public communicationSubstack founders have defended their approach, emphasizing that even the views 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 came at a time when not everyone believes in that.”
But in the case of Forever wars, Substack waived its assurances that it would not meddle in the editorial affairs of writers without providing an explanation as to how it happened. The post written by Ackerman, edited by Thielman and published on Ghost angered someone at Substack, so much so that the resulting action became its own media cycle.
“This is about punishing Spencer by making him feel bad because something he did caused them to hurt me,” Thielman says. “This is punishing someone for criticizing Substack on another platform.”
Substack spokesperson Lulu Cheng Meservey has not responded to questions about how the decision to fire Thielman was made, or by whom, and led The edge to tweets from McKenzie and Thielman when approached for comment.
“Hamish would not want to throw colleagues under the bus and he personally takes full responsibility for it,” said Cheng Meservey. The day after Thielman spoke publicly about his resignation, McKenzie wrote on Twitter that the company “messed up‘, apologized for the overrun and promised to pay out Thielman’s remaining contracts with Substack writers, though he would not continue his editing work with other writers. (Thielman didn’t ask for that, and Substack didn’t offer.)
Substack’s pitch to writers — that it’s materially different from the places they’ve worked before and free of many of the industry’s pitfalls — sounds hollow to Thielman. So does the initial promise that Pro Deals and other financing arrangements were a no-obligation opportunity for writers to build their own businesses without executive interference, strict terms of service, or failing business models.
“When people say, ‘It’s seed capital for journalists’ — no, it’s a crappy newsroom with one editor in chief,” Thielman says.