Free Speech Bastion Substack Fires Editor for Editing a Blog Critical of Substack

After the mess went public, the company repeatedly said it had "fucked up."
Substack founder Hamish McKenzie
Substack founder/chief writing officer Hamish McKenzie, via Youtube.

In late July, the journalist Sam Thielman, who’d been working on contract as an editor for Substack, the newsletter company, was fired. As he would explain in a newsletter published earlier this week that described the firing as an act of retaliation, and as Substack would quickly acknowledge—”We fucked up” is the way founder Hamish McKenzie put it—he not only hadn’t done anything wrong, he hadn’t really done anything at all.

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The episode ended well enough for Thielman, with him being paid for the work he would have done if he hadn’t been fired and Substack apologizing, but raised—hardly for the first time—a number of questions the company hasn’t been able to convincingly answer. Most of them have to do with what Substack, which at times seems to operate as a mission-driven journalistic outlet and at others as a neutral tech platform, actually is. 

What happened here is straightforward enough. Thielman, prior to last month, was a 1099 contractor, paid directly by Substack to edit newsletters written by, among others, the well-known national security journalist Spencer Ackerman. An unknown number of other editors on this arrangement work for the company. Thielman told Motherboard that generally, his experience with Substack was good: The company paid well and quickly, provided legal support, and was hands-off to the point where he had no real idea what its structure was. Mainly, he dealt with Dan Stone, of writer partnerships.

(I’ll note here that I write a free newsletter about tinned seafood using Substack, though I have no other relationship with the company.)

In July, Ackerman moved his popular newsletter off Substack. The company, he explained on July 21, had, as part of a mildly controversial program, paid him an advance to start a newsletter on the platform. (The way this works is that Substack pays an advance in exchange for keeping the lion’s share of the revenue a given newsletter generates over a fixed period of time; it eats the loss if no one subscribes, but can make money if lots do. Either way, once the time period is up, the writer is on their own, with Substack taking a small percentage of their revenue if they keep the newsletter on the platform.) With his obligations under his deal done, he was moving the newsletter to another platform called Ghost, and Thielman, who had been editing it, would continue to do so, while presumably continuing his work for Substack and whoever else he chose to do business with.

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In explaining all this, Ackerman made clear he’d taken the deal just for the money, mocked a post from McKenzie about writer Luke O’Neil’s departure from Substack as a “Drake album,” and referenced “the reputation Substack [has] cultivated as a pandemic-disinformation vector and preferred platform of hot-take artists who wage culture wars and reify everything already wrong with the mainstream journalism and society they think they're challenging.” 

By the standards of media bridge-burning, this was tame stuff, and reasonable enough. (Well-known as it is for sardine-related content, Substack is perhaps even better known for things like pediatricians facing death threats due to a newsletter headlined “Boston Children's Hospital supports castrating kids and I have evidence,”) It was also, crucially, something Ackerman, not Thielman, wrote. After it was posted, Thielman, he wrote, reached out to Stone to let him know the publication was leaving, and was scolded for his ingratitude. Two days after that he was locked out of Substack’s shared accounts, and two days after that, Stone told him in an email that he was fired, effective 30 days from then, as per the terms of the contract.

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“I can only point back to that astonishing departure post,” Stone wrote after Thielman replied to acknowledge the email and point out that he hadn’t asked to be let out of his contract and didn’t think it was fair to punish him for associating with Ackerman. Thielman was left to text the writers he’d been editing to explain what had happened, and that he “hadn’t embezzled money or groped anyone.”

While Substack did not make Stone or McKenzie available for an interview, spokesperson Lulu Cheng Meservey did answer questions over email. In her answers, she was unreservedly clear that Substack was in the wrong. 

“We don't want to throw anyone under the bus so if you need to pin it on someone then it can be Hamish (or me),” she wrote in response to a request to explain the thought process behind the firing, “but basically we were under the impression that the piece reflected his views since he was a partner in the publication and had written for it in the past. Sam later told us that he only edited it.” 

(“Edited by Sam Thielman” appears over the piece in question, above any of the actual copy, which is written by and credited to Ackerman.)

On Monday, Thielman wrote up an account of how he had been retaliated against for something Ackerman had written. By the next morning, when he spoke to Motherboard, he hadn’t heard from Substack and asked us to let him know if we found anything out about his situation worth knowing. Later that day, after Motherboard had reached out to Substack and to prominent Substack users known for their focus on Big Tech censorship, corporate suppression of speech, and cancel culture for comment, McKenzie tweeted an apology to Thielman and said the company would pay him for the work he’d have done if he hadn’t been fired. Thielman tweeted that he appreciated this, that this was what he’d asked for, and that everyone could now return to not thinking about this. That’s good news for prominent Substack users who detect the death of the First Amendment every time a random undergrad says they don’t like a book yet somehow managed not to weigh in on all this, but the resolution still left a few things unanswered.

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Meservey did answer some of those questions. “Writers can say and do what they want,” she wrote, for instance, in response to questions about expectations, implicit or explicit, for Substack writers and editors. “There are lots of posts on Substack and elsewhere, where writers criticize us. We do expect contractors and other people being paid by Substack to actually want to work with the company though, and we got the impression from the piece that was no longer the case. (I think most companies choose to give projects and contracts to people who support what they're doing.) But again, that doesn't excuse a misreading and overreach resulting in a screwup that Sam was understandably upset about.”

Meservey didn’t answer a question about how a company that pays and gives editorial and legal support to writers is not a journalistic outlet, or one about why it is that Substack is so closely identified with an intense focus on so-called cancel culture issues. I didn’t expect answers to my questions because they’ve been asked many times and Substack has always declined to really answer them.

Not answering is part of the dodge that Substack has been keeping up for a long time: Its says it’s merely a neutral platform, which is why it’s open to conspiracy theorists like Alex Berenson and Libs of TikTok, with whose views Substack doubtless doesn’t institutionally agree. That it advances large sums of money and offers infrastructure to specific writers ranging from Ackerman to a wide variety of TERFs and annoying “I didn’t leave the left, the left left me” types, rather than football touts and pornographers, whose work would also surely find a market and perhaps even a bigger one, doesn’t make it a newsroom or publication or publishing house, it insists, presumably the same way and for the same reasons that Uber isn’t a cab company. Functionally having policies about what freelance workers can and can’t do on their own time is apparently just one more way it’s not like a traditional media outlet.

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There were two questions to which I would actually have liked answers. They had to do with a point my former colleague Tom Scocca, one of the Substack users (he recently completed a one-year deal like the one Ackerman was under) I spoke to for this story, raised.

“Substack's self-inflicted reputational damage had already made some people tell me they couldn't pay for a subscription to my newsletter on the platform,” he wrote in a direct message. “After the news of what they did to Thielman came out, I got a new cancellation with the note ‘Cannot support Substack, terrible platform.’ If I'm now losing money because of their behavior, they're pretty obviously failing at being a neutral platform.”

I wanted to know what Substack’s response would be to someone earning a living on Substack who was angry over incurring reputational and financial damage through decisions they had nothing to do with. I also wanted to know whether there were any guardrails being put in place to make sure that the company doesn't do things that are against its expressed values in ways that would incur this kind of reputational harm. I didn’t get an answer, at least not directly, though I did get one to an adjacent question.

How, I asked, would you square Substack’s values—my understanding of which I characterized as “promoting discourse, letting journalists be themselves, protecting writers from the kind of people who use money over and against them”—with having fired someone for associating with someone who’d written things the company didn’t like?

“We square it by recognizing it as a fuck up,” Meservey wrote. “Our values would dictate that we err on the side of promoting discourse, and when we reviewed what had happened it seemed we didn't do that here.”

Going forward, discourse, it seems certain, will be promoted.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly described Dan Stone as the head of writing partnerships.