Substack Retaliates Against FOREVER WARS Editor

Spencer took the newsletter off Substack when his contract ended. They got mad at the blog post explaining why and took away Sam’s freelance gigs because he…edited it

Substack Retaliates Against FOREVER WARS Editor
"Don't Cut Off Your Nose to Spite Your Face," from "John Ploughman's Talk and Pictures" by Charles Spurgeon. Via Google Books.

Edited and With a Coda by Spencer Ackerman

IN JULY, Spencer took this blog off Substack immediately after his contract with the newsletter company expired. He explained his decision in what can only be reasonably described as a mild post, which I edited, here. Substack responded by ending my contract to edit their other freelance writers, telling me, in writing, that they were doing so because of Spencer’s explanation. Twice.

I want to emphasize, in case the logo that says FOREVER WARS BY SPENCER ACKERMAN isn’t loading for you, that this newsletter is Spencer’s. In his now-on-Ghost post, I am mentioned once, when Spencer notes that he pays me to do this. And since Substack had no means to retaliate against him financially, I suppose they felt that they could hurt me and hurt him by proxy, since he had said publicly that paying me fairly was important to him.

Spencer wrote the farewell post, published here, rather than on Substack, on July 21. After it was up, I wrote a polite email to Dan Stone, Substack’s head of Writer Partnerships, thanking him for his help with FOREVER WARS’ eccentric logistics and informing him that we were leaving. He responded by scolding us for our ingratitude. (Gratitude is not mentioned in Spencer’s contract.)

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 Stone 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.”

I wrote back that I did not, in fact, agree that it made sense to fire me for editing something someone else had written on another platform. He responded, “Sam, I can only point back to that astonishing departure post. Substack and I have been nothing but deeply supportive of both you and Spencer.”

“Who wrote that post?” I replied. That was the last I heard, or expect to hear, from Dan Stone. And that was that. I could bill them for hours logged over the next thirty days, but no more.

I subsequently discovered that out of its apparently bottomless reservoir of spite, Substack had moved my writers to other editors immediately, meaning I wouldn’t be able to work any hours for which to bill during that final month under contract. The company then proactively told my writers that “Substack Services is ending our relationship with Sam Thielman as an independent editor.” These folks were informed I was being removed, which is the sort of editorial interference Substack would seem to pride itself on avoiding.

“We prefer a contest of ideas,” wrote Chris Best, Hamish McKenzie, and Jairaj Sethi in a frankly hilarious December 2020 post. “We believe dissent and debate is important. We celebrate nonconformity.” Substack obviously thinks of writing as a solitary art form and editing as a form of adjacent semi-skilled labor, like stretching canvases, and I’d encourage you to read that post in its entirety to better understand the extent to which that perspective is wrong.

I was happy doing what I was doing. Substack had connected me with writers I liked and admired. Still other writers reached out to me, asking me to work directly for them, probably because Spencer kindly insisted we put my “editline” up at the top of all his stories. Lulu Cheng Meservey, Substack’s head of comms, mentioned me on Twitter in response to the stock joke about Substackers needing an editor. That might have helped, too.

The retaliation is freakishly personal, especially for a company that goes around bragging about its devotion to pure logic. Substack’s fees are higher than Ghost’s, and while I have heard through the grapevine that Substack has offered to renew its investments in some of its writers, Spencer neither sought nor received an offer of renewal. I assume that from their end, this is a matter of return on investment—if we’re not profitable enough for Substack’s taste, they have every right to take their business elsewhere. Or not, apparently, if we’re doing it.

SPENCER HERE. I planned on never writing about Substack again. But they decided to ban Sam, who has a young child, from working with other newsletter writers on the platform, because they could. And so here we are.

First I want to address all other editors and writers at other outlets/platforms/whatever. Sam is a gifted writer and thorough reporter, which makes him an excellent editor. We workshop ideas for coverage. After I file, Sam asks probing questions of my drafts, he pushes me to work harder when something doesn't seem up to the standards I've set for myself, and suggests better ways of phrasing things when something I write reads awkwardly. He doesn't make my pieces his. He works to make my pieces more mine. That's what good editors do. I say this because you can see Sam is concerned that Substack's bitch-assed move here is going to do reputational damage to him, which can materially impact his ability to earn money. Allow me to put on the table my Pulitzer, my National Magazine Award, my IRE medal, my Scripps-Howard award, my piece of an Emmy, my NY Press Club award and every other accolade I've gotten to say: Sam is an excellent reporter, writer and editor and you'll benefit from working with him. Substack is in the wrong here.

Second, I want to address people who currently write for Substack or who are considering it. When people above your paygrade get rid of an editor, they necessarily impact the final journalistic product. FOREVER WARS with a different editor is still FOREVER WARS, but it would produce different material and present it differently. That's what journalistic collaboration is. Bylines, which suggest that the writer is the only contributor to a work that's edited, copy-desked, etc., lie. Journalism, when it's good, is a team sport. Substack, which presents itself as having no desire to interfere with newsletter content, does not seem to have thought this through. But if you work with an editor, Sam's experience demonstrates that they—or, if circumstances apply, you—might suffer reprisals if they don't like what you write.

Finally, I do not think Substack is uniquely shitty. Substack has demonstrated that they are instead typically shitty. I've worked for news outlets that view internal disagreement as disloyalty. One of them fired me, so I know a bit about what Sam is going through. Substack, posturing as a superior and freer place to engage in journalism, is recapitulating what makes those places shitty. They choose to exercise their power capriciously, making their commitment to free speech as hollow as Elon Musk's when it comes to criticism of them. Stopping this sort of career-impacting caprice is why journalists have been organizing their newsrooms.

Remember, our true values are not what they say they are. They are reflected in what we do. Substack chose to retaliate against Sam because of decisions I made and words I wrote. And so those are their true values.

We would have preferred not to Discourse about this, but they forced our hand. Our regularly-scheduled coverage of War on Terror-related issues will return after this edition.