Why journalists are flocking to newsletters

In search of trust, flexibility and relationships with readers

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Hamish McKenzie, Substack co-founder, spoke with an Entrepreneurial Journalism cohort at the Newmark Graduate School of Journalism. (Photo: Jeremy Caplan)

By Elise Czajkowski

Why are newsletters increasingly journalists’ distribution method of choice?

Three alums of the Entrepreneurial Journalism program at the Newmark Graduate School of Journalism explain what appealed to them about newsletters.

Trust

For many journalists, the ability to build personal relationships with their audience is a key appeal of newsletters. “As a publishing tool, newsletters provide a solid answer to the number one question in media today: how can we rebuild trust between us and our readers?” says Valerio Bassan, who writes a media and marketing-focused Italian newsletter called Ellissi. “Newsletters are a perfect direct-to-consumer platform to experiment with an approach that’s less top-down and more conversational, more ‘peer to peer’, if you like.”

Intimacy

Because a newsletter arrives directly in someone’s inbox, the relationship between the writer and the reader is more intimate. Readers have made a choice to subscribe, and possibly pay, for access to this information, creating a dialogue between reader and writer. It’s also a good way to reach national or international audiences with shared interests.

The Magic Inbox: Reaching People Where they Live

“The only thing people look at consistently every day is their email. So newsletters can cut through media clutter by reaching people in their inbox, where they spend much of their time,” says Jeremy Caplan, Director of the Journalism Creators Program, whose own newsletter, Wonder Tools, focuses on the intersection between productivity and creativity.

Several other alumni of the Entrepreneurial Journalism have gone on to create newsletters, including Matt Kiser of the politics website and newsletter WTFJHT, who will be teaching a newsletter microcourse for the Journalism Creators Program. Other alums include Ranjan Roy, who co-writes the business and technology newsletter Margins, Christian Fahrenbach, who writes a German-language newsletter about U.S. politics called WTH, America?, Emily Gertz, who created the environmental newsletter called (de)regulation nation, and Colum Murphy, who writes a newsletter about China called Chinarrative.

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A portion of the 11/18/2020 WTFJHT Newsletter by Matt Kiser. (Email screenshot).

An Alternative to Social Media

Newsletters have also grown in popularity as social media has become a less viable option for distributing news. “In an age where algorithms control platforms, email seems like a platform you can ‘own’ and are in full control of,” says H. R. Venkatesh, who writes the Media Buddhi newsletter, which focuses on how to “stay sane and safe in a world of information overload.”

“There’s no transparency” with social media, agrees Diogo Rodriguez, who is in the process of launching a mental health Substack newsletter in Brazil called Respiro. “And every once in a while, they tinker with the algorithms and then you lose all your viewership that comes from Facebook or whatever. I think it’s very unstable.”

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Respiro — a newsletter about mental health from Diogo Rodriguez — on Substack. (Substack screenshot).

Having control over distribution is also an opportunity for journalists to know more about their own audiences — they have full access to their subscriber list and their story metrics. “That’s a good starting point for building a strong relationship with your audience, which to me is the single most precious thing in journalism,” says Bassan.

Flexibility

And while newsletters have traditionally focused on essays, the medium allows for a variety of content. Rodriguez’s newsletter is a mix of recommendations for tips and tools and interviews related to mental health. Venkatesh’s Media Buddhi will soon begin experimenting with video, testing the limits of what has primarily been a text-based medium.

In the end, newsletters can make the news seem less intimidating. “You’re able to express yourself more individually as a journalist on newsletters,” says Rodriguez. “It seems like it’s less official when it’s a newsletter, because it’s like you’re getting an email from a buddy.”

Elise Czajkowski is a writer/editor who regularly writes about the Newmark Graduate School of Journalism’s executive and professional education programs. Based in New York, she was previously a Tow Knight Fellow in Entrepreneurial Journalism at the Newmark J-School. She launched a non-profit called Sidewalk News, which uses outdoor advertising to distribute local news.

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