By Simon Owens
Caroline Crampton isn’t lacking for an audience. A longtime political journalist, she’s been a web editor for the New Statesman, the 103-year-old British political and cultural magazine, since 2012. In addition to penning articles for the magazine, she also co-hosts a pop culture podcast with her colleague Anna Leszkiewicz. She has an active Tumblr blog, 4,000 followers on Twitter, and even occasionally appears as a commentator on mainstream news programming.
Yet every week Crampton sits down to write So far, I’ve had no complaints, a newsletter she sends out each Friday. With most issues clocking in at about 1,000 words, So far, I’ve had no complaints is broken down into several eclectic and mostly unrelated sections — “Things to read,” a mixture of blockquotes and commentary on what she considers the best journalism published that week; “Things to listen to,” a roundup of podcasts she recommends; “Things to watch,” assorted web videos; “Compulsory medieval thingamabob,” a strange image that I can only infer came from a medieval painting or illustration; and “The guest gif,” which is basically just an amusing GIF to close out the newsletter.
Crampton launched the newsletter in 2014 after noticing how newly-popularized link aggregators that focused on highlighting serious, in-depth journalism — Longform, Longreads,The Browser — were rather homogeneous with their selections. “They were patrolling the same beat where everything serious or good coincidentally happened to be written by men about men,” she told me in a phone interview. “And this made me so cross because there are so many other great things out there on the internet written by all kinds of people doing all sorts of things.” She’d complain to her colleagues about this but they always replied with the same solution: “They said, ‘If you care so much about this then why don’t you point people toward things that you think are great?’”
Crampton used Tinyletter, a simple newsletter platform owned by Mailchimp, to distribute So far, I’ve had no complaints, and she initially sent it out to about three dozen people she knew in real life. She didn’t do much to promote it on her other channels, but she began to see an uptick in subscribers as readers passed it around; occasionally the newsletter would experience a sudden spike when someone influential recommended it on Twitter. Today, it has several thousand subscribers, and it’s consistently, if slowly, growing. “I just logged into Tinyletter for the first time in a couple weeks and saw that several hundred more people signed up,” she told me. “I have no idea where they came from.”
Though it seems absurd in some ways to talk about an “email newsletter resurgence” in 2016, especially given that they never actually went away, there’s a certain kind of newsletter that’s seen renewed adoption in recent years. Though they served as a vital medium for independent writers in the late 1990s, the advent of Web 2.0 resulted in many would-be newsletter scribes launching blogs instead. While brands continued to leverage email in their marketing — and publications provided options for readers to subscribe by email — there were few high-profile newsletters that launched as standalone entities. During this time blogs served as a vital counterpoint to the mainstream media, and we saw the emergence of powerful independent voices who went on to build sizable readerships and influence: Josh Marshall. Andrew Sullivan. John Gruber. Michael Arrington.
But by the end of the decade the web had fundamentally changed. Social platforms like Facebook and Twitter became viable stand ins for casual blogging while popular bloggers either decamped to high profile traditional news jobs or tried to scale their websites into viable media companies. The blogosphere no longer felt like a cohesive, anti-establishment community, and it became quite common to see headlines proclaiming the “death of blogging.”
Perhaps not coincidentally, it was around this time when media watchers began taking note of a newsletter renaissance. Writing in the New York Times in 2014, the late David Carr observed that “email newsletters, an old-school artifact of the web that was supposed to die along with dial-up connections, are not only still around, but very much on the march.” While the piece focused primarily on newsletters operated by mainstream news organizations, others highlighted the growing number of email newsletters that had no official connection to an existing media entity.
This trend was made possible, in part, by Mailchimp’s acquisition of Tinyletter in 2011. Previously, most major newsletter platforms cost money to use and, with their robust functionality, were intimidating to novice users. Tinyletter was free (at least until you had amassed at least 5,000 subscribers) and had stripped-down offerings similar to what you’d find with your average blogging CMS. As a 2013 Fast Company profile of the company put it, “TinyLetter is to MailChimp what Tumblr is to WordPress: It’s newsletters for dummies.” The simplicity made it that much easier for new entrants to dip their toes into the medium. “I went with Tinyletter because it was free and it provided the least distance between my writing and me getting it out there,” said Nick Quah, who writes the podcast industry newsletter Hot Pod. As of late 2015 there were over 141,000 Tinyletter accounts with a combined 14 million subscribers.
It’s tempting to merely argue that the recent crop of newsletters are what came to replace the independent blogosphere of the mid-aughts. But I actually think its antecedents stretch back further to the zine culture that thrived in the 70s, 80s, and early 90s.
Though media historians disagree over who published the first zine (some would argue that pamphleteers like Thomas Paine were early zinesters), their current iteration came into practice in the 70s as a form of promotion for the burgeoning punk scene. With names like Sniffin’ Glueand Maximum Rock & Roll, these zines covered what mainstream music publications wouldn’t, and their counterculture vibe rejected the established norms for how magazines should be presented. “Often they are odd sizes,” wrote zine enthusiast Kirsten Anderberg. “Zines are characteristically unconcerned with a glossy presentation, often handwritten, and xeroxed. There is a homemade charm to zines.”
Similarly, many of the newsletters I reviewed for this article seemed to purposefully reject the standard approach for how an article should be presented, and they eschew what many journalism practitioners would consider web “best practices.” Your average news article totals about 700 words, has a clear thesis (in the form of a lede or nut graf), and presents a linear procession of facts that form a narrative. Many newsletters feature a hodgepodge of unrelated sections, images, and GIFs, and they take a distinctly informal tone in their writing. Journalist Ann Friedman’s eponymous The Ann Friedman Weekly starts off with an almost stream-of-consciousness paragraph linking to her favorite web content and then presents a hand-drawn pie chart, a “GIFspiration,” and even a classifieds section.
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Or consider a slate of recent headlines from Gawker, Vox, Business Insider, and Buzzfeed, respectively: “Why You Should Care About Apple’s Fight With the FBI”; “Why one woman stole 47 million academic papers — and made them all free to read”; “Many parents are increasingly terrified to feed their kids Nutella”; “This Trainer Gained 70 Pounds So He Could Lose Weight With His Client.” Each is optimized for clicks and written with the sole intention of grabbing your eyes as you’re scrolling through your Facebook newsfeed.
Now take a look at the subject lines for several of the newsletters I mention in this article: “Seasonal Pods, NPR One, Hazlitt, A Spreadsheet”; “Trimmed for Space”; “You’re so well-preserved”; “Anthropology, Artichokes and Aftermaths.” They’re almost begging you to not click on them. Any web editor who plugged these as headlines into a CMS would be summarily fired.
Zines, with their shoe-string budgets didn’t have massive distribution channels, nor were they easy to follow. They relied mostly on word-of-mouth and chance discovery. Typically, you stumbled across one stacked at a record store or at a science fiction convention. Zine creators pushed issues on friends and acquaintances. If you were lucky there was an address printed somewhere within an issue’s pages so you could subscribe, although it was difficult to know whether a new issue would ever be published.
Speaking to newsletter writers, it struck me how attracted they were to the newsletter’s inefficient means of discovery. Unlike articles, videos, and images, it’s difficult for a newsletter to go “viral” since it doesn’t live on the open web. “I intentionally made it hard to find,” said Nick Quah of his Hot Pod newsletter. “I don’t find value in virality. I don’t want people reading me because something went viral. I want the right people to read me.” Quah told me he likes when people unsubscribe each week because it’s making his distribution list more “dense” and weeding out uninterested subscribers.
Ernie Smith launched his newsletter, called Tedium, last year because he expressly wanted to escape the pressures of virality. Smith has spent most of his career working as a graphic designer at newspapers, both regional and national. He launched the ShortFormBlog, a daily aggregator of links and content, in 2009 when he was in between jobs, and after he migrated it to Tumblr it took off. Buzzfeed featured it in its list of top Tumblr blogs of 2011. Time quoted it in its print issue. Over its six-year lifespan, ShortFormBlog amassed over 160,000 followers on Tumblr.
But by 2014, Smith was feeling burnt out. “Because it was a news site, everything that I did on it had a short half-life and by the end of the day it was basically dead,” he told me. “It didn’t last the test of time.” The thrill of seeing a post go viral also wore off. “I really wanted to see if I could create something that focused on an evergreen approach and also allowed me to do things that were a little bit riskier,” he explained. When he announced Tedium on ShortFormBlog, it almost seemed as if he were daring his readers not to subscribe. “I’m going to try to find the most obscure, boring stuff on the internet and throw it in your inboxes,” he wrote. His goal was to find subjects that no other writer had thought interesting enough to pursue. True to form, recent issues have focused on anodyne topics such as mattresses, the history of the salad bar, and the sauce packets you get at fast food restaurants. Don’t expect these issues to be discussed on a CNN panel anytime soon.
Yet despite all this, Tedium’s readership continues to grow. A web version of the mattress issue got featured at the top of Hacker News and eventually attracted tens of thousands of views. Smith convinced more established outlets like Atlas Obscura and Neatorama to syndicate it, and it has an open rate north of 40 percent, which is well above the industry average. Last year, Smith sent a survey to subscribers who frequently opened Tedium. “Many of those readers really enjoyed what they were getting and found the subject matter was interesting,” he said. “That made me realize I was on the right track with this thing.”
So why are readers responding so well to these newsletters when they seem to fly in the face of everything we’ve learned over the past decade about what web users want? It could be that, like those within the zine community, newsletter readers enjoy feeling like they’re in some sort of exclusive club. Sending a newsletter seems more like a private, intimate conversation compared to when you write for the open web. “I feel more connected to people in the private space because I’m able to be a little bit more authentic or more honest,” said Quah. “If you say something you believe might be controversial on Twitter, and if you have a big enough following your mentions will become a fucking disaster. It’s one thing to be able to manage that at a very public level, and it’s another thing entirely to manage it in an inbox.” Crampton also liked producing something that wouldn’t be chewed over by social media users. “Only the people who’ve opted in actually receive it,” she said. “It’s not sitting there on the internet for any drive-by random person to have a go at it. That’s the appeal of it.”
The question is whether that appeal will persist as newsletters continue to gain in popularity. Lena Dunham recently debuted a for-profit newsletter, called Lenny, and partnered with Hearst to deliver ads. The Skimm, a popular newsletter launched a few years ago by two former NBC journalists, recently hit 1.5 million subscribers. Every day we hear about another traditional media outlet debuting a morning newsletter. As our inboxes grow more crowded, the high engagement typically seen with email (which has an average 25 percent open rate) might fall down to the levels found on Twitter and Facebook (where only between 1 and 5 percent of your followers will see your post). Any anti-establishment medium that becomes sufficiently popular eventually gets adopted by the establishment. Given our renewed obsession with Inbox Zero and the general feeling that we already receive too much email, it might soon become harder for new independent newsletters to break through the noise.
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