With social platforms like Facebook throttling distribution for news and the online ad market collapsing, more and more writers are turning to paid newsletters as a way to make a living. In November, I interviewed Hamish McKenzie, the co-founder of Substack, a platform that made it easy for writers to launch newsletters and charge subscribers to receive exclusive issues of those newsletters. At the time, McKenzie said that Substack writers had converted a combined 25,000 readers into paying subscribers.
Flash forward to today, and that number is up to 40,000. In fact, BuzzFeed recently reported that the 12 top writers on Substack make over $160,000 a year each. This week, I interviewed one of those writers: Robert Cottrell.
Ten years ago, Cottrell founded a website called The Browser. He would comb through thousands of articles a day and pick the five he found most interesting, adding a dash of commentary to go along with each pick. As time wore on, he began to notice that many of his readers were signing up for an email digest of his daily recommendations.
In 2013, he launched a paid version of the newsletter, and in the intervening years it’s grown to over 10,000 subscribers. I interviewed Cottrell about how he goes about choosing articles every day, what his longterm ambitions are for the newsletter, and why he recently hired a CEO.
To listen to the interview, subscribe to The Business of Content on your favorite podcast player, or you can play the YouTube video below. If you scroll down you’ll also find a transcript of the interview.
This transcript has been edited for clarity.
Simon Owens: Hey Robert, thanks for joining us.
Robert Cottrell: It’s a pleasure, Simon.
You edit something called The Browser. Can you give us an overview of what it is?
The Browser is a website and newsletter which recommends five things to read each day. Those five things are things that I personally have chosen because I think, in each case, the writing is of lasting value.
And you’re not just linking to them. You’re providing your own custom written description of each article you’re linking to.
It’s more a brief explanation of why I think this is a good piece of writing. Why I think this piece of writing is worth reading. It’s the kind of thing you would say to a friend or colleague if you were recommending something face to face. You’d be saying, ‘hey, this is great, and this is the point that it makes.’
You say it’s a newsletter and website, but it’s primarily digested as a newsletter.
It is now. That has changed over time. We began as a website 10 years ago. It was a free website. We converted to a subscription model in 2013. Over time, we found that more and more people are opting in to receive the email newsletter. The open rates are very high. I’m deducing that most of our subscribers think of us primarily as an email newsletter, rather than as a website.
Take me back 10 years ago to its founding. What were you doing prior to launching it?
Prior to launching it I was coming to an end of a career in journalism, during which I worked mainly for The Economist and The Financial Times. My last job at The Economist was to look after the editorial side of the Economist website, economist.com, at the time when that was evolving from it being, more or less, just the print paper posted online, to a website with a personality and dynamic of its own.
I found that involvement in digital journalism, in new media, to be so exciting that I wanted to get more involved in it. I took a gamble, left The Economist, and started The Browser, together with a great friend of mine.
It wasn’t just a side hobby. You were trying to launch an entrepreneurial endeavor in which that would replace your career as a journalist?
Yes. It’s almost upside down. I thought I really wanted to do something for myself in new media, now what’s it going to be? It took several months of conversations before I came to the conclusion that instead of trying to produce new original content, we could do more of a service and be more distinct as an enterprise by helping readers discover what was best and most exciting in the existing content.
It started as a website. This was the heyday of blogging. Was your thinking that this would be a blog-like website, and you might fund it with something like advertising?
We didn’t give much thought to the business model initially. I think we were still at the tale end of the time when you thought that if you could get a popular success, then the business model would follow. Yes, it was the heyday of blogging, but I suppose looking back, what was even more distinct was that it was before the general advent of paywalls across mainstream media. It was a time when almost all mainstream was free to air. It really was a golden age of free content.
How did it initially find readers?
It initially found readers, I suppose, by word of mouth. There was never any systematic or paid marketing. But I think we were helped by the fact that when we would recommend a piece, particularly a piece from a smaller publication or blog, then that writer or publication, in turn, would be pleased enough to be recommended that they would give us a hat tip or link. It just grew organically.
When did it become primarily a newsletter? When did you start rethinking the distribution?
I think, in a sense, we allowed the subscribers to make the decision there. We still put the same amount of care and diligence on the presentation on the website, we simply observed that more and more subscribers were opting into and opening the newsletter. I still think of it, for old time’s sake, as a website that happens to publish a newsletter, but I’m going to guess that most subscribers think of it as a newsletter that also happens to have a website.
And you might think it’s odd that we don’t know more about the preferences, the tastes, of our subscribers. It’s always been part of our model that we don’t bother subscribers unnecessarily. We assume that they would like to read our newsletter. They might very occasionally be willing to look at some service message about the site or their subscription, but we’re not constantly pitching them with requests for information or updates or preferences or tastes. I go out of my way not to know which of the pieces on The Browser each day is the most popular because I’m always worried that if I find out what people read then I’ll just end up giving them more of the same, whereas I think that, on a slightly more general level, what subscribers want from The Browser is to be surprised and delighted. So that puts a big obligation on me to keep the surprises coming.
You put the option to subscribe to the newsletter on the website, not expecting some shift in distribution, but you noticed, over time, that a lot of your readers were signing up for the newsletter and enjoyed receiving it via that medium. Would you say it’s because The Browser reads like a reader’s digest, and it’s nice to open up your email once a day with the five things I should check out that day, and that’s why it works so well as a newsletter?
I think that’s right. We’re most definitely not trying to be anything resembling a news service. We’re not trying to pepper people with things throughout the day. I spend all of my day reading, and then at the end of that time, I choose the five things that really stand out to my sensibility, from what’s being published that day or recent days, and send those out to subscribers.
I rather imagine subscribers looking in on the website once a day, perhaps, or the equivalent reading the email. As far as I can see, we’re a beneficiary of a general shift toward newsletters delivered by email. I find I’m doing a lot less reading of individuals’ blogs, and a lot more reading of individuals’ newsletters now. If you’re an individual writer, maybe not a full-time writer, whereas 10 years ago you would have a blog, now you have a newsletter.
Tell me a little bit more about what goes into editing it every day. When you wake up in the morning and get to your desk, what’s your process?
I reckon to look at at least a thousand pieces a day, but I emphasize ‘look at.’ I don’t mean I read them in their entirety. I rely very heavily on an RSS reader that brings the content and publications to me so that I don’t have to go from website to website. I subscribe to a lot of newsletters. I do have a lot of bookmarks so I can visit websites. I look at at least a thousand pieces at the level of a headline.
What I’m looking for is writing of lasting value. It’s extremely unlikely that anything in the area of current or breaking news is going to fulfill that criteria. Anything in the area of topical news today will be overtaken by a better and complete story tomorrow. We’re looking for things that are more in the area of ideas and arguments and opinions, and more so classic, longform reporting.
I look quickly to see what’s the basic character of the piece. Then, if it seems to have potential, I’ll read further into it. And that gets us down from a thousand pieces to maybe a couple hundred. And then, of those, there will be 20 or 30 that are worth saving, rereading, reflecting on, before coming to a final five.
It’s a full-time job. It’s a job that crowds into every niche the day possesses. I’m reading online whenever I can at home or in the office, I’m reading offline when I’m traveling.
Are you taking notes throughout the day? When does the actual compiling of the newsletter happen?
It happens quite late in the evening. I used to think I could get it out of the way at the end of the working day, but I’ve got two quite small children who tend to go to bed around 9 p.m., so if I’ve not got the day’s Browser squared away by family time in the evening, then it’s going to have to wait until my late night.
I think our idea of a deadline is midnight London time, and most of our subscribers are in North America, so that’s going to be end of the day, early evening if you’re on East Coast time. It might be end of the working day if you’re on West Coast time.
So you send it in the evening then.
For me it’s the end of the day. I suppose it would be possible to set it all up and send it in the morning, but the way it’s just evolved, I’ve been a journalist all my life, I respond only to deadlines, and so I give myself a deadline, which is the end of the day.
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Tell me about the paid component. How did you decide to start charging for it?
We were doing The Browser first as a free website, and that was OK for a while. It was interesting to see where it went. Eventually we decided it needed a business model. We experimented with a couple different business models, one of which was to build a native app. This was in the early days of iOS and Android, and we wanted to see if we could charge for the app. Turns out we couldn’t. And another was to see if we could sell individual pieces of writing. And it turns out there was a market for that, but publishers in particular were reluctant to make pieces available.
We settled on what we did best, which was to produce The Browser each day, and then to discover whether we could build a sustainable subscription base. Happily, it turned out that we could. But what I think was very, very important was that by then we had been doing it for five years, we’ve been doing it since then for another six years, and I think building up a viable, sustainable subscription base in a newsletter has to be a longterm business. We publish on the Substack platform, and when I look at how the various newsletters are performing there, the top ones, as far as I can see, are us and Bill Bishop’s Sinocism, and Bill’s been in the business for years too. You really have to build up a loyal audience by word of mouth over a number of years.
When did you officially turn on the subscriptions?
2013. And we did it very very tentatively. We wrote on the website that we’re very sorry, but we have to eat and pay our rent, and please will you consider paying for what we provide. We had absolutely no idea how to price it. We started out asking for $12 a year, and we got enough of an uptake in year one to make us feel that this could work. And then over the next three or four years there was a steady buildup to the point where we remain, by anybody’s standards, a very small enterprise, but it pays the rent for me as the editor, and for my colleague Uri as the publisher.
When you switched on the paywall in 2013, what continued to be free and what was the paid component? If they decided not to pay, what would they get? And if they decided to pay, what would they get?
We decided initially to leave the most recent three articles available freely, and then the paywall came in at that point. You could look at the first three articles, but if you wanted to go further down or into the archives, then you needed a subscription.
We understood perfectly well that, unless you want to put a lot of engineering into it, then no paywall is going to be really very tight. It can always be gamed by using different devices. By using incognito windows. It relies heavily on good will. We were thinking are there enough people who want to support us in doing this? And happily there were.
We found, also, that when you put in a paywall, the traffic to your website falls pretty drastically. I think, at that point, our casual traffic went from something like 250,000 monthly uniques to about 120,000 monthly uniques. We’re going back six years now. That was a bit of a blow to one aspect of our pride, but happily we never attempted to build a business based on advertising. So there were no revenues forgone there. It turns out to be a lot more rewarding to build up a membership with a smaller, core base of loyal subscribers.
You put a paywall on the website where they could see something very recent, but anything older than that, they had to pay for. What about people who were reading it primarily through the newsletter?
At that point the newsletter was a free option. So when we brought in the paywall, we also made the newsletter into a subscriber benefit. Bear in mind that, I’m sure there is a lot of literature and science on this, which might say we could have used the newsletter much better for outreach, but we were guessing, and our thought was let’s be as nice as we can at all points in this process, but at the same time, let’s see who will support us.
So once you turned on the paywall in 2013, you could no longer receive the newsletter unless you were a paying subscriber.
That’s right. And I’m sure that was a big factor in persuading at least some of the people who converted into paying subscriptions to do so. The casual traffic halved. Out of those 100,000 who no longer came to the site as casual visitors, some small proportion of them were converting to becoming paying subscribers. I think back then the initial subscriber base was 2,000 or 3,000. So we lost 100,000 casual visitors, we gained 2,000 or 3,000 paying subscribers. That still struck us as quite a decent number. We were trying something that had not been tried before, which is to sell a form of reviewing, or criticism, for journalism.
I know people will commonly called us a curation site. And 10 years ago people commonly spoke of aggregators, although I think aggregating is a somewhat different business that involves people trying to free ride on other people’s work, which we never did. I think of what we’re doing as analogous to book reviewing. Every couple weeks The New York Review of Books comes in the mail. It calls your attention to books and what they’re about, and it tells you why they’re likely to be of interest. And that’s exactly what we’re doing each day for journalism. We’re identifying outstanding pieces of very recent writing, getting an idea of what they’re about, and getting an idea of why you might enjoy reading them.
Your prices have changed. You started at $12 a year. Then it gradually went up. What is it now?
It’s now $49. We maintain subscriptions at the original rate. So anybody who joined us at $20 or at $34 still benefits from that price for as long as they subscribe. We’ve been in a process of discovering what a fair price is for what we produce. By that, I mean a price that’s acceptable from subscribes, but also allows Uri and me to pay the rent. That consisted of starting very low and then raising the price three times. We felt a bit bad raising the price on loyal, existing subscribers, so we grandparented them in, and that allowed us to feel a little bit freer about experimenting with raising the price.
You got the initial 2,000 to 3,000 subscribers. I know you’re well above that now. How quickly did subscriptions grow over time? What did you see that was driving those conversions once you had your initial hardcore fanbase converted? How did you continue to grow the subscription numbers?
My recollection is that we roughly doubled in the first two years and doubled again in the next two years. And then growth has slowed. We’re still growing in subscriber numbers, but not so rapidly. That’s been almost entirely word of mouth. There were a couple very happy moments when we got mentioned in a blog that was widely read or mentioned on Twitter by someone with a big following, and that would result in a useful uptick. If you look at the growth over the years from 2013 to 2017, it’s been fairly steady in terms of a three month moving average.
And then in the last couple years we put the price up from $20 to $34, and then again from $34 to $49. The subscriber numbers are continuing to grow, but not as rapidly as they did. Which suggests that we may have found a reasonable price, which is good for both for us and subscribers, and also the sort of subscriber base we have now, it enables us to respond individually to subscribers, to know pretty well who our most enthusiastic and loyal readers are. We feel a very personal relationship with our subscribers. We’ve now reached a position where we’re very happy with what we are and what we’re doing.
And you’re at about 10,000 paying subscribers now?
Somewhat more than that, yes. I know that Substack puts us into their highest bracket which says ‘tens of thousands.’ I think we do send the occasional free email through Substack once every week or two. We’re certainly into the tens of thousands if you take in the free as well as the paid newsletters. We’re above 10,000 in terms of paying subscribers.
Speaking of Substack. You switched over to that platform about a year ago. Substack is this relatively new email newsletter platform that allows you to create a paid subscription newsletter. A lot of prominent writers have signed on to Substack. I saw a recent article on BuzzFeed saying that there are several who are making north of $100,000 a year on it. What made you decide to move to Substack?
Before we moved to Substack, we were running a relatively simple CMS and website using Wordpress. We were using Mailchimp to send out our newsletters, and we were using Strip for our billing. All of which, individually, were excellent systems. However, Substack, we saw, had all of those functions and had integrated them perfectly. They had a simple CMS, which when you’re writing to Substack, it kind of resembles Medium. It’s simple, it’s quite elegant, and you can put it up instantly. There’s almost no learning curve.
They’ve got their own newsletter platform which is completely integrated with the CMS, so you create your newsletter and then, bang, you publish it and send it. The newsletter platform is very efficient. The main worry with sending out a newsletter to a lot of people is that you’re going to end up in the spam filter. Substack is very very good at making sure newsletters do actually reach the people to whom they’re addressed.
It was crucial that Substack uses Stripe for its billing, because it meant that we were able to carry over our existing subscriber base without any hiccups. So the subscriptions we already had running through Stripe, they could just be integrated into Substack. The team at Substack were very kind and helpful and responsive. We had very good upfront feedback from other people who were using Substack. Felix Salmon, in particular, was very enthusiastic about them. We saw that Matt Taibbi was also using this platform. That made us feel that this platform could be a really good fit for us.
And it has. I hope that it’s not changed in any way what we produced, but it has made it a lot easier, a lot simpler, for us to produce it.
We live in an era now when everybody is a curator, between Facebook and Twitter. I curate articles on my social media accounts all the time. What kind of differentiation can you offer with a newsletter that just curates but doesn’t do any original reporting? Especially now when we’re entering an era when every single publication is entering a subscription paywall, is that something you think about? You said your subscriptions are slowing down. Do you feel like there’s a ceiling you’re going to hit without being able to offer something other than curation?
I’m going to push back a little there about the use of the word ‘curation.’ I think we do a little bit more than that. We provide a level of discussion about the articles that we recommendation, which I hope has a value in itself. I’d like to think there are subscribers who subscribe to The Browser primarily to read the newsletter for our account of what we’ve been reading, as opposed to a source of links from which they can click through to the target pieces.
The curation, I think, is almost always a problem of quantity, where when you start recommending things that are good to read, then every curator that I can think of always seems to conclude that if five is good, then 10 is better, and if 10 is good, then 20 is better. The newsletters that I subscribe to, I value them all. They’re the product of great diligence and intelligence, but almost invariably, the signal to noise ratio is falling all the time. The curator, the editor, is just seeking to include more and more stuff, with the hope that somewhere there is a fit, somewhere there there’s something that moves the furniture.
We are very strict in only offering a small group of pieces that I really thought about. I really worked hard and stayed up late to explain what excites me about them. I would like to think it’s more like a book review than it is like the sort of linking that you might get on social media.
You recently brought on a CEO. What’s the goal there?
First of all, I’m absolutely hopeless at anything having to do with administration. I find it very difficult to do and I don’t enjoy it. Anything that can put the maintenance of The Browser in more reliable hands is to be welcomed, not least by me.
We feel very happy that we have discovered a sustainable group of subscribers who we love and who love us, which make it work for us as a business. We can’t help wondering if there aren’t more readers, more subscribers, out there if only they knew about us. That’s Uri’s main mission. I write The Browser. I find the stuff that goes into it each day. Uri’s mission is to try and find ways to connect us with new readers and ultimately new subscribers.
How is he doing that?
We are being a bit more proactive in terms of making some of our content available freely through Substack. Not much of it. But a little bit here and there, regularly. It’s terribly easy to convert from a free subscriber to a paying subscriber through Substack. If we can reach meaningful numbers of people with the occasional free newsletter through Substack. We’re seeing a relative layer of conversion of those free subscribers into paying subscribers.
We’ve also introduced a system of monthly awards for pieces of writing that we think have been the two or three most outstanding pieces each month. I love everything we post on The Browser. It hurts me to narrow things down further. We hope that by offering prizes, rewards for truly outstanding writing, that may, in turn, create a little bit more buzz around the idea of The Browser, and expose us to new readers and new subscribers.
What kind of growth can you expect to see? Is this the kind of thing that really scales? You said you’re somewhere north of 10,000 subscribers now. Could you see this getting up to 50,000 or 100,000 subscribers? Or is this something that’s small and niche?
There are no technical barriers to scaling. All the heavy lifting is done by Substack. I’m more than confident that they have plenty of bandwidth in reserve. It’s more that there’s a pretty difficult line between being a self-sustaining business that grows organically and grows by word of mouth, versus a business which has a marketing budget and a marketing function. We’re looking across that divide and wondering what the returns are from marketing ourselves more systematically, and obviously investing more heavily in marketing. But for the time being, we’re thinking about rather than doing that. If we do go into it, I’m more than confident that Substack will be able to handle whatever comes out of it.
Could you envision a day when you guys have like 100,000 paying subscribers?
Well, it would certainly be fun. The only thing that would trouble me there would be the thought of writing to all of them. As it is, our mailbag is positive and not terribly big. I think we could risk scaling for a while yet.
The scaling that really interests me is on the editorial side. I am limited by the hours in the day as to what I can read. I’m constantly juggling the portfolio of things that I read in order to swap out things that aren’t very productive and discover new things that are more productive. What I’m doing now, which I’m finding very exciting, is to model my reading habits using machine learning, and then using that instance of machine learning to go out and look for new sources, new publications.
We’ve recommended 30,000 pieces on The Browser over the last 10 years. I’m working with a computer scientist to map out what those 30,000 pieces are and the machine has digested them all. Its neural network has come up with some essential notion of what it is to be a Browser piece. Now the machine is reading the same things I’m reading each day, the same bundle of bookmarks and RSS feeds and newsletters. It’s learning from my own choices. And I’m able to see what the machine decides, and at the moment, the machine is up to about 40 or 60 percent, which is to say that it produces each day two or three pieces that are unequivocally of the right sensibility for The Browser.
I don’t want to hand my job to the machine. I want to get the machine up to a high level of mimicking my sensibility, and then send it out to read thousands and thousands of posts and simply bring back a first cut of the 5 to 10 percent of those posts that are worth my time to read.
There’s a lot that excites me there, the first of which is this is a very rare instance of trying to train a machine to look for quality. The second is whether, once we’ve got that Browser sensibility properly codified in the neural network, can we actually use it to produce new things?
Are there any plans to introduce advertising?
I think we are absolutely of the view that advertising is a mug’s game, and the great tragedy of media is that the whole of the internet started off with an advertising driven model, and since then it’s been a race to the bottom in which almost every publication, right up to the very best, have debauched the quality of their content in the pursuit of eyeballs.
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