Newsletters: What's old is new again

But it's not as easy as media reporting plays it out to be

Hello, and good to see ya! 

Welcome to the 104th edition of The Media Nut, a media newsletter about the various legs of the media stool—brands, publishers, agencies, tech—and a hub for the media community to discuss what actually makes the business go ‘round. 

Yesterday, as I was fasting and contemplating life, the universe, and everything, I kept thinking about how most of life’s evolution happens slowly rather than all at once; that there’s rarely something brand new. 

Take the newsletter, which is basically an evolution step from blogging.

(What I envision myself to look like as a I write this newsletter; Image via SuperStock)

Back in the mid-00s, fresh out of academia and working at a PR firm, I tried explaining to colleagues and clients how blogs were going to be huge. HUGE! Anyone with a computer keyboard and internet connection would be able to express their thoughts without having the media as a gatekeeper. 

Democratization of media, I argued, was a two-way street.

For clients, that meant having new tools to play with to get messaging out, but also contending with any person levying any type of claim against them. Media monitoring was no longer relegated to reading the main newspapers and industry rags. Flacks had to mine Google for keywords on blogs. Even dinky blogs.

The arguments I heard from clients and my bosses were that we didn’t need to pay attention to blogs because there are so few who actually had a big enough audience to care. This was in 2007, just four years after Wordpress and Typepad made their debuts, and a year after the term ‘microblogging’ was awkwardly forced into the media conversation. 

There were 35 million blogs in 2006; 181 million in 2011. 

But the challenges of becoming a full-time blogger were many. Just because you had an internet connection and some loose thoughts, it didn’t mean that people would flock to your blog. You had to build an audience through levers typically pulled by the media organizations you wanted to work for: write often, write consistently, write well. And in some areas of the blogosphere (remember that word?), sharp elbows to get scoops were a prerequisite.

The introduction of DIY tools cleaved the blogging world into two: you were either a blogger that ultimately used tech like Google AdWords to make money while hoping to use the blog as a calling card to get you your next gig, or you were a hobbyist. 

And this was the question many clients pondered: do we need to put messaging in front of the hobbyist as much as we put into the “professional” blogger?

The answer, in hindsight, is easy: both. 

But here’s the thing. Those early bloggers? The ones that had huge audiences; they ended up spinning into their own media companies, some more successful than others, or they got hired by top tier media companies.

(If you really dig in, you’d find the top bloggers of the 00s and early 10s now as top editors and columnists at the nation’s most influential newspapers and magazines and news networks.)

Professional blogging, where you could make a living to support a family, was (and is!) very hard to do. And now we are being fed a similar trope that was prevalent at the early days of blogging: journalist goes out on their own to start a newsletter.

The pandemic has been an existential exercise for many of us, but perhaps most interestingly (not for any good reason other than reporters like talking about themselves; yes, I know the irony here), we’ve learned that the journalism highway has a new off ramp: newsletters. 

(It should also be noted that email newsletters have been a vital part of a marketer’s toolkit for a long time, and the fact that journalists are just ~now~ coming on board should tell you how out of touch reporters are with the way the business operates.)

The idea is relatively simple: reporters are supposedly experts in the field they cover, so with tools available to us, why not take the audience we’ve built and bring them content straight to their inbox without the middleman of a lumbering media company?

If you read the breathless coverage of the success of platforms like Substack, you might think: hey! I have thoughts! I have an audience! I can do a newsletter!

But what’s missing in all the reporting about the growth of newsletters is the reality that in order to make newsletter writing a full-time occupation, you need to have a few lucky breaks. 

For starters, you need a large enough audience to pay for your content. If you have 1,000 subscribers paying $5/month (so you’re making $60,000/year), that’s considered a success. Substack, the most talked about platform (and one that The Media Nut uses), tells writers they can expect 5%-10% of their audience to pay for a product; so 1,000 paying subscribers means you have about 10,000 overall subscribers. 

So of that 60k, you have bills to pay, mouths to feed, clothes to wear, and that little thing called health insurance. After the IRS takes its 30% cut, you’re left with $42,000 to pay your $1,000/month health insurance, your $2500/month rent or mortgage, your $100/phone bill, etc. 

And the big question that lurks behind all of this, whether you are a superstar reporter going out on his own to start a newsletter or a collective of people trying to build your own newsletter business: what happens in year 2? Year 5? How do you get people to subscribe year after year? 

The point: in order to make it as a sustainable newsletter writer making money solely on subscriptions, you need a lot of people buying in. And if you don’t, well, there’s always advertising. Or lists; I guess a newsletter can just put together a Top 10 list of executives and then get those companies to sponsor the newsletter.  

While “success” is happening for some (which, understandably, are the same names you read about in every article about the joys of newsletter writing), it’s not happening for most. 

(Your humble newsletter writer (L) when he had delusions of grandeur of becoming a rock star; circa 2000 at the legendary Stone Pony in Asbury Park, NJ)

My (awkward) analogy: writing a newsletter and having it become your job is like becoming a rock star. A literal one, not the made-up marketing variety. 

Professional rock stars don’t happen overnight. It takes time to build a fanbase. It takes smarts and creativity to write songs people want to listen to. It takes renting a 15-passenger van, loading up your own gear and going out on the road for weeks on end. It takes hard work, yes, but also a ton of luck. Being in the right place at the right time is just as important as knowing how to write a song. 

There’s a reason why in all the reporting about the success of newsletters, the same names crop up: Judd Legum, Andrew Sullivan, Emily Atkin, Matt Taibbi, etc. They already had huge audiences before starting their newsletter. They’ve also been writing about topics for more than a decade. 

At best, most of us newsletter writers are in a garage band. We practice like we want to be rock stars; we play clubs and bars hoping to build that audience and catch a few lucky breaks along the way. Some inevitably will matriculate from playing local pubs to opening up for bigger acts to maybe even hitting rock star status. But the odds are not in our favor. The end result for most of us: a good side hustle to bring in a few extra bucks, but not something we’ll be able to call a job.

Look, I’d love to make newsletter writing a job where I can provide for my family. But with a subscriber base of 3400, the numbers don’t add up. I am perpetually in a garage band. (N.B. If you’re a media company and want a media business newsletter, The Media Nut is open for negotiations.)

Bloggers were similar, except they were playing within the same system as their media organization brethren, generating revenue through advertising. Newsletters, instead, get paid when someone pays from their own wallet, which is much more difficult and perhaps not as sustainable. You can always find an advertiser, but you can’t always find an audience willing to pay for your content. 

As dedicated readers of The Media Nut, by definition we all are interested in newsletters. And we want to see them become successful. I just want the reporting of the newsletter industry to talk about the full picture, and not the rosy one the platforms sell us. 

Thank you for allowing me in your inbox today and everyday. If you have tips or thoughts on the newsletter or want to start your own newsletter, drop me a line. Or you can follow me on Twitter. If you appreciated this edition, please consider sharing across your social networks or get your colleagues to sign up. Thank you!!

The Byrds, “So You Want To Be A Rock and Roll Star”

Some interesting links:

For media criticism:

  • ‘Fox & Friends,’ With Donald Trump Jr., Tries to Dismiss Times Tax Article (NYT)

  • Many Americans Get News on YouTube, Where News Organizations and Independent Producers Thrive Side by Side (Pew Research Center)

  • The L.A. Times reckons with racism (L.A. Times)

  • Memo to media: Don't repeat your 2016 Trump debate mistakes (Press Run)

For retail:

  • Amazon will now let you pay with your palm in its stores (Recode)

For media business:

  • Dotdash's Acquisition Strategy Is the Right Way To Buy Digital Media Companies (A Media Operator)

  • TIME sees 27,000 subscriptions the week after its Time100 broadcast on ABC (Axios)

For public relations:

  • Tory Lanez's Team Allegedly Sent Emails From Fake 300 Entertainment Account to 'Campaign Press' for Megan Thee Stallion Incident (Billboard)

For political ads:

  • TV Ads Around Presidential Debates To Grow (MediaPost)

  • How brands are using the presidential debates to rally voters (Ad Age)