Thursday, September 28, 2023

Newsletters are no longer news. But they don’t go away.

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Shreya Christina
Shreya has been with for 3 years, writing copy for client websites, blog posts, EDMs and other mediums to engage readers and encourage action. By collaborating with clients, our SEO manager and the wider team, Shreya seeks to understand an audience before creating memorable, persuasive copy.

Remember when newsletters were hot?

This was all the way back in 2020 and 2021: big name writers left Well-Known Publications to start one-man publishing, and some of them were to earn a lot of money doing it. Serious people asked if Substack, the email platform of the moment, was a threat to the New York Times. Facebook and Twitter wanted to join in.

That was then.

Now newsletters are less… heated. Some writers who have gone out on their own have decided that they would like a full-time job for someone else, just like they used to. Substack struggles to raise funding and has has laid off some of its staff. Twitter doesn’t talk much about its newsletter plans anymore. And a year after launching Bulletin, its own Substack platform, Facebook has put the project on the back burner.

Which doesn’t mean newsletters are gone. Not at all. Just some of the hype that surrounds them. And instead, there’s a more realistic attitude to the format and business you can build around them: Newsletters, it turns out, are like blogs and podcasts — they’re super easy for anyone to create. But turning it into something beyond a hobby — let alone turning it into a full-time job — requires talent and sustained effort.

“I don’t think it’s an easy road to fame and fortune,” says Judd Legum, who are Popular information newsletter since 2018. “But I never believed that.”

Legum, whose junk newsletter focuses on how big companies deal with government policy – he recently wrote pressured competition group, the dating app operator, to stop donating money to the Republican Attorney Generals Association after the death of Roe v Wade – doing very well. He says he has more than 15,000 subscribers who pay at least $50 a year, which means he probably earns more than $750,000 a year. And that income has given him the opportunity to hire two full-time employees for his micro-publishing company.

But he also says that publishing the newsletter four times a week “can feel like a drag. And if you’re not 100 percent committed, I can definitely see how burned you feel.” And for solo newsletter writers, it can be “isolating too,” he says.

That grind and loneliness is what guided Emily Atkins, whose… heated newsletter is about the climate crisis, which is going on hiatus in February this year, about two and a half years after it started. “My brain feels in a constant state of misses and overwhelms,” she wrote.

Now Atkins is starting again, but she promises to take care of herself by publishing less frequently than at her peak, when she released four updates a week. And she gets help to do it, by hiring a reporter to work with her.

Eventually, she tells me, she’d like to get Heatated to the point where other people do most of the writing—much like the traditional publications she worked for before getting into the newsletter. “I feel like the dream for me is to become editor-in-chief.”

The diminished, sobering reality of newsletters is also permeating media and technology companies that have become interested in them again in recent years.

Meta launched its Bulletin newsletter program a year ago and people familiar with his efforts tell me that over 1 million people have signed up for free newsletters created by famous or famous writers; earlier this year, the company planned to expand the number of writers, sources say. But it abruptly pulled the plug on the program last month, when CEO Mark Zuckerberg urged his company to: narrow the focus on a few key initiatives, such as Reels, its TikTok clone.

Last year, The Atlantic launched its own newsletter program, which publisher Nick Thompson says was an effort to get new readers to the media company and persuade paying subscribers to stay. “They’re going great,” he says. “It’s an editorial success; it is a business success.”

But Thompson admits that when the Atlantic launched its newsletter program, it was also concerned that some of its staff writers would leave to launch their own newsletters, lured by the massive success a handful of writers such as Bari Weiss and Andrew Sullivan enjoyed at Substack.

For example, last fall, Weiss told me that over 100,000 people had read her Common sense newsletter – which tends to focus on the perceived and real excesses of the cancellation culture – and more than 16,500 subscribers. Which would mean she was making over $825,000 a year at no cost. Now, Weiss says she has 210,000 readers, but she won’t share a paid issue with me until “we’ve accomplished a big goal that we have in mind.”

But Thompson and other publishers I speak to say Substack no longer poses an existential threat to their business. The new conventional wisdom is that a handful of writers — especially those in the center/center-right/outside part of the political spectrum, like Weiss, Sullivan, and my former cafemadrid colleague Matt Yglesias — do well on the platform. And Substack says the top 10 publishers collectively make more than $25 million a year.

But Substack won’t reveal the average income of a Substack writer, and I’ve heard many anecdotes from Substacks saying that the platform generates some income for them, but not enough to replace a full-time job. A high-profile example is Charlie Warzel, who left the New York Times in the spring of 2021 to launch his own Substack, then abandoned the effort that fell and moved to the Atlantic; at the time, he said that during his Substack experiment, he “made considerably less than I did when I worked at the Times.” (Worth mentioning: Writer Anne Helen Petersen, Warzel’s partner, crushes it on Substack: Her culture study newsletter has “tens of thousands” of paid subscribers, for $50 a year.)

But just because newsletters can be a heavy and insecure lift for solo owners doesn’t mean they disappear. One place where you will still find a lot of enthusiasm for newsletters is with a small group of media executives who are trying to use newsletters as a launching pad for new businesses.

Brian Morrissey, the former editor of Digiday, a media trade publication, has written: rebooting since 2020 and now has 9,500 subscribers. It’s currently free, but Morrissey thinks he’ll eventually offer a paid version while using it to start a business with events and maybe video.

“Newsletters themselves are great minimum viable product— an easy way to build a relationship with customers, he says.

So is the business plan for Puck, launched last year with a slew of writers, including my former colleague Teddy Schleifer, who covers media and politics; it’s also the same for Punchbowl, a collection of former Politico employees who cover Washington; and it’s the same for the Ankler, which started out as a razor-sharp Hollywood newsletter from journalist Richard Rushfield, who is now teaming up with veteran publishing house Janice Min to create a company with five more newsletters and multiple podcasts. (A counterpoint: Semafor, the much-discussed news start-up-to-be of Ben Smith, the former New York Times media columnist, and Justin Smith, the former Bloomberg executive, will feature newsletters and a good old-fashioned website, Ben Smith tells me, “We will consider both the site and the newsletters to be first-class citizens.”)

Newsletters are a “really great, efficient way to communicate with our audience” from Hollywood insiders and potential insiders, says Min, who edited first the American magazine and then the Hollywood Reporter. While those two publications needed a significant audience to monetize selling ads, Min says her business will thrive by targeting narrow and affluent niches. Its latest product — the Optionist, which tracks the status of scripts and projects in Hollywood — will boast a $2,500-a-year price tag.

Here I should point out that common people – people who can’t afford an expensive newsletter to their studio employer – will have limited ability and interest to pay for many newsletters. And that newsletters compete not only with newsletters for your money, but with every subscription company that wants your money, from the New York Times to Spotify and Netflix. Oh and also: that we may or may not be in a recession, making it harder to convince people to pay for stuff, period.

But you all know that. You’re a smart person reading this story, which may have even been delivered for free, delivered to your inbox – a bit like a newsletter.

I think the bigger problem for newsletter creators – solo, business, or in-between – will be how much interest people are in all kinds of news, and whether they want some of it delivered to them or if they just want to tap.

The optimistic view is that newsletters allow people to get exactly what they want, without public interest publications or the social media quagmire. The downside is that by appealing to highly engaged niches, newsletters and the people who create them, you are not communicating with the general public – that could stand to get more, not less, news into their lives.

As I said, this column can indeed be delivered to your inbox – the irony! – and if you don’t get it that way, you can by going here. And if you already subscribe – thank you! Please let me know what you would like to read in the future by emailing me here.

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