News Consumption - Paid Newsletters
Newsletters. The word brings to mind the arrival to your physical (aka ’snail’) mail box of a folded, mimeographed handful of pages, never more than would a first class mail stamp send, that had articles related to a topic. This came weekly, monthly, or at irregular intervals.
Many, if not most were paid for. As in you “subscribed”, and in exchange for your couple of bucks, you were on the ‘list, where the list was a mailing list.
If your newsletter got big, or you had more content, and a large enough audience willing to pay for it, you would turn it into a magazine.
But at its basest, a newsletter is a targeted communication focused on a theme, and delivered to a receptive audience.
My education on this vector of communication was in the reading of the fantastic works by Rick Perlstein in his works chronicling modern American conservatism. His tale of how Richard Viguerie built his original mailing lists, by hiring people to go into local election and public records offices, and hand copy mailing addresses of Republican voters. This list of names and addresses seeded an epochal movement of direct mail, influence generating, and - more importantly - built a vehicle to raise funds. Not charging for the mailers was new, but the scare tactics, targeted at a whiter, older, and more fearful population to donate were amazingly successful.
But that is one small facet of the newsletter ecosystem prior to the internet era, one of many, including famous financial advisors mailing reports to their acolytes (now many of them work for the major financial and analyst organizations), to hobbyists who built ultra realistic scale models.
The Internet does what it does…
The internet’s second wave, beginning in the early oughts, brought the rise of self publishing via blogs, and near instant, universal access. Suddenly anyone with an opinion (like your’s truly) could write and publish to their hearts content, and the discourse has suffered ever since. Civility, cordiality, and truth (actual or subjective) suffered.
Meanwhile a darling of the original internet, Craigslist had disrupted how local news papers made money. Local classified ads were a gold mine to the local papers, as well as local advertising, and upon the arrival of Craigslist you could see the size of the classified section of the newspaper shrink faster than an alpine glacier.
Aggregators of content arise to provide tools to help authors build audiences. Medium being but one, its mission to provide a low friction site to post your writings, help people discover you, and to drive eyeballs with targeted algorithmic selection. Of course, they needed to monetize, and then began earning money off your - the author’s - back. Sure, they provided some split of the revenue, but, …
It is no surprise that this has led to the rise of, the internet newsletter.
Substack and the like
With the major newspapers being squeezed, reporting and opinion becoming concentrated in fewer publications, and syndicated, there is just not enough space in the remaining publications to handle it all.
Medium fill some of the gap, but as I experienced, it felt weird to have my own words used to feed their algorithms, and not having enough of a reach our audience, it was never more than a hobby for me.
Substack looks to combine the best of two worlds. The wide open blogosphere where you grab a free site on Blogger, or Wordpress.com, or, if you are more industrious, you roll your own from open source tools and a hosting provider, or somewhere in between, is one axis. But building an audience is hard, it takes more than just writing great content, and it takes work to build that audience. If you are writing on Medium, that hard work makes Medium money.
But Substack provides tools to take that community you have built, and to segregate it into free and paid content, and thus the ability to monetize your work. They do this not altruistically, but instead to make money, by taking a cut of your subscription fees.
This tradeoff works well, and Substack has a reputation for giving a fair shake, and providing an equitable split, their take being a reasonable skim for the building, maintaining, and enhancement of their platform that you use, and to handle the messiness of the payment processing.
For an established writer, with a significant audience, it allow you to continue to do what you do (investigate, analyze, write), and to handle the wonky back end part (publishing, distribution, taking and processing payments, handling local/regional regulations).
Why write about this?
I am writing about this because I am sad about the decline of the local news organization. When I went to college, SJSU had a thriving journalism school, turning out many fine newspeople who went to work at newspapers across the country.
That era of control of the printed word by publishers is irretrievably ended, replaced by chaos.
The paid newsletter is a way to allow people with a talent that is needed, investigative reporting, investor analysis, political analysis, etc, do the work, and be fairly compensated for it. It is still work, but it provides a lifeline, and hope.
I subscribe to a handful of these publications, and I enjoy it, but I am sad that I now have like 7 payments for news sources, when 30 years ago, one would have been enough.
It is, what it is.