“Newsletters May Threaten the Mainstream Media But They Build Communities”

From a Washington Post story by Sarah M. Ovink headlined “Newsletters may threaten the mainstream media, but they also build communities”:

Newsletters are in again, provoking anxiety about whether they will finally kill off newspapers.

Dozens of famous authors, journalists and scholars have started online newsletters, in some cases abandoning premier platforms like the New York Times and Vox. Top newsletter authors reportedly bring in millions, with some securing hefty advances at platforms like Substack. Original essays and cultural commentary are typically delivered via email, with creators seeking payment in monthly fees rather than through advertisement revenue. Paid subscribers can also enjoy upgrades like exclusive content, meet-and-greets or access to members-only comment sections.

But newsletters do more than enrich creators and entertain readers with specialized content, and this recent uptick in interest is by no means a new phenomenon.

History shows that newsletters build political communities by generating a shared set of stories and ideas and highlighting voices ignored by the mainstream media.

Fanzines, or zines, a genre of newsletters created by and for fans of science fiction in the 1930s, connected enthusiasts of niche topics. Often self-published by a single editor, “zinesters” shared stories, commentary, artwork, fan fiction and poems related to topics of mutual interest….

Zines offered a way for fans to find one another and share their love of the series, providing a worldwide community that otherwise had few means of connecting. Trade and barter of zines, recordings, fan fiction, art and photographs were also common ways for “circles” of fans to bond….

Zines focused on a wide variety of topics — music, comics, horror and the punk scene, to name a few. In the 1990s, the Riot Grrrl movement — a mash-up of feminist and punk sensibilities — created zines that addressed topics not covered in typical “women’s” magazines. Zines like Bikini Kill and Girl Germs challenged sexism in punk subcultures and encouraged grrrls to form local support chapters. Bikini Kill’s second issue, distributed in 1991, declared, “we hate capitalism in all its forms and see our main goal as sharing information and staying alive, instead of making profits.” Zinesters promoted grrrls’ public expression yet intentionally avoided mainstream media, viewed as complicit in women’s oppression. Subscribers gained access to exclusive content on the music, culture and organizing tactics of nascent Third Wave of feminism….

Newsletters have also played a role in mobilizing voters. Phyllis Schlafly, founder of the 1970s STOP-ERA campaign (“Stop Taking Our Privileges with the Extra Responsibilities Amendment”) and newsletters The Phyllis Schlafly Report and Eagle Forum, helped to kindle ideological opposition to the feminist-backed Equal Rights Amendment, which was not ratified by the 1982 deadline despite previously enjoying wide public support. Newsletters were central to building political opposition….

Schlafly’s newsletter gained a loyal following — 80,000 at its peak — of mostly conservative women ready to lobby state legislators as homemakers eager to defeat the ERA.

Feminist organizers countered Schlafly’s arguments in their own newsletters, as readers on both sides of the ERA debate turned to alternative media to gain knowledge about the movement, access organizing strategies and signal their association with a set of shared values.

Today’s online newsletters have a different — arguably more successful — distribution and payment system, but their value for readers is much the same. We are socialized to think of readers in economic terms, as consumers, without always interrogating what this means in the context of media content. Rather than bemoan the threat newsletters pose to legacy media, we can recognize the long history of alternative media in providing a space for belonging, a shared sense of purpose and access to communities — whether in person or online — that buoy our resilience.

Sarah M. Ovink is an associate professor of sociology at Virginia Tech. Her research has been published in Gender & Society, Social Currents, Research in Higher Education and Socius. She is the author of “Race, Class and Choice in Latino/a Higher Education: Pathways in the College-for-All Era.”

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