Jack Shafer on Newsletters: “The lunatics haven’t taken over the asylum, the writers have.”

From a Jack Shafer Fourth Estate column on politico.com headlined “We Haven’t Reached ‘Peak Newsletter.’ Not By a Long Shot.”:

The Atlantic just addressed the question, “Have we reached peak newsletter yet?” with an emphatic “no.” Chasing a trend established by Substack and others in the medium, the Atlantic announced this week nine newsletters for subscribers from such well-known bylines as Molly Jong-Fast, David French and Charlie Warzel, and promises additional newsletters by staff writers by the end of the year.

The Atlantic announcement matches similar expansion at other journalistic outposts. The New York Times (John McWhorter; Tom Morello) has added to its stable of newsletter writers. The congressional newsletter Punchbowl, launched less than a year ago, is a success. And Substack’s aces Matt Taibbi, Glenn Greenwald, Bari Weiss, Matthew Yglesias and Andrew Sullivan have gathered both notoriety and renown. Even Facebook (Malcolm Gladwell; Erin Andrews) and Twitter have entered the field.

The lunatics haven’t taken over the asylum, the writers have. Together they’ve produced something of a shift in the journalism business as a growing number of readers have expressed a taste for unhomogenized, point-of-view journalism from “name” writers that hasn’t felt the iron fist of an editor, doesn’t necessarily conform to the AP Stylebook, and hasn’t been compressed into the inverted pyramid form. Alone, newsletters won’t save journalism from extinction, but as an arrow in the quiver they are doing their part to buttress the shattered business model.

Not that long ago, being relegated to a newsletter was considered a journalistic demotion. But today, as places like the Atlantic and the New York Times have loosened their girdles and the Substack stars are earning upwards of $1 milliona year, writing a newsletter has become something of a prestige beat, more akin to being a columnist than compiling line scores for the sports section. With each new entry in the newsletter field, and they just keep on coming, it becomes increasingly possible for readers to build custom newsfeeds of their liking that are delivered into their inboxes.

The journalism business has never been among the most creative enterprises, but one thing they’ve always been willing to do is to go where the audience is….When the Web happened, established media dove in. After briefly disparaging blogs as self-indulgent copy written by nerds in their pajamas, the media went all-in on the form. So the universal embrace of newsletters is less a big media turnaround than it is a continuation of its habit of co-optation.

Although the Atlantic newsletter authors are an opinionated lot, Axios’ Sara Fischer reports that they’ll be leashed to Atlantic editors, which indicates these new recruits might not have the sort of editorial autonomy Substackers enjoy. Will that turn out to be a smart idea, making the newsletters sound more like regular Atlantic copy, or a big mistake because it will smooth the sandtooth quality some of the best newsletters possess? It’s hard to imagine that the Atlantic’s newsletterers won’t become captive of the magazine’s voice, which would make the project more about expanding the magazine’s existing footprint than exploring new journalistic territories….

As my POLITICO colleague Marty Kady put it to me, a newsletter is more like your daily newspaper — personally delivered to you for your direct consumption by your paper carrier — and less like a publication that you have to make a special trip to the newsstand to purchase. The stories you encounter in a newsletter are there because you requested them, not because some Page One editor at the New York Times decided it was the way you should start your day. The day you decide you’ve had enough of Taibbi or Punchbowl or McWhorter, you can dismiss them with a click of your mouse….

So newsletters are good for cash-starved writers and good for finicky readers, but don’t think for a minute that newsletters aren’t good for profit-hungry publishers too. The newsletter form offers publishers something advertisers crave: a targeted audience. When you subscribe to a newsletter, you reveal that part of your identity defined by your interests and that has value. Advertisers would rather reach the right 50,000 readers than 5,000,000 randos, and they especially covet audiences to whom they can repeatedly serve targeted content. Instead of letting all those precious eyeballs disappear into the Substack writers’ room, publishers have found that they can provide plenty of room for newsletter writers to roam — and potentially throw off some advertising cash — inside their vast digital realms. It’s also a cheap way to expand a title’s exposure and give existing customers an additional reason to subscribe.

The newsletter form isn’t for every writer. If you’re a “name” writer with 100,000 followers on Twitter, you might make a go of it on Substack if you can be interesting three times a week. Otherwise, you might be better off with a regular journalism job or a newsletter gig with an established brand that signals authority in your field. But if you’ve ever hankered for the spotlight, this might be the best time ever to polish your star and make your pitch for a newsletter….

Speak Your Mind