A Wealth of Writers: The Newsletter Boom
Late January 2022
Newsletters are not new, though the word itself only first appeared in 1903.
That makes the concept a little bit older than my grandmother. And while Nana went to her rest more than a half-century ago, the venerable form lumbers on, these days in a digital guise.
Back in the day, a newsletter often looked like the nearby example. Crafted on typewriters at kitchen tables, run off on a mimeograph machine in the days when a photocopier, probably made by Xerox, was a significant expense. They were originally a way for members of groups to remain in the know. Sometimes all you got in return for joining a group was a newsletter.
Marketers soon enough noticed the possibilities. I should look into this further, but I suspect the first big users were in the entertainment business. I’m betting that when you joined, say, The Beatles Fan Club, one of the things you got was a newsletter.
Such use was, if you think about it, the beginning of what came to be called relationship marketing. I’d argue that might be the best use. To indulge in the lingo of the discipline, bands or stars you love comprise what is called a high-involvement product. You’ll pay attention to what George is up to because you think he’s dreamy or cool. You’ve bought in.
Just as arguably this eventually got out of hand. In the same way that the person who carries a charge card isn’t a member of anything other than a customer base, the customer of an insurance company, for example, hasn’t joined a group, they’ve purchased a policy.
Does the mere purchase of coverage mark you as someone who eagerly awaits the quarterly newsletter filled with tidbits on … Well, what exactly? How to get the most out of insurance without ever filing a claim?
Insurance represents the perfect misapplication of consumer involvement as a concept because it mistakes complexity for connection. No one loves their insurance company, though they may like their agent. The products are confusing, the language can be opaque and the consequences of a bad decision can be catastrophic. That’s a recipe for avoidance, not involvement.
Fostering relationships in such circumstances was always a stretch, though I pitched and produced more than my fair share of newsletters. They were a good business for ad agencies.
In many circumstances, newsletters still work. In my compensated life I mail about 50,000 pocket-sized news digests every month. Luckily we have engaging human stories to tell. Otherwise, I might just be creating more landfill.
None of the above has stopped the digital world from once again decanting old wine into fresh screen-centric bottles. Newsletters are the new game in town, with a twist. Now, the writers are the stars, enabled by technology to cement their one-to-many relationship with readers through subscription-only newsletters. Who needs the overhead of editors and a stable of writers?
A decidedly limited survey proves the point. Andrew Sullivan has a newsletter. Matt Taibi has one. Jeff Maurer has one. Substack exists to create, in their own words, “a future where writers can flourish by being paid directly by readers.”
Even publishers are getting in on the action. The team at The Bulwark apparently thinks newsletters turn freeloaders into subscribers. (I’m sorry, members. You get when you join over there.) So does The Atlantic, which offers 9. Even The New York Times offers them.
Honestly, you could go broke and give up whatever free time you had helping writers live comfortably in the top 10% of the income distribution.
I don’t begrudge anyone making a living. If the lure of neo-liberal entrepreneurialism strikes a chord within you then pursue it. But spare me the soporific attempts at marketing. “Because your people are there, you have to be accountable, but it’s a very pure relationship,” does not a compelling proposition make.
Yet despite myself, I find some of these offerings to be worthy reads. I even pay for one I find delivers a unique blend of financial markets snark sitting atop a solid social science foundation. But I hesitate to shill for an author who has proven to be more than a bit prickly.
Instead, let me wrap with an excerpt from a major publisher who, at the moment, still offers this newsletter for free. Money Stuff is penned by Matt Levine, a former investment banker. It’s available at Bloomberg Opinion, and you can subscribe here.
Levine writes lucidity (and humorously) about the capital markets. I grant you, the subject matter can be esoteric and my interest is a holdover from my days working on a wirehouse account. But if you have any interest in such matters, Matt’s the guy, as I hope this excerpt about pay at the major banks, which appeared earlier this month, demonstrates:
“If you get paid $5 million one year and $4 million the next, though, you will be very sad the second year. Your pay went down year-over-year, suggesting that your employer either (1) does not appreciate your efforts or (2) is not in a financial position to reward them appropriately. Neither is a good sign for your long-term relationship. If in Year 1 you took out an expensive mortgage, in Year 2 finances will feel a bit tight. “You knew your pay was completely variable, why did you take out an expensive mortgage,” is perhaps a reasonable question, but you don’t want to hear it. After all, you keep getting better at your job; you are more experienced and have deeper client relationships and are more senior and taking on more responsibility. Why should you get paid less this year than last year? “Because the bank had a worse year” is a fine, correct answer, but it is not emotionally satisfying. You might quit in a huff.”
The medium and format are irrelevant when the quality level is this high. For the record, Bloomberg Opinion is staffed in the traditional manner.