#141 — Are independent newsletters killing journalism?

This week we take a look at how newsletters, big and small, keep the lights on, why "zombie" subscribers aren't necessarily a bad thing, and whether the future will be kind to the email newsletter format.


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The creator economy is evolving at an incredible pace and publishing is at the cross-section of the most important changes. This week we take a look at how newsletters, big and small, keep the lights on, why "zombie" subscribers aren't necessarily a bad thing, and whether the future will be kind to the email newsletter format.

💯 Top picks

Does Substack harm journalism?

This week's top pick is the result of a tweetstorm that set the writing community on Twitter ablaze. In the linked Q&A, a UCLA professor argues the lack of "editorial oversight" and "newsroom ethics" found in independent newsletters will ultimately damage the field of journalism and the democracies it supports.

Although a portion of her concerns may be valid, the heart of her argument sits upon a very big assumption: that newsroom ethics are more aligned with reader values than those of independent journalists.

The meta-trend of people moving their trust from institutions to individuals is a response to misaligned ethics. Tools like Ghost or Substack aren't trying to replace newsrooms. Instead, they are equipping the next wave of journalism: individuals with a voice.

💸 Business models

How SoundCloud’s new royalty payouts work

SoundCloud plans to shift their pro rata royalty model to user-centric one (aka "fan-powered") in an effort to increase the earning potential for smaller creators: "your subscription money will only go to the artists you actually listen to." This shift raises the question, what other platforms might adjust their models in order to attract more creators?

The era of audio creators has arrived

The New York Times recently published a story on the success, and subsequent growing pains, achieved by social media newcomer Clubhouse. One useful takeaway is that creators on the platform are learning to execute strategies they've seen work on other platforms: "the same way Viners got together, and Instagrammers got together to grow and collaborate seven years ago, it’s happening behind the scenes on Clubhouse."

Twitter tests new e-commerce features for tweets

"With a new Twitter card format, the company is experimenting with tweets that include a big “Shop” button and integrate product details directly into the tweet itself, including the product name, shop name and product pricing." The attempt to remove as many barriers as possible between creators and their customers is a smart one. Perhaps Twitter is making a move before tools like CashDrop dominate the micro-shop experience.

📝 Modern publishing

Stop thinking what others would like to read

Hrvoje Šimić offers fellow creators a thought we often need reminding of: "Don’t be afraid to publish. Don’t surrender to the self-censoring voice that represents 'society' [...] Stop thinking what other people would like to read and start writing about what you’re interested in."

Churn! Churn! Churn! (To every subscriber there is a reason)

We'd all like to believe that every subscriber we have reads every creation we publish. But a recent study showed that 20-49% of digital subscribers are "zombies" - individuals who pay for content they do not consume. Rather than being a cause for alarm, the article sheds light on how publishers can use this information to engage with their audience in more strategic ways. In summary, "Continue working to build habit in readers, but diversify your value propositions."

📬 Email newsletters

The first ever Newsletter Fest is scheduled for April 12-16, 2021

Curated is hosting an online newsletter event for publishers, marketers, and independent creators. To date, they have 13 speakers on board including Anum Hussain from Below The Fold and Margo Aaron from That Seems Important. You can read more details on the event's Notion page.

Million dollar newsletter

Writer Jake Singer dissects the business model of the Not Boring newsletter. It's an interesting read, albeit 100% of the newsletter's income is ad revenue. Ads can help you monetize quickly, but at a cost. They can be unpredictable and often require creators to shift their content towards advertiser preferences rather than reader needs. In contrast, Not Boring could reach $420,000 ARR with only 10% of its 35,000 reader audience opting in to a $10/mo plan. Which strategy would you choose?

Just in case anyone thinks the current newsletter craze is a passing trend, this article makes the case that email-focused communication will only become more valuable in the coming years. “As third-party cookies are slated to be phased out, everyone is looking for an identity solution that will long outlast the death of the third-party cookies, and publishers realize the email address will be at the crux of that solution. [...]  An email newsletter is a great digital handshake."

💻 Technology

Zapier buys no-code-focused Makerpad in its first acquisition

"Zapier, a well-known no-code automation tool, has purchased Makerpad, a no-code education service and community." Acquisitions like these signal that we may be in a renaissance of content-valuation. Companies are beginning to understand how valuable unique content and niche communities can be when paired with the right tool or service. Will we see more of these take place as newsletters, which are often the perfect mix of content and community, continue to grow in popularity?

Data is great — but it's not a replacement for talking to customers

"Real insights come from seeing the world through someone else’s eyes." In what's sure to stand as a divisive piece over time, this article dives into the dangers of relying too heavily on data when building a product or service. The argument reminds me of an excellent quote by Adam Davidson, author of The Passion Economy. "Technology without solutions is always going to lose out to solutions without technology."


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