The Curious Case of the Rise and Fall of Newsletter Popularity

Cash in on the gold rush before it’s gone

Photo by Solen Feyissa on Unsplash

Newspapers are finding it hard to stay relevant and profitable in the age of instant gratification. With reducing attention spans along with free daily rants on government interventions in the free-market, you don’t find it necessary to subscribe to a newspaper. And it’s not only you who feels so. Newspapers worldwide are going kaput because of the sudden explosion of free content on social media and other platforms. The overall advertising revenue of newspapers in the United States has declined by 62% since 2008 and the circulation fell to its lowest level since 1940.

Some governments are jolting into action to keep the printing presses whirring. The Australian government recently came out with a diktat that forces Facebook and Google to pay the newspapers for news delivered on their platform. Although governments can strong-arm corporations to bail out dying corporations in the nation’s interest, governments can’t do much about consumer habits.

And habits are consistently being nudged by the market towards short, personalized, and to the point content. TikTok, Instagram reels, short articles are the rage of our day and age. People want bang for their seconds. Time is of the essence, even though ironically, most of us waste it mindlessly swiping down and scrolling through an endless stream of content.

But the explosion of content that has crippled the print media industry is creating opportunities elsewhere. Newsletters, a content delivery mechanism that was supposed to die along with bloated TV sets and hardcover encyclopedias, is empowering independent journalists and freelancers. But it’s not the first time people are smitten with personalized letters.

The ebb and flow of newsletter popularity

In his brilliant book Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson talks about the adjacent possible. Certain ideas are so far ahead of their time, that despite being brilliant, they don’t become popular. Or they don’t reach their potential, as there wasn’t any supporting technology, available resources, or environment for the idea to bloom. For instance, as mentioned in the book, if the idea of YouTube would have hit Hurley, Chen, and Karim (the founders) in 1995 which was 10 years before the invention, the technology would have flopped, as the dial-up modems were extremely slow and Adobe flash player wasn’t a thing back then.

So, the brightest and the most practical ideas that have value in the present are often lingering in the adjacent possible. When the internet speed increased and Adobe Flash player was developed, the door for the mass adoption of YouTube opened. The dots were there, Hurley, Chen, and Karim just had to connect them.

The adjacent possible that makes newsletters popular has, however, shown up many times since humans started consuming content. In the 17th century, people used to send handwritten letters directly to the mailboxes of their subscribers as laws were prohibiting the distribution of printed material. Smart journalists and entrepreneurs got a sneak peek at the adjacent possible and started making a living out of it.

But soon the laws changed, legalizing mass distribution of printed content. Under the new situation, large printing presses were in the best position to serve the information-hungry people, bundling different content on a few pages of paper and selling it cheap. They shut the door of the adjacent possible for newsletters to grow, although certain windows remained open.

In the 19th century during the Second World War, because of the conservative biases of most of the dailies, people shied away from them. Liberalism was all people wanted to hear about. This again created a demand for independent journalism that would be free from the influence of the Big Brother or the Big Media.

It was in those days that many journalists started sending their newsletters to readers. For instance, Claud Cockburn, a foreign correspondent at The Times of London started with a subscriber list of seven and went on to create a brand known as The Week. As per the article in Wired, his subscribers included well-known personalities such as Charlie Chaplin and King Edward VII.

But soon these solo publishers faced increased competition from the corporate behemoths… again, which put a ceiling on their market growth.

The time for the newsletters has arrived… again!

Facebook and Google, sharing almost 60% of the global online advertising revenue, have crippled the traditional business models of the newspapers which were majorly advertising based. Without the advertising money, newspaper empires, especially the local ones, are falling like a pack of cards.

But the frenzy of advertising money has also created a lot of noise on the web. People are lazy, and if there is one direction that humanity is moving towards, it’s towards being lazy. So when someone has an interest in football, he or she will find thousands of websites, millions of posts, videos, etc on the web. And going through them to find anything interesting is well… not efficient (not helping you in your goal of becoming a lazy ass). In an interview with Protocol, Chris Best, CEO, and founder of Substack says,

Every possible second that you want to be distracted, you now can be. Everyone has their attention already allocated, and the only way to improve your media diet is to pay attention more wisely, spending it on stuff that you think is actually more valuable, that’s more trustworthy, that’s a better use of your time. And if you have to spend money to do that and at the same time can fund the people that are creating things that you find worth your time, it just suddenly makes a lot more sense.

So, consumers want relief from the barrage of content they are exposed to every day. And content creators want to break away from the shackles of their employers and the algorithms that control who gets to see what. Where there is pent-up demand and an entrepreneurial supply, Mr. Market does the rest.

According to BuzzFeed, the top 12 writers on Substack make an average $160000 each. On Patreon, some journalists are making more than $100000 a month! Paraphrasing from the BuzzFeed article,

“I can write about whatever I want, in the way that I want, and I do it because I have that urge to. And I don’t always feel like it. But I now have an obligation to a trusting audience to do this,” Azhar, once a correspondent for the Economist and the Financial Times, told BuzzFeed News. “I never felt this degree of freedom when I was working as a journalist 25 years ago.”

When the producers are getting what they want — money and freedom, and consumers are getting what they want — their favorite content delivered right into their mailbox with no hassle, what could go wrong?

Cash in on the gold rush before it’s gone

As with every other technology, the newsletter space is getting cramped up. People don’t want their mailboxes to overflow with different types of newsletters. That would defeat the purpose of their subscriptions. And once every Tom, Dick, and Harry jumps on the bandwagon, the life of the consumer will become difficult again as the choice increases.

Furthermore, the big corporates are always hunting for the best content creators, and if not now, sometime in the future, the best newsletters will get absorbed under the same umbrella. Like how the Big tech sucks in any and every tech that shows potential, popular newsletters will be absorbed by some tech behemoth or some big publishing house that would deliver content to a larger audience in some other, better, and more innovative way.

But for now, newsletters are here to stay. The trust in the traditional media is at a depressing low. Creators don’t want the distribution of their content to be controlled by algorithms. And the idea of financial freedom and working from anywhere is too hard to resist. Consumers want more control over what content they are exposed to as content fatigue is setting in.

So if you are a content creator and haven’t created your email list yet, you are missing out on some serious moolah! Cash in on the opportunity till the door of the adjacent possible is still open.

Curious about the dark side of the moon and the other side of the story.

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