The Re-Rise of the Newsletter

The professional news industry is being forced to return to its roots by a world it doesn’t — and probably never will — fully understand. It began with the industry’s initial response to the digital disruption, which was to reproduce its entire finished product for the web. The web, however, wasn’t built by newspapers; it was built by highly creative and rebellious geeks who changed the world without the status quo telling them it needed changing.

The web was a brand new communications invention, not a new distribution channel for old ways of doing things, and in missing this truth, the industry was completely lost. The newspaper people wanted to present their finished product online, but the geeks knew from the start that this was inefficient and a cheap substitute for what was possible.

Blog software, with its reverse chronological flow, came first, quickly followed by ways to distribute content apart from its host. Social media is, at core, the news “audience” talking amongst themselves, which was contrary to the top-down relationship that the press had with its readers. The shift to mobile brought new challenges, the biggest being a playing field built around scrolling and video in portrait mode. News drifted away from the finished product variety and into the world of continuous news.

Of course, the biggest disruptor by far was how advertising was changing to adapt to the new, and a realization that smart marketers could provide ads at the browser level and based on the behaviors of that browser. This offered a much greater likelihood of advertiser return-on-investment. History books will cite this as causing the death of newspapers, but it’s really more a case of ignorance, for newspapers still lack the technology and the networks to provide this to local advertisers. The industry has ceded defeat to Google without even firing a shot.

And, now comes the newest era of the email newsletter, a technology that’s been around since the dawn of email but generally only used to provide links to the industry’s “real” content online. The shift today, however, includes those who give the energy it takes to produce actual content for newsletters, and it’s a godsend to overwhelmed news consumers. This trend is going to continue until a company’s online newsletter will become the primary method that news organizations use to disseminate news and information.

People can pass them around, which often results in new subscribers.

The first trader newsletters during the Middle Ages — actual letters from observers in far away places — were the precursor to the newspaper industry. Wikipedia notes that “Trader’s newsletters covered various topics such as the availability and pricing of goods, political news, and other events that would influence trade.” This is the essence of today’s developing process, and it suits not only the web’s unique abilities but also that most precious of earthly commodities: time.

I’ll be 74 this summer, and I spend most of my days online in an endless search for knowledge. Even with all that time, I still feel uninformed, because studying modern times is like trying to take a sip from a firehose. It’s the primary reason I’ve turned to newsletters. They’re out there; you just have to find them. Here are five newsletters that hit my inbox overnight or every morning:

The New York Times: While this is primarily a tool to “drive traffic” back to its newspaper site, the content is growing to include small story summaries throughout. It’s a way to follow the Times without subscribing to its main product.

Mondoweiss: I have family of Palestinians that lived in Amman, Jordan for a great many years, so my window on the Middle East is a little different than most. I don’t trust the Israeli’s, and I need an outlet that understands this. Mondoweiss is a terrific example of a point-of-view news organization that represents an extreme minority in the West. I need that to stay informed.

Dave Winer: Dave is one of the real gems in providing important technology news in a highly conversational format. I also really like Dave as a person, and his takes on life in general also give me food for thought. Dave’s is a constant voice on Twitter, and he uses his newsletter to summarize those thoughts. Moreover, and this is important, Dave is always a yard ahead of everybody else, and if he’s taking the trouble to produce a newsletter, it’s something that requires my attention.

Mathew Ingram: Mathew provides summaries and links to the stories he finds important. I trust Mathew and lean on his understanding to help my own.

Brian Stelter and Oliver Darcy: CNN’s Reliable Sources is (by a mile) the most useful contemporary newsletter in the market today. It is the model for others to copy, for it’s loaded with content written for readers of the newsletter. What a concept! Oh, it contains marketing and links, but it is written to be read, and the summaries are specifically aimed at people such as myself and all of those who just don’t have the time to invest in reading complete stories.

There are many others out there, and I’ll probably be extending my subscription list as I find those suited to my tastes. The point is that I get to decide what I wish to influence my thinking, not the forced and irritating offerings of the artificial and manipulative hegemony known as objectivity. That old standard disappeared with the advent of continuous streams of news. Journalism has always spoken with the authority of overseers, which is the luxury afforded to those who could afford a printing press. Today, every single person on the net is a media company and able to distribute their content just like the big boys.

To those who would drag out the ol’ echo chamber meme to accuse me of circular logic, let me state once again that my experience in helping to create right wing news means that I know that it’s just political propaganda disguised as news. Give me a little credit for that tidbit, because I’ve already turned the page on it.

If you don’t subscribe to newsletters, my advice is to begin today. Click on the links I’ve provided, if you’re interested in those. If you find yourself being fed content that you find bitter or tasteless, unsubscribing is just a click away.

To those in the news industry, if you don’t produce a newsletter, what are you waiting for? The only rules are that it can’t be a vehicle that merely “drives traffic” back to its point of origin, and ads should be presented as content, perhaps even written by the newsletter’s author(s).

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