I finally read The Why of Newsletters by Robin Rendle. A great, quick, and beautiful read. You should click on the link and spend a few minutes and then come back, but if I were to summarize the piece:

  1. Newsletters are easy to write.
  2. They have an automatic notification system.
  3. They have a built in payment mechanism.

Websites are missing all three, but that is a choice. There are solutions to (1) that could be popularized. We all know RSS is great for (2), but maybe it needs to be built into a place we already go, like the browser, to have the same advantages of email. But I think (3) is trickier and the solutions further off–for some reason, we’re perfectly ok with an email model where folks can and do forward paid newsletters all the time (and often have a weblink that only offers security through obscurity to read a copy of a newsletter), but afraid to have website payment structures that are as easy to circumvent.

The unspoken part of all this is the impact of Google Reader. I still know very smart people who loved Google Reader and have refused or bounced off of other RSS-based reading systems. That includes folks who are not using social media as an RSS replacement. I don’t know that solving (2) and (3) in Google Reader would have worked, but it sure feels like mainstream weight behind RSS in the form of Google Reader had power. I have often wondered if Firefox had kept marketshare and used Pocket less as a “save this part of the web” and more as a “read the web better in a stream” if that may have helped.

I’m frustrated by the rise of newsletters. I’m thrilled to be able to read great content and follow an author 1. But I really don’t want your writing in my email inbox. The design of all newsletters is very same-y and lacking in personality, although at least they all tend to have an ok reading experience. The length of newsletters feels all wrong–I feel as though many paid newsletters feel the need to write significantly longer pieces to justify their cost. I’d prefer shorter pieces, even if it meant more of them. My own blog is chronological within a day, because I think of my writing here as an ongoing journey within a day of what I’m dong and thinking (a… web log, if you’ll indulge me), and I’d rather read a few ordered 250-500 word thoughts than once a week be hit with your 3000 word news magazine think-piece that would never be bought by a news magazine. And lastly, I can’t say that I think any of the common middleware providers here, mostly Substack, are places I want to spend a lot of money. I’m disappointed more people aren’t using solutions like Ghost. I hope that Automattic would do some cool stuff with Tumblr in this direction.

I guess it doesn’t really matter to me in the end–I use a funky email address provided by Feedbin, which gets all those newsletters into my RSS reader of choice (Reeder), and I get to enjoy more writing from people I’m interested in following. But it is bizarre to see the writing revolution happening from within closed, centralized platforms using a weird open platform (email) for distribution while the web is sitting right there.

  1. It drives me nuts that most publications don’t have author-based feeds or authors themselves don’t construct them because I very often want to read everything a particular person writes and not the bundled publication. It used to be common to have author feeds or topic/tag feeds. One of the earliest signs that we’re “post-blog” and fully buying into “online publications” was the removal of such features. ↩︎