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As Twitter and Facebook become more acrimonious and less trusted, an older means to get information has made a comeback: the email newsletter. Chances are that newsletters make up a larger part of your media diet than they did a couple of years ago. You may even be paying for some of them.
In recent months several journalists have left jobs at established publications to earn a living by asking their most loyal readers to subscribe to a personal email newsletter instead. Entrepreneurs, cookery writers and academics have also embraced this model. Who needs a publisher if you can sell your writing straight to your readers?
Most of these people are established experts in a particular field. They have chosen to bypass the involvement of advertisers and algorithms in favour of the pleasingly straightforward approach of delivering their thoughts directly to the inboxes of paying subscribers. Writers with large online followings can earn a respectable income even if only a small fraction of their fans sign up (typically for $5 a month, or $50 a year).
Substack, the newsletter-publishing platform that has championed this new model, takes 10% of the proceeds in return for handling distribution and billing. Launching a Substack newsletter today is like launching a blog 20 years ago, or a podcast five years ago, with one important difference: people are actually getting paid.
There are some enviable success stories. Heather Cox Richardson, a history professor at Boston College, is thought to make more than $1m a year from her politics newsletter, “Letters from an American”. The New York Times recently described her as “by accident the most successful independent journalist in America”. Substack paid Matthew Yglesias, co-founder of Vox, an American news website, an advance of $250,000 when he left his job to concentrate on his newsletter, “Slow Boring”. Other journalists who’ve gone solo include Andrew Sullivan, Glenn Greenwald and Haley Nahman. In January Twitter bought Revue, a Dutch startup and rival to Substack. Your inbox could soon be stuffed with new newsletters.
Subscription newsletters may be all the rage today, but the idea of readers paying writers directly for information has deep roots. The ancestors of today’s inbox epistles were the handwritten “letters of news” that circulated in England in the 17th century.
These early newsletters were typically compiled by political informants in London and sent to recipients in the countryside who wanted to keep abreast of gossip from the city. Information was picked up in St Paul’s cathedral, at the Royal Exchange, from Thames boatmen (the equivalent of modern taxi drivers), in taverns and from friends in high places.
Launching a newsletter today is like launching a blog 20 years ago, or a podcast five years ago
Initially such information was sent as a favour by those in the city to distant friends or patrons. Then John Pory and Edmund Rossingham, two enterprising news writers, began sending weekly newsletters to paying customers in the 1620s, at a cost of £20 a year. This was an impressive sum at the time (equivalent to about $7,000 today). With a dozen or so subscribers, they and other newsletter writers could make a good living.
Titbits of information in these letters were often preceded by the words “it is said” or “I have heard”, emphasising the oral nature of the news they contained. Authors usually wrote slightly different letters to each subscriber, tailoring the contents to an individual’s interests. Sometimes they outsourced parts of the work: clerks would write out the bulk of the text – the bits that were common to each letter – before authors added comments and embellishments in their own hand.
According to one account from the period, the five copyists employed by one newsletter writer each had to write out 16 letters every Tuesday, 13 every Thursday and 15 every Saturday to meet the varied demands of more than 100 subscribers. Yet even when an anonymous clerk had copied out most of a newsletter, a polite fiction was maintained that it was a private correspondence between two gentlemen, rather than a commercial relationship.
Letters of news flourished in part because, unlike printed publications, they were not subject to government censorship. Being handwritten and expensive, such letters were assumed to have a small and limited circulation among the well-to-do and the authorities mostly turned a blind eye. But they actually circulated far more widely, and were often passed on (like today’s email newsletters) from one reader to the next.
The polite fiction was maintained that the newsletter was a private correspondence between two gentlemen
Manuscript letters of news could also be bought from booksellers in London. From the 1650s many coffee houses subscribed to a selection of newsletters for patrons to read. (These establishments, in turn, bred new newsletters: Will Urwin, patron of Will’s Coffee House, charged £10 a year for a newsletter assembled from information and gossip gathered within its walls.) In the 1660s Henry Muddiman started producing a twice-weekly roundup of parliamentary proceedings, printed coverage of which was forbidden by law. He charged £5 a year, and had around 150 subscribers by 1666.
The popularity of handwritten letters of news declined after laws governing the censorship of printed material lapsed in 1695, and printed periodicals eventually superseded the handwritten variety. The early 18th century saw a flowering of new publications that brought together foreign and domestic news, gossip and opinion – what we now call newspapers. By assembling a variety of reporting in one place, they satisfied the demand for news and could be produced cheaply in large volumes.
Today it is newspapers that are in retreat – as the advertising model on which they came to rely has been undermined by the internet – and subscription newsletters have made an unexpected return. Some 400 years after Pory and Rossingham, the internet has offered a new way for individuals writing letters of news to connect with audiences directly. Like their 17th-century precursors, these missives have the personal tone of a note from a trusted and well-informed friend. The newest business model in journalism, it turns out, is also the oldest.
This article was originally found at The Economist