This is an excerpt of the latest newsletter. Please subscribe.
After my husband introduced me to the ur-bloggers, like Andrew Sullivan and James Lileks in 2003, I created my first blog using the new “Blogspot” platform – Apartment 11D. I immediately fell in love with the form. It was a public place to engage in long political debates — we often talked about the blogosphere as a townhall — as well as a place to document life’s little moments for future social historians. Sure we would get into the weeds over the intricacies about libertarianism or welfare, but it was fun.
I was never a huge blogger. At my peak, I probably had about 800-1000 daily readers. Swinging between personal and political content, I was too undisciplined to develop a consistent brand that readers looked for. But my mediocre success didn’t daunt me; I showed up day after day for the conversation, not fame and fortune.
As traditional journalism is tearing itself apart with political fights and is struggling to maintain profits, writers are looking for new venues to express their ideas freely and to connect with readers. My inbox is filled every Friday with newsletters from former journalists. Are we returning to the old days of self-publications?
When I started blogging, we lived in a five floor walk-up in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan. Every day, I hauled a massive one-year old baby up those stairs, plus a stroller, plus a diaper bag, plus his four-year old older brother. We were recovering from graduate school. I had finished my dissertation the year before, while Steve had just turned a temp job at a Wall Street firm into a permanent position as an administrative assistant. On weekends, he made revisions to his dissertation. I taught one class at Columbia’s Teachers College in the evening; I paid the babysitter more money than I brought in from that class. Just a smidge over the poverty line, I think I owned one pair of shoes at that time.
Over time, I kept blogging and documenting life. Steve moved up the corporate ladder. We moved to the suburbs. When Ian turned two, blog readers first suggested that he might have autism, which doctors didn’t formally diagnose until three years later. I’m still friends with those readers today, along with many other former bloggers and readers, some whom are now big names in traditional newspapers and academia.
I moved in and out of university-life, taking temporary, low-paying, insecure positions rather than more permanent ones, because I had too many responsibilities at home (that’s the short answer). I did all the professor stuff — teaching classes, doing research (including papers about political blogs), and going to conferences — and blogged about it. After my last academic position ended in 2009, I slowly moved into journalism.
Mainstream articles are totally different from blogs or academic papers, so I had a steep learning curve. I was lucky enough to have some generous editors early on, who showed me the way. They taught me how to distill my thoughts, back up every statement with a link to a study or a quote from an expert, and how to craft a perfect nut graph. They taught me how to ask questions, to be ever-curious. I had some lousy editors, too, but they never lasted enough at the publications to bother me for very long.
Journalism is in bad shape right now. Friends and family members in the industry are taking unpaid furloughs. In-fights about politics are tearing apart publications like the New York Times. Every day, I see stories about schools, my speciality, that are not being written. I’m too burnt out to pitch the stories to editors, so I just let those ideas slide by or write them on my blog or this newsletter. Judging from the surplus of newsletters in my inbox, others are doing the same.
If writers exit traditional publications and start up their own ventures, are we going to see a return to old school blogging in a newsletter format? I hope not. Blogging was always a great place for conversations and that dopamine hit of being the first on the block with some insight or factoid. Without an editor, writers could connect directly with readers. But sometimes a filter is a good thing, because 90 percent of what I have to say is crap. A good publication brings together multiple viewpoints and provides quality control. We need that.
Crafting a proper article is a time-intensive process. It takes me at least two weeks to research, interview, write, and edit one 1,200-word article. I will spend two hours writing this 1,000-word newsletter. Writing words is easy; backing up ideas with conversations, investigation, and fact-checking is hard, which requires major financial support. I’ll write a newsletter for free, because it doesn’t take up much time. I won’t write a traditional article for free.
I am not sure how to save journalism, but I know from seventeen years of experience that self-publication is not the answer. At best, blogs and newsletters are a supplement to journalism. I hope that someone has a better plan.
Be well! Laura
13 thoughts on “Are Newsletters the New Blogs?, Newsletter Excerpt”
“Are Newsletters the New Blogs?”
Yes, they totally are.
The big difference is that there’s now the infrastructure to get paid for them in microsubscriptions.
There’s been a form of the newsletter in to the industry topics (I know it for law and the health industry, but I know they exist for other industries).
I’d like to see you expand on your last paragraphs here, the difference between a blog post and what you consider an article. You reference backing up statements with research and interviews, and I get that in the abstract, that is, that in an article you need to have cites for everything you say. And, the cites can’t just be other news articles (as they can in a blog). We see extreme forms of this kind of reporting in the tax analysis that NY Times did of Trump family taxes or the data gathering behind the Washington Post’s database of police shootings (though that could also be done as an academic collective, primarily because it does not involve interviews).
A small sample of the time that goes into one article:
1. I go to the editors with ideas for stories. To do this, I must read on a daily basis a mix of scholarly articles, Press releases, other news stories, tweets from policy makers and writers, as well as attend bi-monthly school board meetings and writing conferences, while maintaining a wide network of education folks. I have to know what the hot topics are. I usually have to tell my editors what the hot topics are, because many of them have never written about schools before. Sometimes they graduated from college a year ago.
To write a good pitch, I have to do enough work, maybe a day’s worth, to give them a good idea of how the story will go.
2. Then the editor and I hash out a deal for word count, deadline, and compensation.
3. They usually want the article to start with some gripping story. For a story about how the high school advisement system sucks, for example, I have to find a victim. So I contacted a woman who runs a not-for-profit education groups that specializes in advisement and get a name of a student from her. I track the student down (back and forth several emails), set a date for the interview, do an hour interview, use a transcription service to write it up. Then I write up her story. The editor didn’t like her story. So, I contacted five community colleges and one press person came up with another name for me. Again, back and forth, set a date, do an hour interview, write it up. This time the editor liked the person.
4. Then I have to weave in another five interviews – each an hour long — with various experts and scholars. It’s really annoying when I am actually an expert on the topic and have to pretend that I’m just a journalist.
5. At the end of the interview process, I might have over 100 pages of interview notes that have to be turned into 1,200 – 2,000 word article. It takes me half a day to get the courage to pull this all together, and three days to get it in good enough shape to share with the editor.
6. Then the fun begins. The editor tears it apart. Sometimes I have to do several complete rewrites. I have to be available for whenever the editor has time to jump into the google doc. So, that means I’m stuck in front of the computer all day and have to drop everything else, when he/she arrives in the document. Sometimes we’ll edit the piece at the same time. Once I had to deal with answer a list of questions from the 20-year old intern.
7. I never, ever have been paid enough money for all this. It’s crazy-town. So, I’m extracting myself from this mess.
O, Laura, your percentage of crap is way below 90%. 5% maybe.
58 % tops!
Your Public Choice article about political blogs has more citations than do some of the full professors (over their entire career!) at my institution. Such is the f*ed up nature of academia.
Oh, I am very well aware of that. Do I sometimes compare my citation metrics (I’m still getting cited!) with people with tenure at my previous institutions? Yes, I do.
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Want to hear another story? In about 2012, a friend (pol sci phd, tenured at R!) emailed me to say that there was an opening at her undergrad alma mater — a nearby Catholic SLAC. There were looking for someone with my expertise. I didn’t think I had a shot, because I had taken adjunct and temp jobs instead of going on the market immediately after the dissertation. So, I emailed a friend IN that department to ask her if I should apply and told her my story. She said that given that it was a progressive Catholic school, they might look favorably on someone who put family over career for a time. Ian was doing well, so I thought I could hack it.
I went through all the trouble of getting references and putting together an application package. And applied. And heard nothing. I didn’t even get a phone interview. Who did they hire? A guy, single, ten years younger with a fraction of my teaching and publication experience. Not only that, but he graduated from the same grad program. We even had a recommendation from one of the same professors there.
Ugh. So, later I called the guy from our grad program who gave us both recommendations. He said that I shouldn’t bother ever applying to a t-t position. As someone in there mid-40s, I was too old to ever get a job.
Not only did I have more publications and more citations than the tenured faculty at the schools where I was on a temporary line, but I consistently was the highest ranked teacher with student evaluations. My last peer evaluation said that it was the best class that he had ever seen in 30 years in academia.
If I can’t brag and gripe in the comment section of my own blog, what’s the point of the blog? Thanks for listening!
Please do brag. Bragging (i.e. being aware of your contributions and skills) is good.
“It’s really annoying when I am actually an expert on the topic and have to pretend that I’m just a journalist. ”
Was struck by that form of journalist writing when reading Ed Yong or Brian Nosek (who both write on science). It’s an balance and one wonders when the requirement of quotes provides real value and when it is merely going through the motions.
I know how to make a small fortune in publishing, and I bet you do, too.
They tell the same joke about farming, but of all the disasters he’s caused, Trump is only sending money to the farmers.
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