Are Newsletters the New Blogs?, Newsletter Excerpt

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