The Weekender, August 28, 2020


One question I get often is “how do I start my own email newsletter?” I’m going to warn you: the short answer is “I have no idea,” so if you’re expecting a roadmap here, you’ll be disappointed. The longer, only-barely-responsive answer I’m about to give you isn’t a roadmap. 

Over the last year, maybe two or three, we’ve seen a lot of writers start their own newsletters. Substack is a great platform for that — it handles all the ins and outs of publication, and also allows writers to add a paywall so that their readers can fund their efforts. It’s not the right fit for Now I Know (I’m probably going to explain that at some point in the next few weeks), but if you’re a writer who wants to start a newsletter and monetize it, it’s a very good option. Before that, there was TinyLetter, a super-simple email publishing platform that Mailchimp ended up buying three years ago. If you don’t know what those Capital Letter Words mean, Google it — it’s really not important for my purposes today, though.

What is important is the simplicity that these two platforms brought to the market. Before 2016, it wasn’t trivially easy for a writer to start an email newsletter. You really needed to know a lot about how the internet worked, to put in a very basic way. Thankfully, I did, which is why I was able to start this in 2010.

Of course, if you had those skills at the time, there were other options. Twitter was emerging but hardly new by then. Blogs were still very popular, but waining. And in either case, if writing was your goal, those were both easier than starting an email newsletter. As a result, you didn’t have a lot of people doing what I did.

The key ingredient is also the start of the answer to “how do I start my own email newsletter?” — you need to think like a publisher, not a writer or technologist. You need to consider not only how are you going to write the thing, but also, how are you going to get the words into the hands of the people you want to reach? How are you going to interact with them, if at all? And how do you pay the bills?

For me, ten years ago, email, as a publishing platform, came with a ton of advantages. It’s a push medium — the reader doesn’t have to do anything that he or she wouldn’t normally do, like remember to visit your website. All they have to do is check their email. It has built-in social tools — you can reply, you can forward, you can even save for later. And because at the time — again, in 2010 — there weren’t a lot of email newsletters, you weren’t competing in a crowded space. (As spam filters improved, that happened to become even more true.) It made a lot of sense to create an email newsletter in 2010.

Today, though, it may not. The answer to “how do I start my own email newsletter?” is “maybe you don’t.” If your goal is to write and connect with a lot of people around the world, don’t jump to the tactic du jour. Think like a publisher, find ways to connect with your audience, and do that. 

The Now I Know Week in Review

I’m doing something different this week, not because I want to but because my website is down, so you can’t actually get to the articles (and I can’t readily get the links). So if you want to read or re-read the articles from this week, wait a few hours and go to or, for Tuesday’s,

Sorry about that.
And some other things you should check out:
Some long reads for the weekend.

1) “The Last Giraffes on Earth” (The Atlantic, 15 minutes, April 2020). The subhead: “The planet’s tallest animal is in far greater danger than people might think.”

2) “The Inside Story of the $8 Million Heist from the Carnegie Library” (Smithsonian, 18 minutes, September 2020). I have a soft spot for heist stories. 

3) “The Weird, Dangerous, Isolated Life of the Saturation Diver” (Atlas Obscura, 20 minutes, May 2018). The first sentence is something else: “For 52 straight days this winter, Shannon Hovey woke up in the company of five other men in a metal tube, 20 feet long and seven feet in diameter, tucked deep inside a ship in the Gulf of Mexico.”

Have a great weekend!