2020: The Year of the Newsletter
Your inbox may be the last place to find focus on the internet.
2020 has been a year of many things: disease, political awakenings, financial destruction. But, on a smaller note, I think it’s also the year of the newsletter.
I’ve been a newsletter junkie for about a decade now. A couple years ago, a friend confided that he loved his job but really, “All I want to do is stay home and read newsletters.” I nodded vigorously. Who doesn’t love an email full of personal confessions, carefully curated links, and good-mood gifs without interruption? This year it seems newsletter fever has spread and my friend’s dreams have come true: Everyone is staying home… and reading newsletters. Or writing them. Why? NPR’s Bobby Allyn described the medium as uniquely positioned to ride out a perfect storm of “frustration with social media algorithms, people hunkered down in the pandemic staring at their screens, and a media industry hammered by the economic downturn.”
But, if you’re not a journalist, you probably aren’t familiar with the pivot to Substack, or how Mailchimp first dominated the medium, or why Axios based its business model on email roundups. You probably have a reasonable relationship with newsletters and think my list of faves (see below) is a recipe for information overload. And you might be right. While I love my weekly mix of corporate and indie newsletters, this year I finally felt like my inbox overfloweth. Do I read all these digests? I try. Do I pay for the ones that have recently gone behind paywalls? Some. The inbox may be the last place to find focus on the internet, but even it needs pruning. You may see me and many others rein in our subscriptions in 2021, which would confirm there is indeed a newsletter “bubble,” as Michael Waters recently wrote in Wired:
Take the blog boom, which is in some ways the most recent precedent for what we’ve seen with newsletters. The early-00s blogging moment fell apart, and many outlets were bought up by companies like Gawker Media. One can imagine that phenomenon repeating itself. What happens, for instance, if a corporation comes along looking for talented Substack writers, then buys up the rights to their newsletters, or poaches them for other projects? Newsletters were corporatized once before, and they could be once again.
Meanwhile, I’m grateful to all the journalists and writers who pour their hearts into these emails, whether they’re on a corporate payroll or trying to go it alone. And, as a thank you to all the newsletters I’ve loved before, here are my recommendations, curated by category. My list only includes newsletters that have regular commentary and writing, not just listings or updates. I’ll be sure to include it in my own newsletter, which you can sign up for here. (What?! Of course I have a newsletter too!)
There are likely gaping holes in this list, so please suggest your favorites in the comments. You can’t do THAT in a newsletter.