The week of December 28, 2014

Why newsletters are the future of online media

By Aaron Sankin

Email, what is it good for? Ask a Snapchat-obsessed #teen and the answer will likely be “absolutely nothing.” But, for the olds, email is undergoing something of a renaissance. And it isn’t just because the newest generation of spam filters actually work.

Increasingly, some of the most interesting content being created online is being distributed through a network of newsletters filling every niche under the cloud. The past year has seen the ecosystem of email newsletters, be they daily or weekly, really come into its own.

Led by Rusty Foster’s instantly indispensable online media navel-gazing self-flagellation Today In Tabs, we at the Kernel are obsessed with the current crop of email newsletters. We love them because the good ones, the ones we open the second they pop into our inboxes, are like little, hand-curated pipes for mainlining quality Internet directly into our veins. The best newsletters function as expertly annotated versions of Facebook run by people we actually trust rather than an opaque algorithm designed to show us whatever clickbait is most likely to entice us to stick around long enough to look at advertisements for overpriced jeans.

That email newsletters are an alternative to Facebook is actually one of the reasons why they’ve become so popular among news organizations. As Facebook becomes the  primary mediator between online publishers and their readers, there’s an incentive for those organizations to find other avenues to push out their content. If Mark Zuckerberg decides one day that, instead of having articles appear in Facebook users’ news feeds the only thing they see will be pictures of people they went to high school with, it might be good for companies whose livelihoods are tied to those clicks to have a back-up plan.

But email newsletters are more than just a version of Facebook where your hippie uncle can’t get in a painfully awkward flame war with your libertarian college roommate about gun control. A good newsletter takes full advantage of the form.

“I like newsletters because I’m lazy and they just show up in my email to read,” Foster recently told the Kernel. “I don’t have to go find them. I also think the form reminds writers that that’s what will happen—like, you get punished for posting, every time I post I lose some subscribers—so it’s not like an RSS feed where you just get every post. Newsletter writers tend to be a little more restrained about what they publish.”

The best newsletters function as expertly annotated versions of Facebook run by people we actually trust.

Eliot Nelson, who writes HuffPost Hill, the Huffington Post’s long-running (at least in Internet time) satirical skewing of the daily political grind, explained that most newsletters can be divided into two camps. There are the straight tip sheets that serve to keep readers up to date about everything they might need to know about a particular topic and ones that cultivate a strong authorial voice to cultivate a dedicated following from readers in specific circles.

“There are ones like [Politico’s famous morning information blast] Playbook that do things like have a self-congratulatory conversation among people within the Beltway to ones like ours and Today in Tabs that are geared toward the back of the room,” Nelson said. “Everyone might not immediately ‘get it’ but it’s mainly about—and I can’t believe I’m actually saying this—building the brand.”

The following are list of our favorite email newsletters. Some are clever snark-fests and others are the first-thing-in-the-morning informational breakfast reads we couldn’t get out of bed without.

All of them are more than worthy of your email address. —Aaron Sankin

1) HuffPost Hill

Every morning, Washington, D.C.’s political class—and the legion of nerds around the country who obsessively follow their every doing—embark on a daily ritual. Soon after rousing from their nightly slumber, they open up their email and open up daily Playbook email by Politico reporter Mike Allen. Playbook is an essential if slapdash amalgamation of deft news aggregation, dogged original reporting, sketchy advertising practices, and a birthday calendar that may be the single most accurate representation of who actually holds power in Washington.

Playbook aims to “win the morning” by breaking news that everyone else spends the rest of the day talking about. Allen wins Politico a lot of mornings. But at the same time, Washington’s essential tip sheet also ends up exemplifying everything that’s wrong with This Town—from its obsession with the daily horse race to its clubby backslapping.

HuffPost Hill is the Huffington Post’s comparatively human version of Playbook, where the online media behemoth’s political team takes stock of the day’s political news, sighs wearily, starts making the jokes. There are a lot of places to get political commentary online, but few of them are this reliably, consistently, and bitingly hilarious. It’s like a wonkier version of The Daily Show targeted squarely at political junkies that reads like the sarcastic, post-work banter that whip-smart political reporters make over drinks after spending all day shoveling bullshit on the Capitol Hill.

It’s not for everyone, but if recent headlines like, “The Arc Of History Is Long, Andy Harris, But It Bends Toward Us Getting High” or “If You Do Enough Drugs And Stare Directly Into The Sun, Immigration Reform Can Be Real To You” make you giggle, HuffPost Hill should be on your essential reading list. —A.S.

(Full disclosure: The author of this blurb was previously an editor at the Huffington Post. He didn’t work on HuffPost Hill but read it religiously.)

2) Goop

Gwyneth Paltrow’s newsletter is attached to her financially dubious lifestyle brand Goop, a compendium of advice on how to be rich and thin. It feels like reading a friendly note from Marie Antoinette, filtered through a team of hipster-WASP ghost writers.

The most morbidly fascinating aspect of Goop is Paltrow’s attitude to self-improvement. Her tips range from mildly kooky (an article about a “structural integrative specialist” who can supposedly make you taller), to dangerous (starvation diets in the form of detox juice cleanses) to downright bonkers. One issue featured a “scientist” who “proved” that by writing certain words on bottles of water, you could change the structure of ice crystals—because water responds physically to the positive nature of the phrase “I love you,” obviously.

I started following Goop as a hate-read, but I’ve found that it becomes oddly compelling with time. Although I have no desire to follow any of Gwyneth Paltrow’s nonsensical lifestyle tips, some of the the recipes are pretty good. And you never know when you might need expert advice on how to renovate your new multimillion dollar loft apartment. —Gavia Baker-Whitelaw

3) Everything Changes

Written by Laura Olin, who ran social media strategy for the Obama 2012 campaign, Everything Changes is a newsletter for the restless, irreverent, and easily bored—in other words, you. There’s a new edition each weekday, and a new format each week. Past themes have included recipes found in novels, Dolly Parton trivia, and “The Secret Lives of Emoji,” in which some of the stranger icons from your phone served as prompts for short stories. Last week, each email had a link to a single irreverent poll question (would you rather have the power of flight or invisibility, for example), and this week we got the results. When your inbox is choked with bad subject lines and worse news, Everything Changes is an ideal palate cleanser. —Miles Klee

4) Links I would gchat you if we were friends by Caitlin Dewey

Conversational yet to the point, Dewey effectively distills the day’s Internetting down and serves it up to you on a platter. Often the last thing I’ll read due to my timezone, it’ll point out what I’ve missed that day—and the almost daily Pocketable longreads are a godsend for my commute. —Rob Price

5) Today In Tabs

Among people who put words onto the Internet for a living, a ritual has developed within the last year or so. Each afternoon, a computer programmer in Maine sends out an email highlighting the best and worst of what he’s been reading that day and then everyone frantically checks it to see if their work was lauded, mocked, or some combination of the two. This obsession with Today In Tabs is completely warranted. Author Rusty Foster has an uncanny ability to find the day’s most essential online discussions, break them down to their component parts, demonstrate why those parts are representative of the the culture at large with a few wry quips, and then, if there’s time after linking to the day’s most essential cat videos, puts them all back together so that even people with lives outside of the online media circlejerk can sound informed at cocktail parties.

The past year has seen the ecosystem of email newsletters, be they daily or weekly, really come into its own.

In a world where thousands of writers are struggling to produce hot takes, the hottest take of all is inevitably Foster’s—not just because he survey’s media sturm und drang from a bird’s eye view, but because he makes it all look so easy.—A.S.

6) The Skimm

The Skimm totally does what it says on the box. This weekday-morning newsletter hits my inbox right in the sweet spot between tl;dr link roundups and full New York Times articles. Carly Zakin and Danielle Weisberg give their readers a rundown of the day’s news to help them start off on the right foot, and it’s chock-full of pop-culture nods and succinct explainers that speak to the inner 20-something in us all.

Bonus round: The newsletter partners up with a bunch of other sites to offer giveaways, getaways, and more; may your luck be better than mine. —Monica Riese

7) 5 Useful Articles

Back in the pre-Snowden days of the Internet—you know, 2012—no issue loomed larger than copyright. Long-dead copyright-protection bill the Stop Online Piracy Act, better known as SOPA, proved a poignant rallying point around which the broader Internet community, from old-school computer engineers to once-a-week Web surfers. We may have moved on to a bigger, scarier foe, but copyright issues remain central to the overall health of the Internet. No one sums up the finer points of often-dense copyright law better than Electronic Frontier Foundation activist Peter Higgins and legal expert Sarah Jeong, authors of the weekly newsletter 5 Useful Articles. The pair consistently deliver the important, interesting copyright-related stories you probably missed, and does so with biting humor and undying enthusiasm. —Andrew Couts

8) Politico’s Morning Tech

If you want to stay informed about the intersection of technology and politics, Politico’s Morning Tech newsletter should be the single most important thing in your inbox. Every AM, Politico’s dogged technology reporters don’t just present a thorough, easily digestible rundown of everything from cyberwar to net neutrality—they also paint an elegant, instantly digestible picture of what to expect over the next 24 hours. It’s no nonsense and guaranteed to get your morning started right. —A.S.

9) MediaREDEF

I’m in a constant state of purging online—pruning my Twitter following list, Facebook friends, and Google alerts. I want to minimize the noise as much as possible, to receive only the things that are of going to be interest to me and of importance to my job. Nothing balances those two worlds for me personally than MediaREDEF, the difficult-to-pin-down new project from former Myspace co-president Jason Hirschhorn. His main daily newsletter achieves a rare balance of longform features and critical commentary on the worlds of tech, entertainment, sports, and pop culture, while his intros read like beat prose—the fractured, occasionally out-of-context thoughts of one of the few people actually deserving of the “thought leader” distinction. Every email contains no less than 10 must-reads from around the Web. And the interest of full transparency, I take great pride in seeing the work we do at the Kernel and the Daily Dot featured in the daily mix. We’re always in great company. —Austin Powell

Photo by G M/Flickr | Remix by Jason Reed