Right up there with “kill your darlings” and “write what you know” is the classic advice to write for just one person. Kurt Vonnegut called this the “secret of artistic unity.” He believed that “every successful creative person creates with an audience of one in mind.”
Maybe that’s part of why email newsletters — email! 1993 technology! — seem to have lost none of their power in our increasingly nichified media world. Why settle for hyper-targeted coverage that caters to millennials nostalgic for Dawson’s Creek who may or may not see your work, for example, when you can deliver content to an audience of individuals who feel like you’re writing directly to them, right in their inbox?
Small-batch newsletters may be a throwback to a simpler Internet — surely that’s part of the appeal — but they still work. (I first got hooked on Nieman Lab because of its daily newsletter. Same goes for Quartz, which smartly frames its morning newsletter by telling readers what to watch for in the day ahead and what they missed overnight.)
The journalist Ann Friedman, whose newsletter is a bright spot in my inbox each Friday, recently explored whether we’ve reached “peak newsletter.” Maybe so, but they’re as appealing to some journalists as they are to subscribers. A newsletter is a branding device, a distribution mechanism — and perhaps even a viable source of revenue.
That’s what Michael Brendan Dougherty is banking on. After political reporting and editing stints at The American Conservative and Business Insider, he decided to quit his job and launch The Slurve, a daily baseball newsletter that began last March on the eve of the 2013 baseball season.
Dougherty saw the opportunity to create a bespoke editorial product for an audience that was inundated with great baseball coverage but had to traverse a huge swath of the web to find it. (Here’s a sample issue.) Besides, he was tired of politics reporting and “baseball was really attractive to me because there are 30 teams, not two,” he said.
“A great newsletter has the personality of an email from a friend and the professionalism of a magazine,” Dougherty says. “And newsletters are like the oldest format on the Internet in a way, but it has so many virtues.”
For Dougherty, starting a newsletter wasn’t a way to send readers back to the homepage of a larger website; the newsletter in and of itself is the product. That’s by design: It also means the newsletter is the central editorial focus rather than a bland afterthought of copied-and-pasted headlines, the strategy that makes so many news organizations’ daily emails feel a half-step away from spam.
“Originally, I wanted to do it as a blog,” he said. “I tried it and I found it was really hard to get an audience and to fill up enough content for a functioning must-view blog site. You had to be doing it as if it were broadcast all day.”
Instead, Dougherty obsessively tracks the outcome of each day’s baseball games and scours the Internet for quality content. (Dougherty says he drew on his own experience receiving newsletters like The Transom.) The Slurve is delivered seven days a week around 10 a.m., and starts with top news. (An opener from last week: “The big story from the fields last night is that the Cardinals have taken sole possession of first place in the highly entertaining NL Central race.”)
The Slurve also includes box scores and links to recaps from the previous day’s games, injury updates, baseball trivia, and a roundup of the best baseball news and writing from around the Internet. “There’s never been so much good writing about baseball as there is now, but it’s also buried under so much junk,” he says. “I go through an unbelievable stack [of content] and I pick out stories or articles that are provocative that carry a real piece of information. I pick out about 130 to 140 of them every morning. The amount of information is just endless.” (That sample issue linked above features 149 links and over 2,700 words.)
Dougherty also includes a handful of links that aren’t about baseball, which gives readers a sense of his personality, sets the tone for the newsletter, and offers clues as to the kind of audience he’s writing for. (Some of the recent stories he’s shared have to do with Ron Burgundy, Breaking Bad, pizza, and science fiction.)
A subscription costs $4 a month or $36 annually, and Dougherty says he’s already a significant way toward building a full-time income. He won’t say how many subscribers he has, except to say that he’s very pleased with growth since the beginning of the season. “Any one of my customers can fire me any day, but the vast majority of them are sticking with me so far,” he says.
Dougherty deliberately sought out an influential audience and says he’s had success attracting such readers, in part because he designed The Slurve to serve as show prep for sports pundits. “I thought about writing The Slurve as if I was writing for all the people in baseball media, and now a good portion of those people I like and admire are all subscribers,” he said. (The Slurve’s about page features plaudits from Chris Hayes on the left and Ross Douthat on the right.)
The newsletter is still in its infancy, and Dougherty has a lot of ideas for what he’d like to add to it: graphing charts of pitches from the previous night’s games, original photography and videography, a roster of freelance contributors. In the offseason, he’ll publish less frequently, which may give him time to work on an preseason ebook for 2014: “a season preview that would come free for all annual subscribers, preview all 30 teams, preview the story lines, provide information for people who want to get into baseball for the first time, and I think a few pure, original essays.”
For now, the goal is to hone his editorial voice, get the most interesting and useful baseball stories to his readers, and make ends meet. He picked the price point of $4 per month as a rate that felt affordable enough to draw subscribers, but high enough to keep people interested each day. Dougherty is considering a revenue sharing model with other baseball sites that promote The Slurve and send subscribers to his site. But he’s uneasy about ad-based revenue. “I want my readers to be my customers and I think advertising inverts that relationship,” he says.
The potential appeal of a newsletter goes beyond old-school simplicity and a narrow focus. They also resist the often-cluttered and complicated infrastructure of legacy media. “I sometimes wonder if we’re recapitulating the blog era with newsletters,” Dougherty says. “Blogs came out and everybody had these individual sites and it was so fresh and cool, and then gradually all of these new news websites came out, gobbled up all the blogging talent they could, and kind of professionalized it.”
Dougherty can imagine a future in which brands like The New York Times scoop up newsletter scribes the way news organizations have scouted blogging talent like Nate Silver or Ezra Klein. Dougherty’s explicit goal for The Slurve isn’t necessarily a Silverian path into a larger newsroom, but he sees the value that a newsletter’s credibility and authenticity could bring to a larger operation.
“I find a newsletter personal — more personal than a blog,” Dougherty says. “It is addressed to you. It’s also a ritual in a sense. I wanted it to have that feeling of, it’s coming to you in a place you’re going to check. This is an email that doesn’t ask you to do anything. A lot of emails come from your boss or a spouse or a parent and they’re asking for something. This just asks to be enjoyed.”
Photo by Chase Elliott Clark used under a Creative Commons license.