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April 4, 2024, 1:55 p.m.
Aggregation & Discovery
Audience & Social

A newsletter about our uneasy relationship to phones becomes The Guardian’s fastest-growing email ever

“Reclaim Your Brain” acknowledges “the effect that the news cycle is having on us psychologically.”

The newsletter had a simple pitch: Five emails to help you reset your screen habits and “reclaim your brain” in the new year.

“You have one life,” an article promoting the newsletter reads. “Do you really want to spend it looking at your phone?”

Reader, I clicked “subscribe.” It turns out I was far from the only one. The Guardian’s “Reclaim Your Brain” newsletter quickly garnered 100,000 sign-ups and became the news org’s fastest-growing newsletter ever earlier this year. As of this week, more than 139,600 people have signed up to receive the five-week newsletter.

The newsletter shares evidence-backed assignments from science journalist and author Catherine Price. She takes a steadfastly shame-free tone and emphasizes our phones were designed to demand our attention and be hard to put down. (One email is titled “The apps you waste most time on don’t want you to read this.”) There are also lightly unhinged diary entries from Guardian columnist Rhik Sammader, including a hilarious misguided attempt to “complete his phone.” The pairing of practical and bonkers works well; the reader gets achievable assignments alongside someone narrating the viscerally uncomfortable experience of breaking some bad habits.

Max Benwell, editor and deputy head of audience at Guardian U.S., said he, too, feels he’s spending too much time on his phone. A clarifying moment came when he saw a neighbor, through a window, lying down and on his phone. He came back some hours later to see him in the same spot, still scrolling.

“It just made me think,” Benwell said. “It’s such a private activity, [one] we don’t often talk about, but we spend hours doing every day.”

When a call went around for projects that’d become articles on the Guardian website and a newsletter, Benwell pitched the screen time idea and reaching out to readers for feedback.

“We did a call out and the response was overwhelming. So many readers who responded were miserable with their screen time and felt it was just kind of hopeless. It’s always on you, you know? And you always tell yourself you’re going to stop the next day and then you never do,” Benwell said. “It was anecdotal, and then it went beyond anecdotal. We wanted to try and provide some sort of solution or hope.”

“It’s such a big elephant in the room,” he added. “That’s why we think it succeeded so much: because not many places have tried to tackle it so head-on, in a fun and accessible way.”

Caroline Phinney, a senior newsletter producer for the Guardian, said Reclaim Your Brain is a first for the Guardian U.S. on a few fronts. The Guardian has 56 email newsletters — including 10 from the U.S. offices — but Reclaim Your Brain is the first wellness-focused one. (The Guardian has since launched Well Actually.) Many other newsletters are news digests or centered on culture or longform recommendations.

Reclaim Your Brain also marks the first time the Guardian U.S. has experimented with an asynchronous newsletter, Phinney said. Elsewhere, The Wall Street Journal has launched the WSJ Workout Challenge and the free Six-Week Money Challenge. The Washington Post offers several evergreen newsletters, includes courses on learning to host a dinner party, approaching life after 50, and two on vegetarian eating. In local news, #ThisIsTucson, sister site to the Arizona Daily Star, addresses an often “untapped audience” with a two-week course for newcomers to the city. Based on the success of Reclaim Your Brain, the Guardian plans to experiment with more course-like newsletters in the future.

“The beauty of having an asynchronous one is that we can keep promoting it to new audiences,” Phinney said. The Guardian sees new iPhone announcements and summer holidays — “it’s depressing to find yourself by a pool still looking at your phone,” Benwell noted — as well as future new years as opportunities to re-up.

Most of the signups for the newsletter came through stories on the Guardian’s website. The top ones to convince readers to hand over their email address include the “one life” article that caught my eye, a launch piece with data on screen time, a feature on a Massachusetts school that banned smartphones, and a follow-up piece featuring readers who meaningfully reduced their screen time after reading Reclaim Your Brain. (Other articles with Reclaim Your Brain promotions had experts weigh in on smartphone usage, quizzed readers about their “phone personality,” and thought through sharing passcodes and other phone rules for couples.)

The Guardian also saw “a really surprising impact” from a single post on Instagram, which isn’t typically a major source of email signups for the news org. The post — still pinned to the top of the Guardian U.S. Instagram page — shows a “lifeometer” that helps readers calculate how many days a year they’re spending on their phones.

 

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A post shared by The Guardian US (@guardian_us)

The post may have landed with Instagram users feeling unhappy, in the moment, with their screen time. (The Meta-owned platform has been publicly tied to some of the most harmful effects of screen time and faces lawsuits over fueling a mental health crisis in children and “addictive” features.) Benwell believes creating the wallpaper — meant to act as a “speed bump” when mindlessly picking up your phone — and going beyond generic sign-up language helped more people to follow through with the “link in bio” request.

“There’s a tendency to market newsletters on social like ‘Hey, you! Sign up to this!'” Benwell said. “But thinking more creatively and asking, what can we distill into something that feels compelling and engaging and different? I think that’s how the most effective marketing probably works; it doesn’t feel like marketing or branding because you’re actually getting something out of it.”

Putting together the Reclaim Your Brain newsletter and hearing from readers reinforced some broader audience strategies Benwell already had in mind. One was acknowledging to Guardian readers that reading the news isn’t always a fun or heartening experience.

“The thing I really loved that we were able to do with Reclaim Your Brain was to give people the space to think about what their priorities are. It’s not that you’re telling people what to do, or trying to get them off certain things. It’s about giving them the space to think and then giving them options,” Benwell said. “You don’t want to gaslight readers by omission, by not having spaces where you can acknowledge the effect that the news cycle is having on us psychologically and instead just pretending like everything’s great. You still have to report the news, but I think having that voice and acknowledging it allows readers to trust you more. It brings them in a bit closer.”

“We have the election this year that we’ll be focusing on,” Phinney added. “But how can we make the news a bit more digestible for people? How can we put it alongside some other stuff that might be a bit more enjoyable for people as well?”

The Guardian U.S. hopes to experiment with more course-like newsletters in the future and sees potential in helping readers improve other parts of their daily routines.

“It’s a tough one to follow, really, because what does everyone else have in their pocket at all times?” Benwell acknowledged. “Are we going to do newsletter on keys next? I’m kind of happy with my keys.”

Illustration from “Reclaim Your Brain” newsletter by Edward Steed.

Sarah Scire is deputy editor of Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email (sarah_scire@harvard.edu), Twitter DM (@SarahScire), or Signal (+1 617-299-1821).
POSTED     April 4, 2024, 1:55 p.m.
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