Email newsletters have exploded in popularity in recent years. MailChimp alone—one of the oldest and most prominent newsletter hosts—reports that it saw a 49 percent increase in new accounts in 2019. Writers of all kinds, including science writers, are increasingly embracing these platforms to publish their own work.
Whether writing for friends and colleagues or trying to expand their reach, science writers are finding that producing their own newsletter is a great way to build a community of dedicated readers interested in their work. “The one place that everyone goes to on a daily basis, if they’re working in any way with a computer or a phone” is their email, says Jeremy Caplan, director of the Entrepreneurial Journalism Creators Program at CUNY and author of a productivity newsletter called Wonder Tools. “So the email inbox becomes one of the best places to try to reach people.”
Publishing a newsletter can be rewarding in many ways: It can help writers grow their audiences, hone their writing skills, fill gaps in news coverage, and advance their careers. But despite the keen interest in newsletters, writers contemplating creating one are often at a loss for how to decide on a topic, start publishing, and keep the momentum going—or even whether they should start a newsletter in the first place.
Figuring Out Whether to Start a Newsletter
If you have unfulfilled professional aspirations, a newsletter might be a great way to pursue them. Maybe you want to carve out a new beat for yourself, like Kat Eschner, a freelance science and business reporter, did when she started her newsletter on human-animal relationships, The Quick Fox, in 2018. Or maybe you want to dive more deeply into an important topic you already cover, as Betsy Ladyzhets, a science and data journalist, does in Covid-19 Data Dispatch. Or perhaps you’re looking to experiment with new writing styles while giving your friends and followers an easy way to keep up with you and your work, like freelance science journalist Jane C. Hu does with her newsletter, Hu Cares.
Writing a newsletter isn’t for everyone, though. It can be a significant time commitment and, if you’re a freelancer, it can potentially cut into your paid work—something science journalist Robin Lloyd learned when she started her newsletter, smart, useful, science stuff about COVID-19 in April of 2020. “The first two months, I was spending probably two to three hours every day on the newsletter,” Lloyd says. “It was very draining.” She now posts less frequently and balances the newsletter with paid work, especially teaching.
In addition to time, for most writers running a newsletter also requires promotion, which not everyone is comfortable with, Lloyd says. It also requires a long-term commitment, says Dan Oshinsky, owner of Inbox Collective, which provides consulting services to individuals and companies that want to improve their newsletters. (Disclosure: TON has employed Oshinsky’s consulting services in developing our own newsletter and email mini-courses.) But if you have the time, passion, and stamina to take on a newsletter, he says, the opportunities it opens might surprise you.
First Steps: Finding Your Niche and Setting Goals
Once you’ve made the decision to start a newsletter, the next step is to figure out the subject or theme. Think about what you wish you could write when your day-to-day work feels boring or difficult, Caplan says. And don’t ignore underused skills. If you started your career as a scientist, as many science writers did, you could explore your area of expertise much more deeply than you might for a newspaper or magazine story. If you’re bilingual, you might want to create a resource for non-English speakers who want to learn about science published in English-language journals. Finding your niche is a process of looking inward and reflecting on what you care about and the kind of work you would do every day if you could, says Caplan.
The next step is checking to see if other newsletters on the same topic exist by searching on social media and popular newsletter hosts like Substack, and if so, determining how yours will be different. Caplan recommends casting a wide net, reading other newsletters and blogs, listening to podcasts, and looking at traditional media outlets to see what’s popular in your general subject area and what might be under-covered or difficult for readers to stay on top of. Lloyd, for example, noticed early in the pandemic that the deluge of COVID-19 news could be confusing and decided to start her newsletter to provide a regular roundup of credible coverage.
You’ll also need to think about who you are writing for and what you can offer them, says Oshinsky, who has run multiple newsletters and now publishes Not a Newsletter, a monthly Google doc resource that provides advice and updates about the industry. Science writer and educator Aatish Bhatia, based in New York City, started his climate newsletter, The Rate of Change, with young people in mind. He felt there was a lack of in-depth yet accessible educational resources on climate science aimed at teens. “I imagine a high school student who’s a youth climate activist looking for resources to actually learn about, you know, what does ‘climate sensitivity’ mean?” he says. “What is ppm [parts per million]? How exactly does the greenhouse effect work?”
How you choose to write about a topic is nearly as important as the topic itself.
Another consideration when deciding on a niche: potential conflicts of interest. This is especially important if your newsletter’s content will overlap with your work elsewhere. Ladyzhets volunteers for the COVID-19 Tracking Project at The Atlantic and is careful to note in her newsletter that COVID-19 Data Dispatch does not represent the project. She does sometimes use the tracking project as one of her sources, but she makes sure only to reference information that is publicly available, and not, for instance, from the project’s internal Slack channels.
It’s also worth giving thought to your goals. For example, what kind of impact do you want your newsletter to have? How much audience growth are you hoping for? Do you eventually want to make money from this venture?
Your goals need not be extremely ambitious; Bhatia says one of his early objectives was simply to improve his own knowledge of climate science. And while it’s common for newsletter writers to want to grow their audience, there’s no need to set rigid goals right away, says Ladyzhets. She only recently started setting growth and monetary goals for her newsletter.
If and when you do begin to establish goals for audience growth, Oshinsky says, don’t get too hung up on numbers. “Your newsletter might not be for a million people or half a million people or even 10,000 people,” he says. “It could be a really good newsletter that goes out to 2,000 people, but if it’s the right 2,000 … and you can help them understand the world better or share stories that create impact, then your newsletter is great.” It’s also helpful to know how many people actually read your newsletter. The open rate, or what proportion of your subscribers open the email, allows you to track this. Oshinsky says a 30 percent open rate is standard; Lloyd aims for 40 percent with her newsletter.
Writing and Editing
How you choose to write about a topic is nearly as important as the topic itself. Think about the tone you want to convey with each issue. Whether you choose a serious tone or a more casual one will depend on your subject and writing style. A more sober topic, like a public health problem, might require a more measured voice, but there’s still room for personality. In COVID-19 Data Dispatch, for example, Ladyzhets writes in a more opinionated voice than she would in her other work, as in this call-out post about Missouri’s depiction of the demographics of COVID-19 cases. (She felt the state’s use of a pie chart to show cases by race downplayed the impact of the pandemic on some communities with smaller populations.) Having a second set of eyes on your work can help in developing the right tone, according to Eschner. “Make sure you have someone on deck to help you with editing for at least the first few issues until you’ve got a voice in place,” she says.
Since a newsletter is typically a solo endeavor, self-editing skills take on a special importance. When you self-publish, you are fully responsible for your content; you don’t have the benefit of having an editor provide feedback and catch mistakes. For this reason, Eschner doesn’t feel comfortable doing original reporting or longform pieces for her newsletter without outside input. For a 2019 personal essay in The Quick Fox, she asked a peer to edit her work.
Seeking out a formal editor for a newsletter is rare, but some writers find it’s worth the investment. Ladyzhets, for example, hopes to grow COVID-19 Data Dispatch enough to eventually afford to hire an editor.
Without an editor, fact-checking your own work is another important skill to master—particularly if potential errors could pose serious consequences. “This is public health information; I can’t fool around here,” Lloyd says about her COVID-19 newsletter. She has become a self-described “attribution fiend,” citing and linking to her sources more than she does in her other work. She mostly avoids preprints and speculation that might contain unconfirmed information or unsubstantiated advice. She also avoids editorializing in her newsletter, instead keeping facts front and center.
Publishing Your Newsletter
Distributing your newsletter will require a platform, called an email service provider, which will manage the email list and send out your newsletter. Choosing a publishing platform can be complicated, in no small part because the newsletter landscape is changing rapidly. “Frankly, it’s hilariously confusing,” Oshinsky says.
There are a few free email service providers that are well-suited for beginners. One of the most popular with journalists, Substack, is easy to set up and use, especially for essay-like posts. Revue, which Twitter recently acquired, is great for newsletters that curate content from other sources thanks to its drag-and-drop dashboard for adding links. TinyLetter, now owned by MailChimp, is another simple option, but has a 5,000-subscriber limit before imposing MailChimp’s paid plans with more features.
Newsletters need readers, and finding them requires promotion.
Oshinsky suggests creating an account and playing around with a platform’s features, such as formatting, tracking metrics, and integrating with other apps, to see if it’s a good fit before committing. Whichever provider you choose, your subscriber list will be transferrable, so it’s feasible to move platforms later without losing your audience. Ladyzhets recently moved from Substack to MailChimp because she was frustrated with how difficult it was to integrate visual data analyses into COVID-19 Data Dispatch and because Substack’s limited search feature made it hard for readers to access her archives.
Once you start publishing your newsletter, it’s wise to establish a routine and budget your time. Shorter newsletters that curate coverage of a topic, like Lloyd’s, take several hours to put together, while more in-depth original writing, like Bhatia’s The Rate of Change, can take days to finish. Whether you’re a freelancer or a staffer, you’ll need to schedule time to write, edit, and publish the newsletter that doesn’t conflict with your work schedule. Ladyzhets usually writes hers over the weekend and publishes on Sunday.
Promoting Your Work
Newsletters need readers, and finding them requires promotion. “The newsletter in particular is not generally made for just random stumbling discovery,” Caplan says. “As creators, we have to actually be really assertive about getting our work out there if we want people to see it.”
One way to get the word out is to lean on your network. Promote your newsletter on social media, ask people you know to share your newsletter, and perhaps trade mentions if they have one themselves. You can also include a note in your newsletter encouraging readers to forward it to people they know.
As you plan how to promote your work, it’s helpful to think about where to find the people you want to reach. If your audience congregates in certain spaces, either physically or digitally, you can try reaching out to them there. Ladyzhets, for example, created a workshop series with funding from the National Association of Science Writers about managing COVID-19 data and heavily promoted her newsletter as a resource for the journalists attending.
Improving Your Newsletter
Your newsletter won’t be perfect from day one, but it doesn’t need to be, Caplan says. For the first few issues, he recommends experimenting with length, format, and frequency, and even occasionally diverging from your niche to try out new subjects.
Experimentation was a key component of Eschner’s newsletter from the beginning. “Initially [my posts] had a longer essay in each one and a shorter link section,” she says. Over time, she’s transitioned to short anecdotal musings and longer sections on what she’s been reading and writing lately. Eschner makes changes every 12 issues to give her time to test whether a new format is a good fit.
Writers often find that the practice of honing a newsletter improves their skills. Eschner, for example, has found that writing a newsletter has helped her refine her voice over time, because it allows her to experiment with different writing styles. Bhatia, too, says his writing has improved, especially his ability to effectively convey complex climate-science concepts. In diving deep into COVID-19 data, Ladyzhets has found that she has developed a sharper eye when evaluating sources.
Deciding Whether to Monetize
For freelancers, especially, creating a high-quality newsletter that takes significant time might lead to an interest in turning it into a new revenue source. While it’s certainly possible to make money from a newsletter, Oshinsky cautions that it can take around two years to build a newsletter to the point where it makes a significant contribution to your income. How much you can make from a newsletter often depends on the size of your audience; high-profile writers can turn their large number of social media followers into paying subscribers, but most people aren’t so lucky. When you’re starting out, your best bet is to focus on building an audience by providing good, consistent content, rather than putting time and effort into convincing readers to pay, Oshinsky says.
Success looks different for everyone and depends on what your goals are.
One strategy is to start with a free newsletter, then introduce a pay structure later. Ladyzhets recently added a membership model to COVID-19 Data Dispatch after six months of publishing; she now has 15 members and 390 total readers. All of her content is still free, but members who pay on a sliding scale from $2 to $10 per month get access to a Slack community and a preview of what Ladyzhets is working on. She details her expenses on her website, and she says she is about halfway to her goal of paying an intern from membership funds.
Lloyd believes the public health information in her newsletter should be free, but after readers asked for a way to donate, she started a Patreon. She has 64 patrons out of about 1800 total subscribers and says she makes a few hundred dollars a month. Ko-Fi, which Eschner uses, is another option to allow readers to “tip” or send repeating payments.
Income is an obvious way to measure a newsletter’s success, but it’s by no means the only one, or even the most desirable one. Success looks different for everyone and depends on what your goals are. Some might measure success in audience growth, for example, while others may instead see wins in how much their writing has improved, the connections and relationships they’ve formed, or new career opportunities they’ve landed through the newsletter. Bhatia, for instance, recently snagged a project to create an interactive webtool for Parametric Press after highlighting his climate newsletter in his pitch. For him, impact is also an important barometer of success. He doesn’t track many of the metrics for The Rate of Change, he says, but he does track feedback from educators who use his work in the classroom. “To me,” he says, “that’s a really cool measure of impact that’s fairly meaningful.”
Regardless of why you start a newsletter, creating a community might end up being the best benefit of having one, says Oshinsky. “You’re really not going to go wrong if you build an audience for yourself,” he says. “If you have folks who listen to you, who are interested in hearing from you, it’s going to open up all sorts of interesting doors in the long run for your career.”
Marina Philip is a freelance science journalist based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She was a 2020 AAAS Mass Media Fellow with the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Find her on Twitter @mureeenuh.