”To survive changes in the media, you need a direct relationship with your audience.” A conversation with Casey Newton, from The Verge, author of The Interface newsletter34 min read

De Vasile Decu 03.06.2019

Casey Newton is one of the best reporters on social media, writing for the famous tech site The Verge on the people and products shaping the future of technology and culture. One of his recent hits was a damning report on the day- to-day lives of Facebook moderators in America, The Trauma Floor which made Facebook sort of admit it had a problem and try to fix it.

He’s also the author of one of the best newsletters on social media, The Interface, a must-read for anyone interested in this industry – you can’t call it just a niche anymore when it affects the life of billions of people around the world.

”I named my newsletter The Interface in part to reflect the significant degree to which we tend to see platforms’ unintended consequences through the lens of product design: the way that software is presented alternately as the cause of, and solution to, all of our problems. The Interface is also a sort of pun: one way to translate it is “between Facebook and the world.”

As we’re betting big on newsletters, here at Mindcraft Stories, we had to talk to him about why email is such a good publishing platform and how important is the direct relationship it offers to your audience in surviving the constant changes and pressures in the media industry, especially in a world where social media is often the entire internet for many of today’s users.

What’s the story of The Interface?

My beat is Facebook. My boss at The Verge wanted me to break more news about Facebook, but I was having trouble doing that. Every day I would wake up and I would read all this amazing work that was being done by journalists all around the world: in and on issues like Myanmar, Philippines, Vietnam, India. It was overwhelming but it also was kind of paralysing because I thought, well, I can’t go to India this week to find out what’s going on with WhatsApp there. So what can I add to this conversation?

And after having seen a couple of people do newsletters really well, and being a fan of a couple of newsletters, I started talking with my bosses about what if I just sort of picked out the top stories of the day and sent those out to whoever wanted to read them. And, at first, my bosses were like “Well, how long is that going to take?” And I said “I don’t know. An hour or two”. But that turned out to be a lie. It usually takes me about three or four hours to work on it, so it’s a half day project.

I started doing it and the feedback I got was really immediate and it was really strong. The first thing that happened was that, basically, the entire tech press corps, everyone else who is on this beat, signed up for it immediately. And it wasn’t so much because they love me, it was because the newsletter does a job for them.

This is one of the first reasons why email is powerful. When you think about how we’ve been getting our news up to this point, you can kind of see three eras. I’ve been a reporter professionally since 2002. Back then, in 2002, every reporter had a little TV on their desk and they were showing CNN all the time. And then once Twitter came along, everybody took their TV’s off their desks and then they just put Twitter on their screen, so Twitter replaced CNN.

And then again, after the 2016 election here in America, you started to see a decline in trust for these social platforms. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, places where we were getting a lot of our news and information, all of a sudden it seemed like we couldn’t trust them the way that we had before. We weren’t sure about them any more – who is putting this there? Is this tweet from a person or is it from a bot network? Is it from a Russian agent?

Also, the tone of the platforms got sort of toxic. There was a lot of harassment, there was a lot of hate speech (still there, to this day). I still use Twitter a ton, but it generates a lot of anxiety, because you’re constantly reading about the end of the world and everyone is always mad, all this screaming.

I think email winds up being a powerful solution to that question, because when you’ve got my email in your newsletter you know it’s from me. It has the same tone every day. It does the same thing every day: One of my core principles for the newsletter is to never be mad. I try never to scold, or wag my finger, or stomp my feet. I try to sort of explain, as calmly as I can, what I think is going on, how I think about it, and, hopefully, whether you think my analysis  is interesting or not, there is still some value in you just sort of getting this message once a day that says here’s what happened.

After the tech press corps signed up, I started getting people signing up who work at Facebook, then people who work at Google, then Twitter, then Snapchat. All of a sudden, my newsletter was reaching into every organisation that I care about. And in a lot of cases, those are people who I can’t reach normally on the web, on The Verge. Or they might have stopped using Twitter. They might not be getting their news from Facebook.

One of my core beliefs as a journalist today is that you have to develop a direct relationship with your audience. They have to know you personally because that is going to survive every other change in media. I suspect that how I’m practicing journalism in 10 years will look different than how I’m doing it now. I don’t know how, but I know that if I still have my connection to the thousands of people subscribed to my newsletter, I will be able to build some kind of career for myself and, hopefully, I’ll be able to do some kind of good.

February 2018 issue © Wired

We remember that fantastic Wired cover, The Golden Age of Free Speech. There’s a lot of journalism being produced at the moment, with a lot of bad or mediocre stuff, but also with a lot of quality writing. So curation has never been so important as it is now. You need an expert voice that adds commentary because nobody likes just the ten links there in your classic email newsletter. Also, email lets you see your audience, you can see the names in the subscriber list.

Yes. It’s so exciting. I love getting notifications telling me someone else new has signed up, particularly when it’s @FB.com, which is Facebook’s email address, or @Twitter.com, or @google.com. That’s like such a win for me.

What’s the feedback? Do people write back?

This is something I really like about email. If I publish a story on The Verge, it’s rare that someone is going to create an account just to say “Good story, Casey”. But people respond to the email all the time just to say “good newsletter today”, “this was interesting”. Or somebody wrote me yesterday and said “I’ve never responded to a newsletter before but I just wanted to let you know that I really like this newsletter” – and it’s great. In addition to getting feedback, it’s also helping me get more scoops. So the original reason for which I’ve planned it is still there. In the past years, I wrote various articles that were born from this relationship with my readers.  For example, I got some internal discussions that people at Facebook were having about a sort of controversial memo that said that the company needed to grow at all costs. The memo was old but I was able to get the internal discussion that was happening around that memo inside of Facebook, which was basically the first time that we’d ever sort of seen internal discussions posted online. Another scoop I had was that Instagram was building a standalone app for shopping. All this stuff is coming to me because I have started to reposition myself as an authority on this subject and people know now that if I get the story it’s going to go out to everyone in that newsletter – and the whole thing feeds itself, like scoops leads to newsletter subscribers, which leads to scoops, and it winds up being this really good circle.

It’s an incredible feedback loop that gives you a lot of power, in a  sort of one-man-show publication. We’ve seen publications that use email as their main publishing medium, like The Hustle or Axios. Can we say that if you want to blog, if you have an expert voice and you want to blog, just do a newsletter instead?

Yes, I think newsletters are blogs. Editorial products. Everything I do is heavily influenced by blogging. But I think two things are kind of different. One is the delivery mechanism. The other thing in this newsletter versus blog thing is the format, which is a little bit more magazine like in my case, because my newsletter has sections. This is something that I actually like over a blog, because in a blog you just have a reverse chronological feed. Everything is sort of out of order. If you want to organize that, you sort of have to do that yourself by adding tags.

In the newsletter, things are clearer: the first links are always going to be about democracy, and the next links are always going to be about business stuff. I like that. I still think that starting a blog is a totally valid thing to do, but in media in 2018, distribution is the most important thing. In the attention economy, when you have so many people competing very effectively for everyone’s time and attention, you’ve got to have a way of getting to people. And what I’ve found is that if you can get people to invite you into their inbox you have a much better chance of developing a relationship with them than if you just set up your name.com as a blog. Now, obviously, these things can work together. You can set up a blog that has an email newsletter, but I think, as with most things in media, the thing that you’re paying the most attention to is going to be the thing that is the best – and, for most sites, the newsletter is the afterthought. And so the newsletter is not good. And it’s not valuable. For that reason, we in the news business have traditionally undervalue these newsletters, because we wanted to drive people to the web. Where, frankly, you could also make more money – it’s easier to put display advertising on a website than in an email – and so all of the attention has rushed there. But I don’t know that I’ll always be the case, because I think that over the next couple of years we’re going to wake up to the fact that if you own a relationship with a subscriber who’s going to spend time with you several times a week, maybe for just five or ten minutes a day, there’s real power and value in that.

I’ve noticed that if an email bugs me in any way – maybe I don’t like the content, maybe the presentation wasn’t that good, maybe it’s not that interesting – I will cut it from my inbox, with a very small change of ever coming back. So if you want to do e-mail, you’re saying “watch the quality of it, really watch the quality”.

Exactly. It’s more true with email, because the advantage of doing it is that it’s intimate, you have a direct connection with somebody and, hopefully, they feel really connected to you. But the flipside of that is that, if they don’t feel strongly connected to you, then they will unsubscribe. People subscribe and unsubscribe to my newsletter every day – like 10 or 12 people will unsubscribe some days, which is totally OK because it’s a reminder to me that I need to produce at a high level of quality every day.

But, also, I’m writing about a niche. I am not writing a daily email about celebrity news or something that has massive appeal. I’m writing for an audience who is interested in what is happening on social networks and how are they changing the world. I think there’s a huge audience of people that will care about that. Facebook is used by 2.2 billion people. But most people don’t want to think about it every single day. And so a lot of people are going to hear about my newsletter and they’re going to try it and they’re going to read it and then they’re going to not read five or six issues in a row and then they’re going to think you know what, this email isn’t for me. That’s totally right. Part of the reason for which I still see my email as an experiment is that I’m trying to figure out how big is the audience for this thing. My goal has been to get to 5000 subscribers and I’m way over that by now.

Do people read long e-mails? Because I get this argument thrown out at me that nobody wants to read that much in an email.

In every media form there are always people telling you that things too long, whether you’re making a YouTube video, or a podcast, or an email, or just writing a story. I’ve heard it too and I’m sure that the longer you do it, maybe the fewer people it appeals to directly. But the flipside of that is there are so many people out there who are starving for depth and analysis and authority expertise, and often there’s no way to achieve that without really taking the time to take something apart.

Some of the most popular podcasts in the world have episodes that are three or four hours long and I don’t think there were many people who said that’s going to win. But they figured out that “No, actually, our audience is hungry for some depth and analysis”. So I don’t think anything should be long for the sake of being long. The sort of implicit promise that my email makes is that I’m only going to include things that are important, but I might include a lot of things. People are free to skim it.

There are a lot of emails that I get that I really like, but don’t read word for word. One of the reasons that email has sections is so that people can scan it. I also like to put a joke at the end of every email to encourage people to read all the way to the end. The last item is almost always funny, because I want to reward people for making it all the way to the end. So I do try tricks like that to encourage people, but I’ve had people say to me that they read my introductory essay, and than nothing else. That’s OK too. And, frankly, I think your email is providing different kinds of value to different kinds of people. That’s a really good sign that you’ve stumbled onto something that’s worth investigating.

I like to describe myself as a ”news power user” because I also like to read a lot, so I spend like three or four hours very day reading stuff, mainly in my inbox. A few years ago I gave up on Facebook, because the changes were so dramatic that I couldn’t take it anymore. And then I got like 100 to 150 emails, daily, on different things that I was really interested in. I know I’m at the extreme end of this spectrum, let’s say, but I find that newsletters can be a solution for the fact that Facebook gave up on news. And maybe Twitter will. We don’t know. As a publisher, don’t build your house on rented land (on Facebook, for example). 

There’s there’s been some interesting writing over the years about Google and its Gmail. We think of Google as a company that has been terrible at social networks, but has actually had one for a really long time called email which was integrated with Google chat. It also had Google Reader, and those things are very social in nature. But Google arguably didn’t do a good enough job of capitalising on that. So far, they just introduced those tabs. And so your email newsletter will often go to a tab called Updates or whatever, around sort of the main email, and if you want to see it in your inbox you need to promote it to your inbox.

I think this stuff is very early in this evolution. My feeling is that editorial email newsletters are in their first phase. It reminds me of podcasts in 2004 or 2006, where you had all of the pieces out there, the technology existed, smart kids were listening to them, a lot of the nerds were drawn to it. This was a very powerful new media but it was going to take the world another 10 years to kind of catch up to this value. We’ll see how long it takes the world to catch up to the value of email. If every journalist starts an email newsletter and every media company buys an email distributor, so that it can integrate that into its content management system, then I think you’ll see Google take more steps to accommodate them, to sort through them. Maybe you have a newsletter tab in Gmail that’s formatted to look more like a magazine. They can sort of do anything, but I think that first it needs to be proven out how much demand is there.

You can already monetize your email. There is Patreon, for example, or Substack and you can use it as an individual, or you can have a shop, or even what The Hustle did with stocks in their own company or something like that. I think email is even more promising than podcasts on this money side. But you have to have an audience, and a good one. 

My open rate is typically between 40 and 45 percent. This means I’m able to reach almost half of my subscribers – every day! Most of the subscribers I speak with tell me they don’t read my newsletter everyday. Almost no one ever says to me “I read every issue”. But that most people are not reading every day, I’m still able to reach a healthy chunk of them. I have found that how many people I reach often is somewhat dependent on what the subject line is, like some subject lines perform better than others. At the high end I’ll have over 50% opening it. As the subscriber base grew, one of my big questions was if I’d be able to continue to maintain high open rates. I also do cleanups, where if you have not opened the newsletter in a month I just sent an email saying Hey, I’m unsubscribing you, if you want to keep getting it let me know, and I’m going to keep doing this, because I would much rather have a high open rate than a high number of subscribers.

I send my email out every day at 5:00 p.m. Pacific Time. The reason I do that is because I want to reach Facebook employees before they go home for the day. And my thought is that no one is going to leave at 5:00 p.m., but they don’t want to work after 5:00 p.m. also, so maybe I can get them to stop for five or ten minutes and read my newsletter. Then I publish it to The Verge about 10 hours later, where it has display advertising and some of those posts do really well. We’re still thinking how to monetize it more. Maybe we’ll do a premium edition of it someday, where you get some of the email free, but then you have to pay to get the rest or others, with more in depth analysis.