Can’t they please just let us have this one thing?
This was the thought that came to mind last week, when Twitter announced its acquisition of the newsletter platform Revue, and when three sources told The New York Times that Facebook is planning its own newsletter tools for journalists and writers.
For Twitter and Facebook, getting into the newsletter business makes sense. Alongside Google, their platforms have come to dominate the distribution of journalism and online discourse in general, using their news feeds and search results to monetize a never-ending flow of content. With newsletters, a growing number of writers are trying to get off that treadmill and establish a more direct relationship with readers. Some prominent journalists have even quit their staff jobs to make newsletters full-time, and some budding newsrooms now publish primarily to readers’ inboxes.
By offering newsletter tools themselves, companies such as Facebook and Twitter are clearly hoping to pull the flow of information back onto their own platforms, where they can get back to the businesses of feeding users a steady stream of content via algorithm. My fear, then, is that they’ll inevitably follow an all-too-familiar pattern: Build their own version of a promising new idea, try to crush their competitors along the way, and then proceed to ruin—willfully or by neglect—the very thing they set out to copy in the first place.
If this ends up happening, both journalists and their readers will be worse off as a result, as big tech companies reestablish the very patterns that newsletter creators have been hoping to escape.
Muscling out the competition
Full disclosure: I have skin in this game as someone who’s been writing newsletters for nearly five years. Both my free and paid newsletters are self-hosted through a service called Sendy, and I use Memberful (which is owned by Patreon) to manage paid subscriptions. I love how many ways there are to build a newsletter right now, from roll-your-own solutions such as Sendy to dead-simple services such as Substack.
My main concern—and the concern of some newsletter services—is that big tech companies such as Twitter and Facebook will prevail not by building better products, but by leaning on their market power to make other options less appealing.
“They’re going to ruin the party,” says JD Graffam, owner of the newsletter creation tool Curated.
For example, Twitter has suggested that it will let users sign up for Revue newsletters directly from its app, and the Times reported that Facebook is exploring features that will help writers build their followings through the company’s own social network. Most of the journalism industry relies on social networks to reach readers, so if those features aren’t available to other newsletter providers, Twitter and Facebook will have given themselves a major advantage.
Big tech companies will also be able to undercut their competitors on price. Already, Twitter has made Revue’s premium features free for its more than 60,000 registered users—meaning no more monthly fees tied to mailing list size—and reduced its revenue cut for paid newsletters from 6% to 5%. For comparison, that’s half of what Substack takes for its paid newsletter service. While companies such as Substack can always lower their revenue cuts in response, ultimately they’ll be fighting a price war they can’t win.
Already, I can picture how this might play out: While other newsletter platforms might stick around as niche options, big tech companies will become the dominant players by offering unparalleled reach and highly favorable revenue splits. For any aspiring newsletter creator, it’ll be hard to say no.
What readers and writers stand to lose
Of course, the promise of larger audiences and bigger paychecks won’t come without cost.
For readers, subscribing to a newsletter through Facebook or Twitter will be a fundamentally different proposition than signing up through Substack, Memberful, or other services such as Letterdrop or Ghost. These social media companies’ business models will still revolve primarily around targeted advertising, and newsletters—many of which track everything that readers open and click on—are a potential gold mine of information on what people really care about. Readers must reckon with the possibility of Facebook or Twitter collecting this information for themselves.
Over time, we could also see these social networks try to pull people away from email and back into their own apps, where they can further monopolize readers’ time and attention. Twitter has already floated the idea of hosting conversations in its app between writers and subscribers. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Facebook do the same with services such as Messenger, WhatsApp, or Facebook Groups. The idea that Facebook and Twitter might offer their own newsletter reading apps doesn’t seem far-fetched either.
Such features might seem nice on the surface, but they’d ultimately help social networks reestablish control over what users are seeing and reading. Curated’s JD Graffam says that once these networks have pulled people back into their own apps, they’ll likely get back to the work of recommending even more content by algorithm. That runs counter to the whole point of what newsletters are meant to accomplish.
“The prevailing positive sentiment is that maybe they’re going to do something good for journalists, finally,” he says. “And the thing is, they’re not. They’re just going to keep doing what they do.”
Building a sustainable future
Perhaps the biggest concern of all, though, is that big tech companies would simply lose interest in the whole endeavor. In the same way that Twitter gave up on Periscope and Vine, or that Facebook let Instant Articles languish and oversold publishers on the importance of video, they could just as easily tire of newsletters and leave the idea to rot.
The only question is whether they’ll succeed in ransacking the newsletter industry first. Drew Strojny, the founder of Memberful, says that while it’s strategically smart for Facebook and Twitter to get into newsletters, he hopes creators will recognize the trade-offs.
“For this type of work, you want to feel like you have more control over the future direction of your livelihood,” he says. “If it’s in the hands of a big, corporate social network, you might feel less confident in that future.”
John O’Nolan, the founder and CEO of Ghost, is also hoping creators will see the light. He believes we’re approaching the end of an era for big, centralized platforms and says the real value of newsletters is in owning both the audience and the technology behind it. For publishers, he says, the time to carefully consider the long-term implications of their technology decisions is now.
“Twitter and Facebook will always try to attract the media, because they generate the content which drives the most traffic,” he says. “But if publishers can’t see what comes next by this point—well. There’s an old saying that begins ‘Fool me once’ which comes to mind.”