Art by Anna Resmini

Voicemail

Digital media goes back to basics

October 16, 2023

Growing up, Meg Conley made doodles depicting herself as a writer. It was a career that felt impossibly out of reach. She was raised Mormon in Orange County; at Sunday school, she said, “I was told that I would be a mother and a wife who should stay home with the kids.” She met her husband in church at age twelve and married at twenty-one. She dropped out of Utah State University to help her husband through school, then learned she was pregnant. They now have three children. “I taught myself to write at the kitchen table, which sounds cool, but it’s stupid,” she said. “I should have finished school.” Conley might have felt like the door had closed on her ambitions had it not been for Heather Armstrong, a lapsed Mormon who taught herself HTML and was called the “Queen of the Mommy Bloggers.” In the aughts, Conley began working at a boutique, where she spent hours on the cash-register computer, reading Armstrong’s archive on losing faith, infant spit-up, and postpartum depression.

Armstrong emerged during an age of online exploration and opportunity—of “weblogs,” as they were known. Writing for the New York Times, David F. Gallagher described “a private playground, a place for self-expression.” (On the flip side, in The New Yorker, Rebecca Mead noted an emergent term: “blogorrhea.”) Conley was at once drawn to Armstrong’s transparency and turned off by a tendency to overshare, though it seemed that was something bloggers—women, especially—were often incentivized to do. She began publishing her own writing at the Huffington Post; she, too, experimented with radical disclosure. At one point, she posted an essay about having sex with her husband every night for a month. The piece received about two million Facebook “likes.” “You can build an audience with performed vulnerability, temporarily,” she found. “But it’s not for me.” After that, she wrote mostly for Medium, including GEN magazine—often about the expectations imposed on mothers, informed by her knowledge of religious history.

In 2019 the family moved to Denver. After a while, Conley started a Substack newsletter that became homeculture: “letters about capitalism, care, and the home.” Her pieces have covered the challenges of having ADHD as a mom, the history of embroidery, religious representations of vultures—a miscellany of unexpectedly compelling topics. Her writing brims with emotion, and she includes personal anecdotes, though her aim is to be more observant and analytical than confessional. Taking one of her daughters to a Taylor Swift concert, she noted in a recent dispatch, called to mind medieval Europe: “Once I understood the concert goers as pilgrims, the stadium as a shrine temporarily consecrated by Swift’s physical presence, and Swift as a kind of venerated Saint, I thought I understood my experience.”

Recently, when Conley and I made plans to meet up in her neighborhood, she told me how I could spot her: “Pink dress. Frizzy hair.” She is thirty-eight, sincere and a bit shy; she said that she has trouble maintaining eye contact. She often punctuates a deep thought with a self-conscious burst of laughter. Her newsletter has accumulated a modest subscriber base above fifteen thousand—not enough to crack Substack’s leaderboard of top performers, she said, but sufficient to cover some of her expenses. Her open rate is strong, often around 60 percent, nearly twice the average rate for newsletters sent by The Atlantic. Most of her readers have come from referrals—the writers Roxane Gay and Anne Helen Petersen have promoted Conley’s work—and via social media. But when Elon Musk took over Twitter, later renamed X, Conley logged off, telling readers that she couldn’t associate with a platform that elevates trolls and bots while suppressing journalists. Traffic from other social networks was negligible or nonexistent. Just about the only other way for people to discover Conley was directly through Substack, which didn’t inspire confidence in her prospects for growth. “I’m so panicked,” she said. After a while, she started posting again.

One day in May, Conley was writing at a café when she got a notification: Heather Armstrong had died, at the age of forty-seven. (It was reported that the cause was suicide.) Conley wanted to publish something on how Armstrong had inspired her, but she was overcome by emotion, and unable to type. She went to her car, opened her voice memos app, and hit record. “I haven’t thought about Heather Armstrong for years,” she said into her phone. “But at one point she saved my life.” During a period when Conley was wrestling with severe postpartum depression, Armstrong’s posts about overcoming a similar darkness “kept me here.” After ten minutes of speech—visceral, at times halting—she released the recording to homeculture subscribers. A listener said that it sounded like a friend leaving a voicemail.

Since then, once a week, Conley has left “voicemails” for her audience, via Substack and Spotify, elaborating on her writing and other stray thoughts. “Just imagine I’m calling you from a Vtech Jelly Bean cordless phone, in translucent purple,” she explains in an introduction. “I’ll imagine you’re listening to my message on your Vtech Jelly Bean cordless phone in translucent red.” The recordings are short and informal; as Conley writes: “You’re too busy for another podcast. Me too. So this is just a voicemail, the kind we used to leave one another before texting and social media.” They embody the earnest, rambling quality of an earlier Web, where someone might blog into the ether on a subject of niche interest, hoping that someone out there will care.

That sense of yearning is now shared by just about every journalist and every outlet, from the humble Substack writer to the major news organization, as print subscribers dwindle and publications can no longer rely on advertising revenue or clicks from external sources. “Traffic from social media to news sites has fallen off a cliff,” as Adam Pasick, the editorial director of Times newsletters, told me recently. Like Conley, media companies are all hunting for creative ways to reach readers. Lately, that has come to look a lot like a throwback to days of an internet past—sending out emails, making direct appeals, seeking a sense of connection.

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If the dawn of the blogosphere marked one moment in time for writing online, and the Substack boom represented another, perhaps now we are making another turn, into a retro era for digital media, in which everything comes by way of a personal message delivered to your inbox: voicemail, of a kind. Newsletters offer “a refuge from the chaos” of the wider internet, Nick Catucci, who became US site director of GQ this year after overseeing newsletters at The Atlantic, said. “A really pure distillation of the ideal relationship between the publisher and the reader. Scale matters, but engagement matters more.” It’s hard to imagine anyone saying they wish they received more voicemail, and yet Conley’s experiment seems to articulate a contemporary desire, among the communications-weary, to go back to basics. As she told me, so much of how we present online today is manicured, somewhat inauthentic. Setting her thoughts between beeps, she said, is freeing.

Recall that a few years ago, around the time Conley started homeculture, the rise of Substack suggested a range of utopian possibilities: independence, flexibility, fame, high returns on labor. The pandemic coincided with an explosion of newsletter initiatives, both from tech startups—such as Revue and Ghost—and legacy publications. By mid-2021 about half of the publishers surveyed by LiveIntent, an email marketing firm, reported an increase in open rates for their newsletters over the previous year; 94 percent said they were seeking to scale their newsletter programs. By June 2021, the company then still known as Facebook, also known as Silicon Valley’s notorious copycat, debuted its own invitation-only newsletter platform, Bulletin, featuring an eclectic group of marquee contributors—Malcolm Gladwell, Malala Yousafzai, Queer Eye cohost Tan France—along with more than a hundred journalists. A company announcement promised writers “an opportunity to foster deeper connections with their audiences on Facebook.” It also noted, “We respect the work of writers and want to be clear that anyone who partners with us will have complete editorial independence.”

But Meta, as the company soon renamed itself, was a dubious home for a newsletter service, considering its role in upending the journalism business. Antonio Mora—a television news anchor best known for Good Morning America—said that, although Bulletin didn’t have Facebook branding, when he signed on as a contributor, some potential readers told him, “If it’s for Facebook, I have no interest.” To sweeten the pot, writers were offered generous salaries; several former TV journalists said their Bulletin compensation was nearly equivalent to or better than what they’d made in their old jobs. Many received thirty-thousand-dollar annual stipends, part of which they could put toward health insurance, editing help, or whatever they liked.

It all “sounded too perfect,” Ron Claiborne, who joined Bulletin after more than three decades at ABC News, told me. The writing was fulfilling, and his newsletter achieved remarkable reach when Meta promoted it on Facebook News; Mora told me that his posts were sometimes seen by more than a hundred thousand people. But the business, Claiborne said, felt “rushed” and “haphazard” from the start. The idea was to draw attention to Facebook—which newsletter writers were required to use—and take a cut of subscriber fees. But the writers found that Meta was unclear about its timeline for erecting a paywall; several Bulletin contributors told me they believed the timing was delayed because the publishing software was glitchy and the technology for collecting subscription renewals wasn’t ready. James Hamblin, a physician who left a staff writing job at The Atlantic and started a Bulletin newsletter, told me, “It seemed like the ‘move fast and break things’ mentality was there. With any new publication or product, if you don’t give it time for people to get used to using it, it’s kind of doomed.”

Sixteen months in, Meta announced that it would wind Bulletin down. “It was really weird,” a former Meta employee on the project—now in a new job, and contractually barred from discussing past work experience—told me, “to see enthusiasm and fervor around expansion shift pretty quickly to ‘We’re going to sunset this.’” Bulletin had hit its growth targets, two ex-employees said, but in the face of a turbulent economy—around the same time as Bulletin’s sunsetting, Meta announced a hiring freeze, restructuring, and cuts—the company was ruthless. (Meta did not respond to multiple requests for comment.) Out with journalism (yet again), in with the metaverse, artificial intelligence, and gambits to compete with TikTok. “Facebook is all about scale,” Alex Kantrowitz, who covers Silicon Valley for a Substack called Big Technology, told me. “There was a feeling like the newsletter business could be an asset. Now we know that it’s a big business, but not a massive business, and that makes it a lot less interesting for a company like Meta.”

By then it was October 2022, and the story of Bulletin already felt like an allegory. In a short span, an optimistic gold rush toward newsletters had given way to a starker reality: The intense commitment required to produce a solitary newsletter often proved to be untenable. The platforms hosting newsletters revealed biases and flaws. Readers, however enthusiastic at first, reached their limits; at some point all that stuff in your inbox can start to look like spam. Some journalists abandoned their newsletter schedules, or closed shop altogether. What remained was a sense that newsletters were not all that revolutionary or glamorous so much as they were functional, a means of delivery.

Courtesy of Meg Conley

That’s all Conley ever hoped for from Substack, and she’d been skeptical of how the newsletter boom—and supposed bust—were covered. “I feel like a lot of that optimism was driven by shareholders instead of stakeholders,” she said. “We’re taught that success is something that scales eternally. The blessing and curse of writing is that it doesn’t scale.” She kept at it. “There is a tier of writers who are going to make a lot of money at Substack, or a publication, or anywhere they go,” she added. “I used to want to be that kind of writer, but now I just want to be a journeyman—someone who writes something that enough people read.”

In its abundance of present-day variations, the newsletter form can be hard to define. It can be an insidery news roundup (the Politico “Playbook”); bullet-point reporting (Axios); a formula consisting of reporting and analysis (Semafor); reporting steeped in analysis (Puck); a breezy list of links (theSkimm); extended, evocative meditations (The Small Bow); political commentary (The Dispatch); a feature-length piece (New York magazine’s “One Great Story”); and virtually anything else. Some view newsletters as the direct descendant of blogs: “When I first started on the internet, there was this opening for people with esoteric knowledge to write,” Petersen, who has a Substack called Culture Study, told me. “Now all of that writing is happening in newsletters.” Jay Caspian Kang—who published a popular newsletter for the Times, and now is a staff writer at The New Yorker—said that newsletters allowed him to “wander,” be “chatty,” and develop a salubrious relationship with readers, who sent him as many as hundreds of emails each week. But there is nothing markedly bloggy about Heatmap, a climate-focused, newsletter-driven publication that started up in March. As Nico Lauricella, Heatmap’s editor in chief, put it, “the ubiquity of newsletters has meant that a lot of the distinction that used to separate a traditional article and a newsletter has collapsed.”

There is some common ground: most newsletters aspire to cultivate a voice that is friendly, but not overly intimate; intelligent, but not preachy; a more professionalized version, perhaps, of early blogs’ freewheeling prose. Axios—which publishes twenty-two national newsletters, plus thirty local editions that total more than a million and a half subscribers—might seem an exception, with its “Smart Brevity” format. But Nicholas Johnston, the publisher, argues that’s not the case: a “close reader” of Ina Fried’s daily newsletter about artificial intelligence, he told me, “would know how much she loves Legos.” At major news organizations, newsletters have traditionally been thought of as email marketing; lately, though, they seem to place less emphasis on wide reach than on deep connection.

In other words, digital media, until recently preoccupied with traffic, has been forced to return to something more akin to its pre-social-media-obsessed state, in pursuit of engagement and loyalty. Absent other viable sources of revenue, as Pasick told me, “there’s even more value now in a platform that we control: the inbox.” When, a couple of months after Bulletin’s launch, the Times announced a slate of more than fifteen newsletters, they were made available only to subscribers. “Almost half of subscribers open a newsletter in a given week, and people who do receive newsletters are far more likely to pay and to stay,” Alex Hardiman, the chief product officer of the Times, said. Around the same time, The Atlantic rolled out its own subscriber-only newsletter initiative, with nine new writers. Jeffrey Goldberg, the magazine’s editor in chief, wrote by way of introduction that the project would resemble the “rambunctious” blogging of TheAtlantic.com circa 2009. “Newsletters are conversational, unrehearsed, contingent, revelatory, humble, and entertaining,” he wrote, “and journalism can always use more of these qualities.”

By some measures, these endeavors have been successful. An Atlantic newsletter called “Brooklyn, Everywhere” by Xochitl Gonzalez earned her finalist consideration for a Pulitzer Prize in commentary. A flagship “Daily” newsletter became The Atlantic’s most-read post “on most days,” according to Bhumika Tharoor, the site’s managing editor; it now converts as many as three times more readers into paying subscribers than it did a couple of years ago. Still, subscriber-only newsletters have made only a small contribution to the company’s bottom line. At the Times, Pasick said, the subscriber-only model has worked, though the company declined to provide revenue details. Some of the project’s contributors have left; in addition to Kang, there was Kara Swisher, who decamped for Vox Media. She found the subscriber-only strategy odd. Times newsletters “should be free to grow users rather than for audience retention and gated,” she said. “I told this to them. But it’s their pop stand and not mine.”

Charlie Warzel once worked at the Times and left to start a Substack, Galaxy Brain, which was then acquired as a subscriber newsletter by The Atlantic, where it ultimately dissolved into a means by which to alert readers when Warzel runs a piece; he is now a staff writer. “I noticed that people tend to excuse less declarative, more nuanced, voicey writing and reporting if it shows up in an inbox,” he wrote in a last Substack dispatch. Solo newslettering was exhilarating—but, as he told readers, he earned considerably less income than he did at the Times. When he decided to join The Atlantic, he wrote, “I’m worth more to a publication as part of a package of writers/reporters/thinkers than I am on my own.”

There may be nothing more retro than a newsletter writer joining a magazine founded in the nineteenth century. The spontaneity and freedom of newsletters “to play around with form and format and voice” looked attractive from the outside, Warzel said, but operating as a newsroom of one, “the more time you spend, the more you understand the sacrifice that comes with independence.” Now Warzel’s followers have become The Atlantic’s, his voice an expression of the magazine’s. Others not resettled at legacy outlets have joined newsletter-driven startups—Puck, Heatmap, The Dispatch—that provide the perks of an institution (editorial support, healthcare plans) along with equity in the business.

Conley’s newsletter success has led to freelance opportunities with Harper’s Bazaar and Slate. She still prefers being a solo act, but can’t help but feel that being published in an established outlet grants her cachet. A woman who exclusively sends newsletters—no matter how heavily researched or artfully written—may still be viewed strictly as a “mommy blogger,” she told me. “I don’t think we’d be having this conversation if I hadn’t been published in Harper’s Bazaar,” she said. “It helps people take you more seriously.”

“There is a bit of a paradox with these newsletters,” John F. Harris, the global editor in chief of Politico, told me. “While there’s connection and a degree of intimacy, and certain people have made themselves journalistic stars by having these platforms,” he said, “if it just becomes a star vehicle, there’s no particular premium for that. It’s the utility that matters.” Former authors of “Playbook”—first Mike Allen, later Jake Sherman, Anna Palmer, and Tara Palmeri—did become stars as a result (in their orbit, anyway) and from there embarked on their own newsletter publications (Axios, Punchbowl News, Puck). Still, according to Harris, the “Playbook” readership has only continued to grow. The same has proved true at CNN: after Brian Stelter, author of the “Reliable Sources”media newsletter, parted from the network last year, Oliver Darcy became the lead writer. According to Marcus Mabry, CNN’s senior vice president of digital editorial and programming, “Reliable Sources” saw no meaningful drop in readers. As important as voice may be, Mabry said, “journalism and reporting win out in the end.”

An obvious difference between a solitary writer such as Conley and a large news organization is the burden of personal connection; she must work alone to articulate her value to readers, in order to keep them as subscribers, month after month. Pasick, as a newsletter professional, pays for ten Substacks and receives free versions of several dozen more; even he needs to be selective. “I think we all feel overwhelmed at times in the inbox,” he said. “We’re constantly looking to see which newsletters are justifying their resources.” An era of digital media marked by loyalty may work out well for known quantities—not so much for writers striving to break through, as audiences are less primed for random discovery. “How many newsletters are you going to pay for?” wondered Jane Wells, a CNBC correspondent who migrated her Bulletin newsletter to Substack and doesn’t charge subscribers. “At some point, don’t you just want it all in the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal?”

Lately, Conley has considered building deeper relationships by way of subscriber perks—soon, she’ll offer one-on-one video chats, for instance. She worries, though, about potentially awkward, even unhealthy effects: already, members of her audience send emails confiding in her. “Because I write with emotion, sometimes readers come to me looking for a less private person,” she said. She doesn’t want to put herself in the position of a pseudo-therapist, or an influencer. The more we talked about audience engagement, she told me, the more she began to think the name homeculture might give readers a false impression that she’s inviting them into her life. In September, she decided to start calling her newsletter pocket observatory.

Meanwhile, the voicemails have proved stunningly effective. “I’m almost in tears listening to your recording, Meg,” a listener replied. Another wrote, “I look forward to continuing to read your voice.” As responses poured in, Conley invited paid subscribers to leave her voicemails, too. She promptly received more than two hundred messages, which she began listening to in batches, on Friday morning strolls; sometimes, she catches herself talking back. She has begun releasing a subscriber’s voicemail, along with a personal reply, every other week. It could probably be a standalone business, she said, “except that’s not currently what my work is.”

That work might have once been viewed as a stepping stone in journalism. Now—for her, for any writer—it may be a summit. I wondered how Conley felt about the arc of her career. “Do I want to keep writing a newsletter? Do I want to write a book? I don’t have a five-year plan or a business model,” she replied. “I just want to write. Writing sustains me! And I think my writing helps sustain some of my readers. I just need to reach the place where that writing economically sustains my family, too.” The first time she hit play on a subscriber-sent voicemail, the speaker was so on the mark that Conley welled with delight. “Hi, Meg,” the message began. “Sorry I missed you.”

Danny Funt is a senior editor at The Week and a former CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow him on Twitter at @dannyfunt