Formats Unpacked: Not A Newsletter
How a newsletter about newsletters decided to use a different format to most newsletters.
Hi all, and welcome to another edition of Formats Unpacked, the newsletter from Storythings that helps you understand the secrets of great content formats. If you’d like us to help you research, develop or run your own content formats, we’d love to chat. We’re currently helping people like ADP, Rockefeller Foundation, Folger Shakespeare Library and Bionic with their content formats, so if you want to discuss a project, hit the button below.
Also! If you’re in New York and want to learn more about content formats, we’re trialling a new half-day workshop on understanding audiences and content formats in partnership with our good friend The Content Technologist. The workshop will be in New York on the afternoon of Tuesday 26th Sept. It will cover understanding and measuring audience attention, developing content formats, getting your workflow right, and measuring success. We'll have booking live next week, but we want to give loyal newsletter readers early access, so if you want more details, reply to this email and we'll send you the link before it goes live.
And finally - we’ve submitted a proposal for a session at SXSW 2024. The session will get the audience to collectively develop a content format, live, using our Formats Unpacked process. It’ll be really fun and successful and we’d love to do it. But we only get to do this if you vote for it. So please, if you have 60 seconds, give us your vote. We only have until August 20th.
Right - down to the unpacking. This one is about as meta as it gets…
What’s it called?
Not a Newsletter
What’s the format?
Well, it’s exactly what the name says - it’s a newsletter that is not a newsletter. Run by Dan Oshinksy, previously Director of Newsletters at both the New Yorker and Buzzfeed, it’s a brilliant resource for anyone who runs newsletters. But although you can subscribe and get an email every month, the format itself lives on a Google Doc.
What’s the magic that makes it special?
I’ve loved Not A Newsletter since I first subscribed, but it seems like such a strange choice of format. I get a lot of really smart newsletters from people who are experts in their field, but this is the only one that focuses on newsletters themselves, and it’s a Google Doc. So why would Dan Oshinsky do this?
Let’s break it down from two perspectives - the audience and the workflow.
We’re still in a growth era for smart newsletters, despite lots of think pieces saying we’ve reached Peak Newsletter. As social streams have deprioritised followers in their algorithmic streams (and Musk continues driving Twitter/X into the ground) newsletters continue to be a really safe and reliable way to get your audience’s attention (if you want to dive into this more I covered it as part of a series for our Attention Matters newsletter.)
But although newsletters are a reliable way to reach audiences, it can be difficult to get audiences to spend a lot of time reading newsletters in the inbox. You’re often competing for attention with urgent work emails, so readers make a quick decision about whether to read or not (if you’ve read this far - thank you!)
My experience of reading Not A Newsletter is this - open the email, read Dan’s short summary, click the link to the Google Doc to open it in a browser window, and then… go back to reading my emails. I rarely go through the google doc as soon as I’ve clicked, but it stays in by browser tabs. I don’t tend to have huge numbers of browser tabs, so it gives the newsletter a lot more exposure to my attention than it would in my inbox. I find myself reading bits of it when I’ve finished another task in the browser, or saving up time to read it on a Friday.
But for Dan and his team writing the newsletter, the workflow benefits are even greater. If you’ve run a newsletter for any length of time, you’ll have known that even the best email platforms can be a real pain to compose in, and you’ll have felt the sinking feeling when you realise you’ve sent out thousands of emails with a missing link or grammatical error.
Having the newsletter content in a Google Doc solves this - it’s really simple to write and design your content, and you can edit it anytime you want - even if you’ve sent out the ‘newsletter’ already. Dan doesn’t stray too far from traditional newsletter design in his Google Docs, except for a regular cartoon at the top, but there’s nothing to stop him having video, audio or interactives right there in the content.
But best of all, Google Docs have that little feature at the top where you can see how many people are viewing at the same time as you. Even though you can’t tell who they are, there is a feeling of being part of a live audience, especially if you click soon after the newsletter it sent out. Dan doesn’t let viewers add comments, as I imagine that would get very messy very quickly, but it would be a lot of fun to try.
There’s only one thing that comes to mind that is similar, something that we’ve referenced in more Formats Unpacked workshops with clients than pretty much anything else - Marie Foulston’s epic Party In A Shared Google Doc. In May 2020, at the height of the first COVID lockdown, Marie had the smart idea to lean into the social features of Google Docs and host a party. The result is a fantastic illustration of how playful and creative we can be in even the most constrained enviroments.
So there you go - you’ve just read a newsletter about a newsletter that is not a newsletter. I don’t think there is anything that could be more meta than that!
See you next time for some more format unpacking,
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