I’m Not Tired, You’re Tired: Newsletter Writer Fatigue Sets In
Attracted by the dream of being your own boss and writing whatever you want, a hidden truth behind the Substack-driven newsletter boom is sinking in: it is absolutely exhausting
Alex Kantrowitz had felt burned out for a while when he decided to let his Substack newsletter Big Technology go dark for a month this past August. Since 2018, when he was still a BuzzFeed reporter, he’d been sprinting to finish his book about Facebook, Amazon, and other tech giants, Always Day One, only to work harder to promote it after it was published in April 2020. Two months later, with hardly a pause for air, he quit his job to work full time on his newsletter. He managed to publish weekly editions of Big Technology, with a full slate of advertisers, for more than a year, but eventually, he had to admit to himself that he was tired. “It was just this massive run of work that no human should do,” he said. “I don’t have any regrets. I’m grateful to have done all that stuff, and I’m super excited about the direction of Big Technology, but I just needed a break.”
Today’s newsletter boom was built on a promise of emancipation: by striking out into a new frontier of an emerging medium, went the rationale, writers could free themselves of the obsession with metrics, page views, and quotas that had seeped into even the most staid media companies. The notion that they’d be able to write exactly what they felt they should be writing and readers would pay for it drew in writers who’d already achieved escape velocity from the content mill churn that had become the industry standard. But these pioneers soon found themselves forced to adapt to the rigors of the medium and readers’ expectations of constancy. Salman Rushdie, who’d mostly stuck to the relatively relaxed rhythms of book publishing, launched his Substack newsletter Salman’s Sea of Stories in September as a new way to release his fiction. Still, he was soon reduced to writing up lackluster ask me anythings. Others were pulled in under the aegis of massive, well-funded institutions,
but that hasn’t been enough to shield them from the demands of a grueling pace. Malcolm Gladwell signed onto Facebook’s Substack-competitor Bulletin and soon found himself scraping out lukewarm takes that would make even the most harried web editor grimace like, actually, beloved deceased comedian Norm Macdonald isn’t funny. Though writers with graphomaniacal tendencies have derived an enviable pleasure from turning out thousands of words a week, burnout has become endemic among newsletter writers.
The norms of newsletter writing demand regimented production and impose a particular sort of pressure on writers, especially in cases where they don’t have support from large organizations. (Full disclosure: This reporter is tired too.) “When you go from being one person in a newsroom to being the single point of failure in an independent news operation, you need to deliver or you’re going to die,” Kantrowitz said. “I’ve got to get my newsletter out on Thursday, period, end of story.”
Even writers putting their newsletters together for massive media companies have found the rhythms of their days radically altered. “I do work way more than I used to,” said Jay Caspian Kang on the Longform podcast last week while discussing the new subscriber-only newsletter he’s begun writing for The New York Times. “I used to have four hours a day where I would just sit around and just be like, ‘Okay, you know, like, what is life about?’ And I don’t really have that anymore.” Though Kang said he’s enjoying the pace — he writes two issues a week, totaling between 3,000 and 4,000 words — for some writers, in the long term, that lack of space for the mind to wander can start to feel unsustainable.
Asked whether she’s managed to avoid burnout since going full-time on her newsletter Culture Study, Anne Helen Petersen, another former BuzzFeed reporter, said, “of course not.” Yet both Petersen and Kantrowitz said they’ve found their newsletter work more liberating than their time at BuzzFeed. “I had such unhealthy work habits when I was in a newsroom that going to a newsletter was actually a way to become more sustainable in terms of my work habits,” Petersen said. At BuzzFeed, she had to deal with the expectation that she’d be on Slack all day and sometimes felt like she was working all the time. “Some of those more administrative things have translated in different ways because running a newsletter is running a small business,” she said. “Right now, I’m staring at my inbox after the weekend, at the requests for free subscriptions. I need to email each one of them and add them each individually. That stuff takes time. But it’s hard to say: Do I work more or do I work less? To me, the work feels different because it is under my control.”
That feeling of control has allowed people writing independent newsletters to experiment with various strategies to manage the workload. Every newsletter writer who spoke with The Fine Print for this story brought up the idea of bringing on outside contributors. Nithin Coca, who runs Asia Undercovered, said he’s been delegating since the start. “From the beginning, I had someone who was helping me as a virtual assistant with social media, and then she was interested in working on the newsletter as well,” he said. “If you’re trying to do social media and marketing and writing, it can be a lot. It’s hard to focus on writing a good newsletter and also think about promoting it at the same time.”
Not everybody is as excited about the potential of this solution. “I think I’ll probably bring on some guest writers,” said Kantrowitz, but added, “it’s something to do cautiously because at the end of the day, doing this stuff is building a relationship with readers. They expect you in their inbox every week. So you can experiment with it, but when you go from a single person to a publication, there’s a whole new set of considerations involved.”
Another solution some writers have gone with is to simply publish less often. In July, Emily Atkin, who writes the climate reporting newsletter Heated, announced she was burned out and would be changing her publishing schedule from daily to weekly. “Not everyone has the ability to fight burnout in their workplaces,” she wrote then, “but I have the unique privilege to try and do it here, thanks to the support of this reader community.” Coca, too, decided to schedule his news roundups biweekly instead of every week. “I noticed when I was doing the weekly updates, the open response was going down, and I did a survey,” he said. “I think, at least for my audience, weekly was maybe too much. Especially when I was doing the extra content, the Q&As, and everything, it was getting to be too many emails.”
Kantrowitz said he’s going to stick with the solution that worked for him this year. “We’re kind of kidding ourselves that the amount of work we do in this country is sustainable, not just for newsletter writers, but anyone, and so we need to take a break,” he said. His plan is for Big Technology to go mostly quiet every August going forward, so he can escape the grind and spend a little time thinking beyond next Thursday’s newsletter. “As long as I can,” he said, “that’s what I’m going to do.”