The hypothesis at the heart of Periodically is that publishing on a regular schedule to an audience that has proactively subscribed to your work yields a deeper connection than broadcast methods. And while I’m happy to stand up here on my own internet soapbox spouting my theories and stirring the pot, the world is bigger than the distance between my own ears. To that end, I’m announcing The Periodically Interview Series, a monthly feature where I pick the brains of the best and brightest in direct publishing. My first guest is the father of the modern email newsletter, Dave Pell.
Billed as “The Day’s Most Fascinating News,” NextDraft single-handedly revived a moribund medium, bringing wit and warmth to the daily news cycle that you can find literally nowhere else. If that sounds a little hyperbolic then you are clearly not a subscriber and you should rectify that posthaste. What’s that? You get too much email? Well, there’s an app for that.
Dave graciously gave some time this past weekend to answer my questions via email (natch). What follows is a look at the heart and mind has gone into making NextDraft what it is today.
Bob: For those who don’t know, how would you describe what you do to (a) a casual observer, and (b) someone who might be legitimately interested in the answer?
Dave: Each morning I open up about 75 browser tabs and begin my search for the most fascinating news of the day. It takes me about two hours to find it, and about two hours to summarize the top ten stories of the day. Readers of my newsletter and users of my app are guaranteed a quick and usually entertaining look at the day’s events – from serious, hard news, to longform features, to a few funny or weird items in a section I call The Bottom of the News. It’s not an exhaustive round-up. It is a look at the day’s news through personality-driven publication. To a casual observer and someone who is legitimately interested, I’d say, give it a shot. Most people like it.
Bob: How important do you feel the format of your newsletter (daily, 10 questions, typically gets increasingly light-hearted as you read) is to its success?
Dave: I don’t think the fact that it is a top ten list is critical. But I think it is very important that the newsletter has a clear structure and that people know what to expect when they open it up.
Bob: I’ve been a reader since your newsletter was in beta (Sept 13, 2011 was my first issue) and while it has definitely evolved, you can look back and see the basic structure there from essentially day one. What thinking informed this format, and how has the feedback you’ve received help refine it over time?
Dave: I actually did a version of the newsletter about a decade ago. It was much longer and I made sure to cover every major news story of the day. When I brought the newsletter back in 2011, I had a more clear structure, but I still felt a need to be exhaustive in terms of covering whatever was on the top of that day’s newspaper front pages. One day, I let this go and realized that I don’t need to include everything, I just need to include what I find particularly fascinating. That was really the breakthrough moment. And from then on, readership grew and the feedback got better.
Bob: Every day you are delivering news via email to people who have specifically requested it. How does that direct connection inform the way you communicate with your readers, if at all? And how is that connection different than the one you share with your Twitter audience, who are also opted-in?
Dave: Email is much more personal. People are letting me into their inboxes, and if they want to respond, all they need to do is hit the reply button. Because it’s email, I tend to include more of my personality, humor, and life experiences. That’s really what makes NextDraft a unique news reading experience. On Twitter, I feel like I’m talking to a large audience. In NextDraft, I feel like I’m talking to you. Also, on Twitter, I pretty much just tell jokes, and those jokes often push the envelope in terms of appropriate behavior. In other words, I use Twitter as it was intended to be used.
Bob: Despite all this talk about form and structure, when you get down to it, you need to write a newsletter every day. With so much motivational advice out there about starting a thing, do you have anything to share about maintaining the momentum necessary to publish daily?
Dave: Some days it’s quite difficult to get motivated. But to be totally honest, I am addicted to pressing the publish button. I need my daily fix and it absolutely never gets old for me. I was excited when I published my first blog post during the early days of the web, and I’ll be equally excited when I push publish on tomorrow’s NextDraft. I love it. That’s how I maintain the momentum. I often show my son Bruce Springsteen concerts on YouTube and tell him, it doesn’t matter what you care about, as long as you can find something you care about as much as Springsteen cares about his performance. I can’t sing. So I write a newsletter.