Newsletters have been around forever. They go way back to ancient Rome when officials and friends exchanged news in letters (newsletters). By the fifteenth century, subscribers in Venice would get handwritten letters summarising interesting events twice a week. They later evolved to letters exchanged between merchant families about taxes, prices, political news and more. Newsletters grew in popularity until the eighteenth century when newspapers showed up. The two coexisted for decades as newsletters, which were expensive at the time and not necessarily bound by the same rules, added more color to the stories found in the newspapers.
Newsletters resurfaced with the advent of the internet and electronic mail. With people turning to the internet for everything under the moon, smart companies seized the opportunity to enlist emails and use them as means of targeting existing and potential customers. Today, it has become commonplace as part of the most generic marketing strategies. And that’s exactly what newsletters have been for a while — a way for companies and few popular personalities to get the word out to their fan base directly into their inboxes — until now.
A look at the growing newsletter culture among Nigerian journalists
Last year, the unthinkable happened. A global pandemic came out of nowhere forcing everyone to stay at home for several months. With this came baking, Tik Tok and the rise of newsletters among writers as the media industry got hit hard by the pandemic. In the U.S., several high-profile journalists left the newsrooms to launch their independent brands via email newsletters. The trend continued here in Nigeria as a slew of independent writers and journalists either turned from media organizations or launched their own email publications using services like Substack in addition to their regular jobs.
Award-winning music journalist Joey Akan launched Afrobeats Intelligence, media analyst and communications strategist David Adeleke started the Communiqué, former Zikoko editor Fu’ad Lawal put out Vistanium and award-winning journalist David Hundeyin rolled out West Africa Weekly to mention a few. The newsletter boom among Nigerian writers continued this year as the world slowly started embracing its new normal. Former Tech Cabal writer Olumuyiwa Olowogboyega created Notadeepdive, a publication about business and technology in Nigeria while Derin Adebayo, who has written for platforms like The Republic and Stears Business, debuted Unevenly Distributed to track technology, entrepreneurship, and venture capital in emerging markets. Looking at those names, one emergent trend is that most of them have turned away from their day to day journalism careers by transitioning into communications and roles within the technology scene where their media grounding and relationships could be leveraged. The poor remuneration that is prevalent within the Nigerian media and the lack of scope for transformative growth are potential reasons for these transitions. In that sense, the use of newsletters could be viewed as a way of cultivating the audiences built while in the media and assisting in their posturing as thought leaders.
Why Nigerian journalists are turning to newsletters?
For Hundeyin, the answer is simple — creative and editorial freedom to get the news directly to the readers, unencumbered by the restraints that often come with journalism. “I decided to start a newsletter because I need the editorial freedom to carry out my own form of investigative journalism without having to constantly fight editorial battles that in my opinion, waste valuable time that could be spent on creating and putting out high-quality public interest work,” he tells us.
Going on to explain why this freedom is so important to him, he says, “Despite the best attempts of other platforms I have done investigative work with, the unfortunate reality is that the Nigerian system does all it can to strangulate them. For instance, after a story I wrote about Glo which the company found embarrassing, it throttled access to the NewswireNGR website for its subscribers — something which persists to date. Essentially what I learned was that you cannot use the tools given to you by the system to defeat the system — you have to work outside out. A Substack newsletter offered the perfect solution. It solved the problem of having a single point of failure that can be attacked and forced offline every time I publish a story. Subscribers — all 13,000+ of them — get the story direct to their email inboxes, which renders any attempts to attack the website superfluous (Newswire always used to get heavily cyber attacked every time I wrote a story).”
For years, media houses across the world including the local ones have often had binding non-compete contracts preventing writers from writing elsewhere. Apart from the contracts, there are certain rules journalists are beholden to. As a journalist or contributor, you have to conform to the editorial standards and requirements which you might not necessarily agree with. You are also bound by what the data or trends dictate. Then, there are editors, and politics to consider. The reality is that journalists do not have the luxury to simply write freely. In the States, one of the symbolic legacies of the Trump era was that it highlighted the conflict between publications and the writers under them as the political context served to whip up an existential debate over media standards and their overall efficacy. Substack’s contribution to the creator economy has been to offer journalists the freedom they crave. Then, there is the poor remuneration that is prevalent within the Nigerian media and the lack of scope for transformative growth. When you consider these reasons, the use of newsletters could be viewed as a way of cultivating audiences built while in the media. It also serves as a way of peacocking for future employers. However, one counterpoint raised is that by going independent and effectively, doing away with Editors whose expertise can be key in shaping and sharpening stories into their most potent final form, the quality of some newsletters have been compromised.
Are newsletters the way to go for Nigerian journalists?
Outside Nigeria, newsletters are appealing because they offer writers an additional source of income. Reportedly, American media analyst Ben Thompson’s Stratechery makes $3m with a stellar 90% pre-tax profit margin from paying subscribers who pay $100–120 each every year. With Nigeria’s declining economy, very few writers can gain financial freedom with the paid subscription model. You have to be an anomaly like Joey Akan with over 25,000 subscribers. While many people are willing to subscribe, not everyone wants to pay or can afford to. As Adeleke puts it, “Basically, people are not rich enough to put down the kind of money that can sustain any good journalist who has a newsletter.” Adebayo echoes his views saying “If you’re asking whether I think more journalists should go independent and have their own newsletters… Not necessarily. If you have an audience and a unique perspective, then it is a viable option. Otherwise, it’s really hard.”
Regardless of the unique challenges that come with running a newsletter in Nigeria, Adeleke is still up for the newsletter boom saying, “I think it’s a good idea for more writers and journalists to have newsletters in this market. To be quite frank, I don’t think journalists are doing enough within the confines of their traditional publications.”
Like him, Hundeyin agrees that newsletters might just be what Nigerian journalists need. In his words, “While I definitely think more journalists should explore newsletters, I also think they should resist the temptation to write newsletters that are basically opinion columns because there are too many opinion Substacks and Revues already! We need to differentiate to be successful and profitable. I think there is definitely an opportunity for those of us in this space who are driven and talented enough to do this. I actually believe that the future of journalism lies somewhere in this space, in fact, as the internet continues to disrupt the legacy “mass media” space.”