Newsletter internships = the new foot in the door?
Right before the holidays I saw that OG newsletterer Ann Friedman is starting up a couple of paid fellowships for her newsletter for 2021, and then a few days later, Nick Quah announced that he’s looking for a new paid columnist for Hot Pod. It reminded me of how big Substackers like Judd Legum and Emily Atkin both employ their own research assistants for their full-time newsletters, too.
The concept of working on someone else’s newsletter isn’t new — the iconic Today In Tabs (which: WELCOME BACK!!!) (also, more on this below!) famously had interns back in its heyday as the Lady Whistledown of mid-2010s media. Bijan Stephen said his Tabs internship started — where else? why else? — because “I was in a media slack in 2014 and wanted to get into a party” and that the newsletter gave him the freedom and space to define his voice.
For Bijan, it wasn’t a paid position, but working on Tabs worked out in other ways. “The subscribers were all working in journalism or were media-adjacent, which meant that the people reading my work were the people who might have employed me,” Bijan told me over email. “And some did.” (Another big Tabs intern, Karen K. Ho, attributes the gig to what got her into media reporting and “the true art of linking.”)
All of which makes me think: if I were starting out in media right now in 2021 (or graduating from J-school this spring), I would probably be looking at this growing class of newsletter jobs and betting on them as a more realistic way to get a foot in the door. Working closely with a journalist you admire AND eventually springboarding off their established platform all sound way better than scuttling around some big corporate office bringing people coffee and hoping to be noticed. (Especially in these remote work times!).
I asked Tesnim Zekeria about what it’s like being the Popular Information research assistant; she said it’s been “pretty awesome,” especially since she gets to dip her toes into the realms of research, audience, and growth by working on different parts of the newsletter. “In many ways it's felt like a start-up / rotational program,” she told me. “Above all, what drew me to Popular Information is the ability to feel the direct impact of the newsletter. I really don't think it would've been the same at a larger entity.”
On the topic of pay: it’s promising that, in the examples I’ve listed in the first graf, these positions all are paid in some way. (Ann Friedman’s has an annual stipend of “probably around $5k/person”, the Hot Pod column pays $500/week). I asked Ben Smith if the big olden day blogs had interns, and he said yes but that it was pretty informal — “sometimes a reader would pop up and volunteer, and we weren't thinking as much as we should have about who could afford that.”
So the new norm of making these positions paid is def a welcome change, yes. (Maybe another aspect of the trickle-down benefits of the subscription wave that I wrote about for Nieman Lab before xmas — More paid newsletter success = more paid positions for people to get their foot in the door?) And I also just think it’s an overwhelmingly Good Thing whenever there’s an alternative to breaking into media that isn’t just bare-knuckle fighting over a few plum corporate internships out there. And it’s also interesting for big newsletterers to be thinking about their ‘letters as platforms unto themselves.
But of course, there’s the big undeniable caveat that any one of these intern/fellow/assistant/columnist roles is only as good as the employer involved — and if it’s just one person on the other end, with no HR department in sight, you and I both know very well what horrific directions it can always go.
So: newsletterers with any kind of hiring budgets, this is a reminder that it is your duty to NOT perpetuate the cycle of abuse, disparity, or creepery that’s already rife in the industry. Figure out an application process that isn’t just asking around your personal circle for recs. Be a fair, equitable, and good employer. This all could be a very good thing for the industry. So do not fuck it up.
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Alex Olshonsky is a recovering addict turned tech exec turned jedi explorer. Reporting weekly mission findings on consciousness, addiction, & mental health in the popular "Fridays on the oLo" newsletter. Subscribe to the force here, and battle the dark side of culture.
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