How to grow your newsletter by syndicating it to mainstream media outlets

Ernie Smith’s newsletter Tedium was featured in an episode of the hit NPR podcast Planet Money. Its individual issues have been syndicated in Vice, Atlas Obscura, and Popular Mechanics.

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Ernie Smith’s newsletter Tedium often gets the kind of exposure that most indie newsletter writers can only dream of. A few days ago one of his articles was upvoted to the top of Hacker News. It’s been featured in an episode of the hit NPR podcast Planet Money. Its individual issues have been syndicated in Vice, Atlas Obscura, and Popular Mechanics.

Some of this exposure came by design. Early on in Tedium’s existence, Smith began securing syndication deals with editors at several mainstream publishers. For this case study, I interviewed him about how he established those relationships and why the syndication is mutually beneficial for both him and the publishers he works with.

Can you tell about what led up to you syndicating your content to media outlets as a growth strategy? Was it a lightbulb moment or the natural outgrowth of conversations you were having with editors at these publishers?

Basically I would say when I first started Tedium, I had launched it with the assumption it would be a link roundup, along the lines of a lot of other newsletters. And if you look at some of my early issues they did sort of carry that shape.

But at some point, the approach shifted to something more long-form and evergreen in nature, where the things I was writing about weren’t necessarily the kind of things that would die out right away. I don’t think I was necessarily looking for syndication that first year, but I sort of stumbled upon a good opportunity for it when I found Atlas Obscura, which was a site that had a lot of content in the same vein as mine even though they had more of a travel focus.

I knew of a few newsletter authors that syndicated (like Dave Pell’s NextDraft), but mine seemed like it had a better shelf life, which might make it stand out.

Sort of by chance, I emailed them about the possibility of collaborating, and eventually came up with a simple deal: I’ll let you republish my newsletter for free if you put a link to the front page at the top and bottom. I built the front page to convert, so the first thing you see is a box asking folks to sign up.

And they got back to me, and agreed. Soon enough, I was working with Atlas Obscura almost every week for more than two years.

How did you expand beyond Atlas Obscura to other publications?

I think a big part of it was that, somewhat gradually based on my own interests, my writing had started to take a bit of a shift more toward tech, because there were a lot of things that could be mined within Tedium’s basic mission to make boring things interesting.

And I think as a result, that drew the interest of other sites. Derek Mead, then the editor in chief of Motherboard (and later the EIC of Vice as a whole; he recently left) reached out to me on his own accord because he was a fan of the newsletter, and offered to syndicate it—and offered to pay for the syndication. So I ended up working with them and have been affiliated with Motherboard ever since, including writing a number of stories for them, mostly with a history bent.

By this time I had dozens of pieces that offered syndication potential, and had made the decision that I would try to find the home for some of them on other sites where possible. This led me to working with Neatorama for a while (I reached out), and I’ve also run syndications in some other places, such as Popular Mechanics (they reached out).

Of course, it cuts both ways. Some outlets reached out for potential syndication and I had to say no because I was already full up. 

Did your policy of offering the syndication for free eventually change? When you charged, did you charge less since the media outlet wouldn't have the exclusive?

In the case of Vice it had always been paid, but despite that, I continued the Atlas Obscura syndication for free, in part because it was such a good match of audience and subject matter that it brought in a lot of new subscribers. So there was still a lot of value there even if it was unpaid.

I would say I tended to look at anything I made from syndication as a bonus of sorts—in that it wasn’t my initial goal, but it gave me some footing to build out other revenue streams for Tedium, such as sponsorships and the Patreon page. None of it was exclusive, so it was lower, but I made myself available for edits to make it match the needs of the specific sites I was working with.

In some cases, I gave the story to Vice first, and ran it later in Tedium, and that paid a little better.

Tedium has a quirky format. Do you ever have to adapt the content or format for the media outlet?

Yes, and I was OK with that. There were sometimes cases with Atlas Obscura where there was only one element of a longer piece they wanted, or maybe I went on a long aside that wasn’t tech-related that Vice didn’t want, that ended up getting taken out.

I think being a little guy I often have to be my own editor on stuff like this so it was nice to have access to editorial resources to kind of think through some things.

My format is strange, but it’s a big part of what makes Tedium stand out. If a syndicator doesn’t want it, I totally get it.

How are the calls to action presented within the articles to drive people to your newsletter?

Depends on the outlet and whether they paid for the syndication—AO and Neatorama did top and bottom (AO even ran a logo!), Vice only tends to have them on the top.

Are people encouraged to sign up or does it simply note you're the author of Tedium?

Generally it promoted the original source, and stated it was a newsletter. The CTA was not very aggressive, but it worked well in particular for Atlas Obscura.

Do you pitch newsletter ideas to editors ahead of time? Or would you simply just write a new issue and then offer it to the editor after you finished?

I would generally give them a heads-up of what I had been working on, maybe ahead of time if it seemed like an obvious match. But for the most part I tried to offer it after the fact.

Do the publishers get an exclusive window to publish the article before you send it to your email list? Or are both published simultaneously?

I published first, then offered it to them, except in rare cases where Vice ran the story first, and I later republished. For the most part they ran within about a week of one another. I was a lot smaller so the overlap wasn’t massive.

Does publishing to two separate websites -- the publisher’s and your own -- hurt your SEO at all? Are there any strategies you employ to make your website continue to perform well in SERPs?

I would say that it hasn’t hurt too much, honestly, in part because the headlines, and sometimes the structure of the content, is different. A good example is a piece I did on weird telephone numbers. That article has frequently ranked in the top one or two search results for that term for the past three years.

In some ways we’re not competing for the same audiences, so the SEO impact isn’t quite the same.

Did you design any special landing pages or segmented lists for people coming in through these syndications? Did you do any kind of tracking of who was coming in from the syndicated articles?

For the most part, I wasn’t that aggressive about the segmentation—I was fairly small when I was doing this a lot. I have some things set up in Google Analytics that let me know the source of a signup and what page led them to Tedium. So it was easy to track but I didn’t do anything like add a separate signup page back then.

Maybe I should have—you should have suggested this to me three years ago! Heh.

What have you noticed about how effective these syndicated articles are at driving new newsletter subscribers?

Without naming names, some sites are better than others. And some topics tend to draw a lot more people in. Much of it depends on the angle and the timing of it.

Like, some of my syndicated pieces did very well on Facebook and, for a time, that turned into a huge factor for judging whether a piece would drive a ton of new subscribers or not

But overall, a significant portion of your subscribers have come through these syndications?

Yes. I would say that they helped raise the site’s profile significantly, especially at a time when the newsletter thing wasn’t quite as big as it is now. 

For a little while you started cross-posting some of your articles to Medium. What were the pros and cons of that?

For a time Medium was a sizable driver financially—and my pieces would do well there, in part because of editors who picked it.

The downside I found is that editors tended to push for the removal or downplaying of any of the things I added to the articles to promote the newsletter itself. Which kind of stunk.

And over time, the effectiveness faded, as I’m sure a lot of Medium authors will tell you. I still test the waters sometimes, but it’s been a while since I’ve had a $400 month on Medium. 

Any other advice for those wanting to try out this strategy?

With the syndication approach you’re kind of at the mercy of whoever’s the editor. If an editor leaves and the new one doesn’t like your stuff as much it changes the relationship. Which is unfortunate, but is an important warning to offer anyone wanting to try this approach. Your mileage may vary, though.

Did you like this article?

It’s actually excerpted from an ebook of case studies titled “The Next Media Moguls, Volume 1: Lessons from 10 successful media entrepreneurs and executives.” You can download the PDF over here.

Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.

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