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Put Your Personal Experience to Work and Create Your Own Newsletter

Free services get your message out and can bring in a little money

Female business owner in her store online with her laptop
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At age 89, Dan Rather seemingly has done it all: reporting for radio and television, hosting cable TV interview programs, writing books and commenting on news events on Facebook and Twitter.

But recently, he added a new medium to his communication portfolio: an email newsletter, called Steady.

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Newsletters are “a form of direct communication, from me to you, delivered directly,” Rather says on his newsletter sign-up page.

The prominent longtime journalist isn't alone in joining the growing newsletter movement. Other popular authors who write directly to their readers include Apple expert Philip Elmer-DeWitt, 71; “Ask Polly” advice columnist Heather Havrilesky, 50; knitter Clara Parkes, 51; and political pundit Andrew Sullivan, 57.

Newsletters are back in vogue because as times change, what hasn't is the email inbox. We still check it first and most often during the day, says Tim Bajarin, president of market research firm Creative Strategies, based in San Jose, California.

Writing to readers “feels closer,” he says. “And readers love being able to respond directly to the writer."

People look at their inboxes

Newsletters also solve one of the bigger problems with social media — namely, not everyone who follows you will see your post. Programmers have written code determining that only the people who regularly interact with you get to read your ideas.

"I couldn't tell why some pieces reached more readers than others,” Rather says.

But with a newsletter, all of your subscribers will receive it and have access to every article. Social media firms have responded by joining the fray.

Twitter, home to the 240-character message, earlier this year bought Revue, a company that distributes newsletters, saying it wants to help people build up their audience by making it easier to subscribe on Twitter itself. And Facebook announced on March 16 that it will introduce a free self-publishing tool in the coming months for creating an email newsletter and custom website.

A way to earn a little extra cash

Feeling closer to your readers can make you money, too. Thanks to firms like Substack and Revue, many top writers are pulling in more than $100,000 a year by selling subscriptions to their newsletters, according to Substack, which, like Revue, takes a cut of the monthly revenues.

Top-earning writers are a rarity and generally already have a large social media following. But you don't need a massive subscriber list to begin making a profit.

You can charge as little as $5 a month. Get 100 people to subscribe and you've brought in an extra $500 a month, less 5 percent to 10 percent that the newsletter company will keep.

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So, how do you get people to pay to read you? Experts suggest that you will need months to build up your subscriber list, all while you publish good, steady content.

Elmer-DeWitt says people can be successful in newsletters if they have a niche in which they are an expert — “as narrow a focus as you can have.” That can be anything from bird-watching to knitting to management to sales to photography.

Most writers offer free editions several times a week, along with their paid version. Elmer-DeWitt lets paid subscribers see his work early, before it goes to the free crowd, and they gain access to his Apple expertise via Zoom video sessions.

On his site, Rather says he's charging to “create something sustainable” that will raise money to pay the salaries of people working with him and, hopefully, fund the production of documentaries. Elmer-DeWitt says his newsletter helps him pay the bills after a long career working for Time and Fortune magazines.

Some newsletter services are free

Meanwhile, anyone can sign up to write a newsletter for free with services like Revue, Substack and Mailchimp's TinyLetter.

Using a service to send out a newsletter, as opposed to just creating a list of recipients in your email program, has several advantages. With a service, you can add photos, tweets and videos within a layout that looks professionally designed with headlines, photo captions and subheads.

To sign up, you register for the service and create a list of subscribers to send your prose to.

Privacy rules require that people opt to subscribe to you. So you could ask some friends to sign up to get started or just input the email addresses of a few family members (surely, they won't complain).

Remember that beyond the inbox, newsletters are open for all to read, as well. Substack and Revue publish them online unless you charge to read; in that case, they're considered just for your subscribers. So if you have something to say and want to keep it private, you should consider using the TinyLetter service instead.

Jefferson Graham is a contributing writer who covers personal technology and previously was a technology columnist for USA Today. He hosts the streaming travel photography series Photowalks and is the author of Video Nation: A DIY Guide to Planning, Sharing and Shooting Great Video.