I started Hello World
when The Markup
was just emerging from a period of management turmoil, and I wanted to be able to speak to our audience directly. I wanted to assure them that we were back on track with our mission unchanged. The newsroom was not yet up and running and we were not yet publishing articles, so the newsletter felt like the best way to reach people interested in our mission. Since then, it has evolved into a mix of highlighting our investigations, behind-the-scenes looks at our reporting processes and Q&A’s with people who are thoughtful about the impacts of technology on societies.
The other newsletters emerged organically from our work. We started Klaxon
— which simply emails readers whenever we publish a new story — because we figured that there were people who might just want links to our stories rather than hearing from me. And we started the Citizen Browser
newsletter to highlight the findings from our pioneering investigation into Facebook’s algorithms.
RB: Our Citizen Browser newsletter is a chance for us to have a direct conversation with people specifically interested in the Citizen Browser project, a first-of-its-kind custom web browser designed by The Markup to audit Facebook’s algorithms and track what information it serves its users, what news and narratives are amplified or suppressed, and which online communities those users are encouraged to join.
Why did you decide on newsletters as being a good method for sharing The Markup’s journalism?
We are a news outlet that covers technology — our website says at the top of the home page: “Big Tech is Watching You. We’re Watching Big Tech.” So we always want to find ways to reach our readers that don’t rely on the social media algorithms of big tech companies. Email is a great way to reach our readers directly without much algorithmic interference (although Gmail still does interfere a bit with deliverability, as we showed with our investigation into how it curates the Promotions inbox
RB: We want to meet our readers where they are. It’s 2021, and people are on the move as the world reopens. We can’t expect them to find and engage with just a website, or just social media timelines. If the fastest, easiest way for some of our readers to access our reporting is through their inbox and a single clickthrough to our website, we want to make that happen easily for them.
A core part of The Markup’s promise is that you don’t gather any tracking data on your readers. Why is privacy so important to your brand?
JA: I’ve been reporting and writing about digital privacy for more than a decade, but at my past employers I would often find that the creepy technique I was writing about was also being used by the publisher of my articles. When I started The Markup, I really wanted to be able to assure readers who cared about digital privacy that The Markup would be a safe space for them. After all, as Nabiha Syed, president of The Markup, often says: “You can’t report on the data exploitation market if you are also participating in the data exploitation market.”
RB: I don’t know about you, but ads follow me everywhere. I search for one dress, and all I see is Modcloth in my side banners for 3 days. I open a single email from TOMS Shoes, and my Insta-stories are filled with sustainably-minded shoes and fashion for a week. It doesn’t have to be this way. At The Markup, you should be able to get the latest news on how Big Tech is affecting society without sacrificing your information, your experience, or your privacy.
How do you measure success/audience engagement without access to metrics like Open Rate?
As a nonprofit newsroom supported by donors, we measure our success by the impact of our work, not by clicks. So we don’t need to track our readers’ every move — whether they opened an email or not — in order to know if we are successful. We know we are successful when our investigations prompt questions from Congress
or changes in corporate behavior
Of course, we still want to hear from our readers, and we do that by engaging with them on social media channels, responding to their emails and asking them to fill out the occasional survey.
RB: We measure success through conversation and a feedback loop that lets us understand what is and is not working more deeply than a simple Open Rate would. Those exchanges — through email, social media, private messages and surveys — are more valuable than knowing where, when and if someone has clicked the unread email that just hit their inbox. If you have feedback, we want to hear it directly from you, not from a cookie or other automated method of tracking your every move.
Apple’s recent announcement that it will make Open Rate data effectively obsolete has concerned many in the newsletter industry. What would your response be to those who are worried about this?
JA: I think it’s great that the industry is no longer normalizing something as creepy as embedding invisible trackers in people’s email so that corporations can snoop on people reading their email. Imagine if bookstores or libraries tried to track how long you spent reading their books? As a society, we have allowed far too much surveillance to creep into our everyday activities, and I’m glad to see some of it rolling back.
[Ed note: Revue allows its users to track engagement on email, disclosing opens and clicks in reports. Check out our issue of this newsletter from the week Apple made the announcement for more info.]
How are you communicating with your audience?
RB: We communicate through our site, email, social media, and surveys. As the world reopens, we hope to again be able to meet our audiences in person at events and conferences as well, but that all depends on the pandemic.
What would be your number one subscriber-growth tip?
JA: Growth for growth’s sake is not our goal. We are only interested in growth if it helps us achieve greater impact in the world. So I spend most of my time thinking about impact and very little time thinking about growth.
RB: Your audience needs to know you have a newsletter to follow that newsletter. Make calls to subscribe or share your newsletter with their friends a regular part of your messaging strategy. You can’t expect them to show up if you’re not asking them to do so.