The former Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineer writes and edits a weekly newsletter of oddball news items with humorous commentary called This is True, which he e-mails to about 156,000 subscribers. He has no boss, writes whatever he wants and earns a profit.
But newsprint toilers beware: it's not that easy.
"I not only need my journalism skills, but also significant portions of the skill sets of editors, publishers, layout artists... Web page designers and coders, syndication salespeople, collection agents, et cetera ad nauseum," said Cassingham, who has a journalism degree but never worked in the profession until he launched This is True in 1994. "Most journalists want to be just that: journalists. They don't want to have to fuss with all the business aspects, while I find it interesting."
Web publishers, from one-man bands to heavily staffed daily newspapers, are discovering the advantages of depositing editorial content directly into the e-mail in-boxes of readers. E-mail newsletters are much easier to produce than Web sites, and their subscribers are much easier to measure and often more likely to read advertisements.
But like the Web itself, e-mail newsletters are largely being used as a marketing tool for other products while Web publishers continue to search for a profitable model.
The business model of This is True would be hard to duplicate.
Cassingham says he earns roughly 15% of his revenue from ads in the free version of his newsletter, 40% from paying subscribers (who get to read more content, ad-free), 20% from syndication to print publications, 25% from selling his three book collections of columns, and a handful here and there from speaking appearances and consulting.
He spends 20 hours a week going through about 400 news articles per day, and another three to eight hours writing. The rest of his time is spent marketing and answering about 200 e-mails he receives daily, many of which he takes care of using his large file of pre-written responses.
"I make good money, but if I had to split it with a partner, I wouldn't be making very good money anymore!" he said. "In the long run, maybe one guy won't have to be able to do it all, or the economics will be better enough that some of the dirty work can be jobbed out... But for the moment, one person does usually have to be able to do it all."
David Morrock knows the limitations of the one-man news operation. A full-time city hall reporter for a Central California newspaper, Morrock spends an additional five hours a day putting together the Morrock News Service -- a daily general news roundup with weekly columns from contributors. He has approximately 400 subscribers to his e-mail version, 35,000 hits a month for the site... and zero advertisements.
"I don't know how to sell ads or generate income," Morrock said cheerfully. "I'm a reporter, not a business manager or ad director. If somebody wanted to come along and take care of those things for me, it would be fine. But my talents, such as they are, lie elsewhere."
Even publishers of more business-oriented newsletters struggle to cover costs.
Don Fitzpatrick, who owns a TV newsroom personnel search agency, publishes ShopTalk, an e-mail newsletter that focuses on broadcast news. ShopTalk, a collection of the day's industry news summaries and links from around the country packaged with an originally generated jobs section, has "well over 100,000 readers per day" but doesn't make a profit, Fitzpatrick said, because he chooses not to include ads in it.
"However, everyone knows Don Fitzpatrick Associates because of ShopTalk," he said. "We've become a household word in television news and broadcasting because of it. I've been asked to speak all over the country because of it and have become a major resource to print and television reporters looking to get a broadcast angle on a particular story."
Fitzpatrick and his associate Laura Mancuso spend a combined six hours a day on ShopTalk, and the Web site brings in around $1,000 in advertising a month. The amount of business the newsletter has generated for the search agency is "impossible to quantify," he said.
Fitzpatrick, a former TV news director at K-FOG in San Francisco and senior vice president for a TV news consultancy, is one of many e-mail publishers who come from outside traditional newsrooms.
Steve Outing, who writes a column about online news for Editor & Publisher's mediainfo.com, says this trend will grow.
"More and more journalists operating on the Internet will cover increasingly narrow topic areas, serving as combination experts in their field and journalists," Outing said. "Many of these 'journalists' will come from the industries or fields they cover, providing greater insight for their readers than any generally trained journalist could hope to offer."
Some of the better e-mail newsletters, though, come from beat reporters who review and analyze coverage of their specialties. The Industry Standard, a print and Web magazine that covers the Internet economy, publishes a critical daily press survey called Media Grok, which has netted nearly 20,000 subscribers in just six months.
Written by veteran tech reporter Mark Glaser, along with Tom Watson and Jason Chervokas, Media Grok summarizes and compares the different coverage of the big tech news events of the day. The writers do not review articles on the same subjects written by the Industry Standard or its parent company, IDG, though the newsletter links to both sites.
Originally conceived to promote the magazine, sell subscriptions and give Standard readers another editorial product, Media Grok already comes close to paying for itself with ads, said Industry Standard Editor Jonathan Weber.
"We see a tremendous amount of potential in the general concept of a review of media coverage of a certain industry, and we have plans to expand," Weber said.
A key to Media Grok's success is the value of analysis it adds to the standard diet of summaries and links found in many other e-mail newsletters, Weber said.
"It's actually harder than it looks," Weber said. "It's not like you can just start one of these things, you have to actually find someone like Glaser."
But even with Media Grok's success, Glaser says he's not convinced that beat reporters will be launching money-making e-mail newsletters of their own.
"I think e-mail publications can work," said Glaser, who also publishes his own satirical newsletter called 3-Minute Roast. "I've often thought about starting a line of them. There are some problems, though: People are inundated with e-mail right now, so you have to be short, sweet and to the point. Will people pay for them? Will ads pay for them? Is there money in it? I'm not sure at this point. No one's proven that yet."
Quality publications with large editorial staffs -- like daily newspapers -- would seem the most likely to afford the luxury of assigning a good reporter to write an e-mail press review. But according to Outing, American dailies have been slow in publishing via e-mail.
"Publishers' reticence to take personalized e-mail delivery seriously is one of the oddities of the Internet news publishing industry. It's cheap, it's effective; with some exceptions, it's not being taken seriously," Outing wrote in his August 14 column.
That may change soon. A new service, CheetahMail, was rolled out this fall to specifically provide newspapers the technology needed to create and manage e-mail products. Smaller publishers often use Lyris, which Cassingham calls "terrific e-mail distribution software." And a company called I/PRO now offers auditing services for e-mail subscription numbers.
Still, according to Weber, newspapers' sheer size makes quick decision-making difficult.
"And the bigger the company, the bigger the thing has to be in order to be worthwhile," he said.
According to Cassingham, only Web-savvy publications will make money.
"You must understand the culture to succeed," he said. "There's a word for those who don't understand it and throw money into their online presence anyway: 'bankrupt.'"
Morrock said he doesn't know where the revenue for e-mail publishing will come from, but the costs are too low to resist.
"Our expenses are about $20 a month," he said. "When you consider what it would have cost, 10 years ago, to reach several hundred or thousand readers all over the world, I think that's phenomenal."
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