Simon Owens, host of the podcast “The Business of Content,” recently interviewed Robert Cottrell, founder of The Browser, a paid daily newsletter that has more than 10,000 subscribers and pays him a salary of more than $160,000 a year. (You can read the full interview here on Medium.)
Cottrell sends five links a day to his readership. Links to ideas journalism — thought leadership — and longform reportage. Five links: that’s it.
But to get those five links, he quickly reviews an estimated 1,000 pieces a day through RSS, cuts those down to a couple hundred, then to 20-30, and then to five.
And that’s all he does.
“It’s a full-time job,” Cottrell told Owens. “It’s a job that crowds into every niche the day possesses. I’m reading online whenever I can at home or in the office, I’m reading offline when I’m traveling.”
So, the first takeaway: Valuable curation comes from the intersection of dependability and relentless selectivity.
Second takeaway: Curation that people will pay for isn’t just about links. It’s about what you, the expert, bring to the curation. Not just your selectivity, but your sensibility:
Simon Owens: We live in an era now when everybody is a curator, between Facebook and Twitter. I curate articles on my social media accounts all the time. What kind of differentiation can you offer with a newsletter that just curates but doesn’t do any original reporting? Especially now when we’re entering an era when every single publication is entering a subscription paywall, is that something you think about? You said your subscriptions are slowing down. Do you feel like there’s a ceiling you’re going to hit without being able to offer something other than curation?
Robert Cottrell, The Browser: I’m going to push back a little there about the use of the word ‘curation.’ I think we do a little bit more than that. We provide a level of discussion about the articles that we recommendation, which I hope has a value in itself. I’d like to think there are subscribers who subscribe to The Browser primarily to read the newsletter for our account of what we’ve been reading, as opposed to a source of links from which they can click through to the target pieces.
The curation, I think, is almost always a problem of quantity, where when you start recommending things that are good to read, then every curator that I can think of always seems to conclude that if five is good, then 10 is better, and if 10 is good, then 20 is better. The newsletters that I subscribe to, I value them all. They’re the product of great diligence and intelligence, but almost invariably, the signal to noise ratio is falling all the time. The curator, the editor, is just seeking to include more and more stuff, with the hope that somewhere there is a fit, somewhere there there’s something that moves the furniture.
We are very strict in only offering a small group of pieces that I really thought about. I really worked hard and stayed up late to explain what excites me about them. I would like to think it’s more like a book review than it is like the sort of linking that you might get on social media.
This standard just doesn’t hold for content curation. It holds for content creation.
You may think: We don’t want to be paid for our content. We just want people to read it. We just want to give them a few links.
If you create or curate content for your organization or for a closely held audience — on social, in a newsletter, in any way — this is the standard you’re now up against.