The Magnet 042: My 10 Favorite Newsletters

I publish The Magnet on Substack, which occasionally sends its writers emails about getting more subscribers. A recent piece of advice they sent said, “Newsletters, like other subscription-based media, perform best when they’re highly targeted to your readership – if you’re writing for everybody, you’re writing for nobody.” Substack gave two examples of highly targeted newsletters: Heated (“A newsletter for people who are pissed off about the climate crisis.”) and Femstreet (“Where women in tech lead, shape and fund the future.”)

That got me thinking about The Magnet and my favorite newsletters. Most of them aren’t highly targeted. The target is no-target. In other words, The Magnet and the newsletters I like aren’t for everybody or nobody. They’re for no-targeters. or broad-spectrum enthusiasts.

A couple of weeks ago Marc Bone commented about The Magnet, “Of all the newsletters I subscribe to this is far and away my favourite. I love not knowing what to expect!”

I feel the same way about my favorite newsletters described here. I love not knowing what to expect.

1. The Browser, edited by Caroline Crampton

Every day The Browser presents five stories from around the web that I would have otherwise missed. The most recent issue linked to articles about the way clocks changed life in ancient cultures (“Monumental Timekeepers”), the working life of a restaurant chef in Delhi (“Khansama”), an essay about Wittgenstein’s 1921’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (The World Is All That Is the Case”), cultures that incorporate whistling in their language (“Speaking In Whistles”), and a mysterious thief of forthcoming books (“The Spine Collector). Here’s a sample Browser item:

The Spine Collector

Reeves Wiedeman And Lila Shapiro | Vulture | 17th August 2021 | BMP 4/m

Investigation into a shadowy literary scammer who repeatedly convinces publishers to hand over copies of books that have yet to be published. For years, agents and editors have fallen for these phishing emails, yet it seems to be a purposeless crime — the titles are not then pirated or leaked. Fittingly, the journalist on the case develops an admiring obsession with the thief (6,982 words)

2. Letters from an American, by Heather Cox Richardson

American history professor Heather Cox Richardson is one of the most popular authors on the Substack platform. Every day she writes a long and fascinating essay about current events and ties it to events in U.S. history. From the August 16 issue:

While a lot of U.S. observers have quite strong opinions about what the future looks like for Afghanistan, it seems to me far too soon to guess how the situation there will play out. There is a lot of power sloshing around in central Asia right now, and I don’t think either that Taliban leaders are the major players or that Afghanistan is the primary stage. Russia has just concluded military exercises with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, both of which border Afghanistan, out of concern about the military takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban. At the same time, the area is about to have to deal with large numbers of Afghan refugees, who are already fleeing the country.

But the attacks on Biden for the withdrawal from Afghanistan do raise the important question of when it is in America’s interest to fight a ground war. Should we limit foreign intervention to questions of the safety of Americans? Should we protect our economic interests? Should we fight to spread democracy? Should we fight to defend human rights? Should we fight to shorten other wars, or prevent genocide? 

These are not easy questions, and reasonable people can, and maybe should, disagree about the answers. 

3. Garbage Day, by Ryan Broderick

Several times a week, Ryan Broderick sends out a grab bag of observations about things happening online. The latest issue has an item about OnlyFans’ decision to ban porn, why it did it, and how OnlyFans creators and patrons should think about using blockchain-enabled fansites like SpankPay:

SpankChain uses SPANK and BOOTY crypto tokens (lol) to help sex workers with online payments and has even partnered with a webcam service called SkyPRivate. It seems interesting!

This is, essentially, exactly what cryptocurrency is meant for — taking power and influence away from centralized banking. Not to get too Bitcoin bro-y here, but if Mastercard can make OnlyFans jettison the only thing its known for, what other massive decisions are these companies influencing!

But, there is an issue with the blockchain and pornography. A few years ago, outlets like the BBC and Washington Post ran big scary pieces that child pornography was being hidden on the blockchain. The Daily Dot at the time went crazy with this, initially headlining their piece, “If you own Bitcoin, you also own links to child porn,” which is… uh. A lot. It turns out it was all a bit overblown and if you really did want to insert child pornography into the blockchain, you would have to sift through over 200 million transactions and find lines of code that could reverse to give you a direct link to illicit material. But that doesn’t mean the blockchain and porn are a good mix.

4. It’s Nice That Daily Roundup, by The Hudson Bec Group

A UK-based creative agency produces this daily newsletter. Each issue has images and stories about artists, illustrators, designers, and other creators. A recent issue highlighted the work of illustrator Joe O’Donnell who recently switched from digital tools to traditional paint to “bring a more human touch” to his work.

5. Just Another Crowd, by Sean Bonner

Sean Bonner is a friend and an all-around fascinating person. He was blogging before blogs existed, ran a record label, owned an art gallery, launched many successful websites, and co-founded Safecast, an environmental monitoring non-profit. If something weird and cool is happening online, chances are Sean is either part of it or knows a lot about it. In a recent issue of his newsletter, Sean wrote about a project that involves many of his passions:

I’ve also been building out a virtual gallery on my property in CryptoVoxels which I think you should visit. The gamers among you will instantly understanding using WASD to move around and your mouse to look different directions, and the rest of you will figure it out. I’m helping build out Shepard Fairey’s OBEY GIANT gallery as well, which is next door. Go visit that, too.

6. Why is this interesting?, by Noah Brier & Colin Nagy

The editors invite people to contribute essays on a wide variety of topics. They also interview people about their media diets. At the end of each issue is an explanation as to why the editors think the content is interesting. Here’s an excerpt from the August 4 edition, about the lack of public toilets in the United States:

While there are many sexy metrics for urbanism (public parks, transport, small business, etc.), I think a measure of a city’s true civility can be measured by access to public toilets. Spend any time in Tokyo and you’ll find them in subway stations and interwoven into the city. They may be sparse, utilitarian setups with no hand soap (because attendants can’t keep up with the volume), but they are still there. In cities like New York, this is not the case. While there have been a few  one-off efforts to improve the situation (including some corporate-sponsored ones), the burden largely falls on private business. All of a sudden, it is Starbucks’ responsibility to provide restrooms to all that need them. 

(This is a good place to recommend a toilet-locator app called Flush.)

7. The Best Song Ever, by Scott Frampton

Scott Frampton author takes a knowledgeable deep dive into the history of a different song every week. He covers a wide variety of genres. The August 5th issue is about the 1978 power pop song “Starry Eyes,” by The Records. I loved this song when it came out, and Frampton’s definition of power pop is the best I’ve read:

A power pop band simply needs all the tunefulness of the British Invasion and the right amount of rock oomph — just enough, say, to keep them from getting bottled off the stage at a rugby bar. It’s so simple and so joyous when it clicks. It’s also largely uncool. Since its emergence in the 70s, power pop has been adjacent to glam, punk, and new wave, which were all ways of describing people and the fashion sense that went with their favorite music. You’d never describe a person as “power pop,” except maybe the square-looking guy at a rock show who’s really into the hooks. For power pop, the song is enough. It’s everything. 

8. The Whippet, by McKinley Valentine

McKinley Valentine’s newsletter of “science, history, weirdness and 0% contemporary politics” was an inspiration for The Magnet. I never know what I’m going to get in an issue of The Whippet, but I know it’s going to be good because Valentine is an excellent writer and curator. Issue #127 had items about showing magic tricks to birds to study how they think, why Switzerland makes the best mechanical watches, the reason why “iota” means a tiny amount of something, how to use an AI app to generate images from text phrases, and more.

9. Art of Noticing, by Rob Walker

In 2019 former New York columnist Rob Walker wrote The Art of Noticing, “for people who want to stay interested in life.” His newsletter continues this mission by offering “useful ideas, practical prompts, and surprising inspiration that will help you cultivate creativity and engage with the world.” From the July 1 issue:

I’m pretty sure that I’m less ambitious than I used to be. Here’s one clue: Early this year, I spotted the headline “An Ode To Low Expectations,” and I was really excited. That’s for me! Lower expectations sound great!

Fittingly, the piece turned out to be only a few paragraphs long. It did not actually mention ambition, but it was excellent. Essentially, writer James Parker (always terrific) made the case for learning to appreciate what’s right in front of you: “One day, this will be enough.”

10, Seth Godin

I’ve known Seth for many years. He’s written many books that help you think about the kind of work you want to do and how to do it well. He’s also kind, generous, smart, and funny. Every issue of his newsletter has a thought-provoking idea. Here are a couple of examples:

The next best click

Of all the buttons and all the swipes and all the scrolls on all the websites, is that one you’re going to click next the very best thing you could be doing right now?

Juxtaposition has gotten out of hand. Just because it’s right next to the last thing we did doesn’t mean it’s the best thing to do next.

Not for Diana
Demetri Martin tells the story of seeing a necklace for sale. It says, “Diana” on it.
“Wait,” he says to the owner of the jewelry store, “you’d probably sell more if it said ‘Not Diana’ on it.” After all, just about everyone isn’t named Diana.
The absurdity of this story is precisely why focusing on the smallest viable audience makes so much more sense than trying to make average stuff for average people.


Minimalistic sketchbook creature shirts

I’ve been filling a notebook with tiny sketches of creatures. (Here’s a video of my progress.) From time to time I’ll sell T-shirts using some of my favorite sketches. Here’s the first one. It’s available in a bunch of different style shirts.


Thanks for reading! Mark Frauenfelder writes the Magnet.