How Ernie Smith built his popular Tedium newsletter

Welcome to the latest edition of Creator Collab House. I’m your host, Simon Owens. For those who don’t know me, I write a media industry newsletter you should definitely check out.

Today’s featured creator is Ernie Smith, the writer behind the popular and offbeat newsletter Tedium. I’ll start by asking him a few basic questions, but my main goal is for you, the audience, to ask him questions of your own. Ernie is an expert on building and running a successful newsletter, and he’s happy to jump into the comments section to answer your questions.

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Ok, let’s turn it over to Ernie…

What's the origin story of Tedium?

Tedium was born in the spirit of contrarianism. In late 2014, I had just stopped doing my quick-hit news site ShortFormBlog, which had 160,000 followers on Tumblr but was difficult to maintain, and I was looking for an opportunity to use my toolset in a completely different way. I had hit on the idea of writing a newsletter, which had a sort of cottage revival at the time (but nothing like what it is now), but I played with a few ideas. One of them was sending an extremely long, extremely boring newsletter I jokingly called Snoreworthy, in which I would find long pieces of content as a sleep aid. While that idea was a dead end, it did lead me to the name Tedium, which I then used as a starting point for telling stories about things that usually don’t have stories told about them.

I have a tendency to launch major projects on New Year’s Day, which I did with Tedium back at the start of 2015. And what I launched with was intentionally obtuse—I designed the newsletter to be intentionally hard to deduce from the subject line and top image alone, because I wanted to encourage others to dive into the content the way I did when I was writing. I still get the occasional email asking why I don’t make it more obvious, and I have to explain that it’s intentional, which is fun.

I let the format evolve over time, eventually becoming a long-form newsletter about a single topic, which was the opposite of what most newsletters were doing at the time, which was link roundups. I’d like to think newsletters like mine made other people feel OK about going long in a newsletter.

What have you found to be some of the most effective growth strategies for getting new subscribers?

I push Tedium pieces through second-run syndication, mostly through Vice’s Motherboard these days, though I’ve also worked with Atlas Obscura, Popular Mechanics, and Neatorama in the past. This is useful because it helps to encourage readers who might not otherwise have heard about Tedium to get pulled in because they found it through some of our content.

Can you walk us through the business model for your newsletter?

In a lot of ways, Tedium has a mixed business model—in that it picks up funding through a lot of means, including website advertising, affiliate marketing, syndication fees, and support on Patreon. I do sell newsletter sponsorships, but I try not to let any one funding source dominate what I do with my coverage. (I think, because I have a full time job, I am careful about not pressing the gas too hard.) I have twice been able to sell articles I wrote for Tedium to publish in college textbooks, which was pretty interesting and unexpected—and a clear sign that building things in an evergreen way offers me more flexibility than I might have if I focused on the news cycle.

I say no more than I say yes, though, when it comes to business opportunities. I have had a lot of people ask me about turning Tedium into a podcast, and I think to me, it’s just not where my personal interests lie. I’d rather focus on what I’m actually good at, which is writing and research.

And as far as my career goes, I think it’s helped me build a reputation as a writer who is good with history, technology, and where the two topics intersect. As I still work a full-time job, I generally am in the position where I often find myself turning stuff down, but my diverse skill set has led me into interesting opportunities like doing layout for the recent print zine series for Motherboard. I feel like it has opened up opportunities to take on bigger stories even beyond the scope of what I can do with Tedium—with two examples being a story for Motherboard about a famous NES emulator, and a deep dive into the AT&T EO Personal Communicator, an early example of a tablet computer, for Input.

What are some pieces that you're particularly proud of?

Some of the pieces I’ve written over the years have helped to start conversations, and I think that it’s good when it adds something to the discourse. A couple examples include this piece on the risks of “disc rot” to data preservation; this story about the iconic email client Eudora; and this feature on the growth of a fan community around vintage Silicon Graphics gear.

My stories have at times helped to spark interesting personal conversations; nearly two years after I wrote this piece about the school news service Channel One, I had a chance to talk to a major critic of the service who I had mentioned in the piece, and I found him to be passionate and really heart-felt about his cause. And telling the story of the mouse pad’s genesis (and the guy who invented it) was really fascinating.

And sometimes I come across an angle so completely out there that I would be the only one to think of it, which I think is always a noble goal as a writer; this piece discussing the end pieces of bread is very much in this category, as well as this one on chlorophyll, one of the most common elements in plants, being the subject of a fad diet. And you would never know that I was vegetarian for more than a decade when reading this piece on obscure cuts of meat or this one on unusual things produced with meat byproducts. My goal with Tedium is to produce newsletters about things you’d never think about on your own, and talking about the “science” of perfect cuts of meat definitely fits in that category.

To me the value is in the massive archives. It feels like they go on forever, even if there are limits. And that is a key goal for how I personally create.

What are the newsletters from other people that you open almost right away when they hit your inbox?

My favorite newsletters these days include Josh Sternberg’s Media Nut, which has an insidery approach that I’m a sucker for, and I think of the daily newsletters with the massive followings, Morning Brew is probably the best. Judd Legum’s work with Popular Information has been inspiring because he is using his platform to encourage real change, rather than simply being a soapbox like some other big Substack newsletters.

I was happy to see Today in Tabs make a comeback because that was a newsletter I read when I was considering starting a newsletter of my own, and it has a really strong voice, which to me is a key thing when you’re building an editorial newsletter. And one other quite good one that has been around longer than Tedium has is Links I Would Gchat You If We Were Friends by Caitlin Dewey.

Want to ask Ernie questions of your own?

Go ahead and leave your questions in the comments section and he’ll dive in and answer them. Substack requires you to confirm your email address, so you’ll receive an email when he replies to your question.

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