How I Made It: What lands in the newsletter, and why

A headshot of Mayukh Sen, the editorial director at This.cmHave you subscribed to Lenny? Do you quick-click when Hot Pod, The Audio Signal or Adolescence is a Marketing Tool pops into your inbox? If you don’t, maybe you will soon: Newsletters and their curators are becoming trusted sources in sifting through the information overload.

For media junkies, Mayukh Sen has become the curator of curators: Sen is an editorial director at On This, users can post one — only one — link each day. Think of it as anti-Twitter.

Every day Mayukh pulls together five links from far-flung corners of the internet to share with the This. community (a social network that is, for the moment, mostly journalists). Some of the links are heavily distributed by This. users; others are lonely, beautiful work on little-traveled sites, spotted by only one or two members of This.

As storytellers and journalists, we’re interested in good newsletters, but we’re also interested, for practical purposes, in which pieces of media work get traction with influential curators, and why.

In this “How I Made It,” we peek into Mayukh’s curatorial lab to learn what makes his newsletter and what makes him want to tear his hair out, and how content is sifted and synthesized before it shows up in a slick package on your virtual doorstep.

An algorithm can’t provide context or perspective. Curators aren’t just aggregating data, they’re whittling something handmade and human and gifting it to readers. And, as Roxane Gay reminds us, they hold enormous power. Curators are responsible for building out our bookshelves and broadening our minds.

Here’s how Mayukh does it:


Q: Walk me through your curation process? How much reading do you do daily? Where do you look? How do you narrow down?

SEN: I’ve tried and failed to put a specific numeric value on it, so I’ll just say that I do many hours of reading each day – which I love, even if it makes my head hurt. It goes without saying that I look to This. to find stuff for our newsletter, considering our newsletter’s drawn from what’s shared on the site. Duh. I have my eyes on the site all day, but I really begin winding down and curating around 3 p.m., with an eye towards getting the newsletter out by 5:30 p.m.

Some days are easier than others. A few days, I’ve got a crystal-clear idea of what’ll make for a good newsletter. Other days, I’m really struggling to find that final piece that’ll make the newsletter feel as holistic as possible. When shaping the editorial portion of the newsletter, I strive for topical breadth (social justice, popular culture, sports, politics, the Venn diagram of those all), and try not to have the newsletter weighted too heavily towards a certain viewpoint.

The Longform app’s been a great resource for me, fulfilling what I imagine an RSS feed or Feedly does for most normal people. I usually queue up a few articles from there before I head on the train each morning, so I can get a better sense of what to look out for on This. that day.

I also strive for a variety of media formats. Since launching to the public this past October, we’ve had a very welcome diversification of the kinds of links shared on This. We started out as a place where most people shared “longreads,” but now, people share all kinds of stuff – shorter pieces, audio, video, multimedia, even GIFs.

I’m obviously not the first to point out that there’s a misguided fetish for longform for longform’s sake online. There’s an assumption that if a story takes you a few minutes to scroll through, combined with it being about a weighty topic, then it’s probably really good. That’s obviously untrue. In fact, it’s actively untrue more often than we’d like to admit (the Daniel Holtzclaw debacle was a particularly gruesome moment of realization for a lot of people). This longform fascination creates a skewed economy for young writers who feel they need to bust their chops and prove their worth by writing 12,000 words on a topic that can be written about in much fewer.

What I’d like to do is start to correct for that, and put more “shortform” (ugh, I hate that phrase) in the newsletter. It’s often much harder to tell a story, or create an airtight argument, with limited space. But I find that existing aggregators don’t give that kind of writing the appreciation it calls for.

Q: Where do you go to find audio, video or multimedia pieces?

SEN: I wish I had a concentrated place where I could find them! I usually rely on my two primary social networks, This. and Twitter, to filter for them. Along with my usual hound-like vigilance of publications I read regularly.

Q: How do you know when something is a slam dunk for the newsletter? How can writers/producers get noticed by curators?

SEN: Well, the obvious answer for something being a slam dunk for the newsletter is when a story just takes over the site – the kind of story that everyone on This. is sharing. There are some recent stories that come to mind. The ProPublica and Marshall Project Unbelievable Story of Rape; the excerpt from Rebecca Traister’s new book; Elspeth Reeve’s fun and perceptive piece on Tumblr teens; Soraya Roberts on Winona Ryder. At times, there’s a synergy between writer and subject that’s just so perfect that it’s hard to deny. I personally felt this way about Danyel Smith on Whitney Houston.

Getting noticed is tough, but I think the most effective way has been for editors and writers to reach out to us personally, flagging a certain piece. I appreciate that a ton, because it helps me narrow my focus. And I understand the impetus behind it.

If these pieces don’t travel a lot on social media, they risk disappearing into the purgatory of the web. That sucks. I mean, there’s some real garbage content online that probably deserves to die a slow online death. But, at the risk of sounding earnest, there’s also a ton of good writing online – especially from small publications – that existing aggregators don’t give their due diligence. And so these pieces, ones that writers and editors probably toiled over, sink into an abyss. That’s unfair.

Q: What does it take for an audio, video or multimedia piece to draw your attention?

SEN: I like when a multimedia piece shows a sense of care, or refinement, without drawing too much attention to itself. (I hope that makes sense.) Two examples to explain what I mean: Irin Carmon’s Shuttered from MSNBC and New York Magazine’s Cosby cover story.

In both instances, the quality of the photography, audio, and video was so high – along with some terrific writing to match! – that the stories really seemed to treat their subjects with dignity. Shuttered did an especially great job with this. Even though the story itself was focused mainly on the young doctor who’s risking his life to help women who need abortions, the photographs of and interviews with all these key players (people I personally have always cast as villains – pro-life activists, for example) seemed to encompass the totality of this debate in a way I rarely see.

I really appreciate when a multimedia piece is supplemented with strong writing, where writing isn’t treated as an afterthought. This dovetails with what I was talking about earlier with longform, but I’ve found that a lot of multimedia pieces online are presented with a sense of self-satisfaction at how labor-intensive the efforts to make them look pretty were. I hate when that’s a transparent subtext to a multimedia piece. You’re scrolling through, and you can totally just taste this earnest need to convince you that this is a piece of prestige media. I’ve noticed this happen on stories with delicate, fraught subjects – like the question of forgiveness in Charleston, after the terrorist shooting there – and it betrays the subject’s gravity in a rather tasteless way.

Q: What’s the best audio or multimedia piece you’ve seen? The best public media piece you’ve seen?

SEN: Aside from the few I mentioned, I loved this Vogue piece on Chinatown and flying over Owens Lake during the drought. I think it’s a great example of the words matching arresting visuals. You walk away from that whole piece a little overwhelmed.

Reveal’s Left for Dead series is blowing me away! Maybe it’s because I grew up watching Unsolved Mysteries, but every element of it just so compellingly constructed, and you can tell how much heart went into a project that could easily have been sensationalistic or dryly procedural. It’s mesmerizing.

Q: How do you see your role as a curator? Is representing a varied and diverse set of voices important to how you curate?

SEN: So important! I try to be very conscientious of my own role as a gay, not-white guy and how that informs my sensibilities. I harbor some intense skepticism towards the fact that media, like most industries, is teeming with white, hetero males (a revolutionary observation, I know). So I try my best to infuse that understanding into what goes into the newsletter.

I like to think of that New Yorker Darren Wilson piece in this context, or the Nicki Minaj The New York Times Magazine profile. Both are significant cultural (and journalistic) artifacts for the sheer fact that they exist. They are also both – to couch it in the most polite words possible – deeply flawed. And something rubs me the wrong way about drawing attention to them by saying, “this is one of the five things you should read today,” even if there’s an objectively much stronger and carefully-done piece of writing that people aren’t seeing. This perpetuates a certain problem rather than correcting for it. Both pieces were tonally askew, imbued with racial subtexts I found troubling.

I try to be conscious of my blind spots. I could be better both in terms of representing more diverse voices and viewpoints, and this really goes for right-wing voices, too. I have particular sensibilities, based on my upbringing and social conditioning, that undoubtedly seep into what goes into the newsletter.

Q: How has being a curator influenced your own writing? What have you learned spending time on the other side of the equation?

SEN: A ton. It’s certainly helped me understand the kind of writer I’d like to grow into; it’s exposed me to writers whom I aspire to be like in the future. Essayists, reporters, writers who can turn a mean phrase. I’ve rarely had this level of introspection when it comes to my own writing. Reading a lot all day makes me anxious for the future in the best way possible.

Reading List: Turning noise into Signal

This week our reading list has a meta twist.  What does it mean to be a responsible curator? Where do journalism and curation overlap? And, as always, What would you add?

• Why I’m Not a Maker | by Debbie Chachra for the Atlantic

“When tech culture only celebrates creation, it risks ignoring those who teach, criticize, and take care of others.” From Ayn Rand to tech culture, Debbie Chachra parses the social history of who makes and who doesn’t.

• Journalists vs. curators | by Ann Friedman for CJR

“Do you still believe that journalists are creators, and curators are thieves, and these two distinct groups of media-makers do not overlap? WAKE UP.” Journalists and curators may have more in common than you think.

• Why Curation is Important to the Future of Journalism | by Josh Sternberg for Mashable

“Curators help navigate readers through the vast ocean of content, and while doing so, create a following based on several factors: trust, taste and tools.” These meditations and predictions from 2011 ring true today.

• Listicles, aggregation, and content gone viral: How 1800s newspapers prefigured today’s Internet | by Joseph Lichterman for Nieman Lab

If you think Buzzfeed invented the listicle, crack a 19th century newspaper. A few lessons from our aggregating forefathers.

• The Worst Kind of Groundhog Day: Let’s Talk (Again) About Diversity In Publishing | Roxane Gay for NPR Code Switch

“If these sites [NPR, NYT] truly want — and, increasingly, need — readers of all colors and all backgrounds to tune in, monochromatic content is working against them. The message we get is, ‘We don’t see you. We don’t need you.'” “Our reading list is not comprehensive” is no excuse.

• Newsletters You Might Actually Be Happy To Find in Your Inbox | by David Carr for The New York Times

What does good curation look like? David Carr rounds up his favorite newsletters and reviews them with David Carr-ian honesty and char

• Chasing Innovation: Where we look | by Betsy O’Donovan for AIR

Each week Betsy O’Donovan scours the furthest corners of the internet for three juicy, civic minded or under-shared projects to highlight in AIR’s Public Media Scan. Here’s an index of the places where she does her best hunting.

• Journalism *is* curation: tips on curation tools and techniques | by Paul Bradshaw for Online Journalism Blog

Not your mom’s mix tape. New(ish) tools to help you build beautiful and comprehensive reading lists, watch lists, playlists, lists of lists, etc.