My first creator profile for Creator Interviews is especially resonant, because I’ve interviewed him before – for my previous blog ReadWriteWeb. In the more than seven years that have elapsed since that original profile, the opportunities, tools and revenue models for digital media have changed immensely.
Nowadays, Ernie Smith runs a twice-a-week email newsletter called Tedium. Each edition of the newsletter takes a deep dive into what Smith calls “the dull side of the internet.” The topics tend to be eccentric, but surprisingly fascinating. Recent examples include a history of seatbelts, a study of infomercials, and a career overview of the 90s alt-rock band The Presidents of the United States of America.
When I first interviewed Smith in September 2011, he was running a Tumblr blog called ShortFormBlog. As the name suggests, it published short posts. I called them “news soundbites” at the time, and Smith published over 200 of them every week. It was the polar opposite of his current schedule of two long-form analysis articles per week.
ShortFormBlog was shut down in 2014 and Tedium was launched in the first week of January 2015 (so, bang on four years ago).
Since I too am launching something new at the start of a new year, I reached out to Smith for the second time. I wanted to know his perspective on what’s changed in digital media since we last spoke in 2011. I was also keen to learn what tools he uses now and if/how he earns revenue.
The importance of owning your content
The main thing Smith has learned over the past seven years is “the importance of ownership.” He admitted that Tumblr initially helped him “build a community around the idea of digital news.” However, it soon became clear that Tumblr was the only one reaping the rewards of its growing community. As he aptly put it, “Tumblr wasn’t seriously thinking about the importance of revenue or business opportunities for their creators.”
Smith also found that publishing via Tumblr meant foregoing a significant amount of search engine traffic.
“Tumblr’s focus on non-text-driven communication, such as images, weakened the content’s presence in search engines,” he said.
For these reasons, Ernie Smith grew disillusioned with relying on a social media platform like Tumblr to run his digital media brand. With Tedium, he aimed to take back control of his content – and business opportunities.
“With Tedium,” he told me, “a constant goal is to minimize platform exposure, to mostly focus on mediums I actually own. I might republish a piece on Medium sometimes and I’ll still update my Twitter or Facebook pages, but my main drivers on this platform are the same ones that creators used when they started: search engines and email.”
I asked Smith if he thinks the tools and revenue opportunities in 2019 are better than what they were in 2011?
“In some ways, it’s easier,” he replied. He thinks the tools are “significantly more sophisticated.” He cited web browsers (especially Chrome), improved content management systems, and the growth of standards-based web design as the main improvements.
“From a revenue perspective,” he said, “there are more options and they’re not always advertising-related like they were in 2009, which is a huge difference.”
Why an email newsletter?
The first thing I wanted to know about the format of Tedium was why Ernie Smith chose to run it as an email newsletter. Aren’t our inboxes already too crowded with newsletters?
“The thing I like about email is that, because it’s not a platform that anyone ‘owns,’ it allows for freedom in tactics,” he replied. “I don’t get overly aggressive with data or anything like that, but I certainly could. And it creates a degree of appointment viewing that you don’t really get with web publishing.”
He also cites the ability to control the design of the content (which you can’t do very well with RSS Readers, for example), and the ability to build up a list of people who are interested in what you have to offer.
“By building a list, rather than a social media following, I have more control over what I do with that list. I’m sure I could push it harder, in fact, but I kind of like the size of the list as it sits – so I’m not trying to get overly aggressive about growth.”
The tools of Tedium
As for the tools Ernie Smith uses to create Tedium, he’s very particular about them. He prefers to design everything himself; and for that, he needs sophisticated tools.
“The Tedium website currently is on Ghost,” he told me, “and relies on a custom implementation of markdown for templating needs.”
His general approach involves “setting everything up as unordered lists and using robust CSS to style everything.” This allows him to easily move the content to various formats, as needed.
For the email newsletter, his primary format, he started out using Mailchimp. However, as with Tumblr, he discovered “some serious issues with the platform from a long-term perspective.” He thought Mailchimp was too expensive, and also found the editing interface “cumbersome and time-consuming.”
Smith realized that if he used his CMS, Ghost, to also produce the email newsletter – that would save him time.
“I set up a custom local version of Ghost on my machine that generally works the same as my existing backend, and I then build out the issue using a template that mimics my email setup. I cut my production time on the actual email by, like, an hour by doing this.”
To actually send the emails, he uses Amazon’s Simple Email Service alongside a service called EmailOctopus.
As you can see, Ernie Smith takes his tools seriously. For myself, I’m currently happy using the popular open source CMS WordPress and leading email newsletter service Mailchimp. But if you want to customize and gain an edge in original design – and you have the time and inclination to get your hands dirty from a tools perspective – then you may find Smith’s approach inspiring.
Interestingly, even after all the custom work he’s put into producing Tedium, Smith is still not satisfied. He’s currently migrating his CMS from Ghost to one called Craft CMS. His reasoning once again boils down to wanting more control.
“The community is pretty strong,” said Smith about Craft CMS, “and unlike WordPress or even Ghost, a lot of things aren’t decided for you – it’s up to you what you want the site and interface to be. You could even use it to directly send a newsletter if you really wanted to.”
The business side of Tedium
Ernie Smith admits that “Tedium isn’t in full-time job territory yet, though if I really pushed it I’m sure it could be.”
It does earn some good part-time income though. Smith says Tedium “has at times made a couple thousand dollars per month during some of its best months.”
Patreon is his most important revenue source. “It’s become both consistent and a driver of new ideas,” he said. Patreon also allows Smith to get creative in how he rewards his supporters.
“Back in September I built a physical zine and mailed it out to around 60 people globally, which helped to drive significant growth on the Patreon account and was also creatively fulfilling as well.”
Other revenue from Tedium includes Google Adsense (“a fairly consistent revenue source”), licensing his content to media outlets like Vice’s Motherboard site, and affiliate marketing (mostly via Amazon). His approach with the latter is to “try to find the strangest possible things I can on the [Amazon] platform, knowing that affiliate revenue will still get paid out if folks buy something else later.”
He also runs sponsorships in the Tedium newsletter, although this income has been sparodic.
Overall, Smith feels that he’s more successful earning money from Tedium than he was with his previous Tumblr blog.
“Due to a mixture of content strategy, lack of model maturity, and platform reliance, I was not able to do most of these things with ShortFormBlog. Now, I can – and that’s pretty cool.”
Create your audience
I finished by asking Smith what advice he has for newbie digital media creators.
His first piece of advice is to focus on something you care about, even if you think other people won’t care about it.
“Quite often, the truth is that people actually do care about the things you’d like to write about,” he said. “You just need to do the work of uncovering [those things].”
His second piece of advice is not to rely on platforms.
“While platforms can feel like a great kickstart opportunity,” he said, “relying on one too much ties your content’s success to the fortunes of that platform – for good and for bad.”
In summary, I recommend you sign up to Ernie’s Tedium newsletter. He really does uncover some original and sometimes unjustly forgotten topics, at the end of the long tail. But just as importantly, he proves you can take back control of your indie brand from platforms – and thrive as a result.