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How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping "money-flushing toilet" status.
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(Photo: fixthefocus/Flickr)

(Photo: fixthefocus/Flickr)

Every week, a long email drops into my inbox detailing the ins and outs of a seemingly random topic like ISIS, the Fermi Paradox, or Greenland. More than 61,000 other people receive the same newsletter, which comes courtesy of Wait But Why, a collaboration between long-time friends Tim Urban and Andrew Finn. The posts, written by Urban, are detailed and funny, with quick and helpful illustrations: one part encyclopedia, one part Carmen Sandiego, and one part freshman survey course. Urban spoke to Pacific Standard about the genesis of the idea, the success they've found, and getting WBW out of "money-flushing toilet" mode.

How did Wait But Why start? What's its relationship with ArborBridge, your education tech start-up?

Andrew Finn and I have been business partners for seven years and founded ArborBridge—an ed-tech company that focuses on international students planning to attend college in the U.S.—in 2011. Over the seven years we built up a great staff, which by 2013 gave us the capacity to start something new. We thought it was a good time to start a site that focused on long-form content, and it made sense for us because I had blogged for years, and it was something we could start almost for free with me as the initial main content creator.

Are you surprised by the success it's found? What do you think the key to that success is?

We had a hunch that people would notice if we spent a ton of time on articles and put out longer, high-quality posts, but we were definitely surprised by how quickly it grew. I think the key for us has been writing for smart, curious people who are fine digging into an article for five-plus minutes. So much of the content out there today is geared toward people who want something quick and simple that can be skimmed in under a minute, and I think people notice how much goes into a WBW article—they're long, thoroughly researched, and they're illustrated, things you can't do without spending a lot of time and thought.

The posts are exhaustively researched and reported. What's the process? Do you have any journalism background? How long do they usually take?

No journalism background, and I don't consider myself having any particular journalism skill. The whole thing is basically a longer version of me going on some Internet spiral about some random topic and then telling my friends about what I learned later. To research, I start by opening up 50-100 Chrome tabs of articles, e-books, videos, and PDFs, and just working through them (opening up a bunch more in the process from links that are in the articles). Then I take the mess of notes I have from all that and spend a bunch of hideous hours trying to figure out what a post outline would look like and which of these notes would make the cut for that post. Then I do the actual writing, then all the drawing/visuals, then revision. The whole thing takes 40-80 hours per post.

A lot of independent things like this partner with larger media organizations. Have you considered going that route? Has anyone approached you?

We get approached here and there by big media platforms, and some of them have republished our stuff—including the Huffington Post, Business Insider, the Wall Street Journal, Time magazine, and Today. We haven't actively pursued any more extensive partnerships.

You have a store that sells shirts and posters and a donation button. What are your plans for growing revenue in the future?

Right now the revenue plan is to just try to break even so it's not a money-flushing toilet. WBW is much more sustainable if it's not a money-flushing toilet. Donations, plus this early version of the store, have helped hugely with that goal. Combined, they're able to support one employee salary and some of the additional costs like site development, but we hope to get the number up next year as we make the store a lot better. That's the short-term model. In the longer term, we have a lot of ideas about how to expand upon the brand to create new streams of revenue.

What's the end goal? Get bought out? Create a media empire? Have an excuse to visit some cool places?

Not totally sure what the end goal is, but we think if the brand becomes really well-known, that would open up a lot of fun possibilities. For now, we're just trying to do the same thing we did in the first year—put out the best stuff we can, delight the existing audience as much as we can, and reach new people who don't know about the site. Everything else we want to do stems from that.

How Do You Make a Living? is an ongoing Q&A series.