Newsletters: the publishing niche of the 1980s

If there was a single topic of interest to enough subscribers willing to pay for it, there was surely a newsletter to go with it.

A newsletter for everything from wine to liquid waste would be delivered right to your mailbox

Newsletters: 'a lively new form of journalism'

34 years ago
Duration 3:19
Specialty newsletters with inside information are becoming popular with Canadian readers in 1988.

Back in 1988, the technology of satellites and mass communication meant many people felt as if they were overloaded with information.

Yet demand was soaring for specialized knowledge, and a rather low-tech industry had sprung up to fill that niche. 

"If your business is drilling for oil or splitting diamonds, you have to keep up on inside information," said Robert Scully, host of the CBC business show Venture, in 1988.

"And that has created a lively new form of journalism."

That "lively new form" was the newsletter.

'Narrowed down and chopped up'

"Information has become so complex that it has to be narrowed down and chopped up into smaller and smaller pieces," said newsletter publisher Barry Martland. (Venture/CBC Archives)

"Information has become so complex that it has to be narrowed down and chopped up into smaller and smaller pieces that fits your area of interest," said newsletter publisher Barry Martland.

His company published 11 different subscription-only newsletters with titles including Canadian Penny Mines Analyst and Secretary's Update.

What they all had in common was that their precise information filled a niche demand, and subscribers were willing to pay for it.

"If you're in the waste-disposal market, Sludge is the newsletter you should have," said Martland, citing an example of a niche product from another publisher.

"It tells you about great mounds of steaming effluence," he added with a laugh. It cost $200 US per year.

Newsletters for everyone

G.U.L.L. was a newsletter devoted to the comings and goings of a gull named Lyle. (Venture/CBC Archives)

A related side industry had also sprung up that included how-to manuals for people who wanted to start their own newsletter.

And Hudson's Newsletter Directory listed over 5,000 newsletters available for subscription, including Indoor Pollution News, The Dentaletter, and The Hideaway Report.

"Even a newsletter on newsletters," said Scully. It was called The Newsletter on Newsletters.

Then there was G.U.L.L., a 150-subscriber newsletter for fans of one particular seagull who lived north of Boston.

Wine Consumer cost $35 for four issues a year from a Vancouver publisher whose tasters rated hundreds of wines. 

For Martland, he believed a sturdy newsletter should gross about $200,000 a year.

"It pays the printing bills, you can pay the editor quite well, and pay yourself quite well, too," he said. 

A staffer prepares the next edition of a 1988 newsletter at the office of publishers Barry Martland and Stephen Pepper. (Venture/CBC Archives)

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