Jan 10, 2013

How Dave Pell Curates the News

Dave Pell’s been a writer since day one. Even as he got busy with school and startups, nonprofits and the nonstop lifestyle that comes with raising children, it’s the one thing he always returns to, and the way he documents the changing world around him. "Writing is the behavior pattern that’s existed through my whole life," he tells MailChimp. He’s sitting behind the desk in San Francisco’s SoMa district where he puts together his popular daily news email, NextDraft, and thinking anxiously about how he’d rather be checking the real-time reports of the campaign he just sent out to his many readers. The "Internet’s Managing Editor" has a certain responsibility to uphold, after all.

Serving up "The Day’s Most Fascinating News" through 10 headlines, links, and the author’s commentary, NextDraft fulfills another of Pell’s lifelong obsessions: reading the news and commenting on it. "When I went to college, my dad would call and he’d be like, ‘What’s cooking?’" he says. "Then he’d say, ‘What do you think of this Gorbachev guy?’…When something happens in the news, I like thinking, ‘OK, what am I going to say about this?’ And the idea that there’s a few people out there who might be interested to know what that is just gives me a lot of satisfaction."

He’s being modest about this whole "a few people" thing, of course. Starting with a list of a couple hundred friends and folks who subscribed to his technology dispatches on Davenetics years ago, NextDraft now lands in around 25,000 inboxes every day, where it’s read by news-loving folks who forward, tweet, and like his musings all over the internet. Speaking of the internet, its unrelenting news cycle is what inspires NextDraft, but is also what Pell aspires against. "Because of the inundation of information we have now, people sort of want to step back and let somebody act as an intermediary," he says. "And it works pretty well if that intermediary is a human instead of an algorithm or a robot."

NextDraft’s daily creation process is decidedly human as well. Pell spends the first 3-4 hours of every morning pulling together and commentating on what he considers the most interesting headlines of the day. He doesn’t use RSS feeds or other filters. He doesn’t have an intern. He just sits down, opens 60 or so tabs in his browser, starts visiting his favorite sites, and starts bookmarking. "I want to benefit off the editor of each site," he explains. "What they’re choosing to focus on on their site. I want to see how they laid out their page."

That humanity comes through in the newsletter, in that the very same human who chooses and writes about that daily content also answers for it. "I do think one of the things about email that people respond to, and that makes it different from a blog, is that because it comes from my personal email address and lands in your inbox, there’s something a little more intimate about it," he says. "If somebody wants to say something about my newsletter, they just hit ‘reply,’ it comes to me, and I’ll respond to them. It’s a little bit of a closer connection than just having a website."

Pell hasn’t made a dollar from NextDraft, which is just one reason that explains why it thrills him so, why he refers to it as his "best thing" in his Twitter bio: He cares so much about it, he’ll do it for nothing. Which brings us back to that p-word again. "Whether you’re a startup or a writer or whatever industry you choose, the more you can lean toward what your passion is, what you feel like doing the most, the better it is," he says. "My newsletter is not like a business necessarily, but I do have to sit down each morning, whether I feel like it or not, and start a three- or four-hour process. So it’s a lot easier for me to stay fired up about that if I’m focused on something I really like doing. I’m writing the newsletter I want to write. I have two parts of my life—the business side is the investment side, working with startups. This is the creative side. I’d much rather go viral than make a lot of money off of this."