Randy Cassingham created This is True in 1994, while working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. It’s one of the first for-profit e-mail publications on the Internet, and is still publishing every week.
Educated as a journalist, Randy was not interested in a career as a reporter: he wanted to skip directly to syndicated columnist. But syndicates aren’t interested in untested talent, and newspapers had already started their downhill slide, so he instead became a technical publisher at JPL in Pasadena, Calif. — “a great place to work,” Randy says, “if you have to work for someone else.”
Randy was quite familiar with the online world even then; he’s been online since “prehistoric times,” as he puts it — 1983. Even before that, he was familiar with modems to dial in to central computers: he used a 110-baud acoustic coupler, hooked up to a Model 33 Teletype being used as a terminal to an Hewlett-Packard 2000C timeshare machine, starting in 1971.
In the early 1990s, as the WWW swept through nerdy places like JPL, and later started leaking into the general public, Randy realized that content would be the driving force of Internet growth. At the time there was precious little content available online. Long the bastion of nerds and academics, even the thought of online commercial activity was discouraged. There was no business model for Randy to follow when he came up with his idea for a weird news commentary column, so he created his own. In essence, he realized that his earlier dream of being a syndicated columnist could be accomplished online: he could use the Internet to bypass the gatekeepers of newspaper editors and large syndication agencies and speak directly to his audience.
The result of his idea, This is True, started in June 1994, and once it was announced there have been new direct readers — e-mail subscribers — every single day. Today, True reaches tens of thousands of subscribers each week.
The traditional media was wowed: in the mid-1990s Randy and True were featured in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, Washington Post, Internet World, Boardwatch, Denver Post, USA Today, Wired, Playboy — even CNN. Outside the U.S., Randy and True were featured in Nihon Keizai Shimbun (Japan’s “Nikkei”), MediaTelevision (Toronto), the London Daily Telegraph, Monde (France), Informazione (Italy), the London Guardian, and even PC Magazine in Turkey.
Journalists loved This is True not just because of its smart, irreverent content, but because it finally gave them an example answer to the biggest question about the Internet in the 1990s: What can you do there? They held up This is True as a reply, calling it “The kind of news items that keep comedians and commentators in business”, “Best in Net Entertainment”, “Funny stuff” and more. In 1996, two years after its launch in the “Internet dark ages,” Randy quit his NASA day job to work full time online — one of the first in the world to do so. And unlike the hordes that soon followed with unlikely business models — which resulted in the “dotcom crash” of 2001 — Randy (and This is True) are still going strong.
By that time syndication agencies started to show interest: Randy was no longer an “untested talent,” but rather had a huge and loyal following. Yet Randy turned down two different syndication offers (the first was the Creators Syndicate, known for representing Ann Landers and Johnny Hart; the second was the now-defunct Paradigm TSA). Instead, he preferred to stay with his online readership — the people who made him successful to begin with. “The Internet,” he said then, “represents the future of media. Newspapers are the dinosaur, doomed to extinction.” The only thing that could keep newspapers alive, he said, was for them to embrace the new media, putting their stories online. Few did so at first, but by the late 1990s the rest of the industry clearly saw things the way Randy did, with thousands of newspapers creating web sites. But for most, it was too late.
Randy is certainly not anti-newspaper, however: newspapers in several countries have run True in their pages under contract. He turned down the big commercial syndicates because they wanted control; Randy’s model leaves him in control. And with that control (and the decline of print newspapers), Randy no longer allows newspapers to run True in their pages.
After leaving JPL, Randy moved to Colorado. After several years living just outside Boulder, he decided he wanted a simpler, quieter life — after all, working online he could live anywhere that had good Internet access, so why live in a crowded, traffic-laden city? So he and his Colorado-native wife moved to rural Western Colorado, where they live in a 550-sq-mile county of only 4,500 people and one traffic light.
Randy also created the multi-million-selling Get Out of Hell Free card (his response to a reader condemning him to hell). And as an early e-mail publisher, Randy was one of the pioneers in understanding something else: just how terrible a problem “spam” would become. As an online user, you will certainly benefit from his Spam Primer.
So, What Is True?
This is True retells strange-but-true stories from “legitimate, mainstream” news outlets from around the world, each capped with a humorous, ironic, or opinionated comment (and, with luck, some combination of the three). On their own, the stories are pretty entertaining. But when you read the stories over time, certain themes start to emerge, and suddenly you realize there’s a bigger picture. A really big picture: a new understanding of humanity begins to emerge. Yes, True is entertaining, but it’s also truly thought-provoking. Both the fragility and the power of the individual becomes clearer. And you’ll realize that some stories only look amusing — and you’ll realize you’re actually angry! But it’s anger with a purpose: you’ll see you have the power to stand up and demand change. It’s why so many subscribers say they’ll subscribe for life.
Each week’s column consists of 10 or more odd stories, each with its own “slug” (title) and “tagline” (comment). There are two versions: a “Premium” (paid) edition with all of the stories, and a free edition with four stories. But it doesn’t stop there: each issue — whether Premium or free — also includes a Headline of the Week; an “Author’s Notes” section that discusses one of the issues raised in more detail, notes updates or corrections, and/or letters from readers; the extremely popular “Honorary Unsubscribe” (a brief obituary of someone interesting who perhaps even had a huge impact on your life — yet you may never have heard of them); and various other features. Even the free newsletter has a huge amount of entertaining and thought-provoking material. You can check out the most recent issue here. If you’ve read this whole page, you’re obviously the sort of person who likes to know things, and to think. Subscribing means you only get the stories as they come out — we never send out ads-only e-mails, and the extremely rare non-newsletter messages always have fun content, too. If you don’t like it, you can get off the distribution with a click: there’s an unsubscribe link in every issue.
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