Subscriber-only Newsletters Aim to Build Local News Loyalty

Local news organizations, which have long used email newsletters to drive readers to their websites and boost page views, are increasingly offering newsletters as destinations of their own to boost subscriber loyalty.

A major data analysis, conducted by Northwestern University’s Spiegel Research Center and released earlier this year by the Medill Local News Initiative, showed that a primary factor in subscriber retention was regular reader visits. Daily email newsletters are an attempt to replicate the kind of traditional reader regularity that a rolled-up daily newspaper inspired when it was tossed onto the porch of a home.

But news organizations are increasingly realizing that engagement with the customers is valuable whether it happens on their website or not. And some outlets are making a few of their newsletters subscriber-only to increase the benefits of being a paying customer.

“As far as the entire portfolio of newsletters, it’s still a pretty small percentage of the newsletters that are subscriber-only, but it’s definitely something that we’re getting more of, and a lot of newsrooms are interested in adding,” said Amalie Nash, Vice President for Local News at Gannett’s USA Today Network.

Gannett has a variety of subscriber-only newsletters.

“We have a Big Ten newsletter that’s for subscribers but does exceedingly well because – Big Ten,” Nash said. “We have a couple of politics-themed newsletters that are subscriber-only. We have one that’s a registration newsletter in Milwaukee where you have to register on our site to get the newsletter but you don’t have to actually subscribe. And by registering it pushes you into a ‘nurture series’ where essentially we’re trying to convince you to become a subscriber.”

As far as the entire portfolio of newsletters, it’s still a pretty small percentage of the newsletters that are subscriber-only, but it’s definitely something that we’re getting more of, and a lot of newsrooms are interested in adding.

Amalie Nash, Vice President for Local News, Gannett’s USA Today Network

In five markets, Gannett news outlets offer a subscriber-only weekly newsletter called Your Week that is written by a top editor or reporter. Your Week “essentially is thanking the subscribers for their loyalty and support of local journalism – ‘Thanks to you we were able to investigate this or do this, and here’s some other articles that were important that you may have missed this week.’ And so those are subscriber-only and they’re really designed for retention purposes and to make people feel more valued as subscribers and that they’re appreciated for it.”

Nash said Your Week has been a success, but in a different way than envisioned.

“The open rate is high – on average around 36 percent,” Nash said. “The click-through rate is a little lower than average.” (The average open rate for the media and publishing industry is 21.9 percent, and the click rate is 4.6 percent, according to March 2018 figures from Mailchimp.)

“People are opening [Your Week] and they’re finding some value,” Nash said. “People are able to leave comments through a portal we have called Opinion Lab. So we’ve gotten some comments, which is fairly unusual. People don’t comment much on newsletters. … And they’ve said, ‘Oh, I really like this newsletter. I see the value of what you’re doing.’ So it’s interesting. It was originally designed to potentially bring in more clicks with the hope that that gets loyalty, but in fact it may be getting loyalty in other ways that don’t involve you coming back to our site.”

Your Week is offered in Milwaukee, Indianapolis, Phoenix, Wilmington, N.C., and Fort Collins, Colo. Nash said the feature is worth further experimentation, and Gannett may try newsletters with fewer links if that’s not what the recipients are using it for.

Nash said there’s plenty more to learn about how to use newsletters most effectively.

“One of the conversations we’ve been having with our digital subscription acquisition teams is whether there’s more value in a newsletter as an acquisition tool or as a retention tool,” she said.

Also, she said, “I would be really interested in finding out more information about whether subscribers do feel like getting a newsletter that only subscribers can get is an added benefit and likely to keep them subscribing.”

Christine Taylor, Managing Editor for Audience at the Chicago Tribune, speaks at a Medill Local News Initiative gathering at Northwestern University in December 2018.

Chicago Tribune’s ‘authored newsletters’

In recent months, the Chicago Tribune’s newsroom began offering two subscriber-only newsletters, both of which are described by the Tribune’s Christine Taylor as “authored newsletters” as opposed to link-based newsletters.

Taylor, the Managing Editor for Audience, said The Spin, a political newsletter by Lisa Donovan, and 10 Thoughts, a Bears newsletter by Brad Biggs, were ways of “monetizing a product that we were dedicating an entire reporter to, that we weren’t really monetizing through ad revenue.”

The content of both newsletters is available on the Tribune website, but Taylor believes the added value of the subscriber-only newsletters is in “convenience and reader experience, putting content where readers are already spending time – their inbox.”

The Spin started out as a free newsletter, and doubled the number of recipients over the course of the 2018 mid-terms, Taylor said.

“We had grown the open rate from like the mid-30s to 50 percent,” Taylor said. “We kind of knew we were going to lose people (when we went to subscriber-only), but we also knew that we had grown the list really fast and we didn’t know how many people were truly engaging with it. Yeah, we lost some people, a little bit more than where we started a year ago, and the open rate is 60 percent. Some days it’s higher than that. Some days it can be in the 70s. …

… Now we feel better about the effort that [Lisa Donovan is] putting into that newsletter because we know that everyone who gets it is now a paying subscriber.

Christine Taylor, Managing Editor for Audience, Chicago Tribune

“What we traded off was an audience that maybe wasn’t engaging with it habitually. And now we feel better about the effort that Lisa’s putting into that newsletter because we know that everyone who gets it is now a paying subscriber. If you look at our subscriber page views and you look at the percentage of people who open The Spin every day, it puts it into the top tier of subscriber-read items on a daily basis for the Chicago Tribune.”

Biggs’ 10 Thoughts was a regular web feature that became a newsletter, and the newsletter version has been subscriber-only from the start.

“The first week we had over 1,000 subscribers,” Taylor said. “… We were really surprised at how quickly it grew. … He writes very, very long. His newsletter actually has an open rate over 100 percent, meaning that people are opening the newsletter and they’re coming back to it multiple times to actually finish it. They can’t read it all in one point.” (The unique open rate – the percentage of recipients who open it at all – is 52 percent, so a lot of people are coming back multiple times.)

The newsletters are increasing subscription value.

“We do see a lot of new subscription starts from Brad Biggs’ column online, so we do believe that based on the number of sign-ups we’re getting for that newsletter that people are incentivized to subscribe to receive that,” Taylor said.

She believes in newsletters as a loyalty tool.

“Newsletters are great way of developing habit with your readers,” Taylor said. “I know I am in my in-box every couple minutes. I probably check my in-box more than I check any other platform, whether that be social or web. So … getting our stuff in other people’s in-box, I think, is one way we can get ourselves in front of where people are. And that’s one really, really good way to develop habit.”

Dallas Morning News and automation

The Dallas Morning News’ newsroom doesn’t produce any subscriber-only newsletters at this time, but it has 32 newsletters open to everyone, and it’s well aware of their value to build reader loyalty.

Nicole Stockdale, the News’ Director of Digital Strategy, said newsletters are valuable for subscribers but also create “discovery” for future paying customers.

“They are a service to our subscribers and it helps surface the journalism that they may be paying for, and it’s also a service to the people who are just becoming familiar with us because they get a sense of the breadth of the journalism that we are publishing and what all might be there for them,” Stockdale said. “It’s a great vehicle for discovery as well. And if you are putting all of that behind the need for a subscription, then you kill the discovery aspect of the newsletters, which I think is really valuable.”

… If you are putting all of that behind the need for a subscription, then you kill the discovery aspect of the newsletters, which I think is really valuable.

Nicole Stockdale, Director of Digital Strategy, The Dallas Morning News

She added: “It doesn’t mean we won’t ever come up with a newsletter that could be seen as a perk for subscribers only.”

Most of Dallas’ newsletters are different from the “authored” versions that Taylor described. Rather, they take advantage of automation.

“We bought into the idea several years ago that people were craving more curated, lively written, personality-driven newsletters, and we launched several of them,” Stockdale said. “And over the years, we have a lot fewer now than we started with. Because we did tests that showed us that oftentimes the automated version did better, and they took a lot less time.”

Stockdale said testing showed “our readers are more interested in a journalism delivery mechanism or a journalism curation mechanism that shows up in their email in-box more than they are the voice or the personality or the intimacy with the writer that a lot of other folks have seemed to have had success with.”

“There’s a range even within the automation,” she said. “We have some that are completely automated, so it may go out and say, ‘Here’s your opinion newsletter for …’ and then insert date, and a human’s not even touching it. And then there’s another version of that where you may hand-pick the 10 URLs that you want to be included in this newsletter and put them in the right order but then everything  else is automated. And then the next level up, we can automate three different sections that have different RSS feeds that feed into it but then the bottom half might be a curated section of links. And then all the way up to, we have a few that are handwritten every week. … It’s almost like a column in newsletter form.”

Article image used under Morguefile License by chabotphoto (Morguefile)

About the author

Mark Jacob


A former Metro Editor at the Chicago Tribune and Sunday Editor at the Chicago Sun-Times, Jacob is chronicling the Local News Initiative’s progress for the project’s website. He is the co-author of eight books on history and photography.

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