In the early 2000s, we were supposed to write blogs. Then we weren’t.
In the mid-2010s, we pivoted to video. Then we hit pause.
So when people say local news outlets should go all-in on email newsletters, some degree of skepticism is understandable. Are newsletters the future, or are they just a fad?
The local news industry is in the midst of a major strategic shift from reliance on shaky advertising revenue to asking readers to pay. Data analysis by Northwestern University’s Medill Spiegel Research Center has established that subscribers who make regular visits to a news website are more likely to keep their subscriptions. But how does a news outlet establish that regularity without a print newspaper showing up on people’s doorstep every morning?
The answer, some believe, is newsletters.
“Newsletters are not some hip new platform or technology. They are about as old school as it gets,” said Tim Franklin, Senior Associate Dean at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. “But I think that well into the 21st Century, we’ve finally discovered that a newsletter might just be the most effective way to efficiently deliver news.”
An email newsletter is like a friend who checks in every day like clockwork.Tim Franklin, Senior Associate Dean, Northwestern’s Medill School
“An email newsletter is like a friend who checks in every day like clockwork,” Franklin said. “You don’t have to seek it out. It’s as familiar as a morning cup of coffee. Your loyalty to it grows over time. It’s often brief and respects your time. It makes you smarter. It gives you something to talk about. And for a news organization, it’s relatively inexpensive to produce, it connects you directly with your readers, it builds brand loyalty and it’s a pathway to a subscription or membership. What could be better?”
Franklin heads the Medill Local News Initiative, a project to identify and highlight strategies to make local journalism financially sustainable. The Initiative recently interviewed industry leaders and researchers and came up with eight reasons why email newsletters can be a game-changer:
1. Newsletters make subscribers more likely to stick around.
The Medill Spiegel Research Center has analyzed data from more than 20 local news outlets in the last few years, looking at how subscribers’ news consumption patterns affect their willingness to keep paying. Three of those outlets provided enough data to study the newsletter factor, and in all three cases Spiegel found that subscribers who received email newsletters from those outlets were more likely to keep their subscriptions.
That’s probably because newsletters boost reader regularity, said Ed Malthouse, Spiegel’s Research Director
“Newsletters are out-bound: the newspaper sends them to stimulate readership rather than waiting for readers to come to them,” Malthouse said. “It is important to have ways to stimulate readership.
“I also see them as an important tool for acquiring customers,” he added. “If a news organization can get an email address and permission to send updates, then the organization can develop the relationship, so that it ultimately leads to a paid subscription.”
Malthouse said Spiegel’s analysis of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette showed that newsletters not only helped the news outlet to keep its subscribers but also helped it to recover lapsed subscribers.
2. Newsletters bring people into the tent, where you can close the subscription deal.
Some readers who are not ready to buy a subscription will willingly provide their email addresses for a free newsletter. This breaks a significant barrier and makes it much easier to start working to make them paying customers.
Matt Lindsay, President of Mather Economics, which analyzes subscription metrics for major news chains, sees newsletters as a “tremendous tool.”
“We’re always saying that the registration wall is probably as much or more important than a paywall,” Lindsay said. “You really need to get people to connect with you on a personalized basis so that you can then essentially analyze them. Because analytics on anonymous visitors – it’s almost a fool’s errand. You can’t really do it. Once you know who they are and you get them to read a newsletter, you can then understand what their content interests are and you can personalize the relationship to a much greater extent.”
We’re always saying that the registration wall is probably as much or more important than a paywall.Matt Lindsay, President, Mather Economics
Jim Brady, CEO of the Spirited Media consulting firm, said he’s a “huge believer” in newsletters because they create a closer relationship than social media or a website can create.
“People follow 4,000 people on social media,” he said. “Nobody gets 4,000 email newsletters.”
“It’s not just another platform for distributing something,” Brady said. “You have given them a piece of information that you do not give out easily, which is an email address. And when you give that, it shows some sign that you have some faith and some trust in this organization. That tells that organization that you might be up for a deeper relationship, whether that’s as a subscriber or a member or as an event attendee.”
3. Newsletters let you engage with readers on their turf, considered a “safe space.”
Nicholas Johnston, Editor-in-Chief of Axios, views newsletters as “just a perfect way to reach a reader,” and indeed Axios is a leader in the field. Along with the ability of newsletters to provide quick and pithy news summaries, Johnson cites this other advantage of news delivery via email:
“The in-box is really like the last safe space,” Johnston said. “Spam filters are really good. I have a lot of control over what shows up in my in-box vs. surfing the web or being on a social media platform where who knows what kind of disinformation is being pushed at me or what kind of trolls or other malicious actors are feeding information through my feed. But I know when I get an email from [Axios’] Mike Allen or Ina [Fried] or [Dan] Primack, it’s trustworthy, and it’s in a place where I know I’m not going to stumble upon horrible content because my in-box is well controlled. That’s why people generally are gravitating to that [email newsletters]. You’re not going to run into junk – Russian agents or Nazis in your in-box.”
4. Newsletters hit a sweet spot as far as reader control vs. news outlet curation.
Su Jung Kim, an Assistant Professor at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California, sees newsletters as an important engagement tool.
“Reading routines are important because they are embedded in one’s daily rhythm and the routinization also gives a sense of comfort, which increases the audience’s emotional engagement as well,” said Kim, a former Northwestern post-doc who continues to collaborate with Spiegel on research.
The newsletter experience is an appealing mix of consumer choice and news providers’ guidance, Kim said.
“I think newsletters are well positioned in between personalization and total control of news selection by journalists,” Kim said. “Research has shown that people in general prefer personalization of news, but have the fear of missing out on something important or being trapped in filter bubbles. They are concerned about the transparency of algorithms and privacy too. A newsletter is something that readers voluntarily sign up for based on their interests and needs, but the topics delivered are still broad enough to have the feeling of keeping up to date without being too fragmented or biased.”
5. Newsletters let you micro-target.
Sara Hebel is co-founder of Open Campus, a new national digital outlet placing reporters in seven cities to cover higher education. The subject of higher ed seems rather specialized, right? But Open Campus offers four newsletters to further break down that audience.
“We’ve seen the power of newsletters across journalism – that’s something a lot of people are talking about – to reach audiences that are engaged more specifically in certain aspects of what we’re writing about,” Hebel said.
She and co-founder Scott Smallwood produce the Weekly Dispatch to highlight trends in higher ed and Open Campus’ own work. Jeff Selingo writes Next, which Hebel calls a “forward-looking newsletter – what’s happening in admission, in leadership, in business models.“ Karin Fischer, who Hebel says “knows more than any journalist in the country about the changing relationship between American colleges and the world,” is the author of Latitudes. Zipporah Osei, a recent graduate of Northeastern University, writes First Gen, which aims to share the student perspective.
6. Newsletters provide a valuable advertising spot with an engaged audience.
This is the Axios model – newsletters that are major advertising moneymakers. “A core element of our revenue is from newsletter advertising,” Johnston said. A recent Wall Street Journal story, citing unnamed sources, said Axios’ newsletter sponsorships bring in more than half of its total revenue.
Businesses that sponsor or advertise on newsletters can have a higher expectation that “people are going to see the ad,” said Spirited Media’s Brady.
“Anybody who opens a newsletter is a deeply loyal follower of that brand,” and very valuable to advertisers, especially local ones, Brady said. “These are committed local residents, that’s what they want to get in front of. They know they’re not getting a lot of non-locals to open a local newsletter, so they don’t run the risk of what happens on the internet too often, which is 60% of the people who hit local sites aren’t even from the region.”
7. Newsletters let you customize the news for individuals.
Adam Hansmann, co-founder of The Athletic sports news outlet, said his subscribers can get a newsletter that reflects their usage patterns, linking to stories about teams they have shown interest in.
“We do have a daily newsletter that is really customized,” Hansmann said. “If you subscribe to The Athletic and you follow the Cubs and Notre Dame and the L.A. Dodgers – which would be an odd combination – we would find the best content for those teams and leagues that you follow. It’s a little bit less of an original composition, like Axios is very original. Ours is more like ‘Here’s the best five or six articles for your teams.’”
8. Newsletters make readers feel special.
“Oftentimes newsletters feel more personal,” said Charles Ornstein, ProPublica’s Deputy Managing Editor.
ProPublica’s Newsletter Editor, Ruth Baron, agreed. Her outlet fosters that feeling by making some of its content available to newsletter recipients first.
“It is about a loyalty model,” Baron said, “and making sure that the readers who are the most invested … in our journalism [and] have really actively opted into it receive it.”
Oftentimes newsletters feel more personal.Charles Ornstein, Deputy Managing Editor, ProPublica
Clearly, the relationship between newsletter and recipient is different from the relationship between website and web visitor. One example of that is the upbeat message you get when you unsubscribe from a mothers-oriented newsletter called Evil Witches:
“No hard feelings—congratulations on taking control of your inbox. Respect.”