Industry Insight: To Connect with Readers, Write Them (News)Letters

By: Matt DeRienzo

A single newsroom tool has the potential to boost engagement and user experience, drive page views, gather valuable customer data, enable higher advertising rates, promote transparency and trust, and enhance readers’ willingness to pay for content.

Email newsletters have been around forever, but as an afterthought—an automated RSS feed scrape of website headlines pushed out once a day.

In the past few years, national and niche news organizations such as the New York Times, Vox, Mic and The Skimm have recognized the potential of newsletters that are crafted as a separate editorial product rather than an automated promotion of headlines.

Politico’s “Playbook,” launched by Mike Allen and recently passed off to a team of reporters, helped pioneer the email newsletter as a more personal, engaging experience, where news was broken, names were dropped, and writing was conversational.

The Boston Globe’s “Ground Game,” authored by longtime New Hampshire primary expert James Pindell, has become an excellent guide to the 2016 presidential race. It includes quick bits of analysis found only in the newsletter, along with story links not just to the Globe’s campaign coverage, but to any news outlet providing useful news about that day’s topics.

The potential for local newsrooms to adopt and improve upon this kind of model for email newsletters is great.

They can take an “everything about something” approach to a niche topic—arts and entertainment, for example, health care, or state politics (Politico has launched its own state version of Playbook in Massachusetts, Florida, New Jersey and New York). And provide your news organization with a list of people you know are highly engaged with and interested in that niche—valuable data for connecting the right kind of content to people most likely to click and drive traffic, and for efforts to sell targeted advertising at higher CPM rates. It might also be the best opportunity—either individually or as part of an “all-access” perk—to get readers to pay directly for content.

Newsletters are also one of the best vehicles for native advertising, or sponsored content, especially the more niche the audience.

If the mindset is to rally and serve a community of readers who are passionate about a particular topic, newsletters can be a great vehicle for building relationships with and the loyalty of readers, and serving them advertising that is actually useful and welcomed.

Even a general interest—all the local news that’s fit to print—newsletter makes sense for newsrooms who care about reader engagement.

An email newsletter that goes beyond an automated list of headlines can provide context and perspective that maybe a static print front page or an ever-changing website homepage cannot. Also, consider that fewer people than ever are even seeing that print front page or that website homepage.

A strong argument for why every newsroom should develop email newsletters is that search has replaced homepage visits, social has displaced search, and Facebook and other social media platform algorithms have made it more difficult than ever to connect your content to an audience on social without paying for it.

Consider the email newsletter an opportunity to write a personal note to your readers every day (or whatever frequency makes sense given the size and scope of your operation). Pull the curtain back and explain what went into making the news that day and why certain decisions were made. Listen to your audience on social media and in story comments, and address criticism and questions.

Talking about what goes into the work of local journalism and viewing the audience as partners in that work has proven successful for news organizations who have developed strong voluntary paid membership programs—from local NPR stations to the online news site Berkeleyside in California. It’s also been essential to newsrooms who have crowdfunded special reporting projects.

Email newsletters done right can offer a blueprint for overall newsroom management done right. This kind of transparency, engagement, and user experience is key to survival.


Matt DeRienzoMatt DeRienzo is a newsroom consultant and a former editor and publisher with Digital First Media. He teaches journalism at Quinnipiac University and the University of New Haven in Connecticut, and is interim executive director of LION Publishers, a trade organization that represents local independent online news publishers.

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Published: August 17, 2016

One thought on “Industry Insight: To Connect with Readers, Write Them (News)Letters

  • August 17, 2016 at 5:54 am

    I left the newspaper business almost 20 years ago and have been sending email newsletters on how to get free publicity to my target market for more than 15 years. My email list is my most valuable possession. What a shame that newspapers are so late to the party!



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