With website revenues failing to replace falling print income, many local news publishers are turning to email newsletters as a way to diversify revenue. For local newsrooms considering taking this route, this article sets out a path to a financially successful free email newsletter. By Andy Griffiths, founder of Champion Newsletters.
1. Develop a content strategy
Deciding on the type and frequency of content for a newsletter is the hardest decision for a legacy local newsroom where workflows are embedded into daily or weekly deadlines and don’t align with the immediacy of publication that an email newsletter allows.
With this in mind, perhaps the best and the easiest first step is to curate a round-up newsletter. The Miami Herald offers a “5-minute Herald” and is one of many local print titles in the US and elsewhere offering its best coverage in a daily email newsletter.
Many larger local news publishers use newsletters to drive eyeballs to their websites to gain ad clicks, but while this approach has been profitable, ad rates keep falling and the user experience can be frustrating. There’s evidence that the days are numbered for this model.
Far better to view the newsletter as a mini-newspaper providing a service in itself. This requires a mindset shift for newsrooms and an acceptance that the newsletter is not competition. The upside is greater reader engagement, brand awareness and, when established, more attractive inventory for advertisers and sponsors.
The temptation in the newsroom is to perpetuate loyalty to print readers and publish an email summary only after the paper has hit the streets. With so many other sources of news available, the problem with this is that the content lacks immediacy. On daily newspapers, workflows need to be realigned into an “email first” strategy allowing the brand to become associated with faster news delivery, with the print version following up with more in-depth coverage.
Given that a newsletter can only carry a limited number of items compared to the print edition, there’s an argument that the curated summary is in fact a marketing tool promoting individual copy sales or subscription memberships.
Community Impact, which publishes in Texas, does a good job balancing between an informative daily newsletter with up-to-the-minute news, while offering web links for those that want to go deeper, and a monthly print offering.
The Bristol Post in England offers 8 free email newsletters giving readers a choice between news about local politics, courts, general and 4 geographical localities around the city.
Sign up to The Audiencers' newsletter. Winning strategies, expert points of view and inspirations from publishers around the world to help you do your job better. Sent every two weeks.
2. Set up a newsletter publishing platform
Technology considerations are dependent on a news organisation’s existing arrangements, but for a local newsroom looking to start a newsletter from scratch, an off-the-shelf solution is best.
Most will provide ready-made design templates that only require minimal alignment with the existing newspaper brand. One particular advantage of the dedicated newsletter platforms is that they provide turn-key infrastructure to offer readers free or paid subscription options.
Bespoke solutions that integrate with existing content management systems may seem appealing but are more expensive, have a habit of coming in over budget and can ultimately not be fit for purpose as priorities change.
When going with the off-the-shelf route, understand the distinction between dedicated newsletter publishing platforms such as Ghost, beehiiv, or Substack and email marketing platforms like Mailchimp and Convertkit, which may have different priorities such as e-commerce. In both cases, costs are relatively low and usually scale according to list size.
Local newsrooms could consider launching stand-alone newsletters, operating in parallel with the newsroom and enable journalists to be retrained as multi-platform.
3. Grow the subscriber list
There are several no cost or low cost starting points for list growth. The first is to advertise the newsletter in the print version and on the website. Newsrooms need to throw away any feelings that this is somehow cannibalizing the print audience and driving print readership lower, and view it rather as a transition to digital while still promoting the print for those that love that format.
One way Miami Herald readers are encouraged to subscribe is by making signing up a condition of viewing articles on the website.
Start with promoting the newsletter on free social media channels, and only when the newsletter formula has been proven should you move to paid advertising on Facebook, Instagram or LinkedIn.
Use barter details to get local businesses with email lists to promote the newsletter in return for free advertising space. Gain readers by referral programmes that encourage and incentivise sharing that can work with the simplest offerings, such as a local guide PDF.
Some local publications have successfully grown their email list with traditional direct methods, such as leaving postcards with QR codes in shops and community outlets.
4. Engage readers
Once the newsletter is up and running, it’s important to regularly engage with subscribers through content, offers, and other communications. This will help build a loyal subscriber base and encourage them to become paid members.
Engagement ideas are limited only by the imagination. Quizzes, prize draws, birthday shout outs, surveys and polls, all serve to strengthen the bond between publisher and reader and make the newsletter a habit.
Editors should develop a voice that connects with readers and engages on a different and more personal level than simply the presentation of news content. Readers want to be led to the important news with insight and advice and this develops loyalty and trust.
There are many ways to monetize a local news newsletter.
- Paid memberships: Offering exclusive content and special offers to subscribers can encourage them to become paid members, which provides a steady stream of revenue for the newsroom.
Newsletter Journal, a print newspaper in Weston County, Wyoming, runs banner advertising for a local bank in its free weekly newsletter.
- Advertising and sponsorships: Advertisers and sponsors are becoming increasingly interested in newsletters because they offer accurately targeted and engaged audiences. Even relatively small audiences are of interest.
- Affiliate marketing: By promoting affiliate products or services in the newsletter, local news publishers can earn a commission on any sales generated through the newsletter.
- Premium content: Offering premium content, such as behind-the-scenes access or special reports, to subscribers for an additional fee can generate additional revenue.
- Partner event promotions: By promoting events, such as workshops or webinars, newsletters can generate shared revenue from ticket sales.
- E-commerce: By offering products, such as books or merchandise, further revenue can be generated.
By using existing editorial resources and an off-the-shelf platform, a local email newsletter can be launched for under $5,000. The variety of revenue generating options makes it difficult to generalize on potential returns, but given such low costs, they can be very profitable.
6. Analyze and optimize
The starting point for analyzing performance is tracking and maintaining a watching brief over newsletter analytics and metrics. An off-the-shelf platform can provide good, basic data.
Comparing open rates is a top metric to follow, showing what type of content is winning with the audience, and what subject lines attract the most interest.
The ability of the newsletter format to be a testing vehicle to achieving optimum engagement gives it a significant advantage over a print newspaper. Editors can try new things, record their impact and respond with more of the same or try something different again in a virtuous loop of publisher-reader development.
As one of several new revenue stream options for local news publishers, the newsletter is perhaps the most versatile and one that deserves serious consideration.
Andy Griffiths is a consultant and the editor of Champion Newsletters, a guide to best practice newsletter business models. You can find an example of this newsletter, an analysis of the Morning Brew Newsletter, on The Audiencers.
The Audiencers’ newsletter: from professionals to professionals
Sign up to our newsletter – real-life examples, expert points of view and inspirations from publishers around the world to help you do your job better. Sent every two weeks.