How to develop a strong, sustainable local newsletter

(Sam Rowe for NPR)

Creating — and sustaining — an editorial email newsletter can be tough. Your success depends on good answers to these three questions:

  1. Who is the audience we are trying to serve?
  2. What do they need that we can provide?
  3. How can we fulfill this need for them?

Every combination of answers is going to help you develop a different newsletter. We’ve identified three models for newsletters that are delivering results in public media, although they provide lessons for local newsletters in general. Each model combines a specific type of audience definition, a unique content need, and a structure for sending. All three are particularly well-suited to public media stations serving local markets.

Model 1: The Content Vertical newsletter

What is it?

Pretty simple: A newsletter that serves an audience with a deep interest in a specific topic.

Many stations have developed expertise in one or more topics — like the environment, energy or public health — which is otherwise known as a content vertical. Newsletters support a topic-driven strategy like this in two ways. First, they make it easier for dedicated readers to encounter the content that interests them. It comes right to them in the inbox they visit every day, without disruption by third-party algorithms. Second, they tend to attract a vertical’s most dedicated audience, giving editorial staff direct access to readers who may also be developed into sources, ambassadors and donors.

This type of newsletter plays particularly well for multichannel operations. For instance, a newsletter can become a primary vehicle for driving podcast awareness and sharing original reporting while at the same time helping to build a list of the vertical’s core audience members.

How to make a successful Content Vertical newsletter

Employ a “subject matter expert” journalist. The person who writes the newsletter needs to deeply understand both the content and the audience. Ideally, the subject matter expert has influence over which stories get reported and deciding which channels make sense for distributing each piece. The subject matter expert uses audience data and feedback to make those decisions.

Create a well-defined subscriber identity. Sound the alarm if your subscriber definition is “People who like this topic.” Content vertical newsletters are more successful when they combine topical interest with an attribute of the subscriber’s identity, such as career, family status or age.

Have a large enough potential audience to justify a sustained editorial investment. If that well-defined subscriber identity narrows your potential audience down too far, however, even a 100 percent open-and-click rate may not justify your investment. “First-year nurses” is a large-but-specific audience; “first-year male nurses who live in Peoria” is probably too small.

Develop a plan to attract that target audience. Where does this target audience hang out, and how can you get in front of them? Useful, shareable content is the first step. The second step is making sure that the content vertical’s digital properties are doing a great job of cross-promoting each other. Try to get someone to subscribe to your newsletter, over lower-engagement actions like a social follow or share. Once a person has subscribed, you can follow up to ask them to take any sort of action.

Common pitfalls with Content Vertical newsletters

Chasing a broad audience. A smaller, highly engaged subscriber base will be more valuable to this type of newsletter than a larger, less-engaged audience. Your newsletter should focus on the needs of your target audience first — everyone else is along for the ride. You can use surveys to determine how many of your subscribers meet your target audience definition. Some email software supports this kind of data collection as well.

Failing to adjust the content strategy to the needs of the subscribers. This is where that subject matter expert journalist gets to work. Once you’ve got that target audience defined and subscribed, they are going to tell you – with clicks, shares, reads, email replies and survey responses – what content and formats are useful, and what is less relevant. Plan to adjust your coverage accordingly.

Examples of Content Vertical newsletters

  • Mind/Shift: A newsletter focused on innovation in education from KQED in San Francisco
  • Cooking: A newsletter focused on home cooking from The New York Times’ Sam Sifton
  • Playbook: The daily email for political wonks from Politico

Model 2: The Daily News newsletter

What is it?

It’s a weekday newsletter focused on news of value to your coverage area. Unlike a Content Vertical model that helps subscribers build deep expertise and understanding within a defined topic, Daily News emails succeed when they maximize utility and habit. Executed well, a Daily News email becomes a critical component of a subscriber’s news habit.

Your newsletter should feature the reporting that makes your organization unique, but can also serve as a launchpad for engagement opportunities like requests for feedback, callouts, invitations and curation of content from beyond your company. Ideally, you’ll have a range of timely digital content each day from which you can select the pieces that will be most relevant for a daily news audience.

But even if you only have one strong piece a day of your own, you can use other sources to extend the reach of your newsroom. Many a newsletter dynasty has been built on aggregation. Just be sure any external content you include meets your newsroom’s standards. By including it, you’re giving it your stamp of approval.

If one story a day is still a stretch, focus on developing that capacity before launching a daily newsletter.

How to make a successful Daily News email

Use a well-defined geographic service area. Why do people turn to your organization for digital news? In the public media space, this is often because of locally produced content. National news is available in lots of places, but excellent local news is restricted to a handful of providers in most markets (and, sadly, that list seems to get smaller each year).

Be honest about that service area, too. If you nominally serve an entire state, but most of your stories are about the big city, acknowledge that reality in your newsletter. Set your subscribers’ expectations to align with what they will actually receive, and they’ll be more likely to stick around.

Maintain a consistent send time every day. Daily news emails thrive when subscribers develop a habit. Make sure weekday sends hit inside the same 10-minute window every time, no exceptions. Don’t be seduced into thinking there’s a perfect time of day, either — the send time your newsroom can always hit is better than a theoretically perfect send time you can’t actually deliver against.

Keep a watertight daily process. Who writes the email? Who edits it? Who formats it in the email publishing platform? What happens if these people are sick? Talk the process out among all the people and departments who need to be involved, then try small experiments to improve the workflow over time. A system is going to be critical to success in delivering content-rich, error-free newsletters. Bonus: Once you have a reliable system, you’ll have more time to develop A/B tests.

Ask for engagement beyond consumption. Your subscriber base will become your core digital news audience; people who are exceptionally aligned with your mission. Take advantage of it! Offer opportunities to participate in call-outs, attend live events and offer feedback.

Have your email publishing program clean your list automatically. Daily sends may make you more susceptible to spam complaints and deliverability hassles from mail providers like Gmail, Comcast and AOL. Set up processes to automatically remove two kinds of subscribers from your list: People who have never opened an email after 30 days of subscription and people who haven’t opened one in the last six months. Most modern email publishing software supports this type of automation.

Common pitfalls with Daily News newsletters

Punishing yourself for human nature. Every subscriber is a human being, and every human being has different daily habits that may affect their engagement with your newsletter. Maybe they don’t have to work on Tuesday, so they sleep in. Maybe it’s a holiday. The point is, few subscribers will open every single email.

When you evaluate engagement metrics, avoid using individual email sends as the basis for decision-making. Instead, look at your subscribers’ engagement over time. Evaluating how many subscribers opened or clicked last week rather than yesterday will tell you a lot more about your newsletter’s value and impact.

Not testing. Your reliable process should allow time to regularly A/B test your newsletter. Over time, every 0.5 percent improvement in your open or click rate represents real impact for your audience, not to mention your organization’s sponsorship and fundraising opportunities. If your email publishing platform doesn’t support A/B testing – red alert! You’ll have the days where just sending the newsletter is all you can manage, but if your system is working, that should be rare. A good place to start is to identify and test one hypothesis a month.

Testing content instead of systems. Your news content is going to change every day, and let’s face it: Some news days are more interesting than others. It is not surprising that your daily email focused on a breaking news event might get better engagement than your basic newsletter — but big news doesn’t break every day (or at least, it never used to.)

Balance out high-impact news in your daily email by developing tests that focus on the newsletter’s framework rather than the content of the day. Run every test for several sends in order to smooth out major news or slumpy holidays.

Some good tests to try:

  • Small: Should our subject line feature one story or a range of stories?
  • Medium: Are subscribers more likely to click if there are large images in the email?
  • Large: Do subscribers prefer content to read directly within the email or do they prefer to click through to the website?

Examples of Daily News newsletters

  • Look//Read//Listen: Daily news, features and call-outs from St. Louis Public Radio (one of our case studies)
  • 730dc: An events-driven, progressive-minded daily newsletter in Washington, D.C. that gets sent at 7:30 a.m.
  • Voice of San Diego’s Morning Report: VOSD is all-in on email as a tool to reach their local audience and build their membership base.
  • Quartz Daily Brief and The Skimm: These two daily news aggregations take it to the next level by targeting the needs of specific audiences (high-powered executives and professional women in their 20s, respectively) within the daily news format.

Model 3: The Automated Series newsletter

What is it?

An Automated Series newsletter delivers a limited series of emails to subscribers on a set schedule. You’ll hear it called a “drip campaign” outside of journalism circles. This technique has long been employed in sales.

While Content Vertical and Daily News emails represent commitments for the long haul, an Automated Series is a one-time commitment (almost) for your newsroom that can deliver value to subscribers over an extended period. You make an up-front editorial investment in the material, build the emails, then turn on the system. The email publishing software delivers the emails to your subscribers on a schedule, starting the first day they sign up.

This model is particularly good for content that helps the subscriber learn a defined skill or take a series of actions. Consider the types of actions you may be encouraging the subscribers to take and time the emails to allow just enough time to complete each step. Most automated series are delivered either daily or weekly.

How to make a successful Automated Series newsletter

Have a clear, evergreen promise. Automated series are great for helping subscribers achieve an in-depth understanding of a specific issue or reach a clear goal. How will the subscriber be different when they finish your series? In the interest of sustainability, this content should be fairly evergreen and unlikely to require frequent updates.

Commit to the up-front editorial investment. Unlike the other two newsletter models, you only need to create the material once. This means you’ll need to dedicate time to write, edit and format it in the email publishing platform.

Apply a narrative arc. An automated series takes a subscriber on a journey from interest to mastery. Like a good storyyour series needs to have a beginning, middle and end. Like binge-worthy TV, each installment should build on what happened before and set up future developments.

Use an email platform that can handle drip campaigns. Your automated series won’t succeed if a human staff person is responsible for manually sending every email in the series to every subscriber. This is one email situation where your tool will make or break you.

Have an off-boarding process. What happens to your subscribers when they reach the end of the rainbow? At a minimum, you should survey them to learn whether your series is delivering on its core promise. Even better, give them a new way to stay in contact with your organization.

Common pitfalls with Automated Series newsletters

Individual emails in the series that underperform. Use your email software to identify the individual emails in the series that have lower open and click rates. Rework or kill content that isn’t engaging for subscribers.

A mismatch between the promise and the results. Use an end-of-series survey to find out whether your subscribers have achieved the goal you promised. Adjust promotional materials and content based on what you hear.

Forgetting it exists. You launched an automated series six months ago, and then the reporter in charge of it left. Now, no one has checked whether it’s even working, let alone whether people are using it. Make sure someone continues to monitor the series for as long as the sign-up form is live. This person should also respond to audience questions and help to troubleshoot any problems.

Leaving it on forever without updates. This is the corollary to forgetting it exists: Don’t let your series turn into a zombie. Eventually, the content will need to be refreshed. If the series is no longer relevant, accurate, or representing your organization well, turn it off.

Examples of Automated Series newsletters

This format is often used by sales and education-oriented websites, so it’s ripe for experimentation!

Ready to make a newsletter?

Start here.

Author’s note:

This guide is based on research I conducted with colleagues from NPR Member stations KQED in San Francisco, St. Louis Public Radio and WBUR in Boston. Ki Sung, Brendan Williams, Madalyn Painter, Tiffany Campbell and Lisa Williams detailed their newsletter processes, distilled what they’ve learned, and shared their experiences. You can learn more about their specific newsletters in this slide deck, which they joined me to present at a workshop for NPR stations in October 2017.

Lauren Bracey Scheidt is NPR's director of product management.