A question of trust
Newsletters have been around since the fifteenth century, and email marketing since the 1970s, but that doesn’t mean they’re outdated. In fact, a 2022 Reuters report found when publishers were asked about audience-facing innovations, the top two answers were podcasts (80%) and email newsletters (70%) — “two channels that have proved effective in increasing loyalty as well as attracting new subscribers.”
One factor in the growing popularity of the newsletter format is certainly the diminished faith of the reading public in the reliability of traditional news providers. As OnePitch puts it, “Amidst impactful social events such as the 2020 U.S. presidential election and the COVID-19 pandemic, audiences are now more than ever willing to seek and pay for premium content curated by reporters they know and trust.”
The result is a new form of the classic newsletter.
Substack and the many benefits of email journalism
With the advent of paid newsletter platform Substack in 2017, journalists and readers were presented with an alternative to traditional publishing — described by the company as a more “direct relationship.”
In a 2020 New Republic article pondering the question “Is email the future of journalism?” Alex Shephard further defined Substack as “an ‘unbundling’ of news, the way that Netflix and other streaming services represent an unbundling of cable television’s hundreds of channels.” Comparing Substack newsletters to traditional newspaper subscriptions where “you get some stuff you like and some stuff you don’t (you read the comics but maybe not the sports section), by some writers you like and some you don’t (I read Jamelle Bouie but not Thomas Friedman),” Shepard goes on to explain email newsletters are not only completely customizable to fit a subscriber’s specific wants and needs, the content is unrestricted by geography. Since subscribers predefine their interests, Substack newsletters can also be more targeted, and therefore take less time to consume than scanning the sections of the newspaper. In today’s fast-paced, cluttered media landscape, readers have come to crave this kind of convenient, personalized content — ultimately resulting in over one million paid Substack subscriptions by the end of 2021.
For journalists, Substack and other subscription newsletter platforms present a unique opportunity to write about the subjects they’re most interested in, and monetize the resulting content by delivering it straight to an engaged audience.
But freelancers and their loyal readers aren’t the only ones who are benefitting from the rise of newsletter journalism. Large publishers are increasingly turning to email newsletters to deliver targeted content and drive subscription revenue; 2022 Reuters data found mainstream publications were responsible for 53% of emails received by those who subscribed to newsletters. Let’s take a closer look at how the wider media ecosystem is leveraging the power of the newsletter.
Examples of email newsletters
Publishers, big and small, are embracing newsletter journalism as a way to drive engagement, increase revenue, and retain subscribers. Here’s how four different publications have used newsletters to their benefit:
- The New York Times — To increase the value proposition for subscribers, the New York Times started transitioning once free newsletters to subscription-only content in 2021. However, their popular news brief, The Morning, is still free — ostensibly to maintain a funnel of possible subscribers.
- Axios Local — Daily news might be the most ubiquitous form of email journalism, but Reuters reports local news is the second most popular type of newsletter. To meet the demand for local news, U.S. publisher Axios has published 21, free local newsletters as of June 2022, racking up one million subscriptions between them.
- The Manchester Mill — According to Reuters, online newspaper The Manchester Mill brought in “almost 1,000 paying subscriptions at £7 a month in the last year for a mix of slow journalism delivered mainly by newsletter.” To expand its readership even further, the Manchester Mill offers some free content, contributing to an additional 13,000 subscribers.
- Vanity Fair — Digiday reports that in 2017, Vanity Fair created and tested “200 different powerbroker newsletters” as part of a personalized newsletter platform called The Players. Essentially a publication alert system, The Players allows readers to follow influential figures and notifies them any time a piece is published about that person. This hyper-personalized approach resulted in almost 36,000 subscriptions between March and October 2017.
The global future of newsletter journalism
Of the four aforementioned examples of newsletter journalism, three are publications based in the United States. This is no coincidence. According to Reuters 2022 Digital News Report, 22% of respondents in the U.S. accessed newsletters weekly, compared to the United Kingdom with only 9% email usage. Reuters data also revealed, “emails from individual journalists in the United States (18%) are almost five times as popular as in the UK (4%) and more than twice as popular as in Germany (8%), illustrating how much further journalist-led media businesses have developed in the large and entrepreneurial US market.”
“Paid newsletters are still largely confined to the United States,” Reuters concludes, “but the opportunities are likely to grow for those that can combine unique content with the convenience that has become the hallmark of this enduring medium.”
So whether you’re an established American media conglomerate, a small town publication in Norway, or a journalist considering a career on Substack, the time is ripe for an innovative email newsletter.