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Go Back to Basics: Put Your News in an Email

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Email? Really? To those of you accustomed to sending out newsletters to subscribers, the benefits may sound obvious. Yet the newsletter is making a healthy comeback, to the surprise of many journalists and media professionals.

So why has the humble newsletter endured and why is it becoming popular again?

In a digital world all too often dependent on adjustable, difficult-to-read algorithms, email turns out to be a relatively stable and easy way to reach your audience. Unlike a post on your website or social media, your email will land for certain in your readers’ inbox – and therefore will most probably be seen by them.

But this great opportunity to have a direct relationship with your audience should not be taken for granted. Like many transformations brought on by digital technologies, newsletters are also subject to the two-way rule: subscribers have more control over what they receive, and crucially, over what they do with your email. With more power in their hands, they can unsubscribe from a mailing list if they dislike its content or frequency, or, worse case scenario, they could mark it as spam, thus banning the sender from their lives.

During a recent International Symposium on Online Journalism (ISOJ) panel about newsletters, Fernando Rodrigues, founder of Poder360 in Brazil, explained how he managed to set up the sustainable daily Drive Premium. Targeting corporate clients, this Brasilia-based paid newsletter provides original policy-focused content to its subscribers, who can also choose to receive alerts via WhatsApp or Telegram.

In a way, the newsletter is your readers’ local or national newspaper 2.0 delivered to their doorstep; a reliable friend keeping them posted about what matters and what is of interest to them. The newsletter allows us to re-create a “habit of news,” with the advantage that it is compatible with mobile and multimedia.

More than that, beyond your readers opening, skimming, or reading parts or all of your email, strive for them to find it so worthwhile that they would forward and recommend it to friends and colleagues. Another bonus of sending newsletters is that it allows you to engage with your readers using a personal tone. It could be in the way you start and end your mailer, use emojis, or feature quotes. According to the newsletter platform Revue, editorial mailers simply perform better, especially when they speak of photography, sports, government and religion – while commercial newsletters have the lowest open rates.

Besides the writing style, the strength of a newsletter lies in its design, in how you present your content to deliver your message. In short, it’s your product’s brand. Think formatting. Are you using a specific set of colors or fonts? Do you want to insert pictures or videos to illustrate your point? Having different landing spots using text and visual content is a clever method to catch your readers’ eye when they scroll through it. Reflect also on the frequency and timing. Do you want your email to be a morning brief, a weekly round-up or a deep-dive newsletter?

Likewise, tracking your data (subscriber numbers, opening rates, click-through rates, time spent reading) and using tools that show which parts of the newsletter your readers focus on longest (“heat maps”) are a must – but not enough. Plan re-engagement campaigns by including short surveys to get a sense of your readers’ views about your work. Aim for a community of readers you can rely on as you refine your newsletter. Asking your subscribers for feedback will not only help you improve and get to know them better. Listening to them will also make them feel empowered and encourage them to get involved.

Lastly, think through the business model and monetization avenues. In particular, are you opting for a massive free newsletter to attract advertising and sponsorship? Or would your readers pay for a newsletter if you provided premium content or other benefits?

Ultimately, the answers to these questions depend on the type of media you run and the message you want to convey. If you focus on a niche subject, try to grow a core group of fans, a so-called “tribe,” and know why they are passionate about a specific topic, then consider expanding to the broader public. And here’s one of the most important elements for a successful newsletter: Whether you are on your own or supported by a team, make sure you end up with a quality product both in terms of expertise and design.

While thinking about all this, it is worth noting what The New York Times found out about their newsletter subscribers: They read twice as much content as non-subscribers and are twice as likely to pay for good expertise.

So, be creative, experiment and get inspired by some of the examples below.

Useful Tips to Create or Improve your Newsletter

Want to start a newsletter? Read this first.

And do the “Newsletter Identity Exercise” by NPR Training.

Catch up on a recent ISOJ panel titled “How email, a 50-year-old technology, has become the next big thing for organizations.”

Chaired by Sara Fischer, media reporter at Axios, the panel gathered Elisabeth Goodridge, editorial director of newsletters and messaging at The New York Times; Mónica Guzmán, co-founder and director of The Evergrey; Dheerja Kaur, head of product and design at theSkimm; and Fernando Rodrigues, founder and editor of Drive Premium/Poder360 in Brazil. Here’s the video to it (session starting at 54 minutes).

Watch the webinar by MediaShift on “How To Get Better Newsletter Metrics.

Held in February, all you need to access the recording is to register. The panelists are: Clare Carr, who leads the marketing team at; Lindsay Goddard, product manager on the New York Times’ email team; and Brady Pierce, senior manager of digital marketing at Greentech Media.

Learn from Revue’s masterclass about editorial newsletters.

As part of the last NewsRewired conference that took place in March in London, the newsletter platform Revue gave a workshop during which they shared best practices of some of their most successful users on how to write an editorial mailer. By popular demand, they made the slides publicly available, and you can check them out here.

A Good Example of (Re-)Engagement

The Splice Newsroom‘s style.

In their newsletters focusing on Asia’s latest media trends (Splice Slugs) and all matters at the intersection of media and design (Splice Frames), The Splice Newsroom uses different techniques to (re-)engage their audiences, among which are an informal tone, emojis and short surveys.

Insightful Research Findings

In the Shorenstein Center’s Guide to “Using Data Science Tools for Email Audience Analysis,” you’ll find out:

  • Why the value of email lies in the fact that it is “the single most reliable digital channel for building a ‘habit of news.’”
  • That “among all the potential uses of smartphones, reading and writing email is the third most popular activity after text messaging and web surfing — it even tops listening to music.”
  • That “email is a crucial vehicle to drive major revenue streams.”

This piece originally appeared in the May 2018 newsletter of the Open Society Foundation’s Program on Independent Journalism and is reprinted with permission. OSF is a funder of GIJN.

Dr. Amina Boubia is a London-based consultant, researcher, lecturer and journalist specializing in arts and culture, politics and international relations, the Middle East and North Africa and intercultural relations between the east and west.

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