Beyond Print Toolkit: Newsletters

Develop your newsletter products to build direct relationships with your audiences.

By Shannan Bowen

June 27, 2024

Viktoriia_M / Shutterstock

Your digital audience development strategy shouldn’t rely solely on the unpredictable nature of social media. Email newsletters, once thought of as basic distribution tools, offer one of the most dependable ways to build and maintain direct relationships with your audiences. As a bonus for newsrooms going through print reduction, email newsletters also evoke familiarity for print-centric readers, giving you an opportunity to position newsletters as a way to transition readers to new digital offerings.

Just as with print newspapers, email newsletters require a subscription (though they’re usually free) and arrive (typically) on a regular schedule. Newsletters can be positioned as stepping stones to help people become familiar with digital news, or they can operate as standalone news products. The versatility of newsletters means they can fit almost any publisher’s digital strategy. This guide will provide an overview of the types of newsletters your news organization can use for its digital strategy, plus examples of successful use cases for positioning newsletters as a product beyond print.

The essentials

Choosing the right type of email newsletter will depend on your goals, audience research and the strategy you’ve identified for digital subscription growth and engagement. Perhaps you want to grow readership to your site and direct people to read more digital content, especially as your print offerings decline. Or, maybe there’s a new opportunity to create a newsletter as an added benefit for existing subscribers. Whatever the case, here are a few of the most common approaches that publishers use:

Digest: These newsletters typically use RSS feeds to send automated summaries of recent news articles. For example, many organizations send a “top stories” digest email featuring the top stories of the day, as ranked by the number of pageviews. It’s also common to see a news organization send a daily newsletter with the day’s newest stories. Just as a newspaper lands in mailboxes or on doorsteps at a specific time, these types of newsletters offer readers the same expectation of delivery—only to their digital inboxes.

  • Goal: Drive digital readership of articles by directing people to the news organizations’ website
  • Example: Keene Sentinel’s top weekday headlines
  • Beyond Print use case: Help print readers sign up for a digest email that would arrive in their inbox about the same time as a newspaper delivery would land on their doorstep.
  • Metric to monitor: Clicks from the newsletter to the site to learn which content people find interesting and whether the digest is a useful form of article delivery.

Alerts: Unlike digest newsletters that are typically sent routinely, alert emails may be sent as soon as content is published or when there is breaking news. 

  • Goal: Alert people to breaking news or the latest important story
  • Example: Dallas Morning News breaking alerts
  • Beyond Print use case: Create a campaign that helps print-centric readers learn about the value of receiving timely information via their email inbox. Prompt them to sign up for breaking news alerts in addition to email digests, and measure the engagement among subscribers who are impacted by print reduction.
  • Metric to monitor: Open rate to determine if people are opening alerts when they receive them.

Curated: Newsletters that are curated offer more detail beyond just a list of links to articles. Typically, a newsletter editor will offer takeaways about content they’re linking to, add opinions about the content, or even explain to the reader why such content is important. These are typically manually created, meaning the editor will insert links and write the copy in the email body. Links may include articles from other publications, not just the news organization sending the email.

  • Goal: Drive digital readership to articles while also increasing engagement and brand loyalty
  • Example: The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Morning Newsletter or La Ciudad from Colorado Community Media
  • Beyond Print use case: Launch a curated newsletter on a specific subject matter by a writer whose name might be familiar to subscribers. For example, perhaps your newsroom’s food writer can offer a point of view on the latest food and restaurant news, while curating a list of articles that subscribers would be interested in reading. More well-resourced newsrooms may also take this approach to their daily newsletter.
  • Metric to monitor: Open rates will help you understand if people want to open and read this type of newsletter when it arrives in their inbox. You can also monitor clicks from the newsletter.

Narrative: Content is written specifically for the newsletter, meaning you’ll find a more narrative, long-form approach than digests or curated newsletters. This kind of newsletter can still be effective in driving people to read articles on a website, but it also can stand alone and provide enough information that a reader doesn’t have to leave the newsletter. Typically, the newsletter is sent from a reporter or editor and written in first-person, showing the personality and voice of the writer.

  • Goal: Provide added value to subscribers, increasing loyalty
  • Example: The Morning Newsletter by The New York Times
  • Beyond Print use case: Offer special access to a narrative newsletter for subscribers as a way to prevent churn, or consider positioning this kind of newsletter as a premium offering to subscribers who upgrade their subscription.
  • Metric to monitor: Open rate, which will help you learn the interest among subscribers, as well as growth in email subscriber list.

Pop-up: Pop-up newsletters are intended to be written and delivered on a short-term basis. The most typical use case is to deliver routine information about an ongoing news event or topic. You can strategically use pop-up newsletters as a way to increase engagement around a particular topic or to widen your audience funnel by connecting with readers who would be reached through a product that addresses a topic.

  • Goal: Increase engagement around a topic of importance, leading to audience loyalty as well as new subscribers
  • Example: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution launched a pop-up newsletter to cover the news arc of the criminal indictments of former President Donald Trump
  • Beyond Print use case: You can offer this newsletter as a perk only available to existing and new subscribers.
  • Metric to monitor: Subscriber list growth and churn rate will help you measure the interest in this newsletter, particularly the topic, which can give you an indication of how long to keep it going as well as whether to turn it into a regular newsletter option.

Newsletter as a product: More so than ever, people are accustomed to subscribing to newsletters that are the news product, rather than newsletters intended to drive engagement to a news product like a website. Services like Substack, Beehiiv, and Ghost offer writers the ability to monetize these newsletters, providing access in exchange for a free or paid subscription. Writers typically send these newsletters at regular times each day or week, with some offering premium tiers of content only available to subscribers paying a certain amount.

  • Goal: Drive subscriptions to a core product, creating a revenue stream specific for this newsletter.
  • Example: Down in the County, a newsletter covering Pamlico County, North Carolina
  • Beyond Print use case: Consider opportunities for a new product for your newsroom. Perhaps you’d like to add a coverage area that people would pay for separately from your core product.
  • Metric to monitor: Open rate and subscriber list growth are the two main metrics to help measure building and engaging an audience around a specific product. If you’re introducing a paid option, you’ll also study the conversion rate from the pool of unpaid subscribers.

Key indicators

A strong newsletter will have a specific audience in mind and include information of value to that audience, while also serving your overall audience development strategy.

Take The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Unapologetically ATL as an example. The AJC wanted to expand its service to the city’s Black community, but it knew that it had traditionally underserved Black residents. According to a Better News case study, the AJC decided to position the newsletter as a top-of-funnel strategy to try to reach and engage people who might not be current readers or subscribers. “That’s why we experimented with a ‘low-link’ newsletter, which provides readers one main story they can consume fully, without having to log in or click in to read,” the AJC team wrote. “We were intentional about including as few links as possible, so new AJC audiences would not run into paywalls during their first interactions with our brand.” 

Though content is the main feature of a newsletter, the tactics you use to promote your newsletter are just as important. AJC included inline sign-ups on articles related to the newsletter’s topics. They also created a landing page that they used for social media campaigns to drive signups to the newsletter. An easy sign-up link replaced a process that included too many steps to complete before signing up, which created a barrier to entry for most people. The easier sign-up link helped them gain 1,000 subscribers by the end of their launch week. Their strategy of using the newsletter for top-of-funnel growth also worked, with Unapologetically ATL sign-ups contributing to 30% of all new users. 


Unapologetically ATL’s top objective was to reach and engage people who were part of the newsletter’s target audience but likely were not current AJC readers. That meant paying careful attention to open rates more so than click rates. If you’re thinking of a similar strategy with open rate as your key metric, you’ll want to design specific tests that help you figure out the best approach to getting people to open your newsletter.

According to Inbox Collective, a consultancy that helps news organizations with email strategy, one recommendation to increase open rate would be to create A/B tests around the three aspects of the “newsletter envelope” — the subject line, the preheader text, and the sent-from name. “Readers decide whether or not to open your newsletter based on these three spots — and yet, they’re often the last things that newsletters A/B test!” Dan Oshinksy wrote in a post on the topic.

  • Subject lines: This is your opportunity to get your readers excited about what’s inside the newsletter. You can test the tone, the length, format and even whether to use emojis in subject lines.
  • Preheader text: Also known as the preview text, preheader text, which shows up below the subject line in the inbox, provides additional details beyond the subject line. Oshinsky writes that newsletters that use preheader text see lifts in open rates, according to various studies. He recommends testing whether you should use the space to tell readers more about what’s in the subject line or provide a tease to a second topic in the newsletter that might grab attention.
  • Sender name: Will this be your name, your organization’s name, or some combination? There are many combinations and variations to test to see what grabs the reader’s attention each time you send it. 

You can find additional tests recommended by Inbox Collective here.


Before you implement a new newsletter, you’ll want to ask yourself a few strategic questions:

  • What is my overall goal for this newsletter as it relates to my organization’s strategy? Is it top-of-funnel growth, as was the case with AJC’s newsletter, or is it to drive deeper engagement to our site?
  • If you’re reducing print, how might you promote your newsletter as a digital offering? Strategically, do you consider the newsletter an opportunity to guide print subscribers to digital offerings, or do you hope the familiarity of receiving a daily delivery of new stories via an email will fill the gap?
  • What do you know from audience research and feedback? Are readers more interested in receiving an email that has a list of headlines and links, or will they prefer getting to know journalists through a curated product?
  • Can you sustain the product? Do you have staffing and resources to maintain the newsletter and devote time to list management and consistent delivery?

Effective newsletters also utilize welcome emails to help onboard new subscribers, which can be especially helpful for explaining the value of email newsletters while reducing print editions. Think of welcome emails as introductions to your newsletter product after readers sign up. You can send one introductory email or even a series over a short period of time to help people learn about the value of your newsletter and what to expect. Read the Inbox Collective’s guide on welcome emails for guidance.

You’ll also want to consider how you’re promoting your newsletter to grow your list of subscribers. Look for ways to promote the newsletter on your site, such as on an article page, in the navigation menu or in other places where people frequently visit. You can also use modals, interstitials, or other design techniques to grab the attention of readers and prompt them to sign up for your newsletter. Paid social marketing via Facebook or search can also be an effective tactic for promoting your newsletter to the type of people you’re trying to develop as an audience — though you’ll want to pay attention to the cost and make sure that it’s worth the investment. Read more about tactics from Local News Lab.

Here are a few additional resources to help you position newsletters to guide people to digital offerings, meet your readers’ news consumption needs and develop your audience funnel:

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