Newsletters: The boom, what makes them work, and how news publishers see them
Stop Press

Newsletters: The boom, what makes them work, and how news publishers see them

A newsletter about newsletters.

By Chitranshu Tewari

Published on :

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Lead 🕶️

Seventeen million subscribers.

That’s the number of subscribers NYT announced for its morning newsletter on April 30, after rebranding and launching a “new host and anchor”. It’s an insane number, even by NYT’s standards. The newspaper called it the “largest daily audiences of any kind in journalism, across television, radio, print and digital.”

Newsletters have long been a massive part of the engagement strategy of publishers overseas — more so during a pandemic, as advertisement revenues plummet further. It’s one of the most effective ways to hook a reader before you can convert them into a paying subscriber.

Back in India, we have either ignored newsletters or chosen not to focus on them as a medium. This is partly due to our tech and consumption habits. Instead, publishers used WhatsApp to push updates and newsletter-like messages until last December, when WhatsApp cracked down on “automated or bulk messaging, or non-personal use”.

Things are changing, though. In the last one year, a handful of newsletter products have popped up and carved an audience of their own. And I don’t mean the one-newsletter-fits-all type that collects email addresses in exchange for pushing quasi-automated content, I mean domain-specific, curated newsletters, with an editorial voice or a take.

What’s behind the surge in newsletters?

To start with the obvious, online ad revenue has been whisked away by platforms. Covid-19, in many ways, accelerated the inevitability of the reader-supported model. Almost every major English publisher in the digital news ecosystem has a subscription now. Newspapers, too, have amped up their digital (the Hindu) or e-paper (Indian Express) subscriptions.

If you’re a publisher, what’s the one thing you can’t skip when your goal moves from chasing website hits for ads to paying readers? A relationship with the readers. No reader would pay for a news outlet that she doesn’t trust, value or engage with often.

Traffic via social media is not tailored for building such experiences or relationships. The content on our social feeds is driven purely by algorithms, and not by the credibility of the outlet or the value it may bring you. And that’s where the single biggest source of news traffic is at odds with the reader-supported model.

Contrast that with emails and newsletters. Unlike platforms, their reach is not dependent on some algorithm, and they give publishers a medium to directly communicate with the reader.

What makes them work?

First, some context about a larger trend.

A lot of media engagement is moving from brands and publishers to individuals or creators. They call it the creator economy, or the passion economy, where individuality is rewarded and monetised by being paid directly, replacing advertisements as the primary revenue.

It is in the context of this shift that we should consider the growth of subscription platforms that enable direct monetisation, like Patreon, Substack, Anchor, and Buy Me Coffee.

Samit Patil, the founder-CEO of news website Scroll, who recently launched Scrollstack, summed it up here:

“Without the imperative of reaching millions of ‘active users’ for ad dollars, creators can conceive of projects that are viable at much smaller scale. This has the potential to power a better internet of creative experimentation.”

“Be your own self” is a tired, old cliché. Creator platforms, with help from advancements in fintech, are making the most of the broken state of media consumption on platforms.

It’s reflected in newsletters too. The leading newsletters have a unique editorial voice or cater to domains that the conventional set-up may not allow. Finshots is a three-minute daily newsletter to explain the most important finance, business and policy news. Scroll’s The Political Fix covers politics and policy, and the Third Slip uses humour and satire to compress all the major news of the week into one email. They replace platforms to bridge the gap between the readers and the stories.

How do publishers see it?

Depends on how they make money.

For scale publishers, newsletters are just a way to collect more emails to bombard readers with stories and updates on their events. Most of it is automated, with a bot or a human copy-pasting headlines and straps from stories. It’s not segmented on the basis of interests or an editorial voice. For an outlet chasing millions of readers for ad revenue, focusing on or investing in a product that brings a few thousand readers — with little or no means to monetise that reach — just doesn’t make sense.

For reader-supported outlets, it’s an extension of bringing value to the reader. The Ken has most visibly and successfully used emails, including newsletters like the Nutgraf and Beyond The First Order, and continues to see it as the primary medium to communicate with its readers. Here’s what Rohin Dharmakumar, its CEO, has to say:

“We are not chasing advertisers as an incentive. We are trying to establish a direct relationship with subscribers on an individual, personal basis. “

Another established feature that publishers in India are catching up with is explanatory journalism. Besides having a dedicated vertical (Indian Express’s “Explained” series being the most prominent one), publishers are using newsletters for the same purpose. For instance, the Times of India, a paper that is nothing if not scale, has a daily newsletter to break down its top 10 stories.

The recently launched Splainer, a newsletter + website that aggregates and simplifies news, fits right into this space. It condenses and explains the day’s news, with humour and sanity breaks to not overwhelm the reader.

Newsletters are here to stay, whether it’s for their curatorial power, domain knowledge (check out Things of Internet, a paid newsletter that takes one digital case each week), or for building a relationship with readers. Publishers will only give the medium more importance with time, and offer readers more ways to engage with news. For example, Scroll’s Rohan Venkataramakrishnan, who writes the Political Fix, wants to bridge the gap between policy and politics and create a community of folks in academia, research and elsewhere who are interested in that conversation.

It’s a fight for your inbox to engage with you on a subject you care about.


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This was the eighth edition of Stop Press, an effort that is primarily an exercise to learn more about the hows and why of the news ecosystem.

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