Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute — It’s easier than ever to create a data-driven newsletter

by Eric Potter

Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute 

October 31, 2018

When Tamara Power-Drutis worked at Crosscut Public Media, a nonprofit news site in Seattle, she was involved with the site’s email newsletter. She was absolutely sure they were doing it wrong. She just didn’t know in what way.

“It went out twice a day, but we didn’t have any metrics or documented goals,” says Power-Drutis, who was Crosscut’s executive director. “We had a general sense we weren’t optimizing, but we didn’t know how we would go about changing it.”

She wanted to know how to take a newsletter and turn it into a tool for developing the site’s brand and engaging specific readers with specific content they’re interested in.

She looked for guidance in the available research, but she couldn’t find anything specific to journalism.

That’s when she turned to the Reynolds Journalism Institute and applied for a 2016–17 institutional fellowship. If the research she wanted didn’t exist, she would conduct it herself.

“We launched a nationwide study to find people using newsletters in interesting ways — from The New York Times to Ann Friedman (The AnnFriedman Weekly) to regional news agencies,” she says.

Mostly she found that Crosscut wasn’t unique. Email newsletters were considered cutting edge at the time, and most organizations they looked at behaved as if just having one was enough. There was no methodology to who they sent them to or what they included in them.

“We launched a nationwide study to find people using newsletters in interesting ways — from the New York Times to Ann Friedman (The AnnFriedman Weekly) to regional news agencies,” Power-Drutis says.

But some organizations were farther along and had higher newsletter engagement rates to prove it. “They all had a strong definition of who their audiences were, and they also had a clear sense of how they were using data to improve,” Power-Drutis says. They used incremental refinement to deliver precisely what their consumers wanted in their inboxes.

Power-Drutis took those insights and implemented them in Crosscut’s own newsletter. She then published a series of blog posts for RJI that go into detail about how to think about designing, writing and managing a newsletter.

Going one step further, her team traveled to Columbia and met with the RJI staff about how they could best share their insights with other journalists in a usable way.

The result was optin.crosscut.com, a free tool that helps journalists design new email newsletters and improve existing ones.

The tool walks the user through important questions in the design and optimization process: Who is the audience? What are their preferences? Is the content original or curated? What is the revenue model? What is the frequency? What is the desired reader action or attitude?

At the end of the process, users receive a PDF report. The report summarizes the information they gave and suggests a newsletter model best suited to meeting their stated goals as well as key metrics that help measure success.

“We thought this is something you should be able to do on your own” without a lot of hand-holding, says Power-Drutis. Their guiding principle in building the tool was “What would we tell them if we were their consultant?”

Even beyond the advice, Power-Drutis says there is value in simply going through the process because it forces organizations to have the conversation about who their audience is, what the audience wants and what the organization wants from them. “That’s a crucial conversation that doesn’t always happen up front,” she says.

For Power-Drutis, the project gave her a research niche that allowed her to branch out in her career. She left Crosscut in 2017 and recently launched her own media startup, Power & Drutis, which provides communication services to innovative people and organizations.