With no silver bullet or obvious funding solution for the future of journalism, our eyes are glued to the horizon for the next great idea. But what if some of those ideas aren’t on the horizon, but right in front of us? As Freek Staps wrote in his roadmap for media entrepreneurship, “Not every idea has to be a blockbuster. Small successes can also lead to new revenue streams (and a larger scaled transformation in the newsroom).” One of those nonblockbuster opportunities is likely sitting in your inbox right now: newsletters. If done well, newsletters can inform subscribers while also generating revenue. However, it’s important to know from the outset what the main purpose is. For curators interested in monetizing their newsletter, here are four possible methods to consider.
Your newsletter subscribers are trying to tell you something, but are you tracking the right metrics to hear them? Learning from and iterating upon even the simplest elements of your newsletter can lead to powerful insights and improvements for your newsletter and audience, as we discussed in Designing a Data-Driven Newsletter. Curators traditionally rely on three standard metrics to gauge newsletter effectiveness: open rate, click-thru rate and subscription rate. Yet these alone don’t provide a complete picture of newsletter health. Conversely, collecting every possible data point does not guarantee fitness. Too many curators waste time collecting data simply for the sake of collecting, rather than using analytics to diagnose and improve.
The greatest barrier to being data-driven isn’t capacity or expertise, but discipline. Being data-driven is as much a habit as it is a business model, and collecting data you don’t use isn’t just bad business sense, it’s also bad for morale. At a time when newsrooms across the country are downsizing and streamlining to make the most of their resources, collecting data can either be a tool to increase efficiency and impact or it can be an enormous waste of time. The difference is in learning from and iterating based on that data. Testing, measuring and analyzing even the simplest elements of your newsletter — such as send time or placement of visuals — can lead to powerful insight on your audience and what they want from you.
Like many modern freelancers, you may find journalist Ann Friedman in a range of publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post and New York Magazine. This disaggregation of her body of work can make it difficult for readers to develop loyalty. Yet many readers — particularly millennials — are more interested in following a writer they trust or enjoy than a publication. “People like people more than brands,” Friedman told Crosscut in a recent interview, which is why she began curating her own weekly newsletter to better engage and grow her readers across publications. The roughly 500-word-count letter highlights topics she finds interesting, written in her distinctly casual, first-person tone. Through unpaid social media and word of mouth, Friedman has grown her subscriber base to more than 25,000 readers since the newsletter launch in 2013.
E-newsletters have become a primary engagement, dissemination and revenue-generating tool for modern newsrooms. With benefits ranging from reader loyalty to audience insights to new revenue, it’s easy to see why. What’s harder to see is the “why not,” though it’s equally important. Email used to be a method for filtering the internet. Far from the infinity scroll or overcrowded stream of unvetted articles, email delivered exactly what we needed to know from a trusted source in a format that we could finish. For newsrooms, email allowed us to target exactly who we wanted with the content and branding we wanted them to see. Email has not only outlived and outshone other tools, it has remained the one constant in a stream of new technologies. As ReDef executive Jason Hirschhorn told The New York Times, email is “the cockroach of the internet.”
Measuring and comparing courage is a difficult task. We’re reminded of this each time you — our readers — send us nominations for the Crosscut Courage Awards. Which is why we in turn hand the job of selecting the honorees over to a council of civic, business, and cultural leaders in our community. Last night as that council convened, they were searching for individuals who innovate despite criticism, show selfless leadership, inspire others, follow data and best practices even when custom and tradition say otherwise, and take risk to successfully break gridlock. What they found were 60 reasons to be optimistic for our future.
Through a haze of hateful twitter attacks, robust polarization in media, and the decline of civil dialogue in public life, habits of courage are more often rewarded with criticism than celebration. Perhaps it’s easier to see it with the perspective that only comes with time. Children gathered around a piano at Camp Harmony following Executive Order 9066. The only woman to serve as Seattle’s mayor taking a hard stance against police corruption. A tribal leader under arrest for the 50th time to protect the sovereignty of tribes and their right to harvest Northwest salmon. Courage can easily be found throughout our local history. But we want to catch people in the act today.