The social media traffic collapse has made newsletters more important than ever to publishers looking for real reader relationships, but less is looking like more in the fight for engagement. Peter Houston rounds up the past 12 months in newsletters as part of our Media Moments 2023 report.

Newsletters have become an interesting niche for Media Voices. We publish our own daily news roundup and this year we launched The Publisher Newsletter Awards to sit alongside our existing Podcast Awards. 

Our focus on the segment isn’t just idle interest: two of Media Voice’s top three most downloaded podcast episodes this year* featured guests talking about newsletters, underlining the fact that media people really care about the format.

The newsletter moment

Social media has never provided a secure foundation for publishers, but as platforms pass over publisher content or simply implode, newsletters have claimed their place as a much safer bet for audience development.

Following the Audiencer’s Festival in London, Editor in Chief Madeleine White wrote: “Newsletters are having a serious (and very lengthy) moment in the limelight for digital publishers, not only as a valuable engagement tool but also for monetising audiences.”

The newsletter moment is probably four or five years old now, but the interest in email as a distribution channel for publisher content hasn’t let up. I hosted a panel at The Audiencer’s event featuring two very different newsletter publishers; well-known news brand The Telegraph, and solo start-up The Edinburgh Minute.

The Telegraph has 34 newsletters, but the portfolio is under constant review. Head of Newsletters at the newspaper, Maire Bonheim, told me that despite the urge to ‘fill every niche’ there is a danger of spreading your newsletter efforts too thin. “You also don’t want to double up on the same content,” she explained. “We merged a few fashion and beauty newsletters into a single, daily lifestyle newsletter.”

The New Statesman has followed a similar path. Rather than launch additional newsletters it has cut its output to two; a daily and a weekend edition. According to the weekly’s Head of Newsletters Harry Lambert, its previous lineup was simply too much. “Instead of having a whole buffet of different newsletters and cutting the brilliance up into little segments, we just decided to give [the audience] one that we thought they’d like on Saturday and have the power of a big audience through one newsletter,” he said.

Transforming a portfolio of newsletters

Jillian MacMath, Audience Editor at WalesOnline joined us on the podcast to talk about the opportunities she saw to get more strategic about the newsletter portfolio when she joined WalesOnline, what metrics should matter to anyone with a newsletter, and what dedicated newsletters like football and food look like with a local focus. Listen below, or by searching ‘Media Voices’ on your podcast app of choice.

Platform plays

The New Statesman is also one of the first major publishers to shift its newsletter platform to Substack. The magazine is using its free newsletters to drive subscriptions and Lambert highlighted Substack’s audience-focused back-office tools as a key reason for the switch.

Since it launched in May, The New Statesman’s weekly Saturday Read has grown to have almost 180,000 subscribers. Growth is due in no small part to the auto-enrolment of anyone who registers to access content through the free tier of The New Statesman website. On Saturdays, around 10% of the New Statesman website’s traffic is driven by the weekly newsletter.

Mill Media, another high-profile Substack play, has seen strong growth in 2023, following a £1.75 million investment from a group that includes former New York Times boss Mark Thompson. Paid subscriptions cost up to £8 a month or £80 a year and the group now has 5,500 paying subscribers across its first three titles – the Manchester Mill, Liverpool Post and Sheffield Tribune – with 75,000 people receiving its free emails.

In October, Mill Media expanded into Birmingham, adding the Birmingham Dispatch to its existing lineup. Founder Joshi Herrmann has made no secret of the fact that his newsletters are targeting local news audiences ‘alienated’ by the output of the UK’s biggest regional news publisher Reach.

He told Press Gazette: “One of the things that makes Birmingham attractive to launch a new title in is that the main newspaper is owned by Reach. Because we know – from Manchester, from Liverpool – that loads of people really hate having a local newspaper that’s Reach.”

For its part, Reach has responded to the threat of local startups with its own local newsletter strategy, taking nine regional news sites ‘newsletter first’. Brands within the group are now putting out newsletters from individual local journalists; WalesOnline’s Jillian MacMath told us that after they started to see success, reporters are now running newsletters for their own patches.

Real relationships

The relationship-building aspect of newsletter publishing is driving a lot of investment in the space. Mill Media’s Herrmann has said previously that he moved into newsletters because it was ‘cheap and easy’. But he also talks about the format’s potential for audience development. “It’s been an eye-opener how powerful they are for interaction and how close they get you to an audience.”

At The Telegraph, the newsletter team knows that readers who subscribe to their premium product from a newsletter are 50% more likely to still be a subscriber after 12 months.

And in a time of automated content, creating human connections is a positive differentiator. Most obviously, email allows recipients to reply directly. The Edinburgh Guardian founder Michael MacLeod takes advantage of Substack’s tools to reply to subscriber comments and send thank you messages for content contributions, which now account for 50% of his output.

And even where scale makes it impossible to reply to every subscriber email, there are ways to use reader interactions to build engagement and focus newsletter output. The Telegraph’s subscriber-only ‘Your Royal Appointment’ newsletter answers a reader question every week, even recommending the best spot to watch the King’s coronation procession.

* Substack UK Head of Writer Partnerships Farrah Storr; Financial Times’ Head of Newsletters Sarah Ebner.

This piece originally appeared in Media Moments 2023; our annual report exploring the key events which have shaped the media and publishing industry this year. For more including case studies and podcasts, download it for free here

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