Publishing staple and digital paradox: The rise of editorial email newsletters

We recently had the opportunity to ask a few questions to Andrew Jack, Head of curated content at the Financial Times and author of the Reuters Institute Report “Editorial Email Newsletters, The Medium is Not the Only Message”, about the state of editorial email newsletters: their reach, their pertinence and the challenges they present to the growing number of editors using them as their medium of choice.

GEN: Your report “Editorial Email Newsletters, The Medium Is Not the Only Message” offers a thorough look into editorial email newsletters. What aspects would you put forward?

Andrew Jack: I see significant recent investment by ever more legacy and digital media organisations alike in creating email newsletters. That reflects a desire to maintain or restore a direct relationship with readers at a time when “distributed content” via social media risks weakening the personal connection to individual outlets. That is particularly important as concern rises over sustainable business models for the media, and positioning in the debate about “fake news” and the value of high quality journalism from reliable sources. It also raises broader questions about discovery to help readers through the spiralling “information overload”.

Quartz ‘Global Executive Survey’

How have editorial newsletters evolved over the past few years?

First, they are much more widespread. Even digital-native media such as BuzzFeed and distributors such as Apple News use them. Second, they are far more sophisticated in their format, adding images and graphics alongside text. Third, that has led to a multiplicity of styles: the use of third party content, a more personalised style, greater targeting, and so on.

What is the future of editorial newsletters?

The underlying factors explaining their success will be ever more important, such as discovery, serendipity and judgement in selections and style. Technology will allow more efficient discovery of content and better targeting and styling of emails themselves — but there is still strong need for human editorial judgement. Emails themselves may ultimately be superseded as a channel, but the underlying values of “curated content” they reflect should be preserved and enhanced by the best media sites in the future. If they don’t, others will do it in their place or readers will turn away.

What do you make of automatically generated newsletters?

They have a strong place in helping discovery of content at relatively low cost. But they need to be well targeted: the best will showcase articles which are both relevant and have not already been read by their recipients. Human input and judgement remains important, and some readers want more original insight or personality rather than just headlines or generic text.

2016 Digital News Report, Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism

How do editorial newsletters compare to social media where engagement and trust are concerned?

Social media platforms use opaque algorithms and the wisdom of self-selected crowds with nominally shared interests, sometimes supported by inexperienced editors. They often showcase clickbait and surface articles simply because they have already been widely shared rather than surfacing more obscure but insightful content of greater value. I believe there are many people who understand the importance of high quality journalism to make good selections — something we are observing with a significant recent uptick in subscriptions to publications including the Financial Times and the New York Times.

2016 Digital News Report, Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism

Could you give us your top three favourite newsletters ?

Naturally FirstFT, Free Lunch, Brexit Briefing and other newsletters produced by the Financial Times, which provide original insight and the best selections of our own and others’ articles! Elsewhere, the New York Times, New Yorker and Quartz produce very good emails, as do many more specialist newsletters.

About Andrew Jack

Andrew Jack is the head of curated content at the Financial Times and a Visiting Fellow for the Hilary and Trinity Term at the Reuters Institute.

He was previously deputy editor of the analysis section for FT, pharmaceuticals correspondent, Moscow bureau chief, Paris correspondent, financial correspondent, general reporter and corporate reporter. He is the author of the books Inside Putin’s Russia and The French Exception as well as numerous specialist reports, and has appeared on the BBC and other media outlets. He received the 2013 media award of the European Organisation for Rare Diseases; First Prize in the Stop TB Award for excellence in reporting for 2010; and a Kaiser Family Foundation mini-fellowship in global health reporting in 2008. He was twice Accountancy Correspondent of the year, and part of the FT team that won the British Press Awards for its coverage of the Maxwell affair.

Marielle Habbel—Director of customer strategy & optimisation, Sailthru,

“In the age of ad blocking and with continuous changes to how social media platforms distribute content, email has re-emerged as a critical focus for publishers to drive readership, reach high value audiences and monetize readership.” (Street Fight, 5 December 2016)

Yasmine Maslouhi—Digital marketing and audience development director, Les Échos

“We really wanted to do something different to generate loyalty and to convert our newsletter users into subscribers.” (Nieman Journalism Lab, 21 September 2016)

Ricardo Bilton—Nieman Journalism Lab

“Click-through rates for the personalized newsletters are three times the average and the overall open rate is double that of the average for the Washington Post’s newsletters.” (12 May 2016)
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