Q&A: Elisabeth Goodridge, Editorial Director of Newsletters at the New York Times
This week, The Idea talked to Elisabeth Goodridge about her (relatively new) position at the New York Times, and the publication’s newsletter strategy.
Can you tell me about your role at the New York Times?
I’ve been the editorial director of newsletters since late 2016, and I’m the first one ever for the New York Times newsroom. Another colleague and I had done a deep dive with a strategy document in whether or not this role was really needed, and in the summer of 2016, we decided there was. First, because newsletters are really growing in importance for several reasons. It’s a medium that most people are very comfortable with already; it’s already part of their day to check their email, they don’t have to download a new app, they don’t have to learn how to use that new app. Secondly, it’s a wonderful medium to have two way communication, so it’s this very intimate platform for readers. They’re hearing from the New York Times in the environment that they also hear from their doctor, or their mother, or their girlfriend. We’ve also realized, as a subscription-based business, that there’s a direct correlation between newsletter readership and digital subscriptions. We have connected this platform, newsletter readership, directly to digital subscription so that is just a big reason why I have a job and why my team is growing.
Even though people are so comfortable with newsletters and it’s sort of an “old school” platform, how do you innovate with newsletters?
In November 2016 there had been no one thinking about newsletter strategy [at the Times]. We had a lot of newsletters already out there run by desks, and there had been no real thought about audience. Audience is the word of 2018, meaning, who are we trying to reach with these specific newsletters? So we’re shifting that strategy and figuring out how new products should be targeted towards specific audiences. One, I’m trying to tell everyone in the newsroom that they can’t just care about the text. They also have to care about the product and they have to care about their audience. This is a medium where you have to care about the nuts and bolts of the entire thing: you can’t just write 500 words and hand it off to somebody. You have to really care about whether or not it’s hitting the audience and that the product is built the most effective, smart way to hit that audience. And so that means not just the text, but the subject line, and the open rates, and where those people are opening it. Secondly, we are now being really smart about launching new products with the audience we’re trying to target in mind.
We launched this summer two pop-up newsletters that have done really well. My colleague Alex March oversaw a pop-up World Cup newsletter from the opinion side, so not just offering the scores of the World Cup, but offering analysis and thoughts about the culture of the World Cup, and that has done extremely well, in terms of not only audience growth and subscribers, but also open rate. Another experiment we did with pop-up newsletters was something I oversaw called Summer in the City, in which we specifically targeted millennials in New York to offer them itineraries about fun things to do in New York City each week. We had done some experiments with pop-up newsletters in the past; we saw an extremely successful Game of Thrones initiative last summer, so we took the findings there and applied them both to Offsides and the summer newsletter here.
At the New York Times, you have a lot of newsletters. How many newsletters is too many for a reader, and do people hit a newsletter ceiling or get newsletter overload?
I think a lot of people have been asking that question, because everywhere you go right now online a window will pop up saying, “Give us your email address.” So a lot of people in our industry (and probably other industries) are asking when that occurs. What I have realized, personally for me, is that I can be interested in 20 different topics because my life is so varied. I’m interested in parenting newsletters, I’m interested in outdoor activities newsletters, I’m interested in what’s happening in the journalism world. I will subscribe to all of those newsletters because I am a member of those audiences. So we are kind of looking at the same approach. You could be really interested in foreign policy so you’ll sign up for The Interpreter. You could be really interested in just figuring out what’s happening in the news world that day, you’ll sign up for Morning Briefing. You could be in love with fashion, so you’ll want Vanessa Friedman’s newsletter. If we make sure that we provide stellar products that people will actually want to open, again, that inbox is a very intimate space, it’s also a very crowded space, so we need to give them, and habituate them to something that they value, so that they open it up day in and day out. So that’s the number one goal, for us, is optimizing these newsletters so we can make them amazing, and number two, launch newsletters people will open. It’s considering not only writing a great subject line, all the way down to understanding what’s the footer experience.
We’re always talking to the newsletter about how it’s very different to write to radio, to write to social, to write a second day lead story. What we want is that an email is between two people that we really hope that the contents will help them educate each other. If you look at how Sam Sifton writes his email, it’s very different from a first day news story, an enterprise story. It’s conversational, it’s voicey. He may have an opinion. That’s why we realized columnists are really good at writing emails, look at Vanessa Friedman. We’re also very proud of The Interpreter newsletter that Max Fisher and Amanda Taub do. They are chatty, they’re hopefully educating you about something, and they’re doing it in such a way that you’re actually enjoying the experience. Newsletter writing is very different and it’s also very fun. We don’t ever want to copy and paste the article.
Do you have any advice about newsletters for people in the media industry?
I think you can’t go wrong with experimenting. A/B testing is easier than ever, and don’t be afraid if it’s not working to cut it and start another project.
Of all of these newsletters, which is your favorite (or two?)
That’s like asking who your favorite child is! Right now, we have more than 55 newsletters, and we’ve taken a lot of steps to offer audits of all these newsletters that were started before I came along. So we have everything from Science Times, which is a roundup of what’s coming in the weekly section, and that is a big audience driver back to the site. We’re listing the stories that we have on the site, all the way to a native product experience in that we want you to read in your inbox, The Interpreter.I can’t offer a favorite newsletter, because we have such different types across the spectrum.
What’s your favorite newsletter outside of the Times?
That’s us! Can you tell us why?
Going back to what I said, you need to care about product, you need to know about audience, and you need to care about the content. Quartz obsession hits all those three things out of the park. It’s habitual; it’s giving me an afternoon read about something quirky. So of course I’m going to read about it, if it’s pop-up collars, or jellyfish, it’s going to be an odd topic, but they’re going to follow the same format. The writing is going to be good, and also the product experience is great. There’s gifs, and they’re integrated in the content, you’re not copy and pasting an article in there, they’re really understanding how the product is going to look in its entirety in its form, there’s no separation between article and picture. And then in terms of getting into the audience aspect of things, they really try to engage the audience asking questions about the content and then reporting back questions that they had asked in previous newsletters. That gets people habituated to come back and say hey, I felt the same way. And that they’ll open up the newsletter again and again.