Montana Free Press experiments with newsletters for local COVID-19 coverage
Learn how a local news outlet reimagines newsletter products and workflow — and grows its audience in the process
This post is the first in the Sign Me Up! series, a new project that talks directly with newsletter-makers about their newsletters, and these days, specifically COVID-19 newsletters.
Last week, the Facebook Journalism Project published this post on how coronavirus is changing the way publishers ask for reader support, with a focus on email newsletters. Some of the examples they spotlighted are exciting: Quebec-based French-language publisher La Presse launched a new daily newsletter and drove 48,000 new sign-ups in one day, each of the McClatchy newsrooms’ new COVID-19 newsletters saw an average 50% open rate, and The Dallas Morning News’ new COVID-19 newsletter list had over 413,000 enrolled recipients. When done right, local newsrooms are seeing an email sign-up and engagement boom.
We reached out to a handful of COVID-19 newsletter authors to better understand how they launched a new product or pivoted an existing one in just a few weeks. You can expect to see fresh updates every few days.
Today we focus on Montana Free Press (MTFP), a local, nonprofit news organization based in Helena, Montana that was founded in 2016. This interview, with Executive Director and Editor-In-Chief John S. Adams, has been lightly edited for brevity. For us, a takeaway here is the power of newsletter flexibility when used well. Read on for more on how John launched a new newsletter product, changed workflows and newsletter frequency, and settled on a system that successfully brings the latest COVID-19 news to residents across the state.
Newsletter Wizards: Tell us a bit about yourself. How long have you been at MTFP, how long have you been writing the newsletter?
Adams: I founded the Montana Free Press in 2016 after I was laid-off by a legacy daily newspaper, where I was the capitol bureau chief. From 2016 until late 2019, I was the sole person in charge of the newsletter. I did all the writing, editing, producing, etc. Currently, our editor, Brad Tyer, produces the weekly “week-in-review” newsletter. When the COVID-19 pandemic took off, I decided we should start producing a daily newsletter to keep readers up-to-date on the fast-moving developments. That has been very popular. I do pretty much all of the COVID-19 newsletter work.
Newsletter Wizards: What are some of your personal favorite newsletters?
Adams: I’ve been reading Al Tompkins’ “Covering COVID-19” newsletter for the Poynter Institute pretty regularly. He does a nice job of cutting through the media noise, fact-checking circulating talking points, and providing useful data and research-driven resources. Recently I started reading Dexter Roberts’ “Trade War” newsletter for keen insights into U.S.-China relations.
Newsletter Wizards: Tell us a bit about your newsletter. What is it about; who does it serve; and, why?
Adams: Our primary newsletter is a weekly newsletter that delivers our latest stories. We summarize all of our original reporting from the past week, and we also include two aggregated news sections from our state.
Beginning on March 14, we started publishing “Coronavirus Update.” At first, this was a daily product for the first week or so as the news was breaking daily. It featured our original content, as well as useful infographics from other sources, links to noteworthy COVID-19 resources, etc. Now that we’ve settled into a slightly slower news cycle, we’ve scaled it back and given our readers a break. We currently publish Monday through Thursday, and then it is supplanted by the weekly newsletter on Friday.
Everyone from our current email list receives both newsletters, but we added an option to opt-in or opt-out of specific newsletters. So we’re now segmenting our list a bit. If people don’t want the daily updates, they don’t have to get them, but they have to opt-out. We’ve heard a lot of feedback from our readers on how much they like getting these daily updates. [Editor’s note: you can subscribe to MTFP’s newsletters here.]
Newsletter Wizards: What changes (e.g. content, workflow, solicitations) have you made to your newsletter in response to the pandemic, and why?
Adams: Workflow-wise, we started building the new COVID-19 newsletter in MailChimp, and then re-published it on our website (Wordpress). This was a nightmare. We realized that the proper workflow was to compile the newsletter content in our CMS as a “sticky post,” and then flow the headers, photos, and copy from the CMS into the MailChimp editor. This dramatically reduced the amount of time it took to edit and design the newsletter.
We also began adding new “if/else” modules to the newsletter. If readers have NOT donated in the past 365 days, they see a CTA that is geared at non-donors. If they HAVE donated in the past 365, i.e. they are a member, then they see a “Thank you” message that also asks them to consider providing additional support if they can.
In addition to those “soft ask” CTAs, we’ve also done a handful of modal appeals during the crisis. We’ve seen a significant uptick in organic donations via our website header/banner, etc. We decided that was a signal that a few brief campaigns would be appropriate.
Newsletter Wizards: What have you noticed about your audience response to these changes, if anything?
Adams: Since the start of the crisis we’ve seen a 9% jump in membership, a 15% growth in our email list, and a nearly 500% increase in monthly web visitors. Our email open rate has increased from around 28% to nearly 40% on most of our newsletters, and [the open rate] is at nearly 34% for all delivered (newsletters and appeals). We more than doubled the monthly revenue from donors under $5,000. The percent of members who are recurring donors jumped from 28% in February to 34% in March. And 18% of our newsletter subscribers are members.
Any other observations about your newsletter audience from metrics?
Adams: The feedback we are receiving from members is universally positive. We are receiving emails and phone calls thanking us for our coverage, and donor comments make it clear that readers have noticed our recent changes and appreciate our efforts. And, as we experiment, change, ramp up, etc. they are very forgiving.
Newsletter Wizards: What have you learned about newsletter strategy during the pandemic?
Adams: These significant increases in readership, open rates, membership, etc. have signaled to us that people want even more from us. To respond to that demand, we hired two additional reporters who will start working for MTFP within the next 6 weeks.
That’s a wrap for now. Stay tuned for our next installment with Al Tompkins, discussing his COVID-19 newsletter for the Poynter Institute, “Covering COVID-19.”