CN#22. Building a stronger future: How local newsrooms can harness email newsletters for revenue

From indie creators to international publishing groups, the email newsletter is gaining significant traction as a nimble, flexible and low cost publishing vehicle. There's nowhere it's needed more than the local news sector.


  1. Develop a content strategy
  2. Set up a newsletter publishing platform
  3. Grow the list
  4. Engage readers
  5. Monetize
  6. Analyse and optimise

With website revenues failing to replace falling print income, thousands of local newspapers with long distinguished histories are closing, their owners sadly unable to cut any more costs.

For reasons that are hard to fathom, some owners are unimpressed by successful examples of local news reinvention and seem determined that old models will simply live or die.

Meanwhile, those with a little foresight and grit are trying all the alternatives.

From podcasts, to better, clearer, more engaging writing, going more local and segmenting subject matter, there are a range of approaches, but all of them employ email newsletters.

Here's an uncomplicated 6-point guide to starting and developing a financially successful local email newsletter.

1 - Develop a content strategy

Deciding on the type and frequency of inbox-bound content is the first and probably the hardest decision for a legacy local newsroom.

And also the most important...

Print workflows are embedded into daily or weekly deadlines and don’t align with the immediacy of publication that an email newsletter allows.

With this in mind, the easiest first step is to curate a round-up newsletter.

The Miami Herald offers a “5-minute Herald” and is one of many local print titles in the US and elsewhere offering their best coverage in a daily email newsletter.

Other publishers use newsletters to drive eyeballs to websites to gain ad clicks, but rates keep falling and the user experience can be frustrating.

It's been profitable but the days are numbered for this model.

The alternative approach is to view a newsletter as a mini-newspaper providing a service in itself. Once a good sized list has been grown monetisation options can be considered.

This requires a mindset shift for newsrooms and an acceptance that the newsletter is not competition for print but complementary.

On daily and weekly newspapers, workflows need to be realigned into an “email first” strategy allowing the brand to become associated with faster news delivery, with the print version following up with more in-depth coverage.

Given that a newsletter can only carry a limited number of items compared to the print edition, there’s an argument that the curated summary is in fact a marketing tool promoting individual copy sales or subscription memberships.

Community Impact, which publishes in Texas, balances an informative daily newsletter with up-to-the-minute news, a website for those that want to go deeper, and a monthly print offering for a hands-on experience.

The Bristol Post in England offers 8 free email newsletters giving readers a choice between news about local politics, courts, general and 4 geographical localities around the city.

Sometimes the content is published "newsletter first" and in other cases replicates what has appeared in print earlier. Either way the Post brand is being enhanced and extended.

2 - Set up a newsletter publishing platform

Technology considerations are dependent on a news organisation’s existing arrangements, but for a local newsroom looking to start a newsletter from scratch, an off-the-shelf solution is best.

Most provide ready-made design templates that only require minimal alignment with an existing brand.

One particular advantage of a dedicated newsletter platform is they provide turn-key infrastructure for offering free or paid subscriptions.

Bespoke solutions that integrate with existing content management systems may seem appealing but are generally more expensive, have a habit of coming in over budget and can ultimately not be fit for purpose as priorities change.

When going with the off-the-shelf route, understand the distinction between dedicated newsletter publishing platforms such as Ghost, beehiiv, or Substack and email marketing platforms like Mailchimp and Convertkit, which may have different priorities such as e-commerce.

In both cases, costs are relatively low and usually scale according to list size.

Local newsrooms could consider launching stand-alone newsletters, operating in parallel with the newsroom and enable journalists to be retrained as multi-platform.

3 - Grow the subscriber list

There are several no cost or low cost starting points for list growth. The first is to advertise the newsletter in the print version and on the website.

Newsrooms need to throw away any feelings that this is somehow cannibalising the print audience and driving print readership lower, and view it rather as a transition to digital while still promoting the print for those that love that format.

One way Miami Herald readers are encouraged to subscribe is by making signing up a condition of viewing articles on the website.

Start with promoting the newsletter on free social media channels, and only when the newsletter formula has been proven should you move to paid advertising on Facebook, Instagram or LinkedIn.

Use barter deals to get local businesses with email lists to promote the newsletter in return for free advertising space.

Gain readers by referral programmes that encourage and incentivise sharing that can work with the simplest offerings, such as a local guide in PDF format.

Some local publications have successfully grown their email list with traditional direct methods, such as leaving postcards with QR codes in shops and community outlets.

4 - Engage readers

Once the newsletter is up and running, it's important to regularly engage with subscribers through content, offers, and other communications.

This builds a loyal subscriber base and encourages paid memberships.

Engagement ideas are limited only by the imagination.

Quizzes, prize draws, birthday shout outs, surveys and polls, all serve to strengthen the bond between publisher and reader and make the newsletter a habit.

Editors should develop a voice that connects with readers and engages on a different and more personal level than simply the feeding of news content.

Readers want to be led to the important news with insight and advice and this develops loyalty and trust.

5 - Monetize

There are many ways to monetize a local news newsletter.

Paid memberships: Offering exclusive content and special offers to subscribers can encourage them to become paid members, which provides a steady stream of revenue for the newsroom.

Newsletter Journal, a print newspaper in Weston County, Wyoming, runs banner advertising for a local bank in its free weekly newsletter.

Advertising and sponsorships: Advertisers and sponsors are becoming increasingly interested in newsletters because they offer accurately targeted and engaged audiences. Even relatively small audiences are of interest.

Affiliate marketing: By promoting affiliate products or services in the newsletter, local news publishers can earn a commission on any sales generated through the newsletter.

Premium content: Offering premium content, such as behind-the-scenes access or special reports, to subscribers for an additional fee can generate additional revenue.

Partner event promotions: By promoting events, such as workshops or webinars, newsletters can generate shared revenue from ticket sales.

E-commerce: By offering products, such as books or merchandise, further revenue can be generated.

By using existing editorial resources and an off-the-shelf platform, a local email newsletter can be launched for under $5,000.

The variety of revenue generating options makes it difficult to generalise on potential returns, but given such low costs, they can be very profitable.

6 - Analyse and optimise

The starting point for analysing performance is tracking and maintaining a watching brief over newsletter analytics and metrics. An off-the-shelf platform can provide good enough basic data.

Comparing open rates over time is a top metric to follow, showing what type of content is winning with the audience, and what subject lines attract the most interest.

The ability of the newsletter format to be a testing vehicle to achieving optimum engagement gives it a significant advantage over a print newspaper.

Editors can try new things, record impact and respond with more of the same or something different, in a virtuous loop of publisher-reader development.

Subscribe to Champion Newsletters

Don’t miss out on the latest issues. Sign up now to get access to the library of members-only issues.