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9 tips for writing an engaging newsletter


Global Business Journalism co-director

Newsletters are hot. Hundreds of news organizations have created newsletters to engage with their audiences, create reader loyalty and persuade people to pay for news.

Newsletters are produced daily, weekly or on other regular schedules. Most are emailed to a list of subscribers. Some of the newsletters are monetized through advertisements and sponsorships, while others are designed to drive readers to “premium” content.

Some newsletters are premium content themselves. Journalists are creating their own branded newsletters with paid subscribers using platforms such as Substack and Patreon, or digital news brands.

“It’s a lifeboat for people off the wreck of Old Media — or New Media, for that matter,” Richard Rushfield of the entertainment industry newsletter The Ankler told The New York Times in 2020.

Rick Dunham in the Global Business Journalism classroom at Tsinghua University

I created a forerunner of today’s newsletters when I worked at the Houston Chronicle. The daily morning “TexMessage” was part of the innovative Texas on the Potomac blog that was published from 2007 to 2013. TexMessage provided daily headlines on Washington news of interest to Texans, “Tex-clusive” tidbits that were not available anywhere else, lists of upcoming Washington events of importance to Texans, and a “Today in Texas History” feature looking at Texas history from a multicultural angle.

“Newsletters are not some hip new platform or technology. They are about as old school as it gets,” Tim Franklin, Senior Associate Dean at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications, told Northwestern’s Local News Initiative. “But I think that well into the 21st century, we’ve finally discovered that a newsletter might just be the most effective way to efficiently deliver news.”

All newsletters are not created equal. Some flourish, but more of them flounder and eventually perish. To succeed, they must be good (though quality does not guarantee success.)

Here are some tips to produce an engaging newsletter:

Write authoritatively

You are the authority. Information is everywhere. People turn to experts for smart analysis and explanation. Make sure the reader understands that you know the subject.

Write with personality

You must find a way to stand out from the mass of newsletters. Don’t be gimmicky or cute, but develop a voice. People should feel like they know you, like you are talking to them at the breakfast table.

Create a familiar structure

A regular format is vital to a successful newsletter. Readers should feel like it is a part of their daily routine. Make it interesting, authoritative, fast-paced and familiar. You might want a regular number of items (for example, the 10 items in The Wall Street Journal’s weekday “The Ten-Point: A Guide to the Day’s Top News) or a clever concluding item (the “pet of the day” photo at the end of CNN’s evening “Reliable Sources” newsletter.

Offer the reader value

What do you offer that’s different? What makes your newsletter worth reading? Here are some examples:

  • 3 Things You Should Know (Future Today Institute)

  • Signals I’m Tracking This Week (FTI)

  • What I’m reading (Axios China)

  • Resources (National Press Club Journalism Institute’s The Latest)

You want to be a master of your area of expertise. The National Press Club Journalism Institute collects a consistently interesting and important list of journalism-related news stories each day. The Wall Street Journal’s “Capital Journal” newsletter promises – and delivers – “exclusive insights and analysis from our reporting team in Washington.”

Strong headlines are essential

While your readers will get each newsletter in their email inbox, you still must figure out a way to get them to open the mail. I will open my most important “must-read” newsletters each time, no matter what the headline is. But others battle for my attention on a day-to-day basis. A headline featuring smart analysis or an exclusive news tidbit is likely to capture my attention. Here’s one that hooked me on July 26, from Axios’ “What’s Next” newsletter: “The Delta variant doesn't want you back in the office.”

Paragraphs must be short

No more than three sentences. One-sentence paragraphs often suffice. Say what you need to say and nothing more. Offer embedded links and suggested readings for those who desire more information.

Active sentence structure with subjects at the beginning of the sentences

Get to the point. Write like a National Public Radio Reporter: subject first. The source should come before the information, unlike a traditional newspaper or wire service story. For example, sentences should not end with “s/he said” or “according to the report.” Those phrases should begin your sentences, just like you speak in conversational English.

Strong bold-faced phrases and sentences are vital to keeping readers’ attention

Accuracy is essential

Your reputation is on the line each time you push “send.” Avoid small mistakes. They make your readers wonder about your level of expertise or your care in producing accurate newsletters. (Note to newsletter writers: The country is “Colombia,” not “Columbia.” And it’s “Capitol Hill,” not “Capital Hill.”)

Check and double-check your basic facts and details. Always re-read your entire newsletter before sending it to your editor (or publishing it).

Add value by fact-checking and providing context

Speaking of facts, your newsletter can add value by fact-checking public figures, by questioning conventional wisdom, and by exploring alternative solutions to problems. You also want to provide broader context for the day’s (or week’s) news events. Try to offer your readers something new each time you publish a newsletter – a fact they didn’t know or an insight they had not considered.

Rick Dunham is co-director of the Global Business Journalism program at Tsinghua University and author of the journalism textbook Multimedia Reporting (2020, Springer). He is currently writing English News Writing for a Global Audience, from which this post was adapted.

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