Audience Engagement Guest Columns
4 mins read

Newsletter ideas from niche news publishers

The Skimm, Morning Brew, The Hustle — these names are well known in the publishing industry, not for their size so much as for their chutzpah. While big newsrooms have big art departments and big editorial teams, digital-native brands have to do more with less — often using newsletters as their only channel. And their readers are loving it. 

Publishers have already figured out how to use social media and mobile push to deliver breaking news, but these nimble newsletters operate in a different way. They deliver something that speaks directly to the reader, and do so without having to maneuver around ever-changing algorithms. The Atlantic’s recent announcement that the publication will hire nine high-profile newsletter writers illustrates the potential that publishers see. If you need any more evidence, look to the recent surge in Substack startups that shows newsletters are a booming opportunity, enticing enough even for seasoned veterans from big-name publishers to make the leap. 

Publishers recognize email as a viable growth channel. However, the search and social playbooks that publishers have mastered don’t apply. Publishers need to go narrow and deep in email —finding a niche topic and voice that sets them apart.   

Earning Your Spot In the Inbox

Big headline news is likely pushed to a person’s lock screen through social media alerts, Apple news, and SMS. Less timely, more niche content that taps into topics of very specific interest, however, are perfect for email.

Rather than always fighting for clicks on search engines or downloads in the app store, email subscriptions are typically driven one of two ways: word-of-mouth referrals and on-site email capture at a point of high intent and interest. Either way, once someone is a subscriber the publisher gets a direct line to that reader via their inbox. 

While a lot of established online news is about doing what everyone else does — covering elections, COVID news, and the weather — newsletter startups do what everyone else doesn’t. These brands are discovering it’s best to find a specific audience and play up the differences that make that audience tick. Email is a great place for deep-dive articles, retrospectives, and other feature-rich content that used to find its way to the well of print magazines. 

Take ProPublica for example. The newsletter focuses on investigative journalism with the public interest in mind — informative content that has been sidelined by the high-volume news players like this incredible study about air pollution in the US. It’s the perfect example of a good email newsletter: it’s interesting, it has recency, it’s relevant, but it’s not urgent enough to be pushed via SMS and get lost in the noise of breaking news.

This approach doesn’t work for capturing every subscriber, but because it’s “just” a newsletter (rather than a pricey full-page spread on the cover of your home page), it’s still successful in appealing to a smaller group that wants to dig deep on specific topics.

Going Beyond News

Newsletter publishers often blur the lines between news, commerce, and entertainment. Focusing on a specific audience means that newsletter publishers start to deeply understand what works, delivering content not meant for the masses. This approach empowers newsletter publishers to create retrospectives, deeply opinionated content, and even shopping guides that resonate strongly with the right audience. 

The Guardian’s “The Week in Patriarchy” is a weekly review of stories covering feminism, sexism, and the fight for equality. The Skimm produced one of its best-performing emails of 2020 when the publisher created a Black Lives Matter roundup. Rather than focus on the headlines of the day, The Skimm created a retrospective of an important topic and successfully distilled it into one email — without sacrificing elements of the story. 

Publishers could take this same approach to other topics in 2021 and beyond. A more lighthearted example could be a fashion evolution email detailing the clothing trends as people worked at home, got used to Zoom, and then took some of those trends (like elastic-waisted jeans) back to the office.

When someone cares about a topic, they’re eager to engage with content on that subject matter. Apartment Therapy does just that in its newsletter by diving deep into the Pantone color of the year. While traditional news outlets may do little more than repurpose the Pantone press release, Apartment Therapy riffed on the color of the year with original commentary and curated content from their archives that created a host of engagement opportunities. This is all possible because Apartment Therapy knows that they have an audience that cares deeply about color and home decor.

Publishers have an opportunity with newsletters —- and it’s not simply to repackage their online content and ship it out over another channel. Rather, newsletters are a totally different medium, with the ability to connect to specific audiences with specialized content. Newsletters are an affordable and relatively low-risk way to try out new voices and new approaches to reader engagement. 

Allison Mezzafonte
Consultant to Sailthru

About: Sailthru, a CM Group brand, helps modern marketers drive higher revenue, improve customer lifetime value and reduce churn by using its powerful suite of connected capabilities. Sailthru’s high-performance email, website personalization, mobile marketing automation, and unique integrations power new customer acquisition by leveraging machine learning and first-party data to easily deliver relevant, personalized engagement across all channels. The world’s most innovative publishers, including Morning Brew, Condé Nast, Insider, and Hearst, and the world’s fastest growing ecommerce companies, including NASCAR, Everlane and MZ Wallace trust Sailthru to help them succeed. For more information, please visit