Audience Engagement Digital Publishing
7 mins read

Publishers: When in doubt, turn to these 3 pillars of audience engagement

Acquisition of subscribers or members, their retention and following engagement wouldn’t be successful for most publishers without these well-regarded tools.

Live videos, interactive stories, social media publishing, various homepage presentation experiments, and many more trends have come and gone, but news publishers are finding solace with these three good old tools for audience engagement: newsletters, podcasts, and mobile apps.

Why them? Why now? Should you consider it as innovation or just returning to roots?

When talking to newsroom leaders these questions still get asked more than you think.

First, innovation has many forms and it’s not necessarily something audiences are looking for which should always be a guiding principle.

Second, all three – newsletters, podcasts, and mobile apps – have been around for years and decades and were used more or less successfully. But they’ve become serious business strategy talking points for newsrooms in recent years.

Various news outlets put different emphasis on them, some have found out that focusing more on newsletters is better for their audiences and their business (AxiosPuck News, independent writers), others see podcasts as their primary focus (newonce in Poland) and there are those who have built up their brands on mobile news apps (Tortoise Media in UK).

The interesting thing is usually all three platforms put together, form a bedrock of audience engagement for news outlets of different sizes.


Last year, I summarized for The Fix all the ways publishers are using newsletters to grow paying members. All of that is still relevant today and you can pick some of the strategies for your own outlet.

Similarly, as podcasts and apps, newsletters are used as an acquisition tool (converting readers into paying supporters) and also for retention (making sure those converted audiences stay paying supporters).

Every time I see a news publisher start doing newsletters and it turns out they are just using e-mail as social media – sending links to subscribers, it’s a missed opportunity and also it signals the very minimal effort put into the whole operation.

Sure, wind back a few years and most media newsletters were just lists of headlines and nothing else. But that has changed, newsletter strategies evolved and e-mail became a primary content delivery vehicle, meaning audiences prefer getting the whole content into their inboxes and consuming it whenever is convenient for them.

In this regard, the inbox is the perfect bookmark list.

Dan Oshinsky, the newsletter expert, regularly features case studies of news outlets in his monthly guide to sending better e-mails called Not a newsletter and he keeps an updated chapter on resources for editors and e-mail designers.

When a revamped newsletter strategy of a news outlet is featured, it usually begins with the admission of the managers and editors they understood that e-mail is for some audiences their primary destination and main touchpoint with the outlet and form the strategy accordingly.

This can result in exclusive newsletters for paying supporters (famously, NY Times moved last year to put several of its free newsletters behind a paywall) or daily news briefings to keep your readers engaged and always up to date with a news product that isn’t endless, unlike a visit to most homepages nowadays.

When I worked on the newsletter strategy for Denník SME in Slovakia (my current employer), we looked at the market, researched other outlets’ strategies (also in other countries), and crafted our own with keeping in mind our readers and subscribers already understood e-mail as the endpoint, meaning delivering the content within the newsletter.

That also means your North Star metrics change a little bit, you care less for the click-through rate (CTR) and more for the open rate. In this case, which is also a strategy for other bigger publishers, getting people to subscribe to the newsletter results in them creating an account for your publication. Once registered, you can start using the onboarding experience to nudge new users to become paying subscribers.

One of the most surprising features that turned out to work very well in terms of new subscriber acquisition (the main reason for newsletters for SME is retention) was the “follow” feature. Readers can choose to follow authors which means they will get all of their articles by e-mail. Not just a notification a new article was published, but the whole article arrives in the inbox.

Readers without a subscription get only the beginning of the article and it is cut off with a note saying they can get the next article in its entirety with an active subscription. From the reader’s perspective, it’s a great value proposition and it is the single best type of newsletter in terms of conversions.

The point is finding the best option for your newsroom, to come up with a set of newsletters you are able to produce and meet your audiences’ needs.


In 2014, the super-popular podcast Serial investigating a 1999 murder of an 18-year-old student in Baltimore was launched and it quickly became a hit. Still, that was not enough for the entire news industry to take podcasts seriously. 

In 2017, The New York Times started their very successful The Daily, a daily news podcast featuring mainly newsroom staff, a host asking colleagues from the newsroom to take him or her through a news story he or she worked on.

Unlike Serial, which took months to produce, The Daily gave the industry a kind of blueprint for, if necessary, a low-budget podcast – an interview between two journalists about a news story and going deeper than your usual news story. Of course, The Daily started with high production value, a whole team is working on every single episode and until today keeps pushing its quality.

The idea that a simple interview about news can become a successful podcast was not entirely an innovation brought by The Daily. Others have been doing it before. But there is a difference when The New York Times does it.

So, others started copying the format, making smaller or bigger changes, all over the world. In most of Europe, each country has several daily news podcasts produced mainly by digital news outlets.

Even though both Apple and Spotify, the biggest podcast listening platforms, offer options to easily set up a paywall around your podcast, ads remain the biggest revenue driver within podcasting.

Besides news podcasts, true crime, celebrity lead or influencer talk shows and comedy are popular genres. Sports are also popular, though you rarely see a sports podcast in the top 10 charts.

When crafting a podcast strategy for your newsroom it is important to look at the market and what kinds of shows people listen to. I use the Chartable charts to research top podcasts in countries.

If you are about to start producing the third or fourth daily news podcast in the country it better be different from the already existing ones to differentiate and give a reason to listen to those already hooked on news podcasts.

Should a daily news podcast be your first attempt at podcasting? Probably not, if you don’t have the investment and the infrastructure (it’s easier for a bigger newsroom to produce a daily news podcast as there are more journalists working on different stories, so you don’t end up talking to the same person every day, although that’s an option as well).

Podcasts are a great retention tool (for four years, we have been doing audience research at regarding podcast listening, and every year more and more subscribers listen). They create a much deeper connection than just reading an article. Suddenly, listeners hear a reporter talk about his or her job, how the news story started, developed and what’s going on.

As podcast listeners primarily listen alone via earphones it is a very personal relationship you can create with a well-aimed podcast. Don’t underestimate it.

Mobile news apps

Sure, not every outlet can afford to build and maintain a mobile news app, although it got way cheaper than ever before. And it isn’t just the cost of building it’s what has gone down in recent years, both Apple and Android halved their cut from subscriptions for news apps from 30% to 15%.

There are several things I like about news apps: they are less bloated than most news websites (the amount of pop up banners you get on the web compared to an app is just radically less), you can set notifications for breaking news, and most of all, getting a subscription is as easy as tapping a button.

OK, the last one might be a preference for people working on products in a newsroom. Nonetheless, a mobile new app is both a great acquisition and retention tool.

It’s not easy to convince someone to download another app, so the value proposition for doing it must be clear. Publishers also producing podcasts offer an all-in-one app users can use for reading and listening (and also watching videos).

Both Apple and Google offer built-in modern subscription strategies like free trials or a discounted introductory price. To set up these features within the app store is as easy as switching a button.

Of the three, having an app is probably the most complicated as you need to build it for both platforms – Apple and Google, and regular updates. Still, apps prove to be a popular and effective retention tactic that reduces subscriber churn.

David Tvrdon

This piece was originally published in The Fix and is re-published with permission.