Arkin: It’s Time to Start Experimenting with Narrative Newsletters

By DAVID ARKIN
LMA Chief Content Officer

I bet it wouldn’t be hard for me to guess what your current newsletter is like. Does this sound familiar?

A list of headlines, maybe 10 of them
There’s likely very little curation of those headlines. They are fed in from your website.
There are some ads, probably from a programmatic network
You really only think about your newsletter when there is breaking news

Did I get it right? Pretty close, I am guessing.

There’s really nothing wrong with a list of headlines being pulled from a “Top Stories” or “News” section with a
few remnant ads mixed in there. Your audience is likely opening it and nding the biggest stories of the day and probably clicking on a few things.

The Local Media Association recently released a report I wrote titled “How to grow your email subscribers.” In the report, I looked at a variety of techniques being used by companies that are having success growing their email audience. Good opt-in language, site promotion and mix of newsletter offerings were all highlighted as best practices.

Narrative newsletters were also recognized as something that was working.

If you’re not familiar, narrative newsletters typically have a few stories featured in them, with each being about 100 to 200 words. So, this is not a list of headlines but rather short stories that make you want to click to read more.

The Atlantic’s Daily and the New York Time’s Morning Briefing do a good job summarizing the news but in a conversational way. They are good examples of narrative newsletters. They feel like someone is reading the news to you.

Others like Quartz’s Daily Briefing feature individual paragraphs on a variety of stories. In each daily newsletter, readers find categories like “Watch for Today,” “While You Were Sleeping,” “Quartz Obsession Interlude,” “Matters of Debate” and “Surprising Discoveries.” The format is similar to the Atlantic and the Times but the consistent features are a bit different.

And there are others that focus on a single story with links at the bottom. However, the leaning trend right now is toward more of a brief-style narrative format.

One of the values of narrative newsletters is the time spent for a reader. Opposed to just scanning headlines, readers are much more likely to, well, read a narrative style newsletter. This means you are delivering valuable time spent in a product that typically hasn’t seen time as a key metric.

There are a few things to consider though if you decide to venture down this path:

The larger news organizations have created newsletter editor roles, people whose job is to write these, curate and build beautiful products. That may seem unrealistic to smaller organizations. But could you carve out in someone’s role writing some copy for a narrative newsletter?

A way to step into narrative newsletters is to start with three stories that you’re going to write 100 words for. And then list the rest of your stories as just headlines. It’s not biting off too much at first and you’ll learn a lot.

Find an efficient way to experiment. It wouldn’t make sense to have someone on your digital team start from scratch with each story. Consider how someone in one of your departments, who does a final read of that department’s biggest story, summarizes that story into 100 words. Doing a single story a day is manageable per department and it would give someone on your digital team something to work with. It would be important for that digital team member to take the content and put it into a conversational tone.

Newsletters can become a bigger piece of your overall audience and revenue pie but a list of just headlines pulled from a section of your website is likely not going to get the job done. Start experimenting with your newsletters. The results at the very least will be insightful.

David Arkin is the Chief Content Officer for the Local Media Association. He can be reached at david.arkin@ localmedia.org