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Newsletters: not just a list of links

The Guardian has a portfolio of over forty newsletters, covering a wide range of subjects. As Toby Moses tells Ciar Byrne, the publisher is increasingly seeing newsletters as a publishing platform, not just a marketing tool.

By Ciar Byrne

Newsletters: not just a list of links
Toby Moses: “It’s a really exciting area of journalism.”

Email newsletters are nothing new, but they are enjoying a surge in popularity and are increasingly seen as a means of cutting through the noise of a crowded media landscape. The Guardian has been creating newsletters since long before the likes of Substack came along, so it is well positioned to capitalise on the trend with a wide portfolio showcasing some of the best of this medium.

In March this year, The Guardian launched First Edition, a new daily newsletter edited by Archie Bland and his deputy Nimo Omer, providing original journalism alongside the pick of the day’s headlines. The Guardian’s head of newsletters, Toby Moses, argues that newsletters should be seen as a journalistic platform in their own right instead of just a list of links directing readers to the website.

First Edition is edited by Archie Bland and Nimo Omer.

“We don’t ask people to buy a newspaper and then use that to send people towards the website; in the same way, I don’t think we should be asking people to sign up for a newsletter purely to drive them to read our journalism on another platform. Newsletters are a platform in and of themselves,” he explains.

Moses regards newsletters as simply a different way to communicate with readers, providing quality journalism in a more direct fashion.

“You’re going straight to people’s inboxes. It’s an important way to help build that reader engagement and grow that relationship with our readers both new and old,” he says.

As a news organisation which offers its content for free on its website, The Guardian sees newsletters as a way of building and consolidating its supporter base. Moses argues this is different to news organisations that have a paywall or subscription model, for whom newsletters can be a way of giving added bonuses to subscribers or used as a funnel to offer potential customers a sneak peek of the kind of journalism they might experience. While The Guardian does have newsletters which go out specifically to its paying supporters, its stable is largely free, covering topics ranging from farming to feminism and football to fashion.

“We really stand out with the breadth of what we deliver. You’ve got something like Politico which is a big name but it’s very specific in what it does. The Guardian has newsletters which cover such a wide range of stuff, whether it’s news, politics, sport, arts, we do a lot of different things and I want that to be reflected in our newsletter offering,” says Moses.

A personal touch

His strategy is to refresh this suite of over forty newsletters, making them more compelling, and updating the design with more original content.

Above all, the focus is on deepening the relationship with readers. Newsletters allow for a different kind of journalism, a more personal touch in the voice of the author, whether it is Techscape coming from UK Technology Editor Alex Hern or Pushing Buttons, Keza MacDonald’s weekly look at the world of gaming, all of the newsletters come directly from the person writing them.

“On nearly all our newsletters that are written by an individual, if you hit reply on that email, you reply straight to that person and you have that conversation between reader and writer. That’s important in bridging the gap between our journalists and our readers and building a sense of the Guardian community,” says Moses.

Bland and Omer sit in on The Guardian’s daily news conference alongside editors from the print edition and the website.

“Archie and Nimo from First Edition are in all those meetings, and we read out our list in the morning meeting in the same way that everyone else does. We’re very much integrated and we’re part of the newsroom.”

There is a lot of talk about newsletters building engagement, but how does this work in practice? Moses believes it’s about creating a daily habit: “It’s the first thing a lot of people will see in the morning. A trusted friend is the way Archie always puts it, and that helps to build a connection with The Guardian.”

Specificity is also key. Rather than browsing a website looking for information, where you get many other stories thrown at you at the same time, with a newsletter, you have signed up to get the latest news on a particular topic delivered directly to your inbox.

While Moses’ core team is just six-strong, they rely on a much broader cross-functional team working on everything from data and analytics, to design, to the commercial and advertising side. The Guardian US and Australia are also critical, not only compiling their own newsletters, but also working through our night to make sure First Edition is up to date in the morning.

Reader analysis

When it comes to harvesting data from newsletters, Moses insists The Guardian goes “well beyond what the law would require in terms of privacy”. He adds that the platform is not great for analytics as once someone has opened an email in their inbox, it’s difficult to see what they do with it afterwards. His team monitor where people sign up from, how they sign up, what drives them to register and what links they click on. However, he stresses the real benefit is qualitative.

“Those emails you get back from readers, those conversations you can have, those shouldn’t be underestimated. They may not be capturing data and graphs in quite the same way, but it really does help us see what newsletters are hitting the mark.”

The Guardian now has over a million unique subscribers to its newsletters, and several million subscriptions. Like the rest of its journalism, newsletters attract a broad range of readers, but Moses also believes they are a great way of attracting younger readers as well as those who don’t read the rest of The Guardian’s content regularly.

“Pushing Buttons, our gaming newsletter, is a good example of that. We’ve done some research on people who’ve signed up and we can see that it has a younger readership on average compared to a lot of our other journalistic products. They feel really pleased we’re committed to gaming journalism in a way that people maybe didn’t expect from The Guardian. I think newsletters on specific topics will help to attract readers that wouldn’t necessarily come to The Guardian; different demographics, different ages and we’re aware of that.”

Once those readers have been drawn in, they are then more likely to go on to read other Guardian products.

“Newsletters are a great way to drive people to other newsletters. Once people are in the ecosystem of reading Guardian journalism, they can see how good it is and they want to sign up for other things too,” says Moses.

A curated product

He does not believe The Guardian has direct competitors in the newsletter arena, because unlike much else of what is available, it covers such a wide range of topics, and is free and independent. Substack has attracted a lot of attention, as well as some high-profile writers, and Moses admits it has brought a lot of creativity to the market – one of his own particular favourites is Dracula Daily which publishes fictional diary entries from Bram Stoker’s novel on the same day as in the book – but he doesn’t see the platform as competition.

“A lot of the journalists who have gone there have found that it’s hard to make a living on your own on Substack. You don’t have the support you would have on a newspaper in terms of editors, sub-editors, design. Fundamentally, our newsletters are fully entwined with our Guardian values. We don’t chuck everything up there. Substack seems to have a complete free speech motto that they will publish anything no matter what, and that’s obviously not something The Guardian would do. We’re curated by editors, and I think that’s why readers value it. It’s not the unmitigated chaos that the internet can be sometimes.”

The strapline of the marketing campaign for First Edition was ‘Scroll less, understand more’, and Moses says that when compiling their newsletters, they think a lot about how to provide people with an alternative to the noise of social media feeds and constantly updating websites. Quality writing is what makes a good newsletter, together with reader interactivity. Crisp, clean design is also vital, as well as regularity.

“People want to know that they’re going to come at the same time each week, or each day. Scattering them out makes it too much like what you’re trying to escape. You want that fixed point.”

Moses started out working in production on the Observer sports desk and after a brief stint on the Mail on Sunday’s Live magazine, he returned to Guardian News & Media and has worked there ever since, as a layout sub, deputy production editor and night editor on sport, on the opinion pages and then as TV editor.

“That breadth of stuff has really set me up for newsletters because it covers so many different subjects. I always thought of myself as a jack of all trades through my time at The Guardian and I think that’s been valuable.”

Although there will be a few carefully selected new newsletters in the coming year, Moses’ focus now is on ensuring the existing suite is as good as it can be, with improved design and more original journalism with a personal touch.

“It’s a really exciting area of journalism. There’s a lot of energy and investment and thought going into it at the moment. I’ve never worked on a team on The Guardian that’s so multi-faceted in terms of everyone coming together with this united goal to produce these fantastic newsletters.”

More information about the Guardian’s newsletter portfolio can be found here.

This article was first published in InPublishing magazine. If you would like to be added to the free mailing list to receive the magazine, please register here.