Our podcast: Digital News Report 2022. Episode 4: The role of email news in engagement and monetisation

In this episode we look at findings from our DNR22 around the enduring appeal of email newsletters to readers and news organisations
5th July 2022

The topic

In this special episode of our Future of Journalism podcast, we look at findings in our Digital News Report 2022 on the role of email newsletters. We explore data around how many people use this medium for news in different countries, what news organisations and readers value about them, and what their appeal says about other news formats.


Nic Newman is the lead author of the Digital News Report and is a Senior Research Associate at the Reuters Institute. He is also a consultant on digital media, working actively with news companies on product, audience, and business strategies for digital transition. He writes an annual report for the Institute on future media and technology trends. He is the author of the Digital News Report chapter on email news

Our host Federica Cherubini is Head of Leadership Development at the Reuters Institute. She is an expert in newsroom operations and organisational change, with more than ten years of experience spanning major publishers, research institutes and editorial networks around the world.

The podcast

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Usage around the world | Types of email newsletters | Popular sources of email news | Differences around the world | Demographic factors | Why readers like email news  | What email news is a response to | The value of email for news organisations

Usage around the world 

Federica: We tend to think of email as being old-fashioned and low tech, but getting news directly in your inbox seems to be having an enduring value, at least to some news audiences and news organisations. Firstly, what are some of the headline figures on how many people use email newsletters?

Nic: It varies across countries, but it tends to be somewhere around a tenth to a quarter who get a newsletter weekly. And obviously, many of them are seeking them daily. It’s highest in countries like the United States, so about 22% say that they get a newsletter weekly. And interestingly, about half say it's their main source of news. But then it’s much lower in in countries like the UK. But I think the really interesting bit is the type of people who are using email newsletters, they tend to be people who are very interested in news, tend to be people who pay for news, and who use the news most regularly. So in that sense this group of people is absolutely critical for the sustainability of many news organisations whether you're adsupported or subscription based.

I guess the other thing to say is we think of email newsletters, maybe as growing, but actually, they're not really growing. And part of the reason is that they're facing huge amount of competition, in terms of access points from other types of media. So, social media in particular, which has grown very substantially. Mobile alerts and mobile aggregators, we've also seen significant growth there. And so in that sense, it's quite interesting that email newsletters, in terms of weekly reach, have stayed pretty much the same so that you can see that's a success in the face of these other growing forms of access.

Types of email newsletters 

Federica: For those who actually don't use email newsletters and are not very familiar with them, can you outline what are they like? How they're structured? What are the broad categories they fall into?

Nic: That's a really hard question, Federica, thank you so much. We haven't attempted this time to really categorise them in into buckets. But I think some of the differences come out in general responses. So we asked people to tell us what kind of emails they access, and then we put those in different buckets. So I think you have general news roundups. So these are often curated these days. And I think the intention of media companies that are doing this is to save people time. Quite often they've got links to websites within them. So the aim is to attract attention and get people to go to those websites. So you'll be familiar with formats like ‘five things you need to know today’. They became very widespread during the COVID pandemic. There's ones on Ukraine, for example. Organisations like the BBC and CNN have really adapted these formats, and are actually taking them from email to websites as well. So you start seeing these formats elsewhere as well.

You have Axios - I would call that a real pioneer in this. So they've developed this idea of smart brevity, explicitly trying to be careful with your time so they tell you how long this email is going to be. So curating roundups in specialist areas, as well as general news. Then you have another category which is articles that are designed to be read in your email. These are often personally authored articles, effectively, they might have links within them, but they're not trying to push you anywhere else with links. You know, the main business model is to spend time, and they can sell that time for sponsorship or in some cases, subscriptions. So that's where we're starting to see individual journalists making money out of emails that appear in your inbox. And then the final category, I would call that breaking news or breaking news alerts. So these I think have become less popular over time. But in a previous report, we actually found almost half of email users subscribed to some kind of breaking news email as well. So that's broadly the kind of buckets that we find.

Federica: I'm going to add a funny one, which ones do you use?

Nic: I use all of those. I probably get about 20 emails a day. So mainstream roundups from the BBC, Politico, The Times.  I get a huge bucket of ones about the media. As one I really like by Matt Deegan on audio, beautifully written always on one or two subjects. Nieman Lab, Reuters Institute - of course, a fantastic curated section - a Substack one, Casey Newton, I think a lot of people subscribe to that, which is about developments in Silicon Valley. That's a subscriber one. And I get a couple of really interesting political ones as well, which I've subscribed to recently. So one by Heather Cox Richardson on US politics. There's a UK one called The Ruffian by Ian Leslie, which is always interesting and lands in your email box on Saturday morning. So, you know, a lot of diversity. And, I think that's bringing a lot of new perspectives, and as well as saving time so it's probably illustrative of the types available.

Federica: You mentioned, in the ones you just mentioned, a mix between news organisations and actually solo journalists. I'm curious what the report says are the most popular sources of email news?

Popular sources of email news 

Nic: So we divided it up into mainstream media, then specialist publications that you might subscribe to for your work. I just talked about my media, for example, or it might be about passions, you know, things like sport, or arts, then alternative outlets, which we kind of think of as almost anti-mainstream. They might be political, it might just be different kinds of perspectives. And then individual journalists working on their own, there's obviously overlaps between those, but those were the categories. In most countries, we find that the majority of emails that people say they get are from big mainstream media companies in every country, so more than 50%. About a fifth say they get newsletters from specialist organisations for their work. Same for alternative media, and then a smaller percentage from individual journalists. But what's interesting about that is the country differences. So in the US 18% of email subscribers say they get newsletters from an individual journalist. And that's just 4% in the UK. So I think that just speaks to the so-called Substack revolution, where you've got individual journalists now getting paid for what they do and charging money. That's gone much further in the US. So we see a lot of Substack newsletters, I think about one million people who are now paying for their newsletters, the vast majority of those in the US. And it hasn't gotten nearly as far in countries like the UK.

Differences around the world 

Federica: And we're gonna stay on this and differences between countries. Aside from the sources that they’re coming from, have you seen any reason why newsletters seem to have a very different prominence in some countries compared to others? The UK, for example, is notably, at the bottom of the list where people are accessing news through email at less than half the rate seen in the US. How do you explain these big differences?

Nic: I think it's partly about supply and where media companies have really focused their efforts. So US publications have been into email for a very long time. They invested in them consistently, for example, the New York Times now produces, I think, 50 different emails read by, they claim, 15 million people a week. But you also have a very, very large market. And I think that's really encouraged this entrepreneurial journalism, and some of the developments we're seeing in paying for individual emails as well. So it's partly about the larger market, it's partly about that that really helps the commercial incentives to produce a format that now has a business model. And if you compare that to smaller markets, like Norway, for example, very close to the bottom of the list - you know, lots of interesting news, but quite low email subscription - and I think that's partly because they have much stronger and more confident brand connections. So they've got people who, in our research, are much more likely to go directly to websites and apps, subscription rates pretty high. So maybe publishers don't feel as much need to push content to audiences through email.

Demographic factors 

Federica: Are there any demographic factors influencing what rate people use email newsletters?

Nic: Absolutely. I mean, there's a huge demographic split. So email is mainly valued by older, richer, more educated news consumers. They're a particularly interesting group of people for many news organisations. And this is true across countries. In the US about one in seven of over 55s say email is actually their main way of accessing news. So it's really important to that older group, partly because they spend a lot of time in email, and they don't really use social media so much, and if you compare that to the youngest group, so under 25s, just 3% of them say that emails are their main way of accessing news in the US, compared with, you know, four-in-ten who say social media as their main ways of accessing news. So you can see that difference. And it's not surprising, because young people generally don't spend a lot of time in email. They're mainly in communication apps. And so if you want to reach younger people, if your strategy is to do so, email is probably not your best bet.

Why readers like email news 

Federica: Right, email newsletters via WhatsApp, something like that. What it is that readers say they enjoy about newsletters?

Nic: I think, in terms of the benefits, again, we got at this through open questions and then also a survey response. And fundamentally people tell us it's, it's about convenience. The way in which email brings together a package of information in a format that's easy to consume. So 65% say that's why they like email newsletters. And then beyond that, diverse perspectives. So that sense that you're hearing views or analysis that you won't get anywhere else in the mainstream media, for example, that might be just different types of voices, it might be an inside track on something.

Closely related to that is the idea of unique content - 24% say 'you can't get it anywhere else'. And this is particularly interesting when it comes to getting people to pay for content. This is where I was talking about Casey Newton, and his Platformer Substack email. So where you've got something that's truly unique, then you can start to charge for that kind of content. So you know, authorial voice is another really important one, for people as well. And that's a trend that we've seen grow over time. Email newsletters used to be about just links, and now increasingly, they're about the personality of the author as well. That's another reason why people say that they enjoy the emails.

What email news is a response to 

Federica: What do you think the curated nature of some businesses’ newsletters, their very human and personal tone, says about how news is traditionally delivered? Do you think this is a response to there being too much news out there to navigate, for example?

Nic: Yeah, definitely. I think that sense of convenience. And we know elsewhere in the report people talk about being overwhelmed by the news. And I think that idea of convenience and saving time, which is the dominant reason why people are using these email newsletters is part of it. But I think what we've seen is the growth of these curated emails where you have a personality, and that's partly because digital has really struggled to engage people in the way that media like television or radio was able to do. And therefore you're not really getting the time with media. And so I think the curated aspect is trying to build that connection, build that loyalty that media companies really are after.

To give just one example, the New York Times, which used to have a morning roundup, which was quite cold and clinical, added this authorial voice. David Leonhardt, who's a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist has been curating the morning email from the New York Times for several years now and he brings a more relaxed tone. But there are also risks around that because you bring a more human tone, it can risk injecting more bias or polarising opinions. In fact, Leonhardt himself was criticised over his COVID coverage. So you know, there's trade-offs and we also see some other emails trying to be the opposite of that and saying, you know, what we're going to be is completely unbiased and we're just going to give you the links and you can make your own views. So emails like 1440, for example, stress the impartial curation of more than 100 sources but still that same convenient package saving you time.

The value of email for news organisations 

Federica: What value do you think news organisations see in email newsletters? What does an email offer that the website can't?

Nic: Going back to when I was working on websites for the BBC, one of the frustrations was, ‘We're producing all of this content and we only have a front page.’ So you would have these huge arguments about what you put on the front page. And I think email kind of helps to solve that problem, because it allows you to create other front pages that may have a topic focus, or they may have a personality focus, just different ways of curating all of that content and resurfacing that content in different ways. So in the absence of amazing personalisation technology, which we've been waiting for, for about 20 years, I think email is actually the best way, or another great way, of giving you a front page into all of the content you have. And I think that's from a news organisation’s point of view, but also for a consumer’s point of view, that's one of the key advantages.

Federica: We shouldn't forget an important point, which is the business model, how are newsletters a part of news organisations’ business models at the moment?

Nic: It used to be that the core aim of news organisations when they were mainly ad supported was about reaching, about clicks. But I think increasingly now, it's about loyalty. It's about getting people to come back more often, it's about demonstrating that and email is probably the most important tool in in the armoury now about driving more frequent visits for many media organisations. And, you know, the data shows that people are much less likely to churn, to unsubscribe, if they've signed up to one or more email newsletters, for example.

So still, this rather old-fashioned technique of getting people to sign up to an email is the most effective way of keeping people engaged on a regular basis. And then acquisition, so getting new people to sign up. So that's another part of it, you know, via a free newsletter, you get their email address, and you can start to build a relationship with them. So it's important for acquisition, it's important for retention. And I think for subscription publishers, I think we're seeing a bit of a shift right now. It was primarily seen as marketing in the past, but I think we're seeing many more organisations bundle their emails in with a subscription product, so only available to subscribers as a way of locking people in more, I guess. So the Wall Street Journal, for example, has bundled it's 10-Point. morning briefing, which used to be free, into its core subscription product. The New York Times, has recently converted about a dozen of its newsletters, which were, again, free into subscriber-only products, and added a few new ones. So at the moment, the media industry is really worried about losing their subscribers because of the cost of living crisis and email is a really critical way of tying people in more closely.

Federica: Added value. Yeah, absolutely. Nic, thank you so much for joining us for the podcast today.

Listen to the rest of the series