Ease of use, platform independence and unique content make newsletters immensely popular in the United States. American media organizations praise them for fueling engagement with their audience. But the popularity of newsletters is actually declining in the United States.
Last year, one in five Americans used newsletters or email alerts, a Reuters Institute survey showed. One of the forerunners in the newsletter race was The New York Times, which sent its first news emails in 2001 and today produces 50 different newsletters read by 15 million people a week.
The Reuters Institute asked the audience why newsletters are compelling. The survey suggested the convenience of the format as the main reason for using email newsletters. Other factors were the tone and personality of the author as well as the unique content that newsletters provide.
The daily newsletter from Chicago Public Media has a weekly open rate of 40%, which equals 400,000 readers. Their COVID-specific newsletter during the pandemic was opened by 80% of recipients.
“Newsletters are without a doubt the fastest growing platform for us,” says CEO Matt Moog at Chicago Public Media. “The New York Times say they have four front pages: the printed newspaper, the online edition, the Daily podcast and the morning newsletter. It is the same for us. Email has become one of our primary platforms, maybe even the most important one.”
Tim Franklin, senior associate dean at the Medill School at Northwestern University in Chicago, says newsletters answer to a demand by people who are flooded by news.
“Newsletters are like a friend that you invite into your inbox,” Franklin says. “You can’t read the whole internet, but you can spare 5–10 minutes to read a well-curated newsletter sent to you in the morning. On top of that, advertisers love newsletters, as they know exactly who is reading the emails and can measure the success of campaigns.”
The possibility to monetize content has persuaded individual and freelance journalists in the United States to focus on emails. Many of them use Substack that provides the infrastructure to distribute and promote newsletters. Founded in 2017, the San Francisco-based company managed to attract one million paying subscribers in only four years, which demonstrates the strong demand for newsletters.
However, the newsletter trend is not as clear when looking at user data. The popularity of newsletters is actually declining in the United States, with a clear drop in weekly usage from 27% to 22% in the past eight years (2014–2022), the Reuters Institute’s data show. Instead, mobile alerts and social media shares are becoming increasingly important.
Also, the rest of the world hasn’t embraced newsletters the same way as Americans have. In the Nordic countries significantly fewer people get their news via email. For example in Finland only 11% on a weekly basis. In the UK, the figure is only 9%. One reason, the Reuters Institute suggests, might be that non-American media organizations have “stronger brand connections with users,” meaning the audience is more likely go directly to an organization’s website or app. This makes newsletters somewhat redundant.
“The ‘Substack revolution’ for news is still primarily a U.S. phenomenon and it is not guaranteed to catch on elsewhere,” digital strategist Nic Newman writes in the most recent Reuters Digital News Report.
Photo above: CEO Matt Moog at Chicago Public Media (photo: Julieta Nassau)