Newsletters create engagement

During my 45-minute commute home from my job as a high school journalism teacher, I was thinking about what I could have my magazine students do in May. I realize I’m a bit ahead of myself, but I had just got done telling my students they only three issues of our monthly Cub Reporter publication. Sure, they will work on our website (www.sterlingstudentpublications.com), but I didn’t think that was enough for a month of class time when they already update the website while producing the magazine.

Once I got home, I was browsing some of my favorite sites, and I found this article from Poynter‘s Benjamin Mullin: How The Washington Post is using newsletters and alerts to reach readers.

Mullin’s report said newsletters are allowing the Washington Post to create deeper engagement with their readers. A newsletter cuts through the noise of attempting to engage via social media and puts the Post’s content directly in front of the readers. The email inbox is a sacred space. I check mine constantly. Most of the time the messages are of little importance that quickly get trashed, but if I got an email from a place I specifically sought out and signed up to receive updates from, I’m going to open it and read it.

This is brilliant, especially when you consider what Mullin said:

After enough emails, the reader could engage deeper, perhaps by commenting on a story, sharing it on social media or emailing a reporter. Before long, they might pay to become a digital subscriber. Newsletters and push alerts also give The Washington Post a direct connection to readers, unmediated by platforms like Facebook or Google.

What’s more, as the article points out, email alerts often show up on the lock screen of smart phones. So now, not only is the Post gaining access to email inboxes, it is also finding its way onto the space where people look on average 46 times per day. This blows me away and shows the incredible potential for email. In a time when social media is all the rage, an “old school” method of communication seems to still be quite viable.

Of course, for it to be viable, the Post does one more thing I think is a home run — the newsletters are targeted and authored. Each newsletter concerns a specific topic and is “written by journalists with a specific audience in mind — and less on feed-based newsletters that feature a digest of popular stories,” according to Mullin. “Newsletters at their best are a separate editorial product, not some kind of clickthrough carnival barker.”

I have somehow ended up being subscribed to a few newsletters that are just digests for top stories, and though I might click on a few of those headlines, I don’t dive as deep as I would if I were getting more targeted content like the Post is providing.

So how does this apply to my student journalists? That’s simple. I’m going to challenge them to come up with an email newsletter we could send out once or twice a week. I want them to use the month of May to develop a plan that can be implemented next school year. All the students in our school are given email addresses they have to use to access their Google Apps for Education accounts. Mailing lists already exist to reach all the students, all the faculty and staff, and everyone in the school as a whole. We could even target the emails at certain grade levels based upon the email lists that the technology gurus already established.

Sure, I could attempt to implement this right away, but I don’t want to make a half-hearted attempt at this type of engagement. Our social media engagement has never taken off, and though I’m not so naive to think all the students will actually read such an email, I do think we have a better chance of providing enticing content through this method.

Therefore, I want to flesh out a solid plan. Maybe that plan involves a couple staffers being assigned to create the newsletter every two weeks, maybe we create a position called “the newsletter czar” and that person does it all the time, maybe we do something else entirely. I don’t know what it will look like, but I think the possibilities are quite good. Perhaps this would be a way we could match our digital readership with the readership of our physical product without my small staff of five student journalists getting burned out.

I’m excited, and I can’t wait to turn them loose on this project. They are bright and talented young journalists. I’m confident they can come up with something stellar.