Nine’s newsrooms double down on newsletters as key content platform

By Mex Cooper

The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald, Brisbane Times, and WAToday

Melbourne, Australia

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For a long time, newsletters at Nine’s metro mastheads were considered a way to get a bunch of story links to readers — a box to tick in the newsrooms’ production process.

A list of links from The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, Brisbane Times, and WAtoday were dutifully e-mailed in the hope of generating pageviews. The process was speedy rather than thoughtful. Newsletter content was not created as much as hastily collated.

Under a subscription model, we knew our newsletters had the potential to be much more. The experience of overseas mastheads showed high-quality newsletters, carefully written and curated, could help retain and acquire subscribers. Additionally, our own subscriber research told us nearly one in three subscribers were interested in receiving newsletters from us.

We believed newsletters could sit alongside our Web sites and newspapers to serve as a considered and curated channel for our journalism, as well as generating newsletter-specific content with personally written messages from our journalists, which would build and strengthen our relationship with readers.

Nine has committed to delivering quality journalism through 18 newsletters.
Nine has committed to delivering quality journalism through 18 newsletters.

Selling newsletters to the newsroom

Journalists and editors often feel they are asked to do more with less, so we needed a strong case to ask them to invest time and talent in newsletters. We argued that quality newsletters:

  • Would allow for a direct relationship with readers.
  • Offer a curated experience that cuts through an overload of information.
  • Surface content readers are passionate about but can be difficult to find on other platforms thereby adding value to subscriptions.
  • Build reader habits.
  • Increase loyalty to the mastheads and our journalists.

The key for us was demonstrating the role newsletters would play in strengthening and deepening the connection between our most valuable readers and the work the newsroom was producing.

Saving time, adding value

First, we worked on what our morning newsletter would look like if written by a journalist with the best of our coverage skilfully packaged and presented. This level of curation, however, required an intensive production process. At first, our Morning Edition newsletter was created in a third-party platform designed for marketing e-mails.

Our journalists needed the flexibility to be able to write copy within newsletters, package together stories, and move beyond a simple list of links. But they were bogged down by tedious processes, such as having to manually input the HTML code to colour each hyperlink or individually crop and upload each image despite the fact they already existed in our new content management system, Ink.

It was clear that to optimise our newsletters, they needed to be integrated into Ink, which was recently awarded INMA’s best new technology or digital product. Ink is where we create articles, edit our Web sites, and plan across all our channels including Nine’s print newspapers. In Ink we could easily access our stories, images, and news lists. It meant the newsroom could work in a system people were already familiar with and wouldn’t have to leave it to create newsletters.

The editorial and product teams worked closely to design a set of building blocks that could be used in different arrangements to create templates within Ink, depending on that specific newsletter’s audience and purpose. Blocks included free text blocks, image blocks, header blocks, story blocks, and those that highlight opinion or feature articles. The templates, importantly, are flexible with blocks that can be moved, added, duplicated, and removed. Headers are editable as are headlines, copy, and images.

The first newsletter to migrate into Ink was our flagship, Morning Edition. The move reduced the time taken to edit and produce the newsletter by about 60%. Without these efficiencies, it would have been impossible to ask the newsrooms to deliver more narrative newsletters. We needed the focus to be on the writing and curating for our audience, not the production process.

Then the coronavirus pandemic overtook our planning. If ever there was an audience need for a trusted daily update on a specific news event, this was it. In mid-March as the virus took hold in Australia, we decided on a design for our Coronavirus Update newsletter and our product team worked around the clock to create our first new Ink newsletter template. They turned this around in a matter of days.

The template design was used to write two separate coronavirus newsletters — one for The Sydney Morning Herald and one for The Age — which proved invaluable when the experience of the pandemic began to vary greatly between states.

Within two weeks of launching the Herald’s and The Age’s Coronavirus Update newsletters, a total of 40,000 readers had signed up. This list has continued to grow since. Average unique open rates at the height of the pandemic were more than 60% and are now at 55% across both newsletters.

Building on what works

The unexpected yet invaluable experience of launching the Coronavirus Update has given us confidence in our newsletter strategy. Since the Morning Edition was migrated in late 2019, we have moved 18 newsletters from other platforms into Ink.

Editorial staff are now able to select a newsletter template within Ink, allowing them to write and curate the newsletter, send proofs, and send live e-mails instantly to readers. National newsletters can be created once in Ink, but when sent, are delivered to readers with the correct branding and relevant hyperlinks for their chosen masthead.

Along the way we have:

  • Audited our existing newsletter offerings.
  • Redesigned 17 of our newsletters.
  • Identified two underperforming newsletters that will be relaunched this month with a new focus, authors, and designs.
  • Relaunched our weekend newsletter to become Good Weekend and highlight our premium magazine’s content.
  • Employed a dedicated Morning Edition editor to raise the quality of our flagship newsletter, increasing our average unique open rate and newsletter lists.
  • Begun to develop a newsletter dashboard to track the performance of newsletters, in particular in relation to subscription journeys and retention.
  • Identified a suite of new newsletters that are currently in production to launch soon.
  • Designed our newsletter sign-up tiles from generic stock images to unique designs by an editorial artist.

In September, we launched Trump Biden 2020, written by our U.S. correspondent Matthew Knott in the lead up to America’s election. It’s already showing strong signs of growth and has an average unique open rate of 65%.

The next step is to validate the long list of newsletter ideas the newsrooms have generated with what we know, through data analysis, and by studying of our user habits and research so they will have the most impact and usefulness for our key audiences.

All of this means newsletters are no longer a box to tick. The success of our recent launches and redesigns means they are fast becoming central to the delivery of our journalism, the expression of our identity, and the worth of our subscriptions.

About Mex Cooper

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