This year’s hotly-anticipated Digital News Report 2022 from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism has landed. The report surveys over 93,000 online news consumers across 46 markets, covering half of the world’s population.
For the first time, there is a whole chapter dedicated to understanding email news consumption, from its contribution to engagement to monetisation opportunities. Industry attention around newsletters is often focused on the United States, but the Reuters team wanted to know if the hype was reflected elsewhere. “More widely, we wanted to understand more about the appeal of newsletters in general,” the chapter’s author Nic Newman writes. “In what ways can this low-tech and often unfashionable medium help build or support sustainable journalism?”
We have been watching the rise of email newsletters closely over the past few years. We’ve spoken to newsletter innovators from Axios to 6AM City and Morning Brew, as well as solo newsletter creators like Casey Newton and Anne Helen Petersen. So we were excited to get stuck into this chapter, and have drawn out four learnings for publishers.
1: Email has room to grow
We often hear talk of ‘peak newsletter’, but one thing the Digital News Report 2022 makes clear is that we have a long way to go before the majority of people are reading a newsletter. Even in Austria, the country with the most email news readers, less than a quarter of respondents regularly accessed news via email. The average across all markets is 17%, and the UK is the lowest, at just 9%.
Given that email is one of the internet’s oldest communication formats, the fact that its use for news is so low is surprising, especially as almost everyone has an email address. We could potentially point to publishers underestimating the power of email for this. It is only in the last five years that the success of email-first news publishers like Axios has driven investment and expansion from other organisations.
However, publisher investment in newsletters hasn’t helped, yet. “Despite the increase in the supply of newsletters in the last few years, the proportion accessing them has actually fallen in many countries,” the report notes.
It attributes this to increased competition from social media, online aggregators, and news alerts from mobile phone apps. In the United States, weekly use has fallen from 27% to 22% since 2014, although the last four years has been fairly static. In that time, the use of mobile alerts has tripled.
It is worth noting that among those who do subscribe to email newsletters, the convenience of the format is cited as the top reason by 65% of respondents. “I enjoy receiving headlines in emails,” said one respondent, who appreciates the control and choice of email. “I can read the article, or skip it, and use keywords for more research on the topic.”
The report says that convenience is also about the time-saving aspect of email. ‘What you need to know’ formats became especially popular during the pandemic, and are now a staple at places like CNN and the BBC. Axios are masters of the ‘smart brevity’ format, delivering their emails via concise, 300 word bullet-point articles.
As overwhelm and news avoidance grow, publishers have an opportunity to position email newsletters as a solution to the firehose of content available online. The value proposition will vary by brand, but it is clear from the report that there is room for careful curation, brevity, and even informality.
2: The email age gap is stark
It isn’t surprising that the report has found email news is valued “mainly by older, richer, and more educated news consumers, most of whom are already deeply invested in news.” One in seven over 55s in the US say that email is their primary way of accessing news.
But what is shocking is how much that drops among younger people. Just 5% of 25-34 year olds and 3% of 18-24 year olds rely on email access as a main source. For 41% of Gen Z-ers, social media is the main way of finding news. Overall, more than 80% of all those in the US who use email as their main source for news are 35+.
Of course, this is just people who say the primary way they access news is through email. For many, email news is almost certainly just one access point of many, competing with social media, publisher apps and websites, and TV for attention. Nonetheless, it is a useful measure of where relative importance on sources is placed.
What does this mean for publishers with newsletters? As with any platform, it is good to be aware of which audiences are more likely to access news through that format. Successful digital publishers are ones who publish in many mediums in order to meet audiences where they prefer to read.
It should also be noted that email – at the moment – is a format which grows in importance as people enter the workplace and use it more frequently. Just because 18 year olds aren’t signing up for email newsletters now doesn’t mean they still won’t in a decade’s time. But if younger people are a key target market, be aware of the fact that they aren’t glued to their inboxes in the same way as the more chronologically accomplished folk.
3: Solo operators are still small…for now
The last few years have seen a number of high-profile journalists and columnists leave established organisations to set up newsletter-based businesses of their own, especially as publishing tools have made it easier to earn a living. We spoke to a selection of them back in 2020 about the realities of going it alone with reader revenue as a journalist.
With all the hype, it would be easy to conclude that the market for solo operators is saturated. But the Digital News Report suggests otherwise. Across ten selected countries, over half (53%) of those who get news emails receive them from mainstream media organisations. Alternative news sources are popular with 27% of them, followed by specialist media (23%). Just 16% of people receiving news emails get them from journalists operating on their own.
Geographical differences are stark here, too. The US – where both the tools to publish and the publicity surrounding journalists is concentrated – emails from individuals are almost five times as popular (18%) than in the UK (4%), and more than twice as popular as in Germany (8%). This shows just how much further journalist-led media businesses have developed in the US market. This offers hope for future growth for writers in countries other than the US.
The report also found a significant overlap between those receiving emails from mainstream media organisations and individual journalists. “This suggests that alternative and journalist-led emails, which often speak to smaller and more specialist audiences, are often used as a supplement to general news emails – rather than a replacement,” Newman writes.
4: Payments are in their early days
It is only relatively recently that paid newsletters have become part of the product mix at mainstream news organisations. Email has primarily been used as a way to engage users and drive traffic to apps and websites where the traffic can be more easily monetised. Even among outlets that have paid email newsletters, these are often as part of a wider membership or subscription proposition, rather than being a standalone product.
Trying to establish audience willingness to pay for email newsletters is therefore quite a complex task. The Digital News Report has, however, found that 7% of those paying for online news in the US subscribe to an email-led news product from an individual journalist. In Germany and Australia, that figure is just 1%.
“The ‘Substack revolution’ for news is still primarily a US phenomenon and it is not guaranteed to catch on elsewhere, especially given the difference in market size and context,” Newman warns.
For both solo journalists and news outlets, the extent to which audiences globally will pay for email as a standalone product remains unanswered. That in itself is something to bear in mind next time someone writes about having reached peak newsletter.