This is a series on Better News to a) showcase innovative/experimental ideas that emerge from the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative and b) share replicable tactics that benefit the news industry as a whole. This “win” comes from Randi Stevenson, executive producer, and Cameron Songer, newsletter editor, both of the San Antonio Express-News. The Express-News participated in the 2019-2020 Poynter Table Stakes program.
Question: What communities do you serve and what can you tell us about the history of your organization?
Answer: The San Antonio Express-News is the third-largest daily paper in Texas, covering one of the country’s fastest growing cities. The paper was first published in 1865 and, today, takes a digital-first approach to journalism.
Q: What challenge were you trying to overcome, and why was solving the problem strategically important for your organization?
A: At first, visits: How do we drive more people from our newsletters to ExpressNews.com so that they ultimately become digital subscribers? Having a robust digital subscriber base ensures the longevity of our newsroom as print revenue becomes a bigger challenge.
As our subscriber base has evolved, so has our newsletter challenge. Now, depending on the newsletter, we are more focused on engagement and retention (open rate, click-thru rate, etc.). How do we keep our paying customers engaged?
Q: How is this approach related to Table Stakes (e.g. one of the 7 Table Stakes and/or an outgrowth of the Knight-Lenfest initiative, etc.)?
A: This initiative is related to Table Stake No. 1 (“Serve targeted audiences with targeted content”). Our current portfolio consists of 12 newsletters – three that are of general interest and nine that focus on niche topics. While the list size on the niche newsletters tends to be smaller, they are a mighty audience with generally higher open and click-thru rates than our flagship newsletters meant to serve everyone. As our newsletter strategy evolves from visits to retention, these niche lists will become more important.
Q: How did you go about solving the problem?
- Keep our newsletter format simple so that one editor can handle production for the 12 products on a daily basis. Our newsletters include a list of headlines with a photo and abstract each. We curate the list, but the elements are automatically pulled from our CMS into our newsletter vendor, Sailthru. A few newsletters have minimal customized intro text.
- Be willing to experiment with new products, list configurations and newsletter offerings. Over the years, we’ve been playing with our audience segments to show more/less of a newsletter to more or fewer readers. We’ve also combined lists. We’ve become more open-minded about what leads our newsletters. We’ve played with weekend vs. weekday sends. It’s a constant balance between audience needs (what’s trending!) and journalism fundamentals (what our readers need to know). Dig into a few examples below.
Q: What about your workflow makes this doable?
Everything is based on the premise that we have a dedicated staff member who is focused solely on newsletters and accountable for their success. Having one person curate everything, with some targeted help from newsroom departments on various niche newsletters, ensures that our tone and execution remain consistent.
We tap additional staff as needed. For example, our assistant metro editor is invaluable during the build-up to the deadline for the 2:10 p.m. newsletter, as an interface between the digital team and the reporters/editors on each desk.
We look at our 210 Report newsletter as an afternoon roundup of the biggest stories of the day so far. It’s a mix of breaking news, local and statewide stories, digital-only projects, our latest podcast – a really wide range. Oftentimes, stories that run in the 210 Report are not finalized for the day, they’re first versions, so to speak. To that end, editors and reporters know that in order for a story to make the 210 Report, it must be ready by 1:45 p.m., although we’re building, editing and tweaking the newsletter starting at about 12:30 p.m.
Q: What new things did you try? Were they successful?
Experiment with content: Historically, we’ve led our flagship weekday afternoon newsletter, The 210 Report, with the most important story happening in San Antonio today. In 2021, we shifted to what readers are telling us they’re most interested in. Maybe that’s the most important story, the Big J project, or maybe not. But when we started to rely more on real-time audience reaction, we saw the impact. Open rates trend higher and all stories (not just the lead/subject line) get a boost.
Experiment with lists: The 210 Report used to be set only to paying digital subscribers. We viewed the product as a perk for those who pay us, but found that being more inclusive paid dividends toward growing site visits and digital subscriptions.
- In November 2020, we started allowing former subscribers and other engaged readers to receive the 210 Report and, in conjunction, solicited signups from that larger audience. The list size grew roughly 50%.
- We continued to solicit signups for a “free” afternoon newsletter through 2021.
- We then loosened the list criteria again at the start of 2022. We brought less-engaged readers – who had stopped receiving the email due to our tight criteria – back on.That added another 15K emails overnight.
- Fast forward to 2022: We send five emails a week to about 70,000 former or potential subscribers. It’s a great way to showcase our journalism and get them to become subscribers.
Learn more about newsletter strategies: Measuring trust | Connecting with communities of color | Hyperlocal journalism
Q: How are you using what you’ve learned with the 210 report for any other newsletters?
A: The biggest lesson we’ve carried from 210 Report to our other newsletters is to follow the audience data. This doesn’t mean chasing clicks – we remain fair, balanced and apply good journalistic practices. But if we feel like a certain story is more worthy of a top slot but the audience is telling us something else, we listen. A strong open rate means every other item in the newsletter has a better chance of getting read.
Q: What happened that you didn’t expect?
A: We expected our main KPI’s (click-thru rate and open rate) to drop when we opened up the list. Non-subscribers surely won’t be as engaged with the product? And it’s true: With each move to loosen our criteria, we saw a dip. On the flip side, another somewhat expected outcome: Visits increased because so many more people were receiving the email.
What’s surprising: Slowly over the course of the last two years, as the list has more than doubled in size, click-thru and open rates have crept back up. Now, they’re close to where they were when the newsletter launched, when only subscribers could read it. This tells us that prospects (now the majority of the list) are clicking through to the site at a healthy rate.
Q: What would you do differently now? What did you learn?
A: We would have made the move much sooner to get our flagship newsletters with big lists – like 210 Report – into more inboxes and not just those of subscribers. It’s OK (albeit scary) to experiment with your largest audience segments because those will have the biggest impact.
Q: What advice would you give to others who want to replicate your success?
A: Don’t be afraid to give the audience what it wants in a subject line (theft at a local sex toy shop – oh my!) because that email open can help bolster your heavy hitters (a narrative profile on a long-COVID patient). We learned by pushing the envelope.
Also, it’s important to understand your audience and KPIs for each newsletter.
We have newsletters that include more text and are meant to be consumed in the inbox. Our Opinion newsletter list is small and mighty, so it’s less about visits, more about engagement.
The 210 Report isn’t that. It’s quick-hits on the news of the day. We tease these stories so that readers have to visit the site to read. This list is about reaching more people and growing the list in a healthy way.