By Urbano Reviglio and Danielle Borges
The digital transformation provoked a disruptive effect on the media sector, particularly due to the decrease in advertising revenues. At the same time, it enabled the diversification of media revenue models, including strategies for audience engagement and distribution, opening the possibility for local media providers to create innovative responses to tackle the challenges posed by digitalisation.
Departing from the data collected by the roster of researchers involved in the project Local Media for Democracy (LM4D), this blog post is the first of a series of three that will explore best practices in the local and community media sector and offer some examples found across the European Union (EU). The LM4D project considers best practices as innovative responses offered by local media outlets to enhance reach and audience, including new forms of work, journalistic products, or services. This first blog post focuses on best practices in the realm of audience and user engagement, in particular on how news organizations, especially local and community media outlets, are making efforts to engage audiences in the harsh competition of the attention economy.
One of the most popular strategies we came across during the research phase of the LM4D project is the deployment of e-mail newsletters. They have become popular again as a means of disseminating curated news both by legacy print and by newer digital media. Such “renaissance of newsletters” is occurring for various reasons but mainly to avoid being locked into the ecosystems of social media and to regain a gatekeeping power (Hendrickx et al., 2020). E-mail newsletters offer a high degree of targeting, curated content, analysis and commentaries. However, their structures and content can vary significantly, reflecting different editorial visions, objectives or business models (Jack, 2016). And yet, all these usually allow for personalised, carefully curated news experiences for specific niches. They typically do not rely on algorithms to determine what content is shown to subscribers, giving readers a sense of autonomy and control over the content they receive. Also, in an era where the competition for attention is fierce, newsletters can cut through the noise and provide focused, distraction-free content. Indeed, the majority of users (65%) say they enjoy the “convenience” of the format (Newman, 2022).
Several of the media outlets investigated and interviewed for this blog post have been using newsletters as the main source of engagement with readers. VierNull, for instance, is a local news media from Düsseldorf, Germany, founded in 2021, that publishes news every weekday in the format of an online newsletter, which are sent to subscribers at 5:30 am. A consistent schedule can indeed create a sense of anticipation and routine (a “news habit”) increasing the likelihood that subscribers will open and read the letter. The newsletter contains only one main story and is structured around a personal introduction, a news section and a recommendation section on the explanation about the main article. The idea behind this structure is to show the reader how the work of journalists develops, the reason for choosing a specific topic, the discussion and research around this topic, and what was learned during the writing phase of the article. This is intended to engage and inform the audience on the journalistic process. The outlet is funded mainly by subscriptions and the fact that they do not rely on advertising revenues makes their newsletter even shorter, reassuring their readers that “all news in the letter is important”, as explains Christian Herrendorf, one of the editors.
Another media outlet effectively using newsletters is InsideStory, from Athens, Greece. The editors apply the principles of slow journalism, which emphasises in-depth research, meticulous fact-checking, and a deliberate, thoughtful presentation of news and stories. They offer one deeply investigated and detailed article per day. The authors take all the time needed to develop their stories and avoid any simplification or sensational interpretation. This approach, the editors argue, is one of the main reasons why InsideStory is being rewarded in terms of subscriptions and visibility. But it is not all. They are also manifestly independent, non-partisan, as well as proactively transparent: fundamental features for high-quality journalism. Overall, this is a successful recipe to regain trust and attention from audiences. And yet, as the editor in chief assures, not only the news production and consumption are “slow”, but also regaining trust is a slow process. Consistency in their mission is therefore crucial, and newsletters are ideal in conveying that.
Traditional newsletters can also represent a fruitful strategy to engage audiences. A unique example in this regard is Nyomtassteis, a non-profit media outlet from Hungary founded in 2017, which assembles a weekly newsletter that usually contains 6 different topics. The content is not originally produced in their newsrooms but selected by the editorial board. The newsletter is then printed and freely distributed all over the country by volunteers; anyone can print out an A4 sheet of news and put it in their local mailboxes. “Nyomtassteis” means exactly “you print it” in Hungarian. One of the target audiences is the rural population living in small villages with scarce access to internet and low digital skills. Therefore, editors’ choices also take into consideration topics that can be of interest to this specific group and sometimes to specific areas too. In this case, newsletter can also offer a one-to-one connection between the creator and the audience that can build trust and a sense of intimacy, and they can also include discussions, overall fostering a sense of community and connection. This is another significant value added of newsletters which can be leveraged even in online settings.
Another thriving format encountered during our research is that of podcasts. They can be defined as episodic series of audio files that can be downloaded, subscribed or simply listened (Newman & Gallo, 2019). Unlike other journalism formats using the transmission of voice, such as radio, podcasts are considered a more active process where listeners demonstrate a greater degree of engagement (Berry, 2016). This allows for episodes being developed in a more demanding way, using immersive and narrative storytelling techniques that can be consumed at an ease pace, as a form of “slow media”, which creates a personal connection between the hosts and listeners. Another feature of podcasts is indeed intimacy, strengthened by the use of headphones. However, at the same time, they also create a “sense of collectivity” by allowing recommendations and sharing among users. Moreover, podcasts are transnational, crossing national borders and flowing online across different platform providers (Bonini, 2022). These reasons may explain why this format has become widespread in Europe with its usage ranging from 27% in Belgium to 45% in Spain (Newman et al. 2023). These shared characteristics are attractive to audiences which are seeking a more deliberate, mindful, and meaningful media experience. Indeed, several news media experiment with podcasts. The above-mentioned outlet Viernull, for example, has produced a podcast on true crime. As its editor argues: “the biggest challenge is to be known and recognised in a world with an information overload”.
Podcasts can help to gain more visibility. Kulturpunkt is another outlet experimenting with podcasts and one of the first in the Croatian media landscape. According to its editor-in-chief, Ivana Pejić, with its direct approach and accessibility to the production phase, podcasts are also perceived “as a huge step towards democratization of communication outside the authoritative structure of the state radio monopoly”. To disseminate their podcasts, Kulturpunkt also employs radio-based community media on a local level to expand reach, and continually researches and tests various formats of mediation for their content. For instance, they introduced a format of collaborative writing for the reviews of contemporary art, and the reports on social and cultural events are enhanced with extensive visuals and audio snippets.
The experiences of the news media referred in this blog post show that e-mail newsletters and podcasts are effective formats to connecting with audiences despite the different objectives and profiles of the media outlets. Online newsletters have proved to be a powerful strategy to engage audiences, regain their trust and encourage new subscriptions. Their success of these formats shows that there is room to compete with mainstream social media also by leveraging their limitations, such as a lack of control over personalisation, attention-grabbing strategies, and questionable privacy protections. Similarly, podcasts are powerful tools for engaging audiences, particularly younger ones. Publishers’ willingness is indeed to invest more in podcasts and newsletters, as these two formats have proved to be successful in increasing loyalty and in attracting new subscribers (Newman, 2022). In a fiercely competitive media arena, in which attention is scarce and unscrupulous tactics that threaten journalism quality and erode trust in media are widely deployed, these successful formats emphasise the opportunity to offer informative experiences that truly resonate with audience’s needs and, eventually, engage them by openly building trust, not by stealthily capturing their attention.
This blog post has been written in the context of the LM4D project.
Berry, Richard (2016) Podcasting: Considering the evolution of the medium and its association with the word ‘radio’. The Radio Journal International Studies in Broadcast and Audio Media, 14 (1)
Bonini, T. (2022) Podcasting as a hybrid cultural form between old and new media. In M. Lindgren and J. Loviglio, Routledge Companion to Radio and Podcast Studies (pp. 19-29), London: Routledge.
Jack, A. (2016). Editorial email newsletters: the medium is not the only message. Editorial email newsletters: The medium is not the only message. (Oxford paper most cited)
Hendrickx, J., Donders, K., & Picone, I. (2020). Innovating journalism by going back in time? The curious case of newsletters as a news source in Belgium. Journalistic metamorphosis: Media transformation in the digital age, 57-68.
Newman, N., & Gallo, N. (2019). News Podcasts and the Opportunities for Publishers. In Digital News Report. Reuters Institute of Journalism.
Newman, N. (2022) Journalism, Media, and Technology Trends and Predictions. Digital News Project, Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, January 2022. Available at https://reutersinstitute.politics.ox.ac.uk/sites/default/files/2023-01/Journalism_media_and_technology_trends_and_predictions_2023.pdf (last accessed 26.10.23).
Newman, N., Fletcher, R., Eddy, K., Robertson, C. T., & Nielsen, R. K. (2023). Digital News Report 2023. Available at https://reutersinstitute.politics.ox.ac.uk/digital-news-report/2022/email-news-its-contribution-to-engagement-and-monetisation (last accessed 26.10.23).