Here’s what happened when Texas Tribune sharpened its newsletter strategy
By Katie Hawkins-Gaar
Several years ago, the Texas Tribune staff published an ambitious strategic plan that recognized membership as the highest form of engagement. Newsletters, they determined, were key to reaching that goal.
“We’ve consistently found that newsletters are the number one driver towards membership,” said Liam Andrew, the Tribune’s chief product officer. “If we get somebody to subscribe to an email, they are much more likely to become a member,” he explained.
“Newsletters are our best way to further that strategic goal we laid out.”
At the start of 2023, the Tribune doubled down on that goal to reach and engage more Texans, starting with its robust email and newsletter program. The Tribune joined the News Revenue Hub to help recharge the Tribune’s newsletter offerings.
Over the course of a six-month sprint, the Hub and Tribune teams worked together to develop a roadmap and vision for the Tribune’s newsletter products, improve newsletter performance, and identify future opportunities for growth and engagement.
On June 21, that sprint came to a close as a group of 29 Tribune stakeholders gathered together for a thorough review of the Hub’s recommendations. The presentation, co-delivered by Hub vice president Evan Mackinder and Texas Tribune staffers Reese Oxner and Allyson Waller, along with Andrew, covered what the group had accomplished in terms of improving newsletter performance and developing a stronger identity, as well as where Tribune newsletters were headed.
“News organizations are looking for ways to increase their reader engagement and revenue — and newsletters are the key to doing just that,” said Mary Walter-Brown, chief executive officer of the News Revenue Hub. Since founding the organization in 2016, Walter-Brown and the Hub team have worked closely with dozens of newsrooms to examine their newsletter offerings.
Mackinder said newsrooms typically come to the Hub for help finding a “center of gravity” for their newsletters: looking for guidance on attaching goals to newsletter products, measuring their success, and connecting newsletters to revenue. Some clients come looking for newsletter optimization — “small tweaks, not a total overhaul,” Mackinder explained — while other organizations seek assistance with an overall newsletter strategy.
The Tribune – with more than 16 newsletters and email products reaching 150,000+ total subscribers and representing a $1M+ revenue line – contracted with the Hub to both optimize its flagship newsletter products and start down the road of examining its full suite of email offerings, especially to align those newsletter products with its membership program.
The Hub and Tribune teams worked together in a six-month sprint from January to June 2023 – here’s what they accomplished:
A thorough assessment
The Tribune initially wanted to focus on its two flagship newsletters: The Brief, a daily newsletter dedicated to informing Texans about their state, including politics, public policy and impacts on their communities; and The Blast, a subscriber-only daily newsletter that delivers deep-dive statehouse reporting and in-depth context about Texas politics. While The Brief is a free daily newsletter, The Blast is the Tribune’s premium subscription product with a variety of pricing levels.
With the 2023 Texas Legislature in session, a new writer for The Blast premium product on board and a product / audience working group assembled, the Tribune was ready to sharpen its strategy and re-examine content, audience and revenue strategies for its daily and premium newsletters.
The Hub’s first step was to do an overall assessment of The Brief and The Blast. Mackinder, along with Hub news product specialist Mac Blair, analyzed Mailchimp data “to look at a broad array of metrics to gauge the basic health of those products,” he explained. They looked at growth, engagement and revenue, as well as the newsletters’ design, readability and skimability. They also created surveys for newsletter readers, and explored the Tribune’s strategies for acquisition and cross-promotion.
With all of that information in hand, the Hub team “laid out a giant assessment for senior [Tribune] staff,” which included next steps and best practices to improve both products, Mackinder explained. From there, the Hub and Tribune teams created a roadmap for the work ahead.
The first step of the roadmap was to create distinct value propositions and goals for both newsletters. Mackinder and Blair led the Tribune team through a strategic workshop — lasting around three hours per newsletter — that answered questions about what makes each product unique, what readers want, and how each product is connected to revenue. After the workshop, the Tribune product team drafted memos for each newsletter that were circulated among senior management.
The focus on communication paid off. “There was a lot of confidence from senior Tribune staff after receiving those memos,” Mackinder recalled. “The working group just ran with it and knocked it out of the park.”
“This was a huge project to undertake,” said Reese Oxner, product manager for The Texas Tribune. Oxner, who moved to product from the editorial side of the Tribune in August 2022, said he was especially appreciative of the structure the Hub provided.
“Having a six-month sprint clearly defined, plus having the Hub as thought partners from week to week helped us to put the rails in front of the train in ways we hadn’t been able to before,” Oxner said. “We were able to establish goals and quickly begin making progress.”
A sense of direction
Thanks to subscriber list cleaning efforts and product improvements, open rates for both The Blast and The Brief improved over the course of the six months — The Brief: 41.7% to 43.1% and The Blast, 67.2% to an impressive 69.7%. The open rate for all Tribune newsletter products increased by an average of 12.3%.
Likewise, both The Brief and The Blast saw increases in click-through rates (CTR). In particular, The Brief’s CTR more than doubled, from 1.1% to 2.3%.
These were just some of the numbers that the Hub and Tribune working group presented at the final stakeholder meeting on June 21. It was the fourth time the larger stakeholder group had met during the six-month sprint.
“Having four major stakeholder meetings baked into the schedule was key to our success,” Oxner explained. “It allowed us — as a smaller, nimble group — to keep things moving while giving the overall stakeholder group a forum to provide feedback and get updated on things.”
Andrew, the Tribune’s chief product officer, noted that the newsletter sprint coincided with Texas’ legislative session — “which is the busiest time of the year for us.”
“I don’t think we would have gotten as much stakeholder engagement if we hadn’t been on this deadline and had such built-in accountability,” Andrew said. “Otherwise, we’d be pushing meetings back every week and, before you knew it, the project would have been delayed.”
A vision for the future
In addition to analyzing and making recommendations for The Brief and The Blast, the Tribune asked the Hub to examine the newsroom’s broader newsletter strategy “and how we might rethink and overhaul that too,” Mackinder said.
The final stakeholder presentation included a host of recommendations for the future. Those included establishing product goals, creating stock reader surveys, and consolidating some newsletter products.
There was qualitative growth, too. Allyson Waller, who writes The Brief, said she felt “a greater sense of purpose after working with the News Revenue Hub.”
“I feel like this process taught me to better exercise my talents as a liaison with the product and audience team,” she said. “I feel more motivated to move around and not silo myself as much.”
Although the six-month sprint has ended, Oxner said the Tribune is keeping the momentum going. “We’re still adopting some of the project management principles that the Hub brought, including weekly meetings and stakeholder calls — roadmaps that we built together.”
Moving forward, the Tribune is focused on increasing newsletter sign-ups and conversions, bundling specific newsletters, and growing unique audiences, among other things. They are also planning to sunset one newsletter and launch another.
“I really feel good about moving ahead,” Oxner added. “We did a lot of work in six months and, while we definitely don’t want to be in constant marathon mode, this helped us establish a system for continuing improvements and talking to stakeholders. It taught us how to shift a big, huge abstract task of improving our newsletters into bite-sized ways to tackle it.”
Mackinder says he’s excited to witness the Tribune’s progress. He also shared that, while the Tribune is a relatively large nonprofit newsroom, this kind of newsletter strategy work can be scaled up or down to fit any news organization.
“The Hub will meet you where you are,” Mackinder said. No matter a newsroom’s size, the most important factor is understanding the value and importance of newsletters, he added.
“Even from the beginning, the Tribune understood philosophically that newsletters are an absolutely crucial component of their product strategy, their reader engagement strategy and their reader revenue strategy, because all those things are intertwined,” Mackinder said. “It’s the uniqueness and strength of newsletters that helps newsrooms to pull in more and more membership dollars at the end of the day.”
Walter-Brown, founder and CEO of the Hub, is thrilled with the progress The Texas Tribune has realized with its newsletter suite of products. “The newsletter has largely replaced the newspaper on your doorstep,” she said. “People wake up to newsletters. They go to bed reading newsletters. It’s the most direct way that newsrooms can connect with readers.”