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News outlets such as The Washington Post and The New York Times now send 50 or more newsletters to their readers regularly, while some media start-ups like Ozy and The Skimm have launched exclusively on email.

But a recent global survey has also shown plenty other media outlets have yet to acknowledge the potential of email, especially in the face of mobile growth.

In a paper published today (1 November) by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (RISJ), Andrew Jack, head of curated content at the Financial Times and a RISJ visiting fellow, provided an overview of the role and value of editorial newsletters and the opportunities and limitations of this format in the current media landscape.

Citing figures from the RISJ 2016 Digital News Report, Jack pointed out that while in most countries, email is a "niche platform" for news consumption, "far from dominant and beginning to wane", a number of media outlets have found the medium generates a "higher rate of conversions to subscription than social media".

"Over time, the medium may well be superseded and go into fresh decline," he wrote.

"But one of the most important messages for journalism will be to more widely exploit the curation of content for which emails have proved an important platform for experimentation.

"Those characteristics which have bolstered their success are finding parallels in other forms of journalistic output and will be increasingly valuable: discovery, curation, serendipity and 'finishability' in an ever-growing universe of digital content beyond the capacity of any individual to identify or absorb."

He explained how the limitations of email, such as technical production, space availability, spam filters and rendering images or videos, has prompted publishers to experiment with the format by placing more emphasis on aspects such as: curation, by "weaving a narrative" between stories and present it in a conversational style; serendipity, as some articles featured in the newsletter might be on unexpected subjects; and 'finishability', leading people to feel less overwhelmed by the amount of information available by providing a set, small number of articles in a newsletter or indicating the reading time for each story.

Email acts as a direct point of contact between news organisations and their audience, as newsletters are sent to readers through an app they already own and use as part of their daily routine, and due to the fact that people have actively opted in to become part of that community.

Newsletters are a "halfway house between print and digital", the author stated. Accessed online, they allow publishers to use them to encourage active input from readers, such as subscribing, purchasing an item or navigating to the website for more information. But the self-contained attribute of email also makes newsletters more easily accessible regardless of the type of data connection or poor bandwith.

The paper also looks at how news organisations, both legacy outlets such as Washington Post, NYT and The Economist and newer digital players including Quartz and BuzzFeed, have embraced newsletters as part of their distribution strategies, and how the format of email briefings differs according to publishers' overall goals and business models.

Jack found seven differences in the format and structure of newsletters, including: automated or manual story selection, the inclusion or exclusion of links to additional content, and sourcing content only from the publisher's own archive or including material from other publications.

"One challenge today for email – like so many other aspects of the digital newsroom – is monetisation," Jack pointed out in the report, which also plays into the extent to which news outlets have embraced newsletters and how many resources they choose to invest in this medium.

Some titles, such as The Economist and The Financial Times, have made the newsletter a standalone paid-for product or an add-on to existing subscription models, while others are using the format to generate web traffic and ultimately convert people into paying readers or monetise the experience in other ways.

Advertising also plays a role – for example, The Times' Red Box newsletter contains banner ads and Quartz's Daily Brief sometimes features native advertising or sponsored content.

Measuring the impact or success of newsletters can also be a challenge, as it differs according to the main aim of the product and the business models of the organisation.

For example, if the goal of a paywalled publication is to convert recipients into subscribers, newsletters provide data for click-through rates and how many people have opened the email.

But even this may not show the full picture, as a reader's decision to subscribe or register may often be a result of a mix of additional factors, so additional metrics such as scroll depth, dwell time and number of times an email has been forwarded should also be taken into account.

"New distribution mechanisms may well ultimately replace email. But they should not lose sight of the underlying role of content curation that emails have helped pioneer and champion, and which will continue to prove valuable to the readers of the future," Jack wrote.

Click here to read the full paper.

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