The rapid COVID-19 developments and the almost-immediate dissemination of often less-than reliable information on social media challenged the Columbia Missourian’s efforts to ensure people could easily access our accurate and reliable reporting.
We turned, almost accidentally, to a topic-specific newsletter to share our COVID-19-related content. The Missourian had three newsletters, with no plans to add more. But the Missourian also is a real-time industry lab. My goal is to infuse a greater spirit of experimentation throughout our newsroom culture. To work on product development challenges that arise in smaller, local newsrooms with scarce resources, I am participating in the six-week Product Immersion for Small Newsroom training, an intensive six-week training by NewsCatalyst and the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY, developed in partnership with Google News Initiative. So, a co-worker’s last-minute compilation of a newsletter we had no idea would work or how long it would publish seemed the perfect opportunity to experiment.
Outlets including USA Today, The New York Times and Politico also developed COVID-19-themed newsletters. What we are learning about temporary, high-interest newsletters may help other local media outlets to consider newsletter best practices and even proper cessation plans. As part of holistic coverage, newsletters also can raise audience awareness of the irreplaceable service journalists provide and the importance of financially supporting our efforts.
A curated beginning
Our challenge was to offer convenient access to daily COVID-19 developments.
Under the direction of Missourian Director for Community Outreach Elizabeth Conner Stephens, on March 4 we posted curated content online from organizations including the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about everything from how the virus was transmitted to how to properly wash one’s hands. At the same time, Missourian journalists were producing a great deal of original reporting and photography and it became clear that some way of compiling and then sharing it would provide the best service to our readers.
How to get it done
The first Coronavirus Update newsletter was written March 13 by Elizabeth as a roundup of story descriptions with links. It was sent to email subscribers who receive daily headlines each morning. We knew it resonated — the open rate was 30% (and has climbed, since, as I’ll outline below). On Monday, March 16, outreach team member Morgan Smith wrote the second COVID-19 newsletter in the same style, and this time we asked readers already receiving the Missourian’s long-standing Today’s Headlines newsletter to subscribe to the Coronavirus Update.
We also promoted the offering on Facebook. As of Friday, we had 131 Coronavirus Update subscribers — folks who, as the analytics show below, are heavily invested in the coverage. The newsletter is sent five nights a week, at approximately 7 p.m. We also experimented with an edition this past weekend. We continue to manually curate the content combining our local work with national stories and interesting COVID-19 reads.
The average open-rate of the Coronavirus Update newsletters in the past week has been nearly 50%, double the roughly 24% open rate of all of our newsletters since January, according to analytics Morgan tracks.
Pay attention to what happens next
We added a positive story, video or other light-hearted content at the end of the newsletter. We plan to add a print and digital subscription ask. Once reader interest and news developments no longer indicate the nearly-daily necessity of the Coronavirus Update, we will formulate the best plan for its eventual end and the best way to share that with readers. We also will consider how and when to implement other special topic newsletters, whether a one-and-done or something longer term.
About the Columbia Missourian
The Columbia Missourian is a digital-first community newsroom that covers news and sports. The paper is supervised by professional editors and staffed by Missouri School of Journalism students who do the reporting, copy editing, design, photography and multimedia. This hands-on teaching of learning-by-doing is called “The Missouri Method.” The published work is optimized for social media, mobile and web, with the print editions delivered five-days-a-week. The publication was founded in 1908 as a community newspaper.
Executive Editor, Columbia, Missourian
Ruby Bailey is the Executive Editor of the Columbia Missourian, a community newspaper in Columbia, Mo., and holds the Missouri Chair in Community Newspaper Management at the Missouri School of Journalism.