July 1, 2020

Roadmap: How to launch your newsletter as a journalist

A quick guide to launching your first newsletter as a journalist. Also applicable to others seeking to write newsletters.

Roadmap: How to launch your newsletter as a journalist

1. Identify your niche

The most successful newsletters focus on a specific theme for a target audience. Before you start writing one, you need to dedicate time to reflecting on your skills, knowledge, experiences, personality, and any existing audience you have or can access. This is how you’ll identify your niche.

This is undoubtedly the most important part of the whole process, so don’t be tempted to rush it. It’s better to feel good about what you’re doing than start off on the wrong foot.

Aim to write a brief proposition page for your newsletter like this one. Keep in mind that your niche will develop as you do, so think of this as your first niche and expect to refine it as you go along.

2. Create a schedule

Readers feel most connected to writers who publish consistently and regularly, so think carefully about the time you have and how often you can realistically write and publish. This is the time to be realistic rather than optimistic.

Newsletters are a long-term asset, so writing yours has to fit into your lifestyle and availability. It’s almost always better to under-promise and over-deliver than accidentally do the opposite. You have to show up for your readers.

Once you’ve decided your schedule, record it in some way — a spreadsheet, project management tools, piece of paper or calendar. This will help keep you accountable.

3. Decide your format

Your schedule will have an impact on the format you choose for your newsletter, so consider this aspect of things alongside your schedule.

Some people choose to publish curated content once a week, while others drop a 5,000-word investigate feature every three months. There’s no right or wrong, but try to choose a format that you can stick with for at least 3-6 months. If you change things up too often, you won’t know what works,

You’ll begin to lose people if you send them something different every week, and you won’t have the chance to reflect properly on what’s working. When you do want to experiment, put a timeframe on what you’re doing and test out one idea at a time.

4. Start publishing

Once you’ve figured out the basics, it’s time to hit “send” for the first time. This is an experience that’s nerve-wracking and exhilarating in equal parts! But publishing gives you something really important: an audience to speak to.

If you’re starting from scratch, post on social media or email a few friends, family members or collaborators to get your first few subscribers. It’s important to publish to somebody so you don’t feel like you’re writing into the void.

Think about introducing the newsletter softly at first, letting your readers know you’re in beta and they’ll be part of a creative experiment. Encourage them to give you feedback and tell you what they like and dislike.

5. Refine your voice

The first six months of a newsletter are all learning. Simply by committing to it as a project, you’ll begin to refine your voice. Your readers will teach you what they like based on which editions of your newsletters are shared, commented on, replied to or otherwise interacted with.

You may have been a journalist for many years, but that means you’re used to writing in a publication’s (or many publications’) tone of voice. Newsletters are different. You readers aren’t seeking impartiality, they’re seeking authenticity. You have to build it, like resilience.

Even if you’ve published hundreds of articles or even full-length books, the newsletter experience is more intimate. You have to earn a place in someone’s busy inbox. Remind yourself of that often; it’ll keep you sharp.

6. Feed the newsletter

You’ll soon find a rhythm with the researching, writing and editing parts of the process. The next step after that is to start feeding your newsletter.

That means reaching people who would be interested in reading it and becoming part of your community. Start with your professional network. Do you already speak at events or teach? Do you know influencers in your niche? Are you part of a relevant membership organisation or industry body that you could become more involved in?

Every activity you do — from posting on Twitter to publishing stories with national newspapers — will feed into your newsletter. Find the language that feels natural and mention your newsletter to editors and sources.

7. Nurture your cheerleaders

Within the first few months, you’ll notice you have some readers who are much more engaged than the rest. These folks are the core of your newsletter business and will likely become your first paid subscribers later on.

Embrace them, show them respect and make them part of your journey. Come up with small but meaningful ways to get them more involved or to reward them for their support. Connect with them on a video call to say hello, ask for their views on future ideas for your newsletter and tell them about what you’re up to in the rest of your work or life.

The aim is to nurture long-term relationships — the deeper your connection with these cheerleaders, the more they’ll market your newsletter for you.

8. Identify milestones

Decide on some milestones to aim for so you can track your progress and keep momentum in the project. But do scrutinise the goals you set. What will it take to achieve them? Are you in a position to deliver? Set goals you can achieve, then bigger ones. Otherwise you’ll feel demotivated.

Perhaps you want 1,000 newsletter subscribers by this time next year. That means you need to average 84 new subscribers per month, 21 new subscribers per week or 2-3 new subscribers per day. Or you need to do 10 activities that each net you 100 subscribers. How will you do it?

I check my subscriber count once a week on a Friday afternoon and jot down a few notes about the activities I did. Everyone’s business is different, but Twitter threads and online talks have had a big impact on developing my audience.

9. Make a growth plan

As you get your head around the marketing and promotion tactics that work best, start thinking about how to repeat what works and abandon what doesn’t. You want as many low-effort, big-reward actions as possible.

For example, if nobody is interacting with your tweets but you’ve had a LinkedIn post pick up a lot of traction, your time and energy may be best spent on LinkedIn posts to promote your newsletter. Why not abandon Twitter completely?

Failure on social media platforms is much more than not being on them at all. You need to constantly refine the activities you pursue. Formalise what you’ve tried into a growth plan spanning three, six or 12 months, and keep adding to it as you learn.

10. Explore paid options

There are many ways to monetise a newsletter: recurring subscriptions, irregular donations, licensing content and advertising. And platforms than ever before to make it happen: Patreon, Substack, Ko-Fi, Amazon Affiliate Links, Google Ads.

People want an easy answer, but the right solution for you and your audience depends on who you are and who they are. It also depends on the value you’re adding

For example, my Substack newsletter is free but people can donate via Ko-Fi if they want (and they do). It’s also brought me lots of paid work opportunities, magazines have licensed content from it directly, people approach me wanting adverts, and I have plans to launch a paid long-form offering in future.

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