In this era of customization, the aggregating and summarizing functions are now being divided into specialized demographic markets, such as the 22- to 34-year-old upscale women targeted by theSkimm, a daily email newsletter founded last year by Carly Zakin, 27, and Danielle Weisberg, 26, who met while working at NBC. TheSkimm’s online sign-up page says it “simplifies the headlines for the educated professional who knows enough to know she needs more.” The Skimm uses cut-to-the-chase phrases but introduces topics playfully: A hostage-taking by militants in Algeria was teased as “A Really Bad Argo Sequel.”
“We saw our friends weren’t getting served by traditional media,” says Zakin. “An email newsletter made the most sense . . . to make it part of the daily routine. I wake up, roll over, and look at my email.”
While many general-interest sites say that email subscriptions form an important part of their readership base, email aggregation can also serve a knowledgeable, insider audience with specialized information. This form was popularized by Mike Allen, Politico’s star reporter, who in 2007 launched the site’s Playbook, his morning blast of urgent political news and analysis. Playbook excerpts a smattering of the top political stories, interspersed with in-crowd gossip, such as birthday wishes to the politicians, lobbyists, and journalists who both read Playbook and are covered by it. Reading Playbook daily has become such a staple of the Beltway insider’s media diet that The New York Times Magazine titled its April 2010 cover profile of Allen “The Man the White House Wakes Up To.”
Even within the political realm, though, there is room for variation. Ezra Klein, 28, started Wonkblog, a policy-oriented blog at The Washington Post, in 2009. The next year he decided to add an email roundup, called Wonkbook, which follows the same basic template as Playbook but focuses on policy rather than horse-race politics. It has grown to more than 40,000 subscribers. Wonkbook content is also posted as an item on the blog, where it receives tens of thousands more pageviews every day. “We’re seeing a move from media you seek out to media that comes to you,” says Klein, “because you opted into it in some form.”
The strength of newsletters is a bit counterintuitive, since email is declining in importance relative to synchronous means of communication such as instant messaging. Today’s teenagers are constantly IMing, texting, and using social networks, rather than checking their email. But once they get to college or get a desk job, they find themselves using email all day. It is still the primary means of distributing information within limited networks such as companies or universities.
The rise of the smartphone has also given new life to email as a means of distributing journalism. “Newsletters are one of the projects that I will spend the most time on in the next few months,” says Nico Pitney, 31, head of product at The Huffington Post. Just as young digital natives demand, newsletters delivers content to them instead of expecting them to seek it out. The Atlantic Wire’s daily Five Best Columns “has pretty high open rates and a pretty devoted audience,” says Gabriel Snyder. “There are people who spend all day in meetings, and the way they catch up on news is an email newsletter.”
They consume news on an array of devices
Digital publications have seen their share of traffic from mobile devices and social media increase dramatically in recent years. And so they are redesigning their sites and content to maximize the experience for those readers and the value of those readers to the publication.
Designing for mobile devices means building in flexibility. Mashable, a well-read site covering technology news, used to get 70 percent of its visitors via search engines; now, traffic is evenly split among search, social, and direct traffic. “We overhauled the front end and homepage to be optimized for mobile,” says Adam Ostrow, 30, Mashable’s chief strategy officer. “You get a one-column view on a phone, two columns on a tablet, and three on a computer. We now have more line breaks and not very long paragraphs; we introduced pullquotes. We’re generally trying to break up the story and make it more digestible.”
If you are launching a site today, you engineer it from the beginning to be easily read on mobile devices. That’s the approach taken by Quartz. “What we built works across a variety of devices, including your laptop or regular old computer,” explains Seward. “Depending on what device you visit us on, we try to display an appropriate layout for you.”