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March 29, 2013, 10:15 a.m.
Business Models

Texas Tribune expands its niche email business with In the Flow

The twice-a-month newsletter on water issues is part of a broader plan to grow its email newsletter business.

texastribuneflowThe Texas Tribune is getting into the niche newsletter business. The Tribune’s new twice-a-month newsletter, In the Flow, takes a look at water issues and related topics like droughts and fracking. But the newsletter won’t be delivered to subscribers inboxes; email alerts will direct readers to TexasTribune.org when new issues are available. It’s email as push notification rather than email as delivery platform.

Evan Smith, editor-in-chief and CEO of the Tribune, said they’re taking a lesson from that world of push notifications and alerts: Prodding people to go to the website, rather than just reading in their inbox, can expose them to more content and advertising, he said.

It’s another data point in the surprising continued life of email newsletters which — despite the rise of social media, usage shifts among young people, and the feeling of persistent dread with which many people approach their inboxes — has been an unexpected point of strength at many news organizations. (At the Lab, we didn’t even start a daily email for two years after our launch in 2008, thinking the action had moved elsewhere; today, our email has over 10,000 subscribers. It drives about 3 percent of our monthly pageviews.)

For readers, newsletters can represent a more focused, and digestible, version of the news they are interested in. For media companies, they’re another way to reach readers and develop additional lines of advertising. “At the end of the day what this is about is a sustainable business model that allows us to produce great journalism,” Smith told me.

In the Flow is also interesting because it’s a partnership for the Tribune — it’s jointly producing the newsletter with the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University. That center has already been producing a version of the newsletter since 2005, and will now offer “original reporting from the Trib, interactive maps and other data journalism, and stories and research from trusted outside sources,” Smith wrote on Wednesday.

Stories in the newsletter will be written by freelancer Carol Flake, with editing and additional content supplied by the Tribune. The plan, according to Smith, is for the Tribune to reimburse the Meadows Center for producing the newsletter through sponsorship revenue. Anything above the cost to the Meadow Center will go back into the Tribune, he said. The idea for partnering came from the Meadows Center, but Smith told me he’s been wanting to get deeper into the newsletter business since the Tribune started. “We thought this is the perfect petri dish for us to experiment with the idea of a newsletter vertical,” he said.

Through reporting, events, and database projects, the Tribune has focused on Texas government and the civil sector. Smith said niche newsletters are a way to go deeper into specific policy areas for “people who live in that policy world all day, every day, and they almost speak another language.” Water is a big issue in Texas: It intersects with the energy industry, but is also a concern on the local level as communities try to manage water reserves amid population growth. Smith said for a certain population of readers, whether they work in water-related industries or are just interested, there’s a — pun coming — thirst (sorry) for this kind of information. “There are a lot of generalists out there in the world, but at the end of the day you want special knowledge, and that adds value to what you do,” he said.

For the Tribune, it also could add up to a new line of business. Because the newsletter will live on the Tribune’s website, they can be accompanied by existing ad runs. But Smith said In the Flow, and other newsletters, create an opportunity for targeted advertising from sponsors interested in specific topic areas. “In the perfect world, your lines of business are complementary and help one another,” Smith said. “I think that’s what’s going to happen here.” So if you’re a company interested in water issues or the environment, and you’ve already sponsored events with the Tribune, there’s a chance you’d want to advertise in a niche product that aligns with your mission, Smith said. Because of the select nature of the newsletters — in this case people really interested in water — that represents a targeted audience, Smith said.

The nonprofit Tribune has taken an aggressive approach to diversifying how it makes money. In 2012 they ended the year upwards of $4.5 million in revenue, a new high for the organization, which relies on a mix of memberships, corporate underwriting, and sponsorships to operate. Smith thinks that newsletter sponsorships, or even paid-subscription newsletters, could produce new revenue in the six figure range.

In the Flow is not the first newsletter for the Tribune, which also produces Texas Weekly, a newsletter focused on state government and politics. Texas Weekly, which was founded in 1984, became part of the Tribune when the site launched in 2009. Smith said he’d like to see additional newsletters from the Tribune — specifically in policy areas like education, clean energy, transportation, and health care.

POSTED     March 29, 2013, 10:15 a.m.
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