Newsletters for crisis reporting: How to start and succeed

Apr 18, 2022 en Audience Engagement
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Newsletters are a popular way for media outlets to disseminate their content, engage audiences and expand monetization efforts. Launching and running a newsletter, however, is no walk in the park — especially in times of crisis. 

In a recent ICFJ Global Crisis Reporting Forum event, ICFJ community manager Paul Adepoju spoke with award-winning Nigerian investigative journalist David Hundeyin about his newsletter,  West Africa Weekly, which he started while in exile. Hundeyin fled Nigeria after government officials in the country threatened him over an investigative article he wrote about outlining the mistreatment of employees at UBA and Dangote Group.

 

 

“I didn’t actually get to start the newsletter until last year, as I was in exile, which on its own is a complicated process as I was trying to settle and find my feet in a foreign land,” he said. 

Launched in June 2021, West Africa Weekly takes deep dives into undertold, pressing issues across West Africa, including reporting on the origins and context of terrorism in Nigeria.

Hundeyin offered advice for journalists on how to engage readers with newsletters of their own, attract subscribers and best leverage social media to disseminate their content. 

Identifying audience needs

West Africa Weekly has a distribution list of more than 100,000 people around the world, according to its site. It has built this following by identifying what will serve its readers best.

“If you are starting a newsletter the most important thing you need to do is figure out what the audience needs that they are not already getting elsewhere. When I started West Africa Weekly, that was my top consideration,” said Hundeyin. “You need to figure out your niche and also determine your publishing frequency.”

Building readership

Hundeyin opted to focus his newsletter’s content on investigative journalism. “I decided not to have opinions, but to work on hard-hitting investigative stories, writing them in a stylistic, millennial way to engage audiences. When I wrote my articles like that, the newsletter took off and gained more readers,” he explained. “I [use] an irreverent tone and [incorporate] unorthodox elements like memes, which are not seen in your traditional news writing.”

After publishing a report called Cornflakes  for Jihad: the Boko Haram Origin, which delved into how the Boko Haram terrorist group got its start, Hundeyin said the newsletter experienced an uptick of 4,000 subscribers.

“I had to go deeper into who Boko Haram was than anyone else had ever done. I analyzed [their] origins beyond other cover stories that I had seen. I traced the roots of Boko Haram back to the period between 1950 to the 1960s when the Saudi Wahhabi Movement and the Salafi offshoot found its way into Nigeria,” he said. “Most people had never heard the account of how [Boko Haram] originated and grew. From my newsletter, they were given access to this information and the story was written in a way that engaged readers.”

Prioritizing content to attract subscribers

Before starting his own initiative Hundeyin used to send out newsletters on behalf of public relations agencies in Nigeria like Black House Media. He leveraged this experience to kickstart his own newsletter operation. “That was my on-ramp into the world of weekly or daily newsletters. At the time, I didn’t really think of it as a journalistic medium, I just thought of it as a handy way of passing information in a summarized manner to a large distribution list.”

Hundeyin uses Substack as his newsletter platform, and noted that MailChimp and Revue are also good options for journalists and newsrooms launching newsletters. 

Above all, Hundeyin stressed the importance of strong content when it comes to monetizing a newsletter. “If people like your work enough they will subscribe,” he said. “That is how you drive subscription revenue.”

When developing a subscription strategy journalists also need to be mindful of market differences around the world. “What I discovered was that maybe what works in Europe or in the North American market doesn't necessarily work in the West African market because of poverty,” said Hundeyin. “Monetization has not been quite so straightforward.” 


Photo by Mathyas Kurmann on Unsplash.