EJ Lesson Plan: Envisioning a Niche Newsletter

Overview & Purpose

The objective of this session is to explore with students the emerging ecosystem of journalism newsletters and their potential for independent journalists. 

Pre-Reading for Instructor: How I designed a journalism course around newsletters


Students who complete this session successfully will learn to:

  1. Understand the range of newsletters in today’s journalism marketplace
  2. Define the steps in the process of building a sustainable newsletter
  3. Explore their own potential newsletter ideas to serve an underrepresented community.
Pre-Class Readings and/or Videos (Assign These Before Class)
Outline of Class Lesson Plan
  1. Opening Poll 5 minutes — what newsletters do you read regularly? What do you like most about them? Collect these on Post-Its or through an online polling tool like Slido, Poll Everywhere or Socrative
  2. In small groups, read and analyze one of the following newsletters. As a group, answer the questions below in a digital document (or on a giant Post-It). 20-25 minutes 
    1. Sinocism. A daily briefing about the most important news of the day from China, by Bill Bishop.
    2. The Shatner Chatner. Comedic riffs on bible passages and Victorian literature, coupled with commentary on trans & gender issues, by Daniel Mallory Ortberg.
    3. Petition. A twice-weekly analysis newsletter about bankruptcy, turnarounds, and corporate restructuring, by an anonymous critic.
    4. Popular Information. Research-driven analysis of US politics by Judd Legum.
    5. Off the Chain. Daily commentary, in text and audio form, on crypto currencies, by Anthony Pompliano.
    6. The Browser. A daily curated list of the best things to read on the internet, by Robert Cottrell.
  3. Who is the intended audience for this newsletter?
    1. How would you characterize the type of newsletter in terms of its subject matter, its writing style, and its design?
    2. What is the revenue model for this newsletter? What evidence can you gather online about how many people read it & how much money it makes?
    3. What about the newsletter do you think is responsible for its growth and success? Why has it found a loyal readership?
    4. If you were advising the newsletter’s author(s), what three suggestions would you offer for potential growth in terms of marketing or revenue? In other words, what specific steps might the newsletter take to reach an even bigger audience, and how could it expand the amount of money it makes? 
  4. Have a 20-30 minute discussion about the groups’ answers to the questions above about the newsletter they analyzed.

15-minute Break


In the second half of the class, students work in pairs to develop a pitch for a niche newsletter. Prepare for them to use National Public Radio’s Newsletter Identify Plan to answer basic questions about their intended audience.  

Plan out a niche newsletter. Develop an idea for a short-term newsletter. This can be for a limited-term event or a series of events. Examples can include: The Olympics, the World Cup, Davos, UN General Assembly, MLB, NFL, NBA or NHL playoffs, Coronavirus recovery, etc. Alternatively, you could focus on a specific issue, such as #BlackLivesMatter #MeToo, the death of retail stores. 

The subject can relate to hard news, service topics, issues that matter to people in a particular niche or local community; global or local or somewhere in between. Start thinking about what makes sense in terms of the frequency, topic, target audience in mind and then move on to complete a copy of the National Public Radio’s Newsletter Identify Plan

The instructor can prime the group work by discussing why the areas below are important and provide examples of different pros and cons to some of the various options below:

    • Proposed Newsletter name:
    • Frequency:
    • Topic: 
    • Target Audience: 
    • Style/Voice/Visuals: 
    • What’s the approach to generating revenue: 
    • What’s the approach to growing your readership:
    • Write a sample item:

The instructor can also talk about the significance of metrics for measuring the progress of a newsletter: 

  • List size: The total # of subscribers on the list
  • Open Rate: % of subscribers who open the newsletter daily or monthly
  • Click Rate: % of readers who click on something
  • Conversion Rate: Number of readers who come to the sign up page and actually subscribe 
  • Unsubscribes: Total number of unsubscribes on a monthly basis
  • Growth Rate: Rate at which newsletter is adding subscribers every month, often referred to as net subscriber growth. 
  • Conversion to paid: % of free subscribers who convert to a paid subscription
Follow-up Discussion Exercise

In small groups of three or four students, discuss one of the following stories from the newsletter article tab on this sheet or a resource from bit.ly/ejnewsletters

Class Concluding Poll Question
  • Final questions and concluding discussion
  • Exit Ticket question posted in polling software or on index cards. Students answer: What is one takeaway for you from this session and one thing you’d like to learn more about?