The coronavirus pandemic has prompted a collective cry for help (and an apparent need to stress-bake) — and publishers have taken notice. Need science-based advice on time management or tips on mastering the Apple Cranberry Crumb Pie for the holidays? The Washington Post has you covered. Want to learn about investing amid an economic crisis? It’s Bloomberg to the rescue.
Service journalism — from self-help guides to product reviews — is not a new trend among media companies, and it has long provided reliable readership for them. But during a pandemic that has created restlessness, anxiety and insecurity, news outlets like the Post and Bloomberg have seized on this particular source of reader engagement and advertiser interest.
The Post found success with a tried-and-true self-improvement format: programs that offer readers concrete tips and advice over a set number of days or weeks. Think “30-day abs” but for skills you need during a pandemic. In the early weeks of the pandemic, tens of thousands of people signed up for “Voraciously: Baking Basics.” The Post’s newsletter teaches the fundamentals of baking and provides recipes over the course of eight weeks.
The newsletter launched last year in September, but more people have signed up for it since the start of the pandemic than they did in its first six months. The Post’s most recent newsletter, “What Day Is It?,” debuted last month and offers a seven-day course on how to maintain a routine during stressful times.
“Some of the huge influx of audience that we’ve seen around the pandemic is people just trying to follow the news really closely because it really impacts their daily life right now. We’re trying to get those people engaged with a product that might solve a problem in their own life,” Tessa Muggeridge, the Post’s subscriptions and engagement editor, told CNN Business.
“Not just around what to know, but what to do”
Time Editor-In-Chief and CEO Edward Felsenthal said “a core part of our mission” is to serve as a guide in addition to providing news. He said the pandemic has bolstered people’s interest for self-help content, especially from news outlets they already know and trust.
“It has been very clear to us over the last few years — and you can see it in the traffic — that our trust extends not just around what to know, but what to do,” Felsenthal said. “We have really embraced the role of doing what we can, through our reporting, to guide people through the pandemic, through the economic crisis, through the crisis of injustice.”
Bloomberg has also invested in creating content around the needs of everyday life, with the launch of Bloomberg Wealth last month. Katie Boyce, executive editor of digital at Bloomberg News, said her team chose to focus its recent efforts on personal finance and investing.
“Our subscribers are really looking to Bloomberg for content that helps enrich them both professionally as well as in their personal life,” Boyce told CNN Business. “When the pandemic hit, it made it even more urgent for us to push this forward.”
The circumstances of the pandemic — job loss, working from home, homeschooling children — inspired a “pivot” at The New York Times, said Amy Virshup, who has served as travel editor since 2018. Virshup now helps manage the paper’s new service-oriented “At Home” section.
“Story ideas were extremely easy to come up with because it was like, ‘Okay, I’m trying to deal with this. Is it dangerous to go to the supermarket?’ People had these really big questions, and we felt like there was no place that was really kind of bringing that information together and giving it to them and helping them,” Virshup said.
“Outlast whatever’s happening now”
Morning Brew sought to address the void of activities early in the pandemic. Managing Editor Neal Freyman told CNN Business that his team added a daily planner to its business newsletter, including suggestions for morning workouts, nightly live streams, interesting stories to read and “feel good content.”
An uptick in traffic and positive reader feedback inspired Morning Brew to continue investing in self-help stories. Its data showed such a high click-through rate on the daily planner that the team decided to spin it out into its own newsletter, called “The Essentials,” Freyman said.
“‘The Essentials’ was a place for our writers to sort of escape and talk with people about their daily lives and some more lighthearted stuff during this hard time,” Freyman told CNN Business last month. (The newsletter offered home improvement tips, recipe suggestions and a photo of an interesting place.)
“We want to sort of extract it from its pandemic origins and create a longer lasting lifestyle product that hopefully will outlast whatever’s happening now,” Freyman added.
Earlier this week, Morning Brew revealed the next phase of “The Essentials,” a new brand called “Sidekick.” It will include the rebranded newsletter and accounts on Instagram and Twitter.
The product started out as a team effort, but as of September, it is primarily written by Rachel Cantor, a 2020 graduate from Northwestern University, who Freyman said he recruited after coming across her own recommendations newsletter on Twitter.
Freyman said the newsletter, which will run its first edition as “Sidekick” on Monday, has more than 115,000 subscribers.
Time also is experimenting with new newsletters. On October 30, Time launched a weekly newsletter “It’s Not Just You,” written by Time Editor-At-Large Susanna Schrobsdorff with the tagline “big-hearted advice for anxious times.”
“It’s basically a little dish of small comforts every week,” Schrobsdorff told CNN Business. “We all are in this mess together. Let’s make people feel less alone, less anomalous, bolstered by the resources from our health team [with tips], but I think the main point is to cultivate empathy and self kindness.”
Some of these investments are focused on creating content that is evergreen, rather than pegged to particular events. For the Post’s newsletter series, people can choose to start receiving them anytime they want. For the “What Day Is It?” series, subscribers receive the first edition on the first Monday after signing up and then receive one email a day until Sunday.
“A series is a huge amount of front loaded work, but part of why it works so well is it’s a good way to experiment with a topic without investing a permanent reporter to write that newsletter forever,” Muggeridge said. “It allows us to move faster in some way and test out a concept.”
“The idea with them is to create an evergreen guide that users can come back to and get a sense of how they can invest or save or spend their money wisely,” Boyce said.
“An advertiser dreamland”
Morning Brew’s Freyman said self-care content provides revenue opportunities. By focusing on product recommendations with affiliate links, it’s a welcome place for paid placements.
“[‘Sidekick’] seems like an advertiser dreamland,” Freyman said.
Maya Draisin, senior vice president of marketing at Time, said she sees potential for advertisements written as recommendations and personalized, similar to ads on radio shows or podcasts read by hosts, in “It’s Not Just You.” But for now, the company is focused on growing its audience.
Indeed, all five publishers said service stories can help expand audiences and improve relationships with readers, who, for the case of The New York Times, Bloomberg, Time and the Post, could become paid subscribers.
The Post’s Muggeridge said a key reason the company remains committed to service-focused newsletters is because of the consistently high engagement rates. For “Bold School,” a newsletter series on approaching life after 50, the open rate for its first email was nearly identical to its twenty-fifth and final email.
“We’re really investing in this concept because we’re seeing it pay off in this age of inbox fatigue, where everybody feels like they get too much emails,” Muggeridge said. “It’s really fun to give people something where they feel like they’re getting something out of it.”