Behind the success of The Seattle Times’ Morning Brief newsletter

A Q&A with Kris Higginson, editor of Morning Brief and instructor of Poynter’s upcoming webinar, “Dear Reader: Accomplish More with Your Newsletter”

May 22, 2019

The Seattle Times’ daily morning newsletter, Morning Brief, launched in 2015. Last year, it converted 2,000 readers into digital subscribers, which amounted to 8% of all new subscriptions in 2018. It also generated more than $400,000 in profit.

Kris Higginson is behind much of that success. After nearly two decades at the Times, she joined the Morning Brief team in early 2017 as the lead writer and editor.

Higginson taught a Poynter webinar May 23 about how to make your newsletter essential for readers, using real-world examples from The Seattle Times. Participants learned how to curate compelling content, write subject lines that increase open rates and measure the outcomes that matter.

This session built on the lessons from Poynter’s previous webinar featuring the editor and designer of The Washington Post’s design-forward newsletter, Lily Lines.

Ahead of the May 23 webinar, I asked Higginson to talk to me about the nitty gritty of newsletter production. We dissected the workflow, staffing and technology that powers the profitable Morning Brief.

 

What’s the newsletter ecosystem at The Seattle Times?

In 2015, we started paying more attention to audience behavior. Like many newspapers, we realized that our audience was online much earlier than we were delivering fresh content. We started making changes to reach our morning audience, and Morning Brief rode that wave.

At the same time, we started curating newsletters in earnest. We currently have seven total. The Morning Brief, Evening Brief and (the sports-centric) Fan Fix are the only dailies.

Each newsletter has its own team, even if that’s only one person. Morning Brief is a lot more intensive, so there’s anywhere from 7-10 people identifying stories and doing the work on any given day. Some people spend five minutes. I spend 3-4 hours per day with a big boost from a small but mighty morning crew.

 

Who’s on the Morning Brief team and what are your roles?

The main people involved are the writer, newsroom section editors, photo editor and the morning news team.

The evening before, I will pop online and look at what section editors are pitching and connect with the photo editor who will place images. That takes about a half hour for me.

The day of, I get up at 4 a.m. and write steadily for a couple hours. Then the morning metro editor and reporter start supplying fresh content. A copy editor will help me source stories from the wire and review my writing.

Then we send by 7:15 a.m. every morning. I’m toast by noon.

 

What’s your productivity hack for this morning hustle?

Remote work is key. I love doing this in my PJs. I also have two  — only two — cups of coffee.

 

How do you communicate with your team?

We live by Slack. Like I said, a lot of us work remotely in the mornings. We have a Slack channel for Morning Brief, and we have a content management system that lets producers pitch their items. We’ll also debrief on Slack if something performed poorly or better than expected. The whole team is aware of analytics.  

Beyond the daily grind conversations, I meet or have a weekly phone call with the product manager for newsletters. She oversees the business side. We discuss whether we should try new features or how to solve tech problems.

 

What email platform do you use?

We use Salesforce Marketing Cloud. We switched to it in December. Transitioning platforms is always a challenge because you have to tweak your workflow, problem solve in real time and figure out how to become the new internal expert.

We had been using MailChimp. It’s really nice to write in, but Marketing Cloud is part of a bigger suite of programs. It lets the business side have more insight into audience behavior. We can see what content drives conversion. We can offer related content based on individual user habits. These abilities underscore our goal of increasing digital subscriptions.

 

Tell me more about the business purpose of Morning Brief. How does it fit into your overall strategy?

Senior leaders see Morning Brief as central to our business strategy and a key driver of digital subscribers. They want to use it as a vehicle for our best enterprise.

 

What’s your biggest success with Morning Brief?

Anything we can do to be useful to readers in the moment. It shows me the value of Morning Brief when we look at analytics. For example, we just published a survival guide to Memorial Day traffic that told people when they should and shouldn’t be driving. It went crazy!

People want help navigating their lives. We are most successful when we can we be immediately useful to people.

 

What’s your favorite part of the newsletter?

I like it when we have really big breaking news on deadline. For example, Amazon often makes big, gangbuster announcements on deadline. You know people aren’t going to know the news, and you’re the one that gets to tell them.

And it’s great to make readers laugh with our little Friday roundup of funny news.

 


Dear Reader: Accomplish More With Your Newsletter was live broadcast on May 23. Higginson used Morning Brief as a case study to teach about creative content planning, writing tips and tricks and how to measure success. You can buy the replay here.

 

This post has been updated to reflect that the webinar has happened.