This veteran Chicago journalist is using an email 'newscast' to keep people informed

For Charlie Meyerson, the word "aggregator" feels a bit bloodless.

"It suggests a mechanical process," he said.

But there's nothing mechanical about what he does every weekday morning. Meyerson, who previously worked at Chicago's WGN and the Chicago Tribune, scours the news for bits and pieces to share and compiles them in a daily newsletter, Chicago Public Square.

"It's something I've really done my whole career, this newscast concept," he said. "Here are several stories we think you'll find interesting and relevant, presented for your consideration. The internet, and Chicago Public Square in its present format, allows us to be far more ecumenical."

Meyerson's also the vice president of editorial and development at Rivet Radio, and he runs a media consulting business. But he starts his mornings gathering local and national news. He posts write-ups of that news on Chicago Public Square, and at 10 a.m. each morning, he uses MailChimp to scrape the site for the day's newsletter. It currently goes out to 937 subscribers with an open rate between 40 and 50 percent.

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Meyerson hasn't focused much on growing subscribers except through word of mouth, and he's not trying to make money from it yet either other than the occasional ad.

It's also, in his opinion, the best way to reach people directly. And what works in newsletters is what's always worked best in journalism: Be clear and concise, don't waste people's time, offer them something of value.

"I think email is the killer communication channel of our time," he said. "It's free of the algorithms of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat."

Meyerson isn't the only journalist at the local level to start an email newsletter as a side gig. In Naples, three investigative journalists offer a weekly roundup of local investigative work. And in Virginia, a public safety reporter picks two cities a week and dives into their reporting.

But most newsrooms are squandering the opportunity that email offers them, Meyerson said. It's not expensive, and anyone can do it.

"If one guy at his kitchen island can do this in a few months," he said, "what could a larger organization do?"

I asked Meyerson to share some tips for getting the most out of newsletters. Here's what he recommends:

Tips for launching an email newsletter

Do’s:

  • Have a clear idea of your mission. One of the joys of email is that it can be as long as you’d like. Knowing early on what fits and what doesn’t helps establish your brand — and provides useful boundaries to keep you from going nuts.
  • Make sure your "from" field is clear and compelling. It determines whether anyone opens your email.
  • Put your most interesting words at the start of your "subject" (headline) field. If your subject line’s boring, all the work that follows may go for naught.
  • Include multiple links in each dispatch. Even — maybe especially — if you’re sending readers to off-site content, the relative popularity of those links gives you valuable intel.
  • Track your metrics religiously — at least daily.
  • Watch for engagement patterns within individual issues.For instance: If one link is highly clicked within a cluster of poorly clicked links, your audience is telling you that either the subject’s of greater interest than you expected, or you did a less-than-optimal job of presenting the surrounding material. Or if one link is poorly clicked within a cluster of highly clicked links, your audience is telling you either the subject’s of lesser interest than you expected, or you did a less-than-optimal job of presenting that material.
  • Use social media shamelessly to drive sign-ups. Your roster of Facebook friends is especially valuable in building a core audience.
  • Stick to one responsive-design column. Smartphones render multi column email indecipherable.
    Don’ts:
  • Don’t duplicate your "from" field in your "subject" field.
  • Don’t waste "subject" field space with the date. Email software tells your subscribers when you pressed Send.
  • Don’t capitalize every word in your subject line. Engaging, concrete words — proper nouns — get lost that way.
  • Don’t give away the whole story within your email. Approach each item like a long headline. Aim to give readers enough to make the email itself a satisfying experience while also giving them reason (a “curiosity gap”) to click to learn more.
  • Don’t worry about dispatch frequency. One of the joys of email is that it arrives when it arrives. Because everyone checks an email inbox all the way back to the last time, your email will be seen. More important: Make sure every issue is rewarding.
  • Don’t use images for images’ sake. If they’re not vivid and compelling at smartphone screen resolution, they just waste space and push down more actionable content. So lose that hulking masthead or logo at the top of your email. People don’t open email if they don’t know who sent it, and your From field will have made that clear. Don’t make readers scroll any more than necessary to get to the good stuff.

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