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The evolution of curated newsletters

Hello newsletter friends, another week of terrible news with police violence and protests. 2020 is a
The week in
A weekly update for newsletter editors and audience managers, sent every Tuesday morning in the US, afternoon in Europe, and evening in Asia.
Hello newsletter friends,
another week of terrible news with police violence and protests. 2020 is a tough year.
I hope you’re all hanging in there and able to find the peace of mind 🧘 required to focus on newsletters. I’m here to help and had many great conversations with readers about their newsletters again last week. Quite a few discussions centered around the best formats for curated newsletters.
So today I will cover two formats that are working well - the fixed list 🗒️ and the top story 📰. Check them out below with lots of great examples. And do keep those questions coming by replying to this email or reaching out at mark@getrevue.co.
Newsletter curation formats - a brief history
Some five or ten years ago, curated newsletters tended to be lists of links, often generated automatically with a blurb from the linked article as the only text in the email.
Here’s an example of the NY Times Today’s Headlines newsletter from 2007. The newsletter included the day’s top stories and additional sections that the readers could configure. There were very few images besides some ads and the descriptions were short and uninspired like “Informative videos about some unlikely topics pop up on YouTube”.
Today we know that a newsletter editor adds tremendous value. So the automated link collection has in many cases been replaced by other formats that provide much more content in the email itself and have a stronger voice and personality.
The fixed list
One of these formats is a fixed list. Each issue contains a certain number of links with a short but personal summary or comment.
Alexis Madrigal was an early champion of that format with his newsletter “5it”, short for 5 Intriguing Things. Every weekday Alexis would send out the five most interesting articles in the field he was covering. He was an expert on the topics and there was tremendous value for readers in him selecting the most important articles and adding some commentary. It allowed readers to stay informed by skimming the entire email and clicking on the links they were most interested in.
5it has evolved over time. It started out in 2013 as a daily newsletter with a generic subject, one image at the top and 5 shorter descriptions (left). It later turned into a weekly update (and seems to be on pause now) with a changing subject for each issue, no images and longer descriptions.
The format of a fixed list of five links has stuck.
If we look at popular newsletters today, we see many that use the fixed list format successfully. There is Dave Pell’s Nextdraft, which shares ten news stories every day. Axios Media Trends by Sara Fischer, which brings you the seven most important stories from the media world every week. And one of my favorites over here on Revue, Five Things by Nico Lumma, which is very close to 5it in both number and name.
Top story
The other notable newsletter curation format focuses on a top story, which is covered in detail in the newsletter, and then extended with additional links with much shorter descriptions below.
There are many examples of this format, especially from publishers who use it for their morning or evening briefings.
A nice example is the Afternoon Edition of the Chicago Sun-Times. It’s written by one of their editors and starts off with a brief personal note and a summary of the weather of the day. A great way to make the newsletter more informal and conversational. The top story then is covered in much detail, with an image and several paragraphs of text giving readers a complete picture without having to leave the inbox. Following the top story are the other important stories of the day as well as “your daily question” section, designed to create engagement.
Many of the younger newsletter-first publishers like Morning Brew or theSkimm also use this format. theDailySkimm, for example, starts each issue with the day’s top story. The top story is presented in a fixed format, starting with the facts, followed by several paragraphs of background and context, and eventually wrapped up with “theSkimm”, their own take on the issue. The top story usually also has a visual and several links for further reading. It is followed by a few shorter stories as well as one item to make readers smile at the very end.
A final example of the top story format, and also one of my favorite newsletters on Revue, is Casey Newton’s The Interface for The Verge. Casey goes into great depths on the main issue, often adding several links, expanded with quotes from the articles right in the email, and extensive commentary. Below the top story, he has several sections with the most important other links of the day. The format of The Interface provides for both, depth and breadth.
Both formats, the fixed list and the top story, provide value by selecting the most important links in a personal way. Readers will be sufficiently informed by reading what’s in the email itself, and have the opportunity to dive deeper into the stories most interesting for them.
Both formats also provide a set structure necessary for the reader to go through the email quickly and get to the end feeling not to have missed anything important. This is especially valuable to regular readers.
I think both formats are great and which one is better suited depends on the topic and context. It seems that publishers more often go with the top story format, whereas the fixed list is more popular amongst personal newsletters.
The week in newsletters
Lots of great examples of curated newsletters. But what’s going to be the next successful format? And who is working on it now? Here’s a few smart links to help you get inspired and come up with the next great format 🔮
Reaching readers' inboxes
Newsletters Dave Nemetz relies on
Open source analytics templates
Emails, perfected for publishers* by Revue.
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Mark from Revue

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