Student guest post: How tone can make or break an email newsletter

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guests posts for this blog this semester. This is the 14th (and last) of those posts. Martha Upton is a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill majoring in journalism and history. She is from Wake Forest and has called North Carolina home her whole life. Martha hopes to land a job editing and designing in the magazine industry next year and vows to return to Florence, Italy, in the near future where she spent a summer abroad.

After spending years feeling obligated yet reluctant to try to make it through more than one whole story in a print newspaper, I have been delighted recently by the email I find in my inbox promptly every weekday morning from a daily newsletter called theSkimm.

Without warning, news roundups and daily or weekly newsletters have become instilled in the rhetoric of the journalism world. You can even get your New York Times delivered as an email right to your inbox every morning. Lately it has become all about readability. How fast can I read this information and get the gist without having to take too much time out of my busy life? They don’t call it theSkimm for nothing.

With all the debriefing, I have to wonder if some of the value gets lost in translation. TheSkimm prides itself on its witty, and some might say sassy, approach to current events. There are pop culture references thrown in, which I especially enjoy, but is it OK to use the same style of writing when it comes to stabilizing Yemen’s government?

As an editor, I have become well versed in the concept of alternative story forms. I see the merit of using numbers to tell a story or making lists, either ordered or not. I was particularly enthused after finding a link to a guide theSkimm had put together differentiating the various terror groups that have been in headlines recently, something most people would be eager to learn. I quickly forwarded the guide to my mother before reading it myself because I knew she would be interested.

What I wasn’t sure of was whether my mom would understand what it meant for ISIS to be the P. Diddy of terror groups. Was my mom expected to search P. Diddy on the Internet to find out what meaning she should gather from that? (I Googled P. Diddy for you if you’re curious.)

As an editor, I understand that many publications, and now newsletters, have prided themselves on keeping a certain tone consistent throughout. However, I think editors should consider whether they want to limit their audience by making references only 20-somethings would understand.

Alternative story forms should be clear and concise, presenting the information in a way the reader can understand quickly. Not only is the topic of terror groups not exactly something that should be made light of, but also some readers may be turned away by the flippant tone used in addressing the topic.

My suggestion to fellow editors is if they want their newsletter to be the P. Diddy of newsletters (see link above), then consideration should be given to how tone can apply to different topics. In theSkimm’s case, it might have been more appropriate to take on their usual snarky attitude in the quick hit about ISIS’ latest terror, but be more straightforward in the guide. When effective communication is the goal, all the reader should have to do is skim.