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April 30, 2020, 1:52 p.m.

The New York Times’ morning email newsletter is getting an official “host and anchor”

Can any of the lessons of The Daily’s success be carried over into your inbox?

The rise of digital disrupted the news business in countless ways, but one of the most profound was the loss of the publisher’s role as curator.

A newspaper didn’t just produce the news, after all — it also ordered and structured it, telling you which stories were important enough to merit a banner Page 1A headline and which were only worth a squib on 11D. That context is a key ingredient in any good publisher’s promise that you aren’t just getting more information — you’re getting the right information.

Taking stories out of that context — making them just another unique URL on the internet — allowed Facebook, Google, Twitter, and other platforms to become the premier digital curators.

A lot of the smart product development in news the past decade has been about recapturing that curatorial power. That’s what podcasts do; you’re essentially telling a publisher “I trust you to come up with something compelling for me to listen to every day/week/whatever” rather than trusting the Facebook algo to do it.

And most prominently, it’s what most email newsletters do. Any digital news consumer wakes up with untold thousands of new articles they could decide to read. But a good morning newsletter orders the universe — says “this is most important,” “these are worth a quick look,” and “this is something lighter so you don’t close this email quite so angry at the world as those other stories would seem to justify.” It’s a guide — a host, even, moving you with ease and purpose through all your newsroom’s work.

All that is why I’m interested in today’s announcement from The New York Times about changes to its flagship morning newsletter, The Morning Briefing. For the first time, it’s getting a true host — David Leonhardt, the current Opinion columnist and past founder of The Upshot.

From a memo to staff from Dean Baquet, Joe Kahn, and James Bennet:

Quietly, our flagship email newsletter, The Morning Briefing, has become one of our biggest and most important news products. The newsletter now has more than 17 million subscribers, one of the largest daily audiences of any kind in journalism, across television, radio, print and digital.

That’s why we are turning to one of our most authoritative and nimble journalists to take the helm. We are thrilled to announce that David Leonhardt will return to the newsroom to become the new writer, host and anchor of our flagship newsletter, which will be rebranded as The Morning.

We couldn’t imagine someone better equipped to act as the guide through the day’s news. David is the rare reporter with expertise in economics, statistics, politics, health care, education, the ways of Washington and more. He has spent his career breaking down complicated ideas and he writes clearly, conversationally and eloquently. He has superb news judgment, and an endless curiosity about the world and about how to connect with today’s news consumers.

First: 17 million subscribers is a lot for a newsroom newsletter. Even if a large share of those are dead accounts that never tap an email open, that’s a huge number of people waiting in that way station between “casual reader” and “paying customer.” (Something north of 4 million people are paying Times subscribers — meaning there are millions of others who either treat the newsletter as a standalone product, never tapping a link, or who really like their browser’s incognito mode.)

Second: Look at that title. “Writer, host, and anchor of our flagship newsletter.” Host and anchor are the language of TV, which I’m sure isn’t accidental; morning shows have used the personal connection between anchor and viewer, reinforced daily, to build extraordinarily profitable businesses. (The three network morning shows generated more than $800 million in ad revenue in 2018.)

Third: Why does an email need a “host,” anyway?

A core belief at most American newspapers for time immemorial was that the institution, the brand was bigger than any one reporter. (For a contemporary example of this belief, see Washington Post editor Marty Baron’s staff memo after the Felicia Sonmez incident in January: “The Post is more than a collection of individuals who wish to express themselves…The reputation of The Post must prevail over any one individual’s desire for expression.”)

But the Times — one of that belief’s strongest proponents for years — has seen a remarkable example of what highlighting the individual can do. The Daily is probably the most successful new product the Times has launched since the paywall in 2011. (Sorry, Cooking.) We’re talking a billion downloads successful, No. 1 podcast in the United States successful, three-quarters-of-listeners-under-40 successful. When you have execs saying things like “The Daily is the modern front page of The New York Times” and “The Daily is a monster hit with an astonishingly valuable audience, and it just continues to grow,” you’re onto something.

Why is The Daily such a success? Lots of reasons, but perhaps its most distinguishing one is how it foregrounds the personalities — the person-ness, really — of Times reporters. The star, of course, is host Michael Barbaro, the Virgil guiding listeners through the newsroom’s nine circles. But the other Times reporters that Barbaro interviews are also rendered realer than bylines. Combine that with the intimacy of audio and you’ve got something that has created a morning news ritual for millions.

The Daily wasn’t the first time the Times created a daily morning news podcast. In 2006, it launched “Front Page,” in which reporter James Barron read summaries of the day’s Page 1 stories in a news-radio voice. Give one episode a listen, then listen to The Daily. The difference is the humanity.

This is the sort of power-inversion that can lead to headlines like: “Michael Barbaro made the New York Times podcast The Daily a raging success. Or is it the other way around?” Still, given the level of success, it shouldn’t be too surprising to see the Times want to create more such tentpole outlets for its journalism. And renaming the newsletter from “The Morning Briefing” to “The Morning” makes the echos of The Daily (and The Weekly) hard to ignore.

(Today’s memo says Leonhardt will report directly to Sam Dolnick — the AME who oversees The Daily, The Weekly, and other Times extensions into new formats — while “work[ing] closely” with Times newsletter czar Adam Pasick.)

Fourth: Will it work?

I’m a Leonhardt fan (and not only because he had the good sense to quote me in his Opinion newsletter this morning). He’s proven to be one of the most adaptive talents the Times has. But there a number of reasons why a Daily-style success will be difficult.

For one, newsletters are consumed radically differently than podcasts are. A Daily listener presses Play and expects to be focused on a single story for the next 20 minutes. A reader of The Morning will see it as one more line in their inboxes, alongside all the other effluvia of their digital existence. A podcast is hard to skim, meaning subscribers tend to give them a little more time to get hooked. But it’s easy to open a newsletter, take two secs to see if anything grabs you in the first screenful, and then close it if not.

It’s also a lot easier to communicate that feeling of intimacy and human connection in audio than in an email. (Or perhaps I should say it’s a lot easier to do while maintaining a Timesian style. There are plenty of Substacks and Tinyletters out there that do an amazing job of creating that intimacy. I don’t think the Times is in that business.)

We’ll have to see what The Morning looks like when it launches next week, but if it’s anything like its predecessor, it’ll still feel a responsibility to reflect a wide range of the paper’s journalism. (Today’s Morning Briefing contains more than 35 links to Times stories.) That catch-me-up-quick mission is inherently more utilitarian in nature than something like The Daily’s deeper dives into a single story.

But let’s not overthink this. A morning newsletter doesn’t have to capture the cultural zeitgeist as The Daily has to provide massive value to a publisher. The Daily is outside the Times’ paywall; The Morning will be sending untold millions of clicks to metered stories each week, converting some fraction into subscribers. The Daily’s monetization opportunities are mostly locked inside the MP3 itself, in the form of (expensive, profitable) podcast ads. The Morning can both host advertising and drive traffic to articles with advertising. They’re both powerful for generating loyalty — but even The Daily’s 2 million-plus daily listeners pales in comparison to those 17 million email subscribers. A newsletter’s readers probably can’t generate the same sort of deep connection The Daily’s listeners have — but there sure are a lot of them.

It probably would have surprised Timesmen of yore to know that a standard New York Times story today features not only a small photo of the reporter but a brief bio declaring their background and interests. (“She’s particularly interested in housing, transportation and inequality — and how they’re all connected.”) The Times, unlike some of its rivals, was known as an “editor’s paper,” where the individual qualities of writers were subsumed into a rigorously consistent report. But the paper has come to realize that that model doesn’t work as well amid the clatter of social media — and that there’s a middle ground between a uniform voice and editorial anarchy that can offer some meaningful value. We’ll see if they can bring it to your inbox, starting Monday.

Photo of New York City shortly after dawn by jojudge used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     April 30, 2020, 1:52 p.m.
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