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Aug. 12, 2021, 7 a.m.
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The New York Times is making about a third of its newsletters subscriber-only

The existing newsletters going subscriber-only include On Politics, Well, Watching, Parenting, Smarter Living, At Home and Away, On Tech With Shira Ovide, On Soccer with Rory Smith, and those from columnists Jamelle Bouie, Paul Krugman, and Frank Bruni.

The New York Times sent its first email newsletter back in 2001. Twenty tumultuous industry years later, roughly 15 million people are reading one of the Times’ newsletters each week. Now, the Times says it’s taking about a third of those newsletters and making them available only to subscribers, in a bid to boost the value of a Times subscription — and maybe, just maybe, nudge some of those free newsletter readers into ponying up for a subscription.

(UPDATE: The Times folks told us it was 2001, but Lisa Tozzi notes she was writing a campaign newsletter for the paper a year earlier.)

The news org recently passed the 8 million subscription mark and, as executives have emphasized each and every quarter, the number paying for The New York Times is still a fraction of the 100 million people who have registered with their email at nytimes.com. Alex Hardiman, chief product officer at the Times, described introducing subscriber-only newsletters as “both a retention play and a conversion play.”

“When we look at the intersection between our subscription model and newsletters, newsletters are already really important,” she said. “We see that almost half of subscribers open a newsletter in a given week, and people who do receive newsletters are far more likely to pay and to stay.”

Which newsletters will be exclusive to subscribers?

The existing newsletters going subscriber-only include Well, Watching, Parenting, Smarter Living, At Home and Away, On Politics, On Tech With Shira Ovide, On Soccer with Rory Smith, and those from columnists Jamelle Bouie, Paul Krugman, and Frank Bruni. A new slate of newsletters, also announced Wednesday, will launch as subscriber exclusives; they include new newsletters from linguist John McWhorter, sociologist and essayist Tressie McMillan Cottom, Anglican priest Tish Harrison Warren, longtime economics writer Peter Coy, and New York Times Magazine critic Jay Caspian Kang.

Notably, the subscriber-only list does not include the Breaking News email or the business-focused DealBook or the uber popular daily newsletter, The Morning, which has a whopping 17 million subscribers.

There have been signs of a new focus on newsletters at the Times for a while now. Managers asked news and opinion staffers to get approval for any newsletter (paid or free) in a memo that called platforms like Substack and Twitter’s Revue “direct competitors” earlier this year. (One of the subscriber-only emails being highlighted, by Paul Krugman, began as a free Substack before being brought into the Times fold and Substack has repeatedly tried to poach top Times writers and columnists with advances “well above” their Times salaries.)

The three kinds of newsletters at the Times

The Times says at least 19 newsletters of the Times’ roughly 50 newsletters will be available only to subscribers. How did the Times choose which to, effectively, paywall? Hardiman outlined three broad categories of emails — briefings, personalized alerts, and (now) subscriber-only newsletters — and said that each type plays a different role in their subscriber strategy.

Briefings like The Morning from David Leonhardt “are really effective at building relationships and daily habit for all readers — paying or not,” Hardiman noted.

That newsletter will stay free, in part because it’s so effective at pointing readers to news articles (which are, of course, subject to the Times’ metered paywall) as well as podcasts, puzzles, and recipes owned by the Times.

“The Morning is helping people every day in their inbox to establish a relationship with the Times, get caught up on the latest news, and experience the breadth of value that we offer across the Times,” Hardiman said. “We feel that is one of the best relationship-building tools that we have, so it very much plays a deliberate role in being open and accessible to all.”

The Morning, in other words, is designed to promote discovery, as you can see if you take a peek at any recent edition. The weekday newsletter starts with an agenda-setting essay from Leonhardt followed by a bulleted list of other noteworthy stories. The newsy bits are followed by links to a smattering of other Times work. On the last day of July, those included an anti-Keurig screed from Wirecutter, a noteworthy obituary, a Modern Love column, and recommendations on what to eat (a freestyle chicken parm recipe via Cooking), play (today’s Spelling Bee), and watch (via a Times review of a recent documentary).

After briefing-style emails, the second category of newsletters are ones that, essentially, function as personalized alerts to help readers follow their favorite writer or stay on top of issues they already care about. The subscriber-only newsletters, Hardiman said, will fill a third — and distinct — user need.

“The subscriber-only newsletters offer exclusive journalism from experts who go deep on the topics that our subscribers are most passionate about, and do it within the convenience of the inbox,” Hardiman said. “When we look at our addressable market of subscribers, it’s an audience of curious people who are lifelong learners and getting a real connection to the experts that we have at The New York Times is one of the reasons why they’re motivated to pay. So that’s why we’re really leaning into newsletters with this roster.”

Anchored by Opinion writers, but showcasing the Times’ breadth

That roster, you might have noticed, features a good number of Opinion columnists. The new newsletter effort is not the first time The New York Times has anchored a play for subscribers around columnists and Opinion content. A very early subscription product, called TimesSelect, offered readers access to editorials, opinion pieces, and columnists back in 2005. A few years later, another standalone product (and app) offered readers the ability to subscribe only to Opinion. (Both efforts were abandoned.)

Kathleen Kingsbury, the Times opinion editor, emphasized personality-driven writing, consistency, and, often, a more casual tone as draws for readers. She also said the Times would continue to experiment with the newsletter form, mentioning serialized fiction and including audio and video clips in emails.

“This is just the start,” she said. “We are trying to figure out what works. We will be adding to this portfolio as time goes on, and we see how readers engage and what they’re clamoring for and how we can address those wants and desires.”

The Times sees one of its strengths as the sheer number of journalists, experts, and personalities it can bring to a reader’s inbox with one paid subscription. It’s a contrast to competitors like Substack, where readers subscribe to (and pay for) newsletters separately.

“If you think about the pricing power of individual newsletters right now, it’s still really nascent,” Hardiman said. “You might for $15 or $20 be able to get three individual newsletters for a given month, whereas with us you can come and get a full subscriber newsletter portfolio and a full subscription for $17 a month. There’s real value in the bundle that we think people will see just because we can help address so many different needs in their news life.”

The Times has shown it’s not afraid to wind down a newsletter or tinker with the format that includes daily, weekly, monthly, and “as needed” updates. Smarter Living, which hasn’t been sent since March, for example, will return with a new focus on going “back to work.” (Speaking of back to work: you can expect a new author. Smarter Living editor Tim Herrera said he quit The New York Times because of burnout.)

POSTED     Aug. 12, 2021, 7 a.m.
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