New York Times’ newsletter strategy tackles Substack threat

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After losing several big-name writers to Substack, the New York Times appears to see the upstart newsletter platform as a rival. The paper is fighting back with its own ‘personality-driven’ newsletter strategy.

  • Substack, launched in 2017, has seen dramatic success over the last 12 to 18 months. The newsletter platform, which makes it easy for writers to charge their readers, has 500,000 paying subscribers. Its top-10 creators are projected to bring in about $15 million a year, up from $7 million in September 2020.
  • Seeing the opportunity to forge their own future against a very uncertain economic outlook, well known writers have been taking up ‘Substack Pro’ deals that guarantee them year-one advances. Substack recruits include Casey Newton formerly of the Verge, Mathew Yglesias ex-Vox and Charlie Warzel who was at the New York Times.
  • Before feature and opinion writer Charlie Warzel left for Substack, he discussed staying on as a contributor, but the Times refused. It has since come out very clearly against staff launching their own newsletters on Substack or any other newsletter platforms.
The NYT fight back

Substack has approached several New York Times writers: media columnist Ben Smith, who outlined his discussions in a column; opinion writer Liz Bruenig was offered double her salary; and internet-culture reporter Taylor Lorenz, a $300,000 advance.

  • In an email to staff explaining why they would not be allowed to start personal newsletters, NYT management said: “Because these sites are increasingly acting as direct competitors to The Times, such efforts will generally not be approved.”
  • The Times is instead encouraging staff writers to launch their own newsletters on the NYT platform. The paper already produces about 70 newsletters, reaching an estimated 28 million subscribers. The “Morning” newsletter alone is sent to 15 million people and gets 5 million opens daily.
  • While many of Times’ existing newsletters provide news summaries and roundups, the new effort will ‘inject more personality’. The “Morning” written by David Leonhardt and the “On Tech” newsletter written by Shira Ovide are said to be the template for newsletters that exhibit a clear individual voice.
Is Substack a threat?

For its subscription-only model to work Substack needs a number of high-profile newsletters to succeed at scale to offset the hundreds of newsletters that will never be profitable. Valued at $650 million and with a recent funding round bringing in $65 million, the platform is betting on big names to get it attention.

  • Many publishers, from Buzzfeed to Rolling Stone, have lost big names to Substack. A recent column from Will Oremus on Slate said that Substack is winning by targeting the fact that many media organisations rely on opinion rather than news for their traffic.
  • In supporting individuals to develop internal newsletters that give them the space to express their own opinions and personality, the New York Times is addressing working to serve the audience for opinion, analysis and personality that Substack is relying on.

In a blog headlined ‘Why newsletters won’t kill newspapers, commentator Adam Tinworth says even if Substack does end up “top-slicing the best pundits” that might not matter – subscription-driven news organisations can’t rely on opinion alone.

“The blurring of reporting and opinion has not been a healthy one for trust in newspapers… is punditry the sort of content that will keep growing your subscriber base? I’ve seen research that suggests not.”

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