The New York Times aims to convert newsletter readers into paid subscribers as The Morning newsletter tops 1 billion opens

The header image features an open laptop with an envelope on the screen and an alert bubble signaling a new email.

The New York Times’ flagship morning newsletter The Morning hit a milestone in January 2021: over 1 billion unique opens since it launched in May 2020.

The newsletter represents a direct and important relationship between the Times and its readers, and a path to converting daily newsletter subscribers into subscribers of The New York Times’ journalism, according to Adam Pasick, editorial director of newsletters at The New York Times.

“Newsletters are a great way to grow a subscription business. Subscribing to a newsletter is a healthy habit that can bear fruits down the line,” said Pasick. However, the strategy for converting The Morning’s subscribers to Times subscribers “is still in progress, and we are continuing to learn how to optimize that dynamic,” he said. The Times would not share how many subscribers have been converted from the newsletter. A digital subscription to the Times currently costs $8 a month for the first year, before going up to $17 a month.

The Times also would not say how many people subscribe to The Morning newsletter, which is the publisher’s largest newsletter. The average open rate is “significantly higher than when we launched” in 2020, according to Jordan Cohen, executive director of communications at the Times, and the “vast majority” of opens for The Morning occur within the first three hours of it being sent, due to the West Coast time zone, noted Pasick.

The Times has over 71 newsletters. Readers opened more than 3.6 billion newsletter emails from the publisher in 2020, a 150% increase over 2019. In 2020, pop-up newsletters around big news events (such as the “Coronavirus Briefing,” “Coronavirus Schools Briefing,” “Impeachment Briefing” and “At Home”) had 180 million opens. Those numbers do not include readers who get served push notifications from the Times app and consume the newsletters there. 

There was a “big surge of reader interest with the pandemic and the election,” Pasick said.

According to a survey conducted in July by email marketing company LiveIntent — which works with the Times on monetization and subscriber acquisition efforts — 53% of publishers had experienced an increase in open rates for their email newsletters since the start of the pandemic. LiveIntent CMO Kerel Cooper said he has seen newsletter consumption increase with people spending more time in their inbox as they are spending more time at home.

Newsletters support the Times’ subscription-driven business by getting readers into the habit of consuming its content everyday via The Morning. The idea is this will lead them to pay to be able to access more than what is available in front of the paywall.

“The strategy behind putting so many resources behind this email is it’s a great way to introduce new readers to what the newsletter has to offer, habituate them and have a long term relationship with us. It leads eventually to people paying for the paper,” Pasick said.

The New York Times has over 7.5 million subscribers, according to its most recent earnings report. Of those, 6.69 million are digital-only subscriptions. Last year, the publisher hit two milestones: digital revenue overtook print revenue, and revenue from digital subscriptions was its largest revenue stream.

The Times makes money from The Morning by directly selling single-day sponsorships to advertisers. The Times’ sales team goes out and sells ad space in The Morning, and the publisher uses LiveIntent’s technology to place the ad in the newsletter, according to Cooper.

In general, newsletters are increasingly attractive for publishers as a revenue stream and as a way to convert subscribers. Bustle Digital Group —which currently has 2 million email subscribers across its 14 newsletters — says by the end of the year it wants to have 10 million email subscribers and increase the newsletter business from a seven-figure revenue stream to an eight-figure revenue proposition year-over-year. And Forbes is launching a newsletter platform for journalists to create their own paid newsletters and share the revenue with the publisher.

Another benefit of newsletters is they provide publishers with people’s email addresses. That information is especially valuable as the impending demise of the third-party cookie has pushed the digital ad industry to prize first-party data, like email addresses, as a means of targeting people with ads.

“More and more of our customers are doubling down on email newsletter strategy as a way of building a direct connection with consumers, as a way of offering advertisers unique products and services and bridging that gap from a third-party world to a first-party world,” Cooper said. “An email newsletter is a great digital handshake between a consumer and a publisher…. You hand over your email for good content… and you as a consumer can end that contract by hitting the unsubscribe button,” he added.

Newsletter companies are getting acquired by platforms as they seek consumer revenue, too. CRM software platform HubSpot is buying The Hustle, a business email newsletter publisher with 1.5 million readers. Twitter purchased newsletter platform Revue in January.

Newsletters are having a “cultural moment right now,” Pasick said. “When social media has become problematic… newsletters feel intimate and direct and can explain complex topics in a conversational way.”

In April 2020, David Leonhardt took over as the lead writer for The Morning. Leonhardt and his team are “constantly iterating, with different formats, focuses and voices,” Pasick said.

For example, the opening section of each morning newsletter is now similar to a “mini essay,” focusing on one big topic. The lead items that covered the COVID-19 vaccine resonated particularly well with readers, as do data visualization features, according to Pasick. Leonhardt recently wrote an opening piece about a 1,600-mile road trip he took to get his mother vaccinated. Content from the Times’ other paid digital products like Cooking and Games also make it into The Morning.

As the Times is looking to grow its core portfolio of newsletters, topics covered in The Morning can be spun out into standalone newsletters that “don’t have to last forever,” Pasick said. A newsletter on the impeachment hearings for President Donald Trump, for example, was revived for the second trial, which begins this week.

When a big news event happens, the newsletter team now has the ability to quickly build a pop-up briefing around it. A briefing on COVID-19 was created in just a few weeks last year, and now is one of the top five newsletters for the Times.

And the publisher has beefed up its CMS and newsletter tools “so that when that moment arises we can move really nimbly… a checklist and a playbook means we don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time,” Pasick said.

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