The Shrinking Roster of New York Times Subscriber-Only Newsletters
A little over a year after the opinion section brought on seven “new voices” — including Kara Swisher, Jay Caspian Kang, and Tressie McMillan Cottom — for the highly touted initiative, most have departed the project
Last August, before many had recognized the ruin and detritus left in the wake of the Substack Pro model, before Facebook shut down Bulletin, its attempt to get into the subscription newsletter business, the opinion section of The New York Times announced its own subscriber-only newsletter program with a burst of optimistic hires. Seven “new voices,” as opinion editor Kathleen Kingsbury described them, would be writing original newsletters for the section. These included Peter Coy, Kara Swisher, Jane Coaston, Tressie McMillan Cottom, Jay Caspian Kang, Tish Harrison Warren, and John McWhorter. A little over a year later, a majority of the new additions — Swisher, Coaston, McMillan Cottom, and Kang — have stopped regularly writing their newsletters.
“We’re continually adding to the roster,” Kingsbury wrote with deputy managing editor Sam Dolnick in an announcement highlighting the successes of the Times’s subscriber newsletter program’s first year. Still, the only new writers to start a new opinion subscriber-only newsletter since the original launch are Jessica Grose, who shifted last October from leading The Times’s Parenting vertical to writing a parenting column, and David Wallace-Wells, who joined The Times from New York magazine in late April. The Times also hired editor Christopher Orr from The Atlantic to oversee the opinion newsletters in September, though according to his hiring announcement, his remit extends well beyond the newsletters.
Opinion mainstays like columnists Paul Krugman, Frank Bruni, and Jamelle Bouie are still part of the subscriber-only newsletter slate, though it seems their newsletters are mostly an outgrowth of their regular print columns. For the new hires, what they were aiming for was much less clear. “I didn’t quite understand what they were going for or their business model, which I was not privy to,” said Swisher, who left for a more collaborative deal at Vox. “The things I was thinking of doing, I had a lot more control of, and so I did them.”
Part of the problem for some working on the newsletters was a lack of transparency about the impacts of their work. “There’s a lot of need-to-know basis at The New York Times,” said one. While writers elsewhere have criticized an over-reliance on metrics, the bristling in some cases here was about the lack of an understanding of the impact of their work. If the newsletters are part of a customer retention program — a benefit that would make subscribers feel like it was worth staying a subscriber — did they actually retain customers? And that goal in itself could make it feel like they were producing the equivalent of branded tote bags, biding their time until the chance came along to take on a print column.
The Times provided a cheery statement on the newsletter program’s first year, eliding the departures. “After the first year of subscription-only newsletter operations at The Times, we’re extremely encouraged by both the audience reaction as well as the dedication to the format from our reporters,” said spokesperson Charlie Stadtlander. “The subscribership across our range of newsletters has been quite strong, exceeding our projections and setting an optimistic outlook for the second year. Readers have formed a habit around personalized delivery straight to their inboxes.”
The subscriber-only newsletters produced on the newsroom side — which are notably branded under names like “Climate Forward,” “On Politics,” and “Read Like the Wind” rather than individual writers — have had a lower attrition rate than those for opinion. The most prominent departure has been Shira Ovide, who joinedThe Times in 2020 to lead the “On Tech” newsletter and departed for The Washington Post in September to become the strategy editor on Help Desk, a personal technology vertical it launched in 2021, including writing and editing a newsletter for them.
The first of Kingsbury’s new voices to give up regularly writing a newsletter was McMillan Cottom, who, about six months after she started writing the newsletter, announced in the April 11 edition that it would be the final regular one because she was becoming a “regular Opinion columnist.” “I will be focusing on more long-form essays on topics that I also care deeply about,” she wrote. “I will still sign in on the newsletter from time to time to talk about process and what is sparking my imagination.”
Swisher’s exit was more decisive. The Times published the last edition of her newsletter on June 30, and Sway, her opinion section podcast, was discontinued soon after. On June 7, Vox Media announced that she would start a new interview podcast under the New York banner, On with Kara Swisher. The first episode was released on September 26. Though she hasn’t started writing for New York since the move, Swisher said she hasn’t given up the written word — she’s at work on a long-overdue book.
When Coaston wrote her last newsletter on August 13, she only briefly mentioned its finality, perhaps because, unlike some of the other newsletter departees, she was remaining at work on another project for the opinion section. “I’ve valued having this space in which to wax philosophical about sports and culture and history, but I’m looking forward to focusing on my podcast, The Argument,” she wrote. “I’m eager to catch up on some long-awaited reading that’s just for fun.” A few months later, Coaston still seemed time-strapped. When The Fine Print reached out to request an interview, she wrote back, “I don’t have time!”
The most recent departee was Kang, who published his final Times newsletter on September 1. “This decision was mine, and it was a difficult one to make because I’ve enjoyed the interactions I’ve had with you, my readers,” he wrote. “Your emails and messages have made this, without question, the most enjoyable and satisfying writing gig of my career.” He left to become a staff writer at The New Yorker, but the move didn’t mean he was necessarily giving up the twice-weekly publication schedule. Last Tuesday, October 4, The New Yorker published the first edition of Kang’s new column. “Read me every Tuesday and Friday AM,” he wrotein his tweet with the story, shifting his publication schedule at The Times, Monday and Thursday, by a day. New Yorker spokesperson Natalie Raabe confirmed that Kang’s column would be published regularly but left some wiggle room on how often it will come out. “Jay will also be writing longer essays and features,” she told The Fine Print, “so we’ll be experimenting with the cadence of the column to start.”
This isn’t the first time The Times has tried to monetize its opinion writing behind a digital paywall. And the opinion subscriber-only newsletter attempt has lasted longer than the 2014 effort to launch an NYT Opinion app as a standalone subscription, which was shut down less than six months after its debut. This round so far, however, hasn’t lasted as long as TimesSelect, an early experiment of placing the Op-Ed columnists and the paper’s archives behind a paywall while leaving most of the report free to access, which lasted exactly two years from 2005 to 2007. “We had a lot of people who paid for [TimesSelect],” then editorial page editor Andrew Rosenthal told The Atlantic at the time of the soon-to-be-aborted app’s launch. “The problem with that was, you can’t read the columnists unless you paid, and that was a great idea — except the columnists really hated it.”