The New York Times is readying a big newsletter push as Substack tries to poach its top writers

  • The New York Times is readying a newsletter push as Substack comes after top journalists.
  • Substack offered Opinion writer Liz Bruenig a $200,000 advance, double her Times salary.
  • The Times told staffers in a Friday memo that outside paid newsletters aren’t likely to be approved.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

When tech writer Charlie Warzel told the New York Times Opinion section that he was leaving to start a newsletter on Substack, he and his editors discussed how he could remain in an outside contributor role.

A few days later, the Times came back to Warzel. That wouldn’t work, he was told, according to three people with direct knowledge of the matter.

For Times staffers, the episode has underscored how the paper sees Substack: as a rival. As writers across the industry think about striking out on their own, the paper is looking to offer more personality-driven newsletters written by current Times staffers or by outside hires, according to insiders at the paper.

Sam Dolnick, an assistant managing editor overseeing various digital projects and a member of the Sulzberger family that controls the paper, is leading the effort along with Adam Pasick, the editorial director of newsletters.

Choire Sicha, who recently left his role leading the Styles section, will help with the project “for at least the summer,” he wrote in an email to Styles staffers obtained by Insider.

With the effort underway, the Times told news and opinion staffers on Friday that managers have been fielding a number of requests from employees wishing to launch their own newsletters on platforms like Substack and Twitter’s Revue, according to a memo obtained by Insider.

“Because these sites are increasingly acting as direct competitors to the Times, such efforts will generally not be approved,” the memo said. “Times colleagues who are interested in starting a newsletter should first explore doing it on our own platform, to avoid a project that could be competitive with the Times or conflict with their core work.”

Substack has actively recruited Times journalists

Substack executives have spent the past few months trying to entice some of the highest-profile writers at the paper, albeit with limited success.

According to people familiar with the outreach, Substack has approached Times writers including media columnist Ben Smith, who declined and disclosed the discussions in a recent column, Opinion writer Liz Bruenig, and internet culture reporter Taylor Lorenz.

Substack’s most recent overture to Bruenig was an offer of a $200,000 advance, double her Times salary, according to one person familiar with the discussions.

Meanwhile, Times leaders are encouraging their own writers to launch newsletters, including Lorenz, according to a person familiar with the talks. Insiders are also speculating that the Times will look to big-name hires, perhaps even from the pool of writers on Substack.

The appeal of Substack to most people “is freedom and uncapped earning potential, neither of which you get if you write a newsletter in-house,” said one Times writer. 

Still, the Times is adjusting its strategy from an enviable position. Its email blast lists are enormous. There are about 70 Times newsletters, reaching a total of 28 million subscribers, according to the Friday memo.

David Leonhardt’s “The Morning” newsletter, for instance, goes out to 15 million subscribers, and an average of 5 million people open it every day, according to a person familiar with the numbers.

Some of the Times’ existing newsletters provide summaries and roundups, but two Times sources with knowledge of the project say the new effort will inject more personality. Newsletters like Leonhardt’s and Shira Ovide’s “On Tech” newsletter are early models, they say.

“We have an incredibly strong and growing array of newsletters at The Times and we’re actively looking at ways to tie those products more closely to our strategy of growing our subscription business,” a Times spokesperson said. 

The Friday memo reiterated that reporters need to seek approval even for unpaid newsletters. 

“I don’t think starting a fun blog or a place to mull ideas adjacent to their reporting is a threat to the institution and might even help with retention,” Warzel, who didn’t end up taking an advance from Substack, told Insider. 

Boosted by a recent $65 million funding round, Substack has given some journalists like former Vox writer Matt Yglesias advances in the hundreds of thousands of dollars in order to join. After recouping the advance, Substack then lowers the share it receives of the writer’s subscription revenue, down to a 10% cut on top of fees from payment company Stripe. 

“Substack’s subscription model for independent writing plays an important role but not the only role, and we welcome other efforts,” a Substack spokesperson said. 

Other Times writers have used Substack for their own personal writings or book promotion. The Times recently brought opinion columnist Paul Krugman’s free Substack back into paper’s platform, Smith reported. Former Times columnist Bari Weiss resigned last summer and launched a Substack.

The Times has recently sought to reorganize the approval of outside work after the Trump-juiced news cycle led to a glut of book deals and TV contributor contracts. The paper’s management sent out a memo in March detailing the rules for book deals, podcasts, or speaking engagements outside of the Times.

(The author of this article previously worked at BuzzFeed News with Charlie Warzel and Ben Smith)

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