The New York Times to Writers: Check With Us Before You Start a Newsletter

The Substack craze gives way to new rules at the Grey Lady

The Times updates its policies for the newsletter era.
The New York Times, wenjin chen/Getty Images

The age of the personal newsletter is upon us and The New York Times is not immune. 

The Times announced yesterday that staff must seek approval for any new book proposals, TV and film deals, audio projects and, yes, newsletters—a notable new policy considering that The Times increasingly competes with platforms as well as other media organizations for writers. While the news has rankled some, the question is whether other media organizations will look to mimic these policies.

Side projects must now comply with The Times’ Ethical Journalism Handbook, the guidelines that dictate, for example, when reporters can accept gifts or take speaking engagements.

“In recent years we have been happy to see an increasing number of Times journalists receive external opportunities to appear on television, write books, consult for films and beyond,” Times management said in an email to staff, which was obtained by Adweek. “But as the number and variety of outside projects have grown, we have heard reasonable questions as to whether our policies are always being applied fairly or consistently.”

While outside projects have long needed clearance, the new policy, which applies to both free and paid newsletters, comes amid industry-wide consternation about the newsletter platform Substack and the brand-name writers who have left major publications to pursue solo newsletters. Meanwhile, social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter are hoping to court writers for their own newsletter products. (Disclosure: This author writes a free Substack newsletter about press freedom. Adweek also requires its employees to receive approval for outside projects.)

‘Approval doesn’t mean they aren’t allowed’

The letter, signed by executive editor Dean Baquet, managing editor Joe Kahn and opinion editor Kathleen Kingsbury, said that The Times’ multimedia expansion could end up competing for time with any number of their staffers’ side hustles.

Danielle Rhoads Ha, a spokesperson for The Times, told Adweek: “It’s important to note that just because we are asking journalists to bring projects to us for approval doesn’t mean they aren’t allowed, it just means they need to be considered fairly within the context of our policies.”

Bill Baker, the unit chair for the New York Times’ union, said that the NewsGuild of New York was not consulted about this change, calling it a “unilateral decision to implement these policies.” Baker said the union is currently discussing the new policy with the Times.

Casey Newton, who left the Vox Media-owned tech site The Verge recently to author his own newsletter called The Interface, hopes that the new policy doesn’t come at the expense of journalists’ entrepreneurial instincts. 

“Newsrooms should have standards, and it’s not a bad idea for them to have a set process for starting side projects like newsletters,” Newton told Adweek. “But my own experience taught me that having a newsletter made me a much better beat reporter, so I hope The Times and other newsrooms continue to encourage experimentation and let journalists investigate new approaches for building audiences and driving attention to their work.” 

Rob Ristagno, the founder and CEO of media consultancy The Sterling Woods Group, said The Times could help reporters build their own brands “on the back of the New York Times brand.”

“I’d want to understand [reporters’] underlying desire to launch such a newsletter and help them meet those needs within the four walls of The New York Times,” he said.

But the news has caused some grief internally. One Times reporter, on condition of anonymity, sympathized with scrutiny over paid outside work but said the new policy was “ridiculous” and was a failure on the part of management to understand personal branding and promotion on the internet.

“They want us to build online audiences that drive traffic for them, but then they want to insert themselves in it,” the reporter said. Another reporter told Adweek they felt the policy was understandable and “fairly standard.”

The Times has emphasized its subscription strategy in recent years but still relies heavily on advertising which has been under pressure, earning $392.4 million in advertising in 2020.

Greg James, global chief strategy officer at Havas Media Group told Adweek that writers’ side projects like these have little bearing on whether an agency spends money with a media organization. However, he added, “Advertisers should indeed pay more attention to exactly where their ads run and what sorts of content they, in turn, indirectly fund.”

Setting the standard

Before the newsletter craze fully took off in 2019, one Times journalist told Vanity Fair the company had become a “book deal factory” and management was scrambling to control the influx of demand from publishers wanting Times talent for book deals. A source inside The Times said there’s been a scramble in recent weeks to sell books and film projects related to the Gamestop meme-stock story.

Tuesday’s policy is a step in the same direction, albeit with newer media forces apparent, to try to control one unavoidable issue: The Times is a massive multimedia empire and its employees are bonafide stars.

“This kind of statement is important because it helps other news organizations down the line look to what are the boundaries for what we can expect for our reporters,” said Nikki Usher, associate professor at University of Illinois’ College of Media, who wrote an ethnography of The Times called Making News at The New York Times when Twitter was the new disrupting force in the newsroom.

“However, this is problematic because the labor instability and fragility of employees at The Times and other top-flight national news organizations are far different than those at a regional daily or even a small local newspaper,” she added. “If what The Times says becomes standard, that could become really problematic for those just starting out at, say, a local TV station.”

This article has been updated to include a statement from the New York Times’ union.

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