I started asking around and a lot of feedback I was getting was that list size was a vanity metric and we should stop focusing on it. That’s of course totally true and I’ve made the case myself in this newsletter several times. List size says nothing without some sort of breakdown
by engagement. It also disregards market size. A small newsletter with high reach in a valuable niche
should also be considered successful.
In fact, I first read about the new data about The Morning Briefing in an excellent article
by Joshua Benton for NiemanLab which very responsibly puts that number in perspective. For the NY Times the newsletter is a driver for digital subscriptions:
17 million subscribers is a lot for a newsroom newsletter. Even if a large share of those are dead accounts that never tap an email open, that’s a huge number of people waiting in that way station between “casual reader” and “paying customer.” (Something north of 4 million people are paying Times subscribers — meaning there are millions of others who either treat the newsletter as a standalone product, never tapping a link, or who really like their browser’s incognito mode.
So while 17 million is still open to interpretation, it’s certainly not vanity, and Joshua does a great job outlining that the NY Times has no plans to stop there and has hired a new high profile “anchor” to grow the newsletter even further.
The next feedback I got was that 17 million was at least questionable. The NY Times had last reported
on the list size of The Morning Briefing in July 2018. Back then it was 1.6 million subscribers, with a total audience of 14 million across all of their 55 newsletters. Going from 1.6 million to 17 million in 21 months averages out to a 12% monthly growth rate, akin to adding something like 2 million subscribers per month currently.
While that sounds steep, I feel that the 17 million is probably correct. First of all the source is credible and confirmed by people closer to the team. Second, the NY Times has invested heavily in newsletters over the last two years. The article from 2018 talks about newsletters being a “secret sauce” - a clear sign that newsletter were not only growing fast but also about to get even more focus. Finally, there might also be a difference in the numbers. 2018 refers specifically to the “US” Morning Briefing, whereas the current size might also comprise international editions of the newsletter.
Another way to validate the figure is comparing with other newsletters. Unfortunately, trustworthy data about list size is hard to find.
The second biggest newsletter I’ve found is TheSkimm. There are a number of articles with data about their list size:
- 1,5 million in August 2015 according to NiemanLab
- 3,5 million in April 2016 according to BusinessInsider
- 9 million in September 2018 according to a summary of an ONA session written by GEN
- 7 million in October 2018 according to The Cut
These are all debatable (certainly the two figures from fall 2018) but they give us a good feel and extrapolating on those figures would put The Daily Skimm at 14 million readers today. Clearly behind The Morning Briefing but at least in the same ballpark.
Beyond that, there does not seem to be any other newsletter anywhere near, although that might be due to lack of public data. Some notable list sizes I found are:
- Morning Brew: 2 million in February 2020 - 1 million according to Forbes in February 2019 and an additional 1 million in the last 12 month according to Digiday in February 2020.
- The Economist: 1,5 million in December 2018 according to the Audited Bureau of Circulation.
- Axios: 1,5 million across all newsletters according to NiemanLab in June 2019.
- The Hustle: 1 million in October 2018 according to Simon Owens.
It’s a shame that we lack better data but it’s safe to conclude that newsletters have grown up to be products that can reach audiences that rival those of other media channels. And growth rates clearly remain high across the board, which means we might see even bigger lists in the future.
Would love to hear from you if you have data about list size or open rates of other newsletters. Just reply to this email or reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org. Would love to create a more complete overview.