How bad is the New York Times’ newsletter opt-out option? Literally off the charts.

Know how when you go to CVS, buy two or three items small enough to fit in your pocket, and then they hand you that 5 foot receipt? Wait until you see how long it takes to find the newsletter opt-out link for the New York Times.

Yesterday I showed step-by-step how The New York Times uses spam and dark patterns to reach 17 million newsletter subscribers. It turns out, there is a way to opt-out during the new account creation process.

However, the Times deliberately hides the unsubscribe option so deep, it’s not realistic that anyone will use it.

Dark patterns are hostile to readers

In the last post, I showed how The New York Times uses dark patterns. Dark patterns are design tricks that manipulate people to do something they might not do otherwise.

A great example of a dark pattern is Amazon’s process for deleting your account. This short video shows the ridiculous lengths Amazon makes a person go through. Software designers call this a “roach motel’. You can enter, but you can never leave.

Roping people without their permission is hostile to readers. Also, forcing people into something they didn’t explicitly choose pollutes your metrics. If you rustle up every reader that passes by, you learn less about what convinced them to sign up. I’m more interested in hearing what people actually want to receive.

How low can the Times go to hide a simple newsletter opt-out link?

As I detailed before, when a reader creates a new Times account, there’s a screen that asks if you want to subscribe to any newsletters.

It looks like this:

Screenshot of New York Times newsletter signup page with highlighted section: "your new account comes with the Morning Briefing newsletter."

I highlighted the top part, because this is where The New York Times tells you they are subscribing you to “The Morning”. You are subscribed even if you unchecked the “send me updates and offers” box earlier in the process.

If you look closely, there’s a link I missed during my first examination. It’s highlighted here:

Screenshot of New York Times newsletter signup page, with the very small "contact us" and "view all newsletters" links highlighted at the bottom

This small bit of cop underneath the newsletter options says I can “opt out in your account,” but there’s no link to my account. At the very top it says “Step 1 of 2”. If I’m not finished creating my account, can I access it to unsubscribe? It’s not clear.

Next, there’s a “contact us” link. Here’s what you get when you click that:

Screenshot of New York Times "contact us" page with "Manage your subscription highlighted in the middle.

This is a common dirty trick. Rather than sending a person where they want to be, you flood them with information. It’s much more helpful and kind to link to “My Account.” It’s here, but it’s buried in the middle of this page. It also hides under “Manage Your Subscription.” If you aren’t paying for a subscription, it’s easy to skip over this part.

Going back to the previous screen, a person can also click “View all newsletters.”

Are you ready? Like the other screens, I’ve highlighted the important part:

Click the + on the right to see the full image ➡️

Screenshot of the newsletter opt-out link at the bottom of a very long page of all the newsletters available from the New York Times.

All the way down at the bottom is a “Manage Newsletters” link. The New York Times does not want you to find this link. If they did, it would have been on the previous screen. Or at the top of this page.

This shows contempt for readers.

I want to give a sense of how big this page is. This one is smaller to fit on this page, and it’s still huge. So I got an idea.

The Times May 8, 2020 front page featured an astonishing graph showing the 20,500,000 jobs lost in April. It extended the full length of the printed page.Comparing print to pixels is apples to oranges, so I found the digital version of the story, complete with a digital version of the graph.

It’s equally impressive (I’ve cropped the full page at the bottom of the graph):

On my 27-inch monitor, I can’t see the -10 million marker on the graph without scrolling. On my iPhone XS Max’s mobile screen, I can get to the big red -20,500,000 without scrolling.

But let’s compare this very long graph to the newsletters page above. That “Manage subscriptions” link? It’s so far down on the page, you can fit three full unemployment graphs on the page before you get to the link.

Click to see the full side-by-side comparison

Huge screenshot showing the New York Times newsletter page is 3x longer than the record setting unemployment graph.

The New York Times newsletter page is three times worse than “off the charts” — and that’s just on desktop! On mobile, all those newsletters are in one column. So you have to scroll past 60 newsletter cards to find the small “Manage subscription” link at the very bottom.

It’s awful. No one is going to do that, and that’s the goal.

Click to see the full mobile page

This is on par with the Amazon dark pattern in the video. The New York Times is throwing roadblocks at people who would opt-out of a free newsletter.

Sure, lots of companies do this. But people expect a different standard from journalists. No one expects Facebook to watch their back. They do have some expectation that journalists are on their side.

Two of the journalism business’ worst failings have been piss-poor user experience and customer service. This bogus opt-out journey is an all-star example of both failings.

Don’t sabotage yourself. Make it easy for readers to unsubscribe.

These dark patterns and dirty tricks hurt your institutional reputation. They will also harm your potential to attract subscribers. The short term numbers bump is not worth the long term challenges.

I have more coming about why 17 million subscribers isn’t all that useful to local publishers or small newsrooms. If you’d like to get the next post and other insights on this topic, please sign up below. You’ll be subscribing to Pick It Up, my newsletter on building loyal audiences: