The Information Embarks on a Bold Experiment

This morning, former Wall Street Journal reporter Jessica Lessin launched a grand experiment in journalism.

She would rather call it a “publication that operates differently,” and operate differently, it does.  The Information  doesn’t break news. It won’t deliver comprehensive coverage of the tech industry it intends to cover. You won’t find eye-popping headlines or click-baiting listicals.   And you won’t find ads.

The Information is a subscription-supported publication aimed at professionals who work in the tech industry or whose industry is being “up-ended” by technology, Lessin says.  In a “Hello World” letter from the editor, Lessin writes:

Instead of chasing the highest number of eyeballs, we will chase and deliver the most valuable news. We’ve set the bar high. To succeed, we need to write articles that deliver value worth paying for. That’s why we’re a subscription publication.

In a digital media world centered on so-called freemium business models, The Information does put the “buy” in try-before-you-buy.  Articles with clumsy, just-the-facts-ma’am headlines like “Breaking Down Crowdfunding Fees” and “How Apple Gives Some Apps an Edge” offer a paragraph or two of story before site visitors slam head on into the pay gate.  Annual subscriptions are $399, and the pay-as-you-go monthly fee is $39.

Reaction on social media to today’s launch is what you might expect. On one side is a cheering crowd, taking as an act of faith that Lessin and her team will deliver. On the other, a group of nay-sayers who find a $400/year subscription product ridiculously expensive.

In a post on Facebook, freelance writer Esther Schindler writes, “I like the premise of in-depth news site but I don’t think [premium subscriptions] is the way we’ll get there.”  The irony, of course, is that Schindler makes her living selling copy, presumably sight unseen, to editors who work for news organizations that are expected, by Schindler’s own admonition, to give it away for free.

The Information has its work cut out for it, just as any new publication does, and the publication’s relatively high pay walls may make that work a bit harder.  Will people pay for the smarter, in-depth analysis The Information intends to provide?  Will sources be forthcoming for reporters – even ones with the solid reputations of Lessin and her team — to reach a developing audience of unknown size and demographic? Will Lessin get the access she needs to deliver the product she must?

On a brisk late-September morning, Lessin and I sat down to talk about her ambition for her at that time unnamed publication, about journalistic point of view, and pay walls.

“A lot of stories that aren’t getting written because they aren’t fitting in the news cycles,” Lessin said. “We’re going to stop chasing he 24/7 news cycle. We don’t want to be the site that you have open all day to keep checking.  We’re taking on stories that others aren’t doing.  We will publish two to four stories a day that will change the conversation, and that people will pay for.”

While Lessin has a following in the tech business community, she doesn’t consider herself a personality, nor does she want to become one.  Citing a few media entrepreneurs who built their brands by being “bombastic without the rigor of analysis,” Lessin has a zealous regard for great reporting.  “Point of view is important to all journalists, but what it is isn’t understood,” she said.  “A lot of the concern about journalistic objectivity and POV is misguided. I think they can be very compatible and it is one way to rise above the noise.  You can also rise above the noise by reporting on things that on one else is reporting on.  To do great reporting you need the trust of great sources.  The best way to build that trust is to have opinions and share that and be transparent.”

Perhaps most surprisingly, Lessin said she’s not worries about her subscription model. “People have said that we will never build a brand because we were behind a pay wall.  Most of writing will be subscription, inspired by the paid newsletter model.  We have to have a polished and professional product from the outset because we’re asking people to pay, but at the same time we are watching and learning and placing our bets.”

In fact, The Information built the publishing platform from scratch in order to have the analytics the need to understand audience engagement. “We will write the best stuff possible that we think this audience will care about. We’ll do our best to get the story out there, follow closely what subscribers read, then do more of it.”

“When I am typing out the sentences I am thinking of the reader.  How will I make this interesting for them? How will I get them to read to the next paragraph?”

“I don’t worry about whether people will pay us,” Lessin said. “I really don’t. I personally worry about a lot of stories I’m working on.  Not because we have everything  figured out but because everything can be adjusted

“We have to write great stories. If we can do that hard work, then everything else follows.”

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