20VC The Information's Jessica Lessin on The Future For Online Journalism & The Benefits Of A Subscription Based Business Model

Summary Notes


In this episode of the 20 Minutes VC, host Harry Stebbings interviews Jessica Lessin, founder and editor-in-chief of The Information. Lessin shares her journey from an eight-year tenure at the Wall Street Journal to launching The Information, emphasizing the importance of a subscription model for producing quality, valuable tech and business content. She discusses the evolution of journalism, the shift towards broad and shallow reporting, and the opportunity for publications focused on depth and uniqueness. Lessin outlines the importance of great reporting, audience understanding, and the scalability of subscription-based journalism. She also touches on strategic growth, the potential of email marketing, and maintaining a balance between subjective perspectives and objective facts. Jessica Lessin advocates for journalism that serves decision-makers in tech, media, and finance, aiming for organic growth through impactful stories and a deep understanding of their readers' needs.

Summary Notes

Introduction to Jessica Lesson and the Information

  • Jessica Lesson is the founder and editor-in-chief of the Information.
  • She has a background as a tech reporter at the Wall Street Journal for eight years.
  • The Information was founded to provide quality business and tech news through a subscription model.
  • The Information aims to deliver more than just quantity, focusing on the value of good information.

"Sure. So I started the information about two and a half years ago after eight years as a tech reporter at the Wall Street Journal."

This quote establishes Jessica's background and the timeline of when she started the Information.

Journalistic Experience at the Wall Street Journal

  • Jessica learned the importance of unique reporting at the Wall Street Journal.
  • The focus was on stories that others weren't covering, not just rewriting press releases.
  • The Wall Street Journal's approach influenced the reporting style at the Information.
  • Several reporters at the Information also have experience from the Wall Street Journal.

"So the journal obviously has some fabulous reporters and editors who I think were instrumental in training me as a journalist."

Jessica credits her journalistic training to her time at the Wall Street Journal, highlighting the influence of their reporters and editors on her career.

Changes in the Journalism Industry

  • There's been a shift towards broad and shallow coverage in journalism.
  • The number of publications has increased, but many cover the same topics for mass audiences.
  • This trend is driven by the advertising-based business model, which seeks to attract a wide audience.
  • Jessica sees an opportunity for publications that offer deeper, more unique content.

"Alter as an insider in so many ways? I think most of it comes down to the fact the industry is getting very broad and shallow."

Jessica comments on the shift in the journalism industry towards more superficial coverage that lacks depth.

Quality of Content in Journalism

  • There's a convergence of quality and technique between traditional journalism and digital platforms like blogs and Wikipedia.
  • The medium (digital vs. print) does not inherently determine the quality of content.
  • The quality of journalism should be measured by the value of the information to a specific audience.
  • Jessica disagrees with general statements about quality convergence without considering the target audience.

"So, yes, because I think you have to separate the medium from the content."

Jessica agrees with Mark Andreessen's assertion to an extent, emphasizing that content quality is independent of whether it is digital or print.## Audience and Information Value

  • Publications should identify their target audience and understand the value of information to them.
  • Different audiences, such as business professionals, techies, and politics wonks, have different information needs.
  • The medium (print or digital) is less important than the content and its relevance to the audience.
  • News organizations must consider who their audience is and how they are serving that audience.

"The way I look at the world is less, here's one type of publication, here's one type of medium. It's what is this information? Or who is this information trying to reach in terms of an audience?"

This quote emphasizes the importance of understanding the audience and the information they seek, rather than focusing on the medium of delivery.

"Anytime someone talks about quality, it raises the question for me, to whom and in what way, right."

The quote addresses the subjective nature of quality, suggesting that it depends on the audience's perspective and needs.

The Information's Audience Profile

  • The Information's average reader is a decision-maker in tech, media, or finance.
  • Subscribers range from new entrepreneurs to executives at top tech companies and founders of highly valued US private tech companies.
  • Commonality among subscribers: they make decisions, run teams or companies, and make investments.
  • They seek information that helps answer questions about companies, competitors, and the future of their industry.

"It's a decision maker. In tech, media or finance, our subscribers range from entrepreneurs who are just starting out on their first Y combinator company to executives in the management teams at the most highly valued public tech companies to ten out of ten of the founders of the most highly valued us private tech companies."

This quote defines the primary audience of The Information, highlighting their roles as decision-makers across various levels of business.

Competitive Landscape in Journalism and Publishing

  • The competitive landscape includes anything that takes up subscribers' time, from social media to established publications.
  • The Information competes for consumer attention with analysts, major publications, and research from financial and venture capital firms.
  • There is a non-zero-sum competition among publications that provide valuable and relevant stories.
  • The thirst for knowledge about how technology is transforming business creates both competition and opportunity for media businesses.

"So anything that takes our subscribers time that they find valuable, from Instagram to the economist, is in some ways competitive, right?"

The quote suggests that competition for attention is broad, encompassing various forms of media and content that engage subscribers.

"It's both very competitive, but very open, I think."

This quote captures the dual nature of the media landscape, which is highly competitive but also offers opportunities for those who can provide unique and valuable content.

Content Creation and Uniqueness

  • The Information focuses on original stories with new information about business and technology.
  • Excellent reporters with deep knowledge and sources are key to unique content.
  • Collaborative teamwork helps less experienced reporters quickly improve their sourcing.
  • Understanding subscriber preferences and habits is crucial to creating impactful journalism.
  • A subscriber-focused approach helps ensure stories are valuable and answer the audience's questions.

"It starts with excellent reporters who are deeply sourced and knowledgeable about what they're writing about."

This quote highlights the foundation of creating unique content: knowledgeable and well-sourced reporters.

"Our job is to make them happy. Our job is to be valuable to that group and it's a broad group."

The quote reflects the subscriber-focused strategy, emphasizing the importance of creating content that satisfies the needs and preferences of the audience.## Qualities of Great Reporters

  • Great reporters are characterized by their grit, competitiveness, and deep curiosity about their beat.
  • Different styles of reporting contribute to the journalism field, such as breaking news, long-form narratives, and analytical columns.
  • The ability to ask keen questions and maintain a level of curiosity is a common trait among great reporters.
  • Variety in reporting styles is beneficial and is encouraged within journalistic teams.

"So what makes them great is grit, competitiveness, really deep curiosity about the beat they're covering, and they just kind of want to be all over it."

This quote highlights the essential attributes of great reporters, emphasizing their determination, competitive nature, and profound interest in the subjects they cover.

"But then we have reporters like Reed Albergati, who is a colleague of mine at the journal, who just published a 4000 word piece on nest that took a very long time."

This quote exemplifies the long-form narrative style of reporting, which involves in-depth research and extensive writing on a subject.

"And then a third bucket, sort of the great columns, the great analyzers, the people who maybe aren't focused always on getting the facts first, but they piece them together and connect the dots."

This quote describes the analytical style of journalism where the focus is on interpreting and making sense of information rather than being the first to report it.

Monetization of Online Journalism

  • The subscription-based model aligns the creation of valuable stories with the business side of journalism.
  • Dependence on advertising or events can lead to conflicting interests, whereas subscriptions focus on serving the reader.
  • The subscription model is scalable and depends on the inherent value of the content provided.
  • The information chose a subscription model from the start, believing it to be the most suitable for their goals.

"To me, it was the only model because it's the only model that is going to align, doing stories that people have to read that have value to them with the business."

Jessica Lessin explains why the subscription model was the only choice for The Information, emphasizing the alignment of producing must-read stories with a sustainable business model.

"The subscription business is pure. It's serving your end reader and your customer."

This quote highlights the purity of the subscription model, focusing solely on the reader's interests without the influence of advertisers or sponsors.

Subscription Model as a Barrier to Entry

  • A subscription fee acts as a barrier to entry, ensuring that the publication writes for a targeted community with specific interests.
  • The Information aims to reach a large audience over time but does not intend to write for everyone.
  • The goal is to make the subscription process as seamless as possible using technology.
  • The focus is on subscribers who see value in the publication, not on those who do not wish to subscribe.

"Look, I think it's a good thing that we're not writing for every person, that there's some barrier to entry."

Jessica Lessin expresses that having a barrier to entry is beneficial in creating a publication tailored to a community with particular interests.

"We think we'll focus on the ones that do and then take it from there."

This quote reflects The Information's strategy to concentrate on individuals who find value in their content and are willing to subscribe, rather than trying to appeal to everyone.

Growth of The Information

  • The Information's growth has been steady and organic, driven by word of mouth and the reach of their stories.
  • Growth has been linear rather than characterized by specific inflection points.
  • Future growth strategies include smart email marketing and other business-led initiatives.
  • The consistent pattern of growth through story-driven expansion is promising for the scalability of the model.

"Our business has been one of steady organic growth. And by organic I mean we've grown through word of mouth and through our stories, reaching new people, being picked up by other news outlets."

Jessica Lessin describes the natural growth trajectory of The Information, attributing it to the quality of their stories and their dissemination by other outlets and readers.

"Sort of eerily linear. Actually, one of the things we're focusing on now is how we can turbocharge that with smart email marketing and other kinds of business led initiatives."

This quote acknowledges the even growth pattern of The Information and introduces plans to accelerate growth through targeted marketing efforts.## Email as a Business Initiative

  • Jessica Lessin is highly enthusiastic about the potential of email as a tool to communicate with potential subscribers.
  • The Information has a significant number of people who have shown interest by providing their email addresses.
  • Email technology presents limitless possibilities, but also poses many challenges.
  • The engineering team works hard to optimize emails for various devices, highlighting the complexity of the platform.

I'm very excited about email. I think we have orders of magnitude more than emails and we have subscribers right now, maybe one order of magnitude more, just from people who have expressed interest in the information.

Jessica Lessin expresses her excitement about the use of email as a means to engage with individuals who have shown interest in their content, indicating a large pool of potential subscribers beyond the current subscriber base.

Favorite Book

  • Jessica Lessin's favorite type of book is biographies.
  • She recommends Ben Bradley's autobiography, praising it highly.

Any biography, but one of my favorite is Ben Bradley's autobiography from the Washington Post. Highly recommend it.

Jessica Lessin enjoys biographies and specifically points out Ben Bradley's autobiography as one of her favorites, suggesting it as a good read.

Reflecting on Past Decisions

  • If she could start the process of building The Information again, Jessica Lessin would make early decisions much faster.
  • She reflects on decisions, such as choosing a payroll provider, which in hindsight were not as critical as they seemed.

I'd make early decisions faster. Sweated a lot of decisions, like what payroll provider to use. That turned out not to be that important. I would have made those a lot faster.

Jessica Lessin shares a learning experience, emphasizing the importance of speed in decision-making during the early stages of a business, as some decisions may not be as consequential as they appear.

Modern Journalism Houses

  • Jessica Lessin respects journalism houses that focus on hiring and training journalists.
  • She is also interested in individual writers and the businesses and brands they are building.

There are a lot. It's very hard to pick one. I think any place that is hiring and training journalists is doing a great job.

Jessica Lessin acknowledges the difficulty in choosing a single journalism house for praise but highlights the importance of hiring and training journalists in the industry.

  • Jessica Lessin recommends following Doug Yung, a Beijing-based journalist who writes about China and business.
  • She finds Doug Yung's work particularly insightful for those interested in global tech trends.

My new one I've been following a lot is actually someone based in Beijing called Doug Yung, who writes about China and business, and I find his stuff awesome and would highly recommend it to anyone who wants to follow tech trends globally.

Jessica Lessin endorses Doug Yung as a valuable resource for understanding business and technological developments in China, suggesting his work for those interested in global tech trends.

Balancing Subjectivity and Objectivity

  • Balancing subjectivity and objectivity in journalism is about maintaining the trust of the reader.
  • Facts are fundamental, but having a perspective is also important when you have expertise.
  • Subjective opinions should be supported by objective facts to strengthen the argument.

Think it comes down to the trust of the reader. So obviously, as a journalist, you want facts, you want to stick to facts, you want to defend with facts.

Jessica Lessin discusses the balance between subjectivity and objectivity, emphasizing the role of factual reporting in building and maintaining reader trust while also acknowledging the value of informed perspectives.

Snapchat Marketing

  • Jessica Lessin finds the storytelling experience on Snapchat compelling.
  • While The Information does not use Snapchat extensively for marketing, she enjoys the product personally and sees increased usage.
  • Snapchat's commitment to developing tools for brands suggests it is an area worth experimenting with for customer acquisition.

I'm into Snapchat, I think find the sort of story experience really compelling.

Jessica Lessin expresses her personal interest in Snapchat and the engaging nature of its story feature, indicating potential for brands to explore marketing opportunities on the platform.

Future Growth for The Information

  • Jessica Lessin envisions growth for The Information in terms of readership and coverage areas.
  • The core product will remain focused on providing unique and valuable information with an online community for subscribers.
  • The scope of coverage will naturally expand to include a broader range of industries and areas, driven by the technology sector.

I think it's just growth. I mean, our product is simple. It's information you can't get elsewhere that's valuable.

Jessica Lessin outlines the future direction for The Information, centered on growth while maintaining the core value proposition of exclusive and valuable content coupled with a subscriber community.

Lisa Mattress Promotion

  • Harry Stebbings promotes the Lisa mattress, highlighting its unique features such as memory foam layers and cooling technology.
  • The online buying experience is designed to be convenient, with delivery available in the US, UK, and Canada.
  • A promotional code is offered for a discount on the Lisa mattress.

That is guaranteed to make the weekend a whole lot better. Who does not get excited by the three unique layers of memory foam and latex light foam, which will come in handy if the weekend goes really well, as the latex light foam keeps you cool at night, hashtag winning even more awesome.

Harry Stebbings advertises the Lisa mattress, emphasizing its comfort features and the added convenience of online purchase and delivery, along with a discount offer to listeners.

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