Jessica Lessin had broken news in the technology sphere for eight years as a reporter at The Wall Street Journal. Yet she felt technology coverage around the industry had become repetitive and sensational.
So she joined together with seven others to create her own website, The Information, which launched this month. The site charges subscribers $39 a month or $399 a year for access to articles that strive to break new ground in technology reporting.
On Dec. 13th, for instance, the site includes pieces on “deep learning” at Apple, Android’s niche in China and a recurring feature called “Free Agents,” which interviews “respected tech and media executives on the sidelines who may be looking for new opportunities.”
In a phone interview, Lessin talked about her motivations, her goals and more. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of the conversation.
When did you come up with the idea for this start-up?
The idea of building a publication that was much more focused on its audience and going deeper on tech is something that has popped in and out of my head sporadically in more recent years. When you’re writing about entrepreneurs and technology, you can’t help but think, ‘What are new models and new ways of doing things?’ But it was something that crystallized for me in the first half, first quarter of last year. I officially left the Journal in July.
Why did you decide to leave the Wall Street Journal and start this project?
I think many other publications have very broad user bases; they’re trying to be somewhat more generalist and go for comprehensiveness and scope. I felt that there was this very big opportunity to instead just focus on an audience that we think is actually kind of underserved in some ways, these being people who either work in tech or they work in finance or they work in retail or they work in industries where technology’s changing their businesses dramatically and they want to stay ahead.
How did you come up with the name of the site?
When I look at media, I think of a sort of spectrum between media that’s for entertainment — reading about celebrities, reading about people, reading about cooking, whatever — to media that’s information: This is happening, this will help you trade that stock, the facts. We wanted to always hold ourselves up to the bar of: ‘Is there some valuable information in what we write?’
Why did you want to focus on subscribers?
We wanted to know our audience and focus on writing content that delivered value directly to them so we don’t want to have to think about throwing something up on the website because we think it’ll get a lot of traffic. By being a subscription business, we could focus solely on the question, ‘Is our audience going to consider this content good enough to pay for?’
How did you come up with the price that you’d charge subscribers?
I think that we knew that it would be something targeted at professionals, so that puts you on the more expensive side, but we didn’t want to be in the thousand dollars a year range. …. If you look around the $400-a-year price point, Business Insider has a subscription service in that ballpark. Gigaom has a research product very similar to Business Insider, not the same kind of content we have but the same kind of audience, and they’re kind of in that ballpark as well, so I felt that it was a good place to start.
What differentiates you from all the tech sites out there?
If we believe that we can write better articles, that break more news, that are smarter, that are ahead of the curve, that reflect what the insiders and decision-makers are talking about, we think that we can compete. If we don’t do that, if we just write the same stuff that everyone else writes, we can’t compete. On any given day, there’s interesting and great reads across the web, but we don’t think there’s a publication that’s consistently focused on this kind of content.
What qualities do you look for when you hire?
First and foremost, we’re looking for great reporters — people who can have deep relationships, they can get to news early, they can be ahead of the curve. But not just that, also people who are smart, who can step back and say, ‘What’s going on here? What’s important? What does this remind me of? What can I compare it to in other industries?’ That sort of synthesis.
Are you concerned at all about other sites devaluing your stories by picking them up?
A good example is we’ve had two stories now that profile a number of executives in the technology industry that are in between jobs — free agents, we call them. Now the blogs, of course, found the most interesting bit: what we had to say about Scott Forstall, who was a very high-profile Apple executive who left and is contemplating something new and doing some advising. They picked that up because everyone loves Apple and that’s great because it tells everyone that we’ve worked on this feature. But our subscribers are telling us that they liked this feature because now they know 12 names of people they should maybe try to recruit or a few people who they thought maybe didn’t want to look for a new job, but actually are on the market, so I think that illustrates how the value propositions are different.
What are your goals for the future?
We’re really focused on growing our number of subscribers because that basically means that we’re writing great stories, and so it’s sort of one and the same. That really is our short, medium and long-term priority.
What’s been the most challenging aspect and the most enjoyable?
The most challenging thing has always been the most challenging thing, which is writing great articles. As a reporter, since as long as I can remember, it’s still the most fun and it’s still the hardest work. … I would also say that building the team and working with the team has just been this fabulous experience. There’s really nothing like the teamwork and energy of a start-up for what you can accomplish.