Make media profitable again

Understanding The Information, 10 years in

Hi, everyone! What a gift this time of year is for the content obsessed among us. My personal idol being named Time’s Person of the Year. The annual hot-people-complimenting-each-other Olympics that is Variety’s Actors on Actors series. Countless best of lists that will keep me too occupied consuming media to have an independent thought until at least January 3. ’Tis the season indeed.

—Kinsey, cofounder and head of editorial

The Information Turned Strategy Into Staying Power

Jessica Lessin in October 2023. Photo via Vanity Fair/Erin Beach.

Digital media years are kind of like dog years. If you’ve been around for a decade, especially the last decade, you’ve effectively seen it all. You’re Teflon. You’re impervious to whatever the next “pivot to video” materializes as.

That is…if you have the right strategy. We’ve seen many digital media brands come and go, inevitably lacking a true business model that can support their editorial operations.

But The Information isn’t one such media company. This week, it marked its 10-year anniversary with the rare actually interesting media mogul profile: Editor-in-chief Jessica Lessin explained to Vanity Fair how her company has managed to outwit, outplay, and outla—wait, no, that’s just Jenny’s Survivor thing rubbing off on me. Lessin shared what The Information has really done to stay afloat as the competition surrenders to “market realities” and unpleasant cost structures.

Business savvy + talent + customer obsession = media success

The business savvy: Subscription models don’t always work, but you most likely increase your chances of success when you bet on subscribers swiping their corporate card. That’s what Lessin did 10 years back—she went all in on expensive (like, $399/year expensive) subscriptions that were easily classified as business costs.

Seems to be working: 

  • Lessin told VF The Information will grow overall revenue by 30% year over year in 2023 and expects to be profitable. 

  • They say they have 475,000 active readers (aka free newsletter readers and paying subscribers). 

  • If only a quarter of those active readers are forking over $399 a year, The Information is looking at $47 million in top line revenue annually. And with a relatively lean staff of only 65…I’d take those numbers.

The talent: Take it from your local recovering journalism major, The Information is known to have some of the very best journalistic talent around. And even better, as Lessin told VF: The Information “[pays] our journalists what they [are] worth.” 

When your currencies are scoops and access like The Information’s are, you need more than just an eager J-school grad who knows AP Style. You need someone who can embed themselves in a world or industry or life and report on it objectively, accurately, and faster than a Bloomberg Terminal. The promise here is quality over quantity.

The customer obsession: Lessin speaks about The Information less like it’s a media company and more like it’s a startup (no surprise there, seeing as she’s cozy with the Zuckerbergs through her entrepreneur husband). That includes a deep-rooted familiarity with what the core customers (which VF noted includes Jeff Bezos and Reed Hastings) really need and expect. It’s not reporting for reporters (look we’ve all been there) or reporting for algorithms, but rather reporting for a powerful audience expecting exceptional insights.

I liked how our Morning Brew friend Jacob Donnelly put it: “Media companies led by business-minded editorial heads will be the ones that succeed in the future. If you view editorial as a cost structure rather than the asset it actually is, you will fail.”

And plenty of The Information’s contemporaries did: BuzzFeed, Recode, and Vice, to name a few of the biggest media casualties of late.

Bottom line: Consider how many new media companies have sprung up in the last few years focused on subscription-based, premium journalism like The Information: Puck, Punchbowl News, and paid tiers from Axios and Politico, as noted in VF. Taken together, it seems the success of The Information over this last decade illustrates that the subscription model can still work, and work well.

  • Spotify cut a whole bunch of jobs and original shows in an effort to lean down.

  • Substack is pushing video creator tools. YouTube, u up?

  • I was intrigued by this POV from Industry Dive CEO Sean Griffey on how mainstream media models might not be able to support climate reporting (no matter how urgently we need it).

  • Google Gemini is making waves in AI…thoughts?

#digibuzzcodevoxious is a term we coined back in our Morning Brew days—a portmanteau of Digiday, BuzzFeed, Recode, Vox, and Axios. Obviously, the year was 2018 and the interest rates were zero. But still, the sentiment of “interesting media trends and news” remains. So the name stays.

Thanks for reading! See you next week 🙂 also only reallllly two more full working weeks this year. Mamma Mia!