December 7, 2021

What I Hope Substack Changes About Journalism: The Information’s Weekly Newsletter

We have a major tech news week coming up, with a possible Google antitrust lawsuit, who knows what developments around TikTok, the Palantir and Asana public stock market debuts and much more.

On Thursday, I’m excited to sit down to discuss the state of play with former U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker and entrepreneur and investor Alexa von Tobel. They are the founders of Inspired Capital, a relatively new venture firm, and we plan to cover a lot of ground, from the impact of the presidential election on tech to where venture capitalists are playing their next round of Covid-inspired bets. To join us, register here.

And while next week will be busy, this week was jam-packed as well. Jessica Toonkel published two important stories. The first was a story about a sexual misconduct investigation into the CEO of ViacomCBS, which cleared him. The second was a profile of media banker Aryeh Bourkoff. I’m pretty sure if you look up “power player” in the dictionary, you’ll find Aryeh.

A Reason to Be Optimistic About Journalism

This week there was a lot of buzz around journalists ditching their newsroom jobs to publish their own newsletters. The trend was chronicled in a New York Times piece, pegged to the news that The Verge’s Casey Newton was breaking out on his own.

I had to laugh when Ben Thompson, the creator of the subscription Stratechery newsletter, tweeted: “The NYT trend piece on subscription newsletters-as-business officially arrived 2,352 days after Stratechery launched the Daily Update.”

I’m thrilled to see more journalists going out on their own. It’s been happening forever. Back when I started at The Wall Street Journal, top reporters would leave to start high-end newsletters, charging thousands of dollars a year. A bit later, when blogging took off, some left to write on their own website.

The advertising-based economics didn’t work back then, but times have changed. Thanks to easy billing and email systems like Substack, it is now much easier for a journalist who wants to go this route to make a living. (Please, please, please, journalists, keep as much of this revenue as possible for yourself as opposed to giving a cut to a tech platform. The revenue adds up.)

While it’s not new, this trend could be transformative to the news industry—although not in the way some people think.

A greater number of solo subscription newsletters won’t cause readers to ditch larger brands in any meaningful way. Over the 2,352 days that Thompson has been writing Stratechery, news organizations like the Times and the Journal have added millions of subscribers.

But the rise of this model could affect journalism in one profoundly positive way: It could encourage journalists to consider the economic value of their work—and of themselves.

One does not become a reporter to get rich. Reporters, and I still consider myself one, measure our impact in terms of the change we see in the world. I keep several lists of The Information stories that have affected change. Those are the ones I am most proud of. Period.

When I founded The Information seven years ago, there was a deep and profound sense that doing good work was at odds with building a sustainable news company. And in a world where publications depended on driving eyeballs to banner ads, that was mostly true.

But I saw a way to do things differently. Subscription businesses realign incentives. You have to make something valuable or important to earn money from readers, again and again. The beauty of the model is that the gap between the journalism you want to do and the journalism that is good for the business is gone.

Many companies that have launched or are launching subscription businesses still don’t believe that. They put up paywalls and tell their reporters to write one kind of story to drive subscriptions and another to win awards.

That bifurcation is poison. It’s the exact replica of the problem with the click-driven world, where people wrote one type of story to drive traffic and another to have impact. It tells journalists that what they want to do doesn’t have value—that they have to choose.

Which brings me back to why I am excited that more journalists are launching small newsletter businesses.

As Newton told the Times, “When you look at the economics of newsletters, there are opportunities that are bigger for some writers than any media company can match.”

Newton isn’t divorcing his work from its economic value; he’s embracing it. As an aside, he’s right, of course—for a select few, who also have to work insanely hard.

I hope that journalists everywhere—at publications large and small—start to think this way.

They won’t all start newsletter businesses. But they will be helping to save journalism.

Such a shift will funnel more talent to publications with sustainable business models that align quality journalism and revenue. Those publications will better retain that talent in our industry by creating a culture where they reward top performers for their impact.

And, as an industry, we could maximize not just the number of individual writers, but also the number of sustainable newsrooms that employ thousands of reporters for centuries to come.

Upcoming Events:

Thursday Oct. 1: What’s Next For Venture Capital and Tech Policy (Video Call)

Jessica will discuss major themes in tech policy, including the upcoming Google antitrust case, with former U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker and entrepreneur and investor Alexa von Tobel. Sign up here.

Tuesday Oct. 6: IRL to URL (Invitation only)

The Information’s annual fall media party has gone virtual. Past attendees will have received an invitation.

This Week’s The Information Articles:

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