Five things Jessica Lessin needs to keep in mind about paywalls as she launches The Information

The past year has seen the launch and growth of some fascinating new media entities — both platforms and services — including Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish, Medium, the crowdfunded Matter project, Paul Carr’s NSFW Corp. and Holland’s De Correspondent, to name a few. And this week we saw another being born, with the launch of former Wall Street Journal correspondent Jessica Lessin’s technology and business news venture, which is called The Information.

One of the defining characteristics of Lessin’s new offering is a hard paywall: only subscribers who pay $39 per month or $399 per year get access to the service’s content — which is more than an introductory offer her former employer has for both digital and print access to the WSJ. In a short interview with Digiday, Lessin explained why she chose this model as opposed to a leaky paywall (like the one at the New York Times) or an ad-supported model.

“I really don’t think the ad business model is aligned with our mission. Any publication that makes a meaningful amount of money through advertising ends up writing stories that generate a lot of traffic to generate a lot of ad dollars. Publications wrestle with that editorial decision. The bar for each of our articles is ‘is this worth paying for?'”

Paywalls are harder when you are new


It’s possible that The Information may be able to make a hard paywall work where others haven’t, in part because financial information is seen as having a built-in value for business consumers, many of whom write off the expense of subscribing to such services — hence the success of paywalls at the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, Bloomberg, etc.

But it’s also arguably the case that a subscription model is more difficult to engineer with a brand-new venture than one with an existing brand name, as we have seen with the failure of hard (and even somewhat leaky) paywalls at both Matter and NSFW Corp. And despite the pedigree of Lessin and colleagues such as former Wall Street Journal writer Amir Efrati, the site is still a new thing for consumers to have to wrap their heads around.

In that vein, here are a few things that I think Lessin and her colleagues need to keep in mind as they think about where The Information goes from here:

Paywalls make it difficult to reach new readers: One thing that both Paul Carr of NSFW and Bobbie Johnson of Matter have mentioned in talking about the failure of their paywalls was how difficult it was to expand their reach, even with “subscriber unlocks” that provided free access. That’s especially hard for a new venture with an unproven track record.

Being part of the flow of the web is important: Another point Johnson in particular made about Matter was that having a hard paywall and a slow publishing schedule made it more difficult to be part of the “rhythms of the web,” and also made it less likely that other publications would link to Matter’s content, which also goes to the idea of reach.

Paywalls require a lot of effort to add value: If there’s one thing that becomes clear from watching Andrew Sullivan’s experience with The Daily Dish, it’s how much work he and his team put in to providing enough value to justify the cost of their content, with dozens of posts every day — and they are charging a lot less than The Information.

A strong community is the best paywall: Another lesson from Sullivan’s approach, as well as from other small publishers such as Techdirt and Talking Points Memo, is that engaging with the community that makes up your subscriber base is crucial — whether it’s responding to questions, offering special features to paying readers or all of the above.

In the end, good content may not be enough: NSFW Corp. had a lot of detractors for a variety of reasons, but it’s difficult to argue that its content wasn’t consistently of fairly high quality, and the same goes for Matter — and yet neither could command enough subscribers to make the math work. Good content should be enough, but in some cases it isn’t.

Just to be clear, I’m not saying that The Information is doomed or is a bad idea. I’m glad to see people experimenting with new models, and it’s fascinating to see journalists like Lessin taking advantage of the shifting balance of power in media to strike out on their own. And while I am on record as not liking paywalls, personal paywalls are the ones I like the best.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Shutterstock / Voronin76 and Flickr user Giuseppe Bognanni