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Jessica Lessin built a business to prove information doesn’t have to be free

"If it’s valuable to an audience, there’s a price that people should be willing to pay," Lessin says on the latest Recode Media.

Karen Obrist / courtesy of The Information

The news business treats its content as “free until otherwise proven it should be paid for,” The Information CEO Jessica Lessin says — and that’s totally backward.

On the latest episode of Recode Media with Peter Kafka, Lessin argued that news publishers can and should charge for news. Her site, which launched in late 2013, charges $400 a year for deeply reported tech and business news.

“The way I see it is, people will pay for things that are valuable to them,” Lessin said. “We pay to go to the movies. We don’t expect to go to the movies for free. We pay for items of clothing we like. News is information, and if it’s valuable to an audience, there’s a price that people should be willing to pay.”

“As an industry, that should be our default assumption, whether we’re in local news or business news, that we want to create something that will have some value to someone,” she added. “That hasn’t been how people approached the industry.”

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On the new podcast, she dismissed the widely held axiom that “news is a bad business,” calling for others to invest in both new and old media outlets.

“We have a dearth of original reporting,” she said. “And it’s going to affect our society and is affecting our society.”

“Just because, as a publisher, you say, ‘I want to charge something for my content,’ it doesn’t mean you’re attacking society or against the freedom of information,” Lessin added. “Quite the contrary: It says, ‘I am going to support myself by doing good work that has value.’”

Lessin previously worked at the Wall Street Journal for eight years, five of which were spent covering tech and media. She said she left to start The Information in 2013 because she believed the Journal wasn’t focusing its efforts on the right readers.

“As a reporter, there were a couple of frustrations,” she said. “One, as a reporter, was ‘Who am I writing for?’ I was covering Apple at the time. I was getting a lot of encouragement from my editors for liveblogging Apple press conferences, stories that I just didn’t care — it wasn’t why I got up in the morning. I got up in the morning to write stories other people weren’t writing, to help business leaders make decisions.”

On the new podcast, she explained that her goal for The Information is to do for technology what the Wall Street Journal and Financial Times previously did for finance — writing about how Silicon Valley is changing everything, as seen through the eyes of reporters with a decidedly techie mindset. And although the site currently has no advertising, she acknowledged that that could change.

“I’m not anti-advertising,” Lessin said. “I think that successful media companies have multiple revenue streams. We want to be on the scale of an FT or a Wall Street Journal someday, so I think we’ll definitely have multiple revenue streams and advertising could be one of them. It’s not something that we think about at all today. If you can have a large base of people willing to pay you, that to me is the biggest position of strength you can start from and grow from.”

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If you like what we’re doing, please write a review on Apple Podcasts — and if you don’t, just tweet-strafe Peter. Tune in next Thursday for another episode of Recode Media!

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