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Benner on Tech: Nasdaq Deja Vu

After the tech news site Re/code sold itself to Vox Media, reports in noted that the deal was necessary because it’s just too darned hard to build a media company these days. Months before the Re/code sale, the long-running tech site Gigaom had shuttered, too.

Re/code was founded by Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg, former Wall Street Journal writers who are revered in tech circles. The website launched amid the current tech boom, which has created a huge appetite for the breaking stories, scoops and product reviews that Re/code provides. But after about a year and a half, it only averaged 1.5 million unique visitors a month, according to Comscore. That’s not a big enough audience to satisfy advertisers.

The media business is tough. It’s hard to build the audience needed to produce lots of revenue. To get page views, a startup needs a steady stream of content. And that usually means writers must be hired and overhead bills paid well before a media company knows if the advertisers will come. Venture money has lately financed the growth phase, but success is still far off, even for large websites with broad audiences like Vox and Mashable.

Yet amid the worry about the media landscape, there are bright spots - websites and small publishing companies that make money and produce content that readers love. I’m talking about the often overlooked subscription news business, which includes newer entrants like the Information and Stratechery, as well as older, revered publications like Grant’s Interest Rate Observer and the High-Tech Strategist.

You should know that I’m more than a little biased: I worked at the Information, which I joined in 2013, before it even launched, largely because I thought the business model was smart. I’d previously worked at Time Inc. during a few of its digital transformations and at CNN/Money, so I knew firsthand that the free-content business was tough. I knew that magazines and newspapers weren’t truly subscription businesses because advertising revenue was paramount. So I saw no harm in trying out a company whose model relied on subscriptions to truly support the business.

What I learned at the Information is that people are willing to pay good money - in that case, $399 a year - for news they need and like. None of them took venture capital to get off the ground. Stratechery - a one-man show by former Microsoft employee, Ben Thompson - hit 3, 000 subscribers in only 13 months. At $100 a year, the digital newsletter provides Thompson a higher salary than that of most editors or reporters I know; and he works for himself, putting out high-quality essays and analyses on the business of technology. (Another bias alert, I’m a Stratechery subscriber, too.)

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