The E-Mail Newsletter for the Mogul Set

The E-Mail Newsletter for the Mogul Set

When the digital-media company Puck launched, last September, it promised insider access from “elite, genre-defining journalists” to America’s centers of power—Hollywood, Wall Street, Washington, and Silicon Valley. In an accompanying manifesto, Jon Kelly, its editor-in-chief and co-founder, laid out Puck’s editorial strategy and business model, which aimed to place its writers at the heart of the project, as owners of the company. Other industries had remade themselves around new “distribution streams” and the “creator economy” and, in Kelly’s estimation, “journalists, perhaps the original influencers, were due for the same transformation.” He cast Puck writers as “generationally talented,” peers of the most exalted industry leaders they were covering. What he had learned in nearly two decades as an editor—largely at Vanity Fair, with stints at Bloomberg Businessweek and at the Times Magazine—Kelly told me, “was just how much these élite journalists knew.” Yet much of their knowledge never made it to readers. Puck was designed to change that. It was built to reveal the backstory, to take readers into back rooms, and to display the back-scratching that takes place within them.

Puck sought to capitalize on the same idea driving the newsletter company Substack—that certain writers, with dedicated followings, can be their own profit centers. Puck’s writers would be featured in their own newsletters (or “private e-mails,” as Kelly likes to say), but also enjoy the scaffolding of copy-editing and story meetings. Their compensation model was at the core of Puck’s strategy. At Puck, journalists weren’t simply salaried employees. They would get an equity stake in the company and receive bonuses based on their subscriber numbers. (For every thousand subscribers they bring in, writers get ten thousand dollars.) Puck journalists, some of whom earn between three hundred thousand and four hundred thousand dollars a year, refer to one another as “partners” and receive detailed briefings on the state of the business—an unusual arrangement in media, where writers typically have only a dim awareness of company balance sheets.

Puck’s tone is deliberately clubby. Part of its pitch is that its writers move in the same elevated spaces as the people whom they cover. Kelly dislikes some of the “wrist-slapping and rage in journalism” nowadays and seems put off by the effects of the democratizing forces of social media on the profession. (In one conversation, he told me that he thought sending Twitter D.M.s was “a little tacky.”) His site is meant to be more understanding of the complex problems that face the masters of the universe. Puck, Kelly said, has a “pro-success” attitude.

It ostensibly expects the same of its readers. Puck makes no attempt to conceal its yearning for a rarefied audience. When subscribing—a hundred dollars for basic yearly access, two hundred and fifty to be a member of the “Inner Circle,” which includes off-the-record conference calls with the writers themselves—you’re asked to identify your job level. C-suite, senior director, senior executive, and director are four of the seven Puck-sanctioned reader careers. I sheepishly checked “other.” Jen Psaki, Hank Paulson, Kara Swisher, and Sheryl Sandberg are all readers. One slide from the site’s pitch deck to potential advertisers features a pyramid under the banner “Puck’s audience is comprised of the most influential people in America.” The top of the pyramid is labelled Titans of Industry; the middle, Aspiring; and the bottom, Everyone Else.

Among the site’s fixations so far have been the Warner Bros. Discovery C.E.O., David Zaslav (“Zaz” in Puck-speak; his domain is “Zazworld”), and headlines with “Tao” in them: “The Tao of Ari’s Abs”; “The Tao of Chuck Todd”; “The Tao of Gary”; “The Tao of Paramount.” “Ari” as in the Endeavor C.E.O., Ari Emanuel, and “Gary” as in the former Goldman Sachs president and C.O.O. and Trump economic adviser, Gary Cohn. The site’s top drivers of traffic—Matthew Belloni (who has the most subscribers), Dylan Byers, and Julia Ioffe—have all benefitted from major events that unfolded around the time of Puck’s launch. Belloni, a former entertainment lawyer and editor of the Hollywood Reporter, has focussed his efforts on the entertainment industry’s post-pandemic flux. (Twenty-five per cent of Puck’s audience is in the entertainment business, twenty per cent is in media, and ten per cent is in tech.) “People are anxiety-ridden,” Belloni told me. “They want to read about what’s going on.” Writing what Puck calls “Sun Valley—the e-mail list” is Byers, a former CNN reporter who has covered the concentric scandals that emanated from the departure of the network’s president, Jeff Zucker, and the merger of its parent company, WarnerMedia, with Discovery. (Kelly once called chatter about the cable-news network “a love language.”) Ioffe, a Moscow-born writer on Russian affairs, was hired to report on Washington, from the vantage point of a foreign correspondent. She has built up a large audience with her coverage of the war in Ukraine, writing about the mood and morale in Russia, Putin’s psychology, and the alliances and entanglements the war has brought. Her Puck readership is particularly connected, Ioffe said. “I would hear stuff about how people in the C.I.A. were reading me.”

The Puck style is authoritative and knowing. Its writers regularly refer to the moguls they cover by their first names. Their dispatches often have bits of news, but they’re also distilling the yammering going on in their specific coverage worlds. A common Puck trope is to speak of one’s phone and e-mail blowing up with sources clamoring to talk. William D. Cohan, a former mergers-and-acquisition banker—who once wrote about the “private equity prom” he flew from his home in Nantucket to attend—unpacks Wall Street deals in prose laden with EBITDA, debt-restructuring, and pearls about how the activist investor Dan Loeb “lives large (but tastefully).” The site’s politics coverage often channels the perspective of a consultant or staffer class, chronicling who’s up, who’s down, and who’s the next big figure to snipe about. Puck aims to be chatty and confiding, the conspiratorial companion to the Times’ or the Journal’s business section. In one edition of his own Saturday newsletter, Kelly wrote, “At Puck, we’re not shy about the fact that we often know the people we cover, and we happily eschew some of the stuffier conventions of journalism, like inserting banal and hollow on-the-record quotes just to prove we dropped a call, or marble-mouthed bothsidesism, or vacant euphemisms.”

The site often succeeds at capturing an insider’s perspective; some of the outlet’s subscribers told me that they can often guess the anonymous sourcing behind any given piece of coverage. “It’s a pretty sophisticated readership,” an entertainment executive told me. “Some people obviously are using them to deliver different messages, but that’s O.K.” He pointed to Byers’s coverage of Zucker’s firing from CNN. “I would just always chuckle because I could see who was speaking, but everybody kind of knows that. It’s almost kind of amusing to watch it play out.”

But Puck can also be guilty of overreach. Its promotional copy sometimes reads like they’re breaking the story of the moment—“Bill Cohan reveals what Dan Loeb wants from Disney” or “Matt Belloni reveals when the Disney board turned on Chapek”—when, in fact, they’re merely delivering what amounts to an explainer about it. “The Twitter saga is indubitably one of the stories of our time: a battle of egos, lawyers, dealmakers, accountants, rich hangers-on,” Kelly wrote in one Saturday newsletter. “It’s precisely the sort of tale you can only find at Puck.” Of course, the saga of Elon Musk and Twitter can be found in literally any major news outlet.

“I think they’ve done a very good job of carving out a voice that doesn’t exist anywhere else,” Felix Salmon, the chief financial correspondent at a competing site, Axios, said. “Puck is really tacking hard into the insidery thing: ‘We are going to give you all of those juicy, gossipy, inside details that you didn’t know that you wanted.’ ” The concern, he went on, is that the reporting doesn’t always live up to hype. “You realize once you subscribe, it’s a bit like going into a V.I.P. room at a club. You’re, like, ‘Wait, after all that effort I ended up in here?’ ”

A decade ago, media startups single-mindedly chased clicks to drive advertising revenue. Puck is just one of a flotilla of new digital publications targeting specific subsets of readers—Punchbowl (Capitol Hill) and the Ankler (Hollywood) have adopted similar strategies. Puck stands out because it’s not squeamish in declaring its fixation on the rich and powerful. “Élite journalists are our influencers,” Kelly said. “And there is a chance to arbitrage the confluence of their influence and their opportunities.”

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