Illustration of Jon Kelly
Courtesy Jon Kelly

Why Puck’s Jon Kelly Turns to Newsletters to Find Out What’s Really Going On

The co-founder of the politics, technology, and culture website sees the Substack era as a much-needed return to great magazine-style writing.
By Zoe Cooper
January 11, 2022
8 minute read

“Magazines may be a dying breed,” says Jon Kelly, a former Vanity Fair editor who founded its politics, business, and technology website, Hive, in 2015, after working as a staff editor for The New York Times Magazine and as a founding team member at Bloomberg Businessweek. (His career in media began at Vanity Fair, as an assistant to the legendary editor Graydon Carter.) “But magazine-style writing is always in vogue.” With this conviction in mind, Kelly teamed up with a trio of industry veterans—Joe Purzycki, co-founder of the Luminary podcast network; Max Tcheyan, a digital media executive; and Liz Gough, former senior vice president and U.S. commercial lead of Condé Nast’s creative agency, CNX—to create Puck, a subscription-based website where elite writers tell insider stories that lie at the nexus of Hollywood, Wall Street, Silicon Valley, and Washington, D.C.

Since its launch last September, the platform’s seasoned contributors have consistently used their deep knowledge of their respective beats to create whip-smart, long-form content. (Recent headlines: “Putin’s Talk Therapy,” “Elon vs. the Libs & Media Asset Moneyball,” and “The Great Post-Trump Cable News Correction.”) Puck’s journalists expand on their reporting on episodes of its new podcast, The Powers That Be, on which they discuss topics such as the state of digital media, Succession’s season three finale, and Silicon Valley’s top political donors in a similarly quick-witted, intelligent manner.

To better understand how Kelly keeps his finger on the pulse of new media trends, we asked him about what he’s reading and watching now. In discussing his go-tos, he reveals how he envisions the future of media, and what makes for great writing in the digital age.

How do you start your mornings?

I have two young sons, so most of my media attention—in general, but especially in the morning—is on my phone. I wake up to twenty-five or thirty email newsletters and digests, about five or six of which I end up reading deliberately every day.

I read everything on Axios AM/PM—it’s my version of The New York Times’s front page. I read a newsletter called Robinhood Snacks, which is a sort of bro-y digest of pop business stories about big market companies like Amazon, Robinhood, or Netflix. I also like Andrew Ross Sorkin’s DealBook newsletter for the Times, and Dan Primack’s Top of the Morning newsletter. I’m almost always asleep before Brian Stelter’s Reliable Sources newsletter comes out, so that’s probably the first thing I read in the morning. Brian’s really smart in that he realized, years ago, that the news cycle actually begins at about nine or ten p.m. the night before.

I also skim through Twitter, Barron’s, and see what’s trending on [Business] Insider. I go to the homepage of Condé Nast and the homepage of WWD. And I do a pretty thorough read of the politics section of The New York Times.

Then I take a look at Bloomberg, I open the Times app, and look through the [Wall Street] Journal alerts. At that point, I’m really just scrolling for headlines. When I look in my inbox, I tend to notice that most newsletters are variations on the same topic. My tendency is to skip those, and to go for the options that are either esoteric or slightly more provocative.

You read a lot of newsletters. What draws you to them?

A newsletter can mean a lot of things. But what it’s starting to mean, in a positive way, is a kind of article delivery on-demand. That’s interesting to me, because when I started my career in the magazine business, there was something called “column writing.” You had a great journalist like James Walcott write a couple thousand words about a topic that the reader already had some institutional knowledge of. And they wrote it in a way that was insiderly, dishy, accessible, but also added a lot of new context with not-new information. It often explained how the real pros were thinking about things.

That was really lost in the last generation, on the internet, in the battle for clicks. Now, the business models are changing, and valuing engagement and subscription and attention. There’s a return to a lot of great writing that is much more personalized.

Ben Thompson, who writes the subscription-based newsletter The Stratechery, was early in seeing this. He writes five articles a week, of varying length, in which he offers his analysis of the news. A big part of what you’re paying for is not just his ability to aggregate what’s important, but to put a real filter on it. It’s a really creative way to work, and in the world we live in now, it’s exciting to see writers—many of whom, like Ben, didn’t go to journalism school—who have a creativity that is unteachable, that allows them to take big, well-worn topics and make them totally fresh in new ways. That’s the stuff that works best for me.

Any go-to magazines?

I love magazines, and I love the art of making magazines. But about seven or eight years ago, it was very clear to me that the art form was eroding. I think I experienced the feeling that people who were on TV experienced when the industry moved from network to streaming, when you realize that a new platform offers a whole lot more creativity and opportunity. So I’ll be very honest: The only magazines I consume now are my college alumni magazine [Columbia Magazine] and In Touch Weekly, which I sometimes get out of habit when I go on a plane. Otherwise, I never read magazines or print newspapers.

What about books?

I’m not a fiction and novel reader, but occasionally I find myself drawn to the big, late twentieth-century authors. Sometimes, I’ll reread one of John Updike’s “Rabbit” books. Right now, I’m rereading Richard Ford’s Bascombe series. And every year or two, I reread the short Saul Bellow novella Seize the Day. I reread these classics, in part, because they’re all great books in which absolutely nothing happens. They’re just about people growing older and becoming dissatisfied with their lives. The greatest gift of writing is being able to make absolutely nothing incredibly interesting.

What podcasts are you listening to now?

Like most people in my world, I live and die by Pivot, my favorite podcast in human history. I have tremendous respect for Kara Swisher and Scott Galloway, its hosts. They’re serial entrepreneurs and trailblazers, and they inspire me every time I listen.

Favorite TV shows?

I watch most of the popular, trending shows you’d expect. I’m obsessed with Succession, just like everyone else. I watch Curb Your Enthusiasm, Dopesick, and The Crown. I also watch a ton of utter trash. I love Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives. Occasionally, if I’m at the gym when The View is on, I’ll watch that, because I think it’s hilarious.

Any other guilty pleasures?

When I’m just noodling in front of the television, I occasionally turn on Fox News to see what the alternative media narratives are. We are moving further and further away from the standardized media diet that our parents’ generation grew up in. It’s helpful to see how facts can be distorted, and it’s going to be a burden in our generation to try to combat that.