Axios, the bulleted list chimera of tech and journalism, conceived according to the premise that “Media is broken—and too often a scam,” is experimenting with a new format: “smart brevity” longform.
Confused? Megan Swiatkowski, Axios’s Associate Director of Communications, explained in an email pitch, it’s “how to go deep, but write short.”
If you are still confused, let me venture an explanation: It’s a Wikipedia article in newsletter form for the ruling class. Or, Mike Allen’s not-so Tiny Letter.
The venture into smart brevity longform launched on May 28, 2018, with a morning newsletter, this one about China. “Axios AM Deep Dive,” as these newsletters are called, read like a bunch of Axios articles organized by theme and stacked on top of one another. They are, as Swiatkowski explains, “bar stool to bar stool” analysis of a given topic—written in bulleted lists with lots of embedded links to even more Axios articles. Each newsletter features contributions from the Axios reporters on the beat at hand. There is the opportunity to go deeper, with links offset by a bolded proclamation to “Go deeper.” That directs the reader to the Axios site for more information—this information is usually just more articles, videos, and graphs on the Axios website. Not much different than the other embedded links. The goal, according to Swiatkowski, who spoke to the CJR, is to “make people smarter faster.”
Since then, smart brevity longform, appearing on Saturdays (but not every Saturday) has covered topics like robots, trade, health care, climate, demographics, threats, 5G, and the midterms. Despite the Axios language, it all seems a fairly standard online media project: SEO-optimized articles, with lots of links to other pages on the site. The kind that anyone who has worked as a proletariat cog in the machinations of content churn knows very well—the SEO chum bucket of clickbait. Swiatkowski says that topics are picked because of their importance and relevance to people’s lives. “It’s high quality information,” she tells CJR. “It’s objective. It’s good journalism.”
Axios declined to share click-through rates on the links in the smart brevity longform newsletter, but Swiatkowski says that the Axios AM newsletter has an open rate of about 45 percent.
Who is the intended audience? Surely anyone who is curious about, say, robots, could Google “robots.” And those informed enough to know about when the robots are coming for our jobs are probably not relying on an email newsletter to explain this to them. Swiatkowski says the audience for smart brevity longform ranges from the Fortune 500 company executive to the college kid who wants to know more about the world. She explains, “We’re just looking for that smart engaged audience, who’s actively seeking it.” (“It” here means information, I think. Or really long newsletters. In the end, the audience seems amorphous and ill defined.)
Among Axios’s audience, there has been a lot of positive reader feedback, Swiatkowski adds. People have taken the time to reply to Mike Allen’s emails. Leonardo DiCaprio retweeted part of the climate change deep dive newsletter.
Trump's plan to prop up coal and nuclear power plants could cause a higher number of pollution-related deaths, according to a new study https://t.co/yygkG7c2rm
— Axios (@axios) July 5, 2018
Other people are tweeting about it, too, though not always to endorse the stylistic flair of smart brevity longform.
ah yes, the classic enemy of climate change……….. divisiveness https://t.co/qGbGlyzfvE
— Ashley Feinberg (@ashleyfeinberg) November 12, 2018
Axios is ready to throw in the towel on climate change; a reporter doesn't see hope for big solutions. Sad shrug.
The solutions I see emerging everywhere are small ones. They'll add up. Maybe one day they'll all gel, but that mightn't be entirely crucial. https://t.co/gaYiWZUrkE
— John Upton (@johnupton) November 12, 2018
There is one major political party on earth that is full of climate change deniers and that is the GOP, but leave it up to Axios to make it a “both sides” issue. https://t.co/OBCNbUcIiC
— Erick Fernandez (@ErickFernandez) November 12, 2018
When asked about the pushback that the climate change piece in smart brevity longform has received, Swiatkowski replies, “These are topics that matter, they’re topics that different people have different views on. Pairing news, reporting the facts, we’re gonna use smart analysis on this.” She adds, “We’re living in an incredibly polarized environment, that’s kind of the point of it.”
Axios has also received criticism of the smart brevity format, which is supposed to “get rid of all the shit that’s distracting” about other journalism. All “the shit that’s distracting” is, apparently, paragraphs and complex sentences.
But pro-paragraph journalists, like Ashley Feinberg of the HuffPost, aren’t buying the the bulleted hype. Feinberg wrote in a story about Axios journalist Jonathan Swan that the Axios style is a “horse race sensibility, the chumminess with power, the aggressive sell job bleeding into the journalism, the fetish for information for its own sake, denuded of context.”
Alex Shepard, writing in the New Republic, noted that Axios founders Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei are “making Axios seem radical, when really it’s the same scoop-obsessed, insider-y journalism they perfected at Politico, just briefer.”
Maybe smart brevity isn’t so smart.
— Richard Wolffe (@richardwolffedc) September 24, 2018
The smart brevity longform experiment, which appears, at least on the surface, to address these criticisms, is just more of the same. More bullets, more bold faced sign posts telling you “Why it matters,” “Go deeper,” and “The bottom line.” The effect is a steamrolling of nuance in favor of sounding smart at a cocktail party. The smart brevity longform on the financial crisis includes this line about Millennials: “For many in the generation of young adults who came of age during the financial crisis, owning big-ticket items like houses and cars is no longer seen as wise—or necessary.” And the take away from that “insight”? “The bottom line: Formative financial anxieties were cemented just as the iPhone and other mobile devices arrived, enabling the rise of “sharing” and gig-economy services like Airbnb and Uber.”
That’s it. That’s what you need to know about millennials. Nothing else about how we get paid less and have greater debt. Nothing on how our healthcare has been gutted, housing is unaffordable. No self reflection about the ways the economy benefits the few at the cost of the many. Just that we don’t like to spend.
But all of this criticism doesn’t matter to Axios. Feinberg’s article includes part of a leaked audio recording of a staff meeting, wherein Nicholas Johnston, the Axios editor-in-chief, says that when it comes to criticism of the site, well, basically, haters to the left. “Our profile is going to get bigger and bigger and bigger,” Johnston tells his colleagues. “And we’re going to have more cool successes. And you know what? We’re on HBO, Splinter.com, and you’re not. You’re fucking laid off by Gizmodo. I’m sorry. So they’re going to come after us on this kind of stuff.”
Smart brevity longform, on the other hand, has been so successful by Axios standards that the company recently hired Megan Marco to oversee the smart brevity longform newsletter. Marco previously worked at The Wall Street Journal, where her title was digital content strategy editor.
I spoke to Marco on her first day on the job. She declined to share specific topics she hopes to cover in the future, but she did note that her assignment comes with a lot of flexibility. And there is a list of future topics, which according to Marco, “Some of it will be stuff that you’re curious about like what’s going on with this, I keep hearing about it, and some stuff it will be we realize that this is important as journalists and we’re gonna spend some time writing about this and hope that that makes an impression, it will be both.”
When asked if Axios has plans to host these newsletters on the site in a more SEO friendly way, Marco, noted that they’d be silly not to explore all options.
In 1709, Alexander Pope wrote “An Essay on Criticism,” in which he observed, “A little learning is a dangerous thing; drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring: there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain, and drinking largely sobers us again.” Or in smart brevity lingo: Thinking you know when you don’t know is the worst kind of ignorance.