The Feature

Axios aims to speak the language of the swamp

January 23, 2017
Photo courtesy of Axios

Crowded around three tables, about 15 journalists clack away on laptops. A web of power cords crisscrosses the floor, balled-up fast food wrappers overflow from waste baskets, and a side-table displays what seems like every flavor of Doritos imaginable. It’s early afternoon on Wednesday, and the Axios website launched just hours earlier. “Most of these people didn’t go to bed last night,” says Jim VandeHei, describing the “orderly insanity” in the nascent company’s makeshift newsroom.

A decade after co-founding Politico, VandeHei is back in startup mode. The mastermind behind Politico’s rapid expansion, who wakes up around 3:30 am nowadays, decamped earlier this year along with newsletter-extraordinaire Mike Allen and money man Roy Schwartz, setting up their own shop, just two Metro stops away, that aims to cover collision points between politics, tech, media, and business. “Collectively, we’ve all made a mess of media,” VandeHei says, chastising cheap ads and clickbait content. “So if you can fix that, you can create an addiction.”

The man certainly proved to be an effective pusher in his past life, despite Politico’s skeptics. The news organization grew into a Washington juggernaut by moving product that political and industry insiders didn’t know they were previously craving. Axios aims to similarly capitalize on white-shoe Washington and other small, but elite, groups of news consumers.

That mission belies Axios’ shared working space, with beer on tap and treadmill desks. The startup’s plan of attack centers on what VandeHei calls “smart brevity,” a user experience that “gets rid of all the shit that’s distracting,” and a similar style of granular, scoop-driven reporting that Politico popularized and mainstream outlets emulated in modernizing their own political coverage for the web.

The inaugural festivities of President Donald Trump formed the backdrop of the first days of the Axios site’s life, which was complete with a star-studded launch event attended by outgoing Vice President Joe Biden, incoming Trump aides Sean Spicer and Kellyanne Conway, and other insiders. Just as Trump came to power promising to drain the swamp—and as many media outlets began looking outward to better understand national politics—Axios has begun marketing itself as an interpreter of the swamp’s language. It’s a significant contrarian bet, one backed by a reported $10 million in funding last year.

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“Establishment, traditional legacy media is both discredited in so many quarters and is so defensive right now,” Allen tells me in a glassed-in conference room. “They’re trying to solve their blind spots with volume. I can see it in the papers and the broadcasts. That’s not the answer, and that’s a huge opportunity for us…You’re not going to flip a switch, and someone will understand Ohio. But you can give them smart ways to think about it and help show them things are going on.”

VandeHei, wearing a dark blazer and jeans, cuts in: “The answer is not to dispatch a reporter to Millinocket, Maine, and cover rural white people like they’re an exotic albino dart frog.”

Headquartered in Arlington, Virginia, Axios employs about 50 people across editorial, sales, and marketing, poaching veterans from Fortune, The Hill, STAT News, and Independent Journal Review, as well as Capitol Hill staffers. The company’s inside-out approach is apparent throughout its conversational and bullet-point-heavy work, from micro-scoops on the fate of Obamacare and staff changes in Washington to an exclusive interview with Trump. A trio of newsletters anchor the organization’s offerings, with aggregation playing a supporting role. Its stories are fairly conventional other than the fact they rarely stretch past a few hundred words, and they often include one-sentence subheads on “Why this matters” and the like.

Axios has experimented with new forms of delivery through segmented Facebook Instant Articles and a Snapchat Discover channel, We The People. But its real innovation, it seems, is a sleek and user-friendly design that arranges content into an ongoing stream. Political junkies can scroll indefinitely for both quick hits or the occasional extended-release fix. Think Twitter but with a topical focus and less shouting.

The startup sees this stream as a competitive advantage over other political publications, particularly when it comes to native advertising. Axios’ branded content is extremely short in length—in contrast to the longform work from the likes of T Brand Studio at The New York Times—and fits snugly within its other bite-sized pieces. “Unless someone replicates the entire way we arrange our content, which would be extremely difficult, we don’t see how many people can replicate our approach,” says Schwartz, the company’s president and the third co-founder.

The answer is not to dispatch a reporter to Millinocket, Maine, and cover rural white people like they’re an exotic albino dart frog.

Launch partnerships with corporate advertisers like BP and Walmart have stretched from hundreds of thousands of dollars upward, Schwartz says. He claims Axios has already surpassed expectations on 2017 ad revenue but doesn’t go into specifics. The first phase of the company’s business plan centers on branded content and events, while the second—to be expected sometime this year—will comprise a paid, premium service tailored for industry and political insiders.

The options include what VandeHei vaguely calls a “platform play” helping companies or organizations consume and disseminate information. He adds: “But what we’re really, really good at? We know how to sell high-end subscriptions.” Many journalists gasped in late November when VandeHei, speaking at a conference hosted by Recode, mentioned his inclination toward subscriptions costing upward of $10,000. The reaction suggested a lack of familiarity with the Politico Pro service he helped architect. “If I was on stage,” Schwartz adds with a laugh, “I would have said $100,000.”

It would be no surprise for the former Politico brain trust to leverage their business know-how and Beltway connections to yield a windfall from a corporate-intelligence product. The bigger question is a journalistic one, particularly given the style of journalism Axios aims to practice. With Trump’s use of innuendo—if not not outright deception—and constantly mixed messages from his aides, the new administration seems to call the very value of access into question.

The cringe-worthy aspect of that dynamic bubbled up when Allen tweeted out photos of the food spread at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago hotel in December, and then a picture of the president-elect smiling with the press pool. Such behind-the-curtain content seems somewhat dated in the context of an administration that’s belligerent toward media and a press corps that’s returning the favor in kind. Axios is betting that the new environment—with new players and new ways of communication alike—provides it an opening.

“They’re building this stuff on the fly, they’re building a team on the fly, they’re building an ideology on the fly,” VandeHei says of the Trump Administration. “Everybody hanging on his every word—whereas you might hang on them if it were a more conventional presidency with a specific agenda—needs to look at it differently.”

Or, to focus less on what Trump tweets, and more on what he does and how he’s thinking about doing it. “As far as our role, it’s fantastic to us, because people don’t know what to trust,” Allen says. “There’s so much hunger to understand what’s going on, and to sort through the mixed messages. And sometimes there’s no sorting through them—they’re just mixed messages.”

The bespectacled and frenetic Allen helped catapult Politico to prominence with his early morning Playbook newsletter, which ranged from driving-the-day micro-scoops to Hill staffers’ birthdays. Now he hopes to reprise his role as the public face of a new media company, with a different morning newsletter, Axios AM, short for “All Mikey.” Before departing, I ask him if he’s getting any more sleep on his second go-round at a startup trying to take Washington by storm.

“I don’t set an alarm,” he says. “I just wake up.”

David Uberti is a writer in New York. He was previously a media reporter for Gizmodo Media Group and a staff writer for CJR. Follow him on Twitter @DavidUberti.