Jim VandeHei started compiling his Beltway media credentials in the 1990s. He worked for New Fuels Report, Inside the New Congress, Roll Call — and then on to titans of the mainstream media. There was a stint at the Wall Street Journal, then at The Washington Post. In 2006, he jumped into a more entrepreneurial mode as one of the founders of Politico, whose fast-paced approach to news challenged competitors. The journalists he groomed at Politico have gone on to produce political coverage at big-time outlets, especially the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, NBC News and on and on.
After all that, VandeHei — along with his employees in a new venture — is proclaiming, “All of us left cool, safe jobs to start a new company with this shared belief: Media is broken — and too often a scam.”
Okay, Jim & Co.
That line comes from the manifesto of the new media company — “Axios” — that VandeHei is founding along with now-former Politico mainstay Mike Allen, the longtime author of the morning newsletter “Playbook.” (The manifesto is signed by the nearly 30 Axios staffers). The venture already has some believers in a team of formidable investors that include Lerer Hippeau Ventures (which was behind BuzzFeed and the Huffington Post), NBC News (Chairman Andy Lack will be a board member for Axios), Greycroft Partners and Atlantic Media owners David and Katherine Bradley — as noted in a Vanity Fair story offering details on the VandeHei launch. The outlet scored $10 million in financing over the summer.
Before considering the nitty-gritty, let’s first consider the hypocrisy. That the media is too often a scam is a proposition to which Allen and VandeHei contributed in their days at Politico. From the start, this pair positioned Allen’s “Playbook” as a transactional, promotional vehicle — and it worked. By the time Allen left the helm, the newsletter was raking in weekly sponsorships in the neighborhood of $60,000. As this blog noted, those sponsors received soft-glove treatment in “Playbook” and, as Gawker reported through email records, Allen was found guilty of the most scammy brand of journalism in town.
At Axios, Allen will be launching a new newsletter that, in VandeHei’s words, “cuts across our topic areas.” Which is a euphemistic way of saying that Allen will be big-footing the beat reporters at Axios in his post-Politico “Playbook.”
Also: The Axios manifesto deplores products designed to maximize “short-term buzz,” the animating principle behind early Politico.
What will Axios be? A site — debuting in full in January — that covers the standard topical cocktail of politics, technology and business with reporters who are “authentically wired and smart in those topic areas,” VandeHei said. There will be content that’s portable to platforms such as Facebook and Snapchat. There will (eventually) be subscriptions for premium content, in the same tradition of Politico Pro and other federal government-oriented publications. There will be “no bias,” according to the manifesto, an emphasis on the “reader first,” a disdain for the distractions of modern news sites (like pop-ups and banner ads) and much more. “Every piece of content we produce will be broken and narrated with true expertise — and then summarized in one shareable element,” reads the manifesto. (VandeHei declined an on-the-record interview with the Erik Wemple Blog).
There is nothing revolutionary here. Elegantly designed websites exist. Vox.com is one. Quartz is one. As for the “true expertise,” that’s a commodity these days; thanks to a cratering job market in journalism, there has never been a better time to staff Axios.
None of these thoughts should be interpreted to cast doubt on the chances for success at Axios. Consider that exactly one decade ago, VandeHei was facing a whole jeering chorus of doubters that “The Politico” would amount to anything more than a Beltway afterthought. Those folks underestimated how hard VandeHei was willing to work — and how hard he was willing to ride his colleagues. Along with partner John Harris, he created an editorial product that found enthusiastic clickers across the country. An energetic and never-satisfied management team created not only Politico, but also the subscription service Politico Pro, Politico Europe and a build-out into coverage of politics in several states.
Ambition appears to be traveling toward Axios: “If we think big, deliver on our big promises, and show authentic appreciation for those who read and support us, we will be successful,” reads the manifesto.
Exquisite timing and political happenstance may help Axios make good on that resolution. The news site, after all, will begin work at the same time as a new Donald Trump administration takes power. Though tracking the president-elect’s policy positions is a challenge, he vowed a shakeup of Washington and at one point vowed to eliminate 70 percent of federal regulations (an adviser put the target at 10 percent). Whether he eliminates 70, 10 or zero, the Trump years will prompt a surge of proposals and counterproposals in the realm of government reinvention. Axios will find a great deal of stuff to cover.
And then there’s PR. Along with Politico rock Kim Kingsley, VandeHei promoted the ALL-CAPPED daylights out of POLITICO, shaming rivals with the ubiquity of the site’s reporters on television segments and other under-colonized platforms. In his interview with Vanity Fair, VandeHei showcased his flair for publicity, touting an as-yet-undisclosed “very unique twist” in how the site will deliver content. Expect to hear about that aspect of Axios in some upcoming “exclusive.”