Start-up news site Axios, like all start-ups, begins life with a name-recognition deficit. The term itself is Greek for “worthy” and thus could describe a number of industries, including, say, an organic juice bar and dry-salt-therapy provider” in Tallahassee, Fla.
Around these parts, however, Axios gains recognition from its co-founders, Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen — the Politico mainstays who upended the way that Beltway journalism is practiced. One of Politico’s most resounding lessons — and one that VandeHei, Allen and former Politico executive Kim Kingsley willed into existence — was that an ascendant news organization needed to colonize the airwaves — cable TV, radio, podcasts, whatever. Punditry and ubiquity conferred credibility.
Axios won’t be scrambling in quite the same way. However, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have any use for a major broadcaster. The site launched last week with a scroll-happy and highly readable presentation, not to mention a rather pivotal media partner in NBC News. NBC Universal is an investor in Axios and NBC News Chairman Andy Lack sits on the site’s board. As reported by the Wall Street Journal, NBC News is among a few partners — Business Insider and the Information are others — with which Axios is launching events. NBC Universal has invested $400 million in BuzzFeed and $200 million in Vox Media.
The Axios-NBC thing makes sense, considering that events have become a pillar of Beltway news offerings. Politico, The Post, the Atlantic, the Hill, CQ Roll Call — they all round up policy themes, talking heads and big-time sponsors as a means of propping up a faltering journalistic business model. In its early pitch to advertisers, Axios goes heavy on its relationship with NBC News. Here’s the text from a slide that it has shown to folks in the business: “Axios and NBC will host four exclusive events in the first half of the year on the defining policy fights of 2017 — health care, energy, economy, and infrastructure. The events will be co-branded as Axios / NBC and moderated by NBC News Political Director, Chuck Todd. We expect 100+ attendees at each event, spanning top influencers in government, politics, and business. Two sponsor slots ($75k each) are available for each event.”
An NBC source familiar with the partnership told the Erik Wemple Blog that this description “is an example of potential events or opportunities, but does not describe a firm set-in-stone plan. As part of the strategic collaboration with Axios, NBC News journalists will participate in certain events including moderating as appropriate. We will not comment on revenue sharing.”
Translation: Sales pitches are sales pitches. Should Chuck Todd be unavailable to moderate an event, surely Axios will be happy with Megyn Kelly or Matt Lauer. Or with Hallie Jackson or Thomas Roberts. Any one of these television personalities brings name recognition as well as experience in conducting discussions. Big-money sponsors — not to mention attendees — adore these types of adjacencies.
In concert with tech news site the Information, Axios is pursuing events that explain D.C. to Silicon Valley and vice versa, according to an informed source. PepsiCo, too, will be sponsoring a series with Allen interviewing all kinds of newsmakers.
In linking up with NBC, VandeHei and Allen are following a trail they blazed at Politico. Allen had a regular appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” and VandeHei commentated from time to time as well. Both of them have also begun turning in “Morning Joe” hits as Axios execs.
Whatever the punditry, it’s apparent that Allen’s history doing morning newsletters needs little boost from television or any other medium. Sources who work in the ad industry tell the Erik Wemple Blog that “Axios AM,” the longtime reporter’s adaptation of “Playbook,” has nearly sold out of 2017 inventory. Over nearly a decade at Politico, weekly sponsorships for his “Playbook” climbed steadily upward, reaching about $60,000 by the time that he handed over the keys to successors Jake Sherman and Anna Palmer.
Asking prices for “Axios AM,” say these sources, fall between $50,000 and $60,000 per week — and the sponsorships at this point are available only as part of a bigger ad buy. While he was writing “Playbook,” Allen got written up for journalistic lapses and for occasionally writing very favorably in his own voice on behalf of the newsletter’s sponsors. It’s possible that those stories helped his franchise.
Axios is aiming to “fix” advertising as we’ve come to experience it on news sites. That’s a fine goal. As it works on that imperative, however, the site is moving aggressively on proven revenue drivers of specialty Washington publications — not only events but also premium subscription services that could cost up to $10,000, according to the Journal. If the past few days are any indication, it’s doing all of this at a time of chaos, when chief executives, lobbyists, lawmakers and regular old rich people may be willing to pay a premium to find out what on earth is happening in Washington.