Axios—the brainchild of Politico veterans Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen—has now existed for a hair over 100 days. It launched just before President Donald Trump’s inauguration, and it’s tempting to see Axios as being joined to his ample hip. If there is a single news organization that reflects the odd times in which we live, Axios is it.
Of course, it’s likely that Axios will look very different 100 days from now. “I think that we’re all fools to judge any publication by its first 100 days,” Politico’s media columnist Jack Shafer told me. “I’m sure if you went back to the first 100 days of Politico you would not be very impressed.” But in many ways, the site has been impressive, emerging fully formed as a scoop-generating, light-on-its-feet news organ that speaks in the dialect of its moment. The problem is with the dialect itself.
This is best exemplified by Allen’s credulous approach to journalism. His proudly nonpartisan stance (he claims to have no ideology, and I absolutely take his word for it) is a throwback in this hyper-partisan age, as well as a double-edged sword. It allows Axios—particularly through its flagship newsletter, the successor to Allen’s agenda-setting Playbook at Politico—to present an often unvarnished account of what the White House is thinking. When the administration is in the midst of yet another debacle, this can be extremely useful. But in a White House where everyone is trying to kill each other and is lying every second of every day, the newsletter can read like a transcription of the delusions of the powerful.
This tendency would appear to be a part of Axios’s DNA. On November 30, 2016, VandeHei and Allen unveiled their great project, which they had been working on since they parted ways with Politico earlier that year. “Media is broken—and too often a scam,” VandeHei wrote in a mission statement that was labeled a manifesto, one of the company’s many genuflections to Silicon Valley. The manifesto contains numerous complaints about contemporary journalism. Stories are too boring. (They should be punchy.) They are also too long. (They should be shorter, unlike the manifesto, which is pretty long.) Websites are messy. (This is true!) “Readers and advertisers alike are too often afterthoughts.” (This one is also true, but it tellingly puts readers and advertisers on the same plane.)
Before the site launched, VandeHei said that he wanted it to be a mix between The Economist and Twitter, a meaningless description that surely destroyed with the venture capitalist set. (Another thing sure to have appealed to the VC crowd: Axios’s name, which we’re told means “worthy” in Greek. If media doesn’t work out, Axios could sell its moniker to a defense contractor startup.) But if you see these brands as metaphors—one meaning “old and authoritative” and the other meaning “new and fast”—you get a sense of what Axios wants to be: It is foremost a business and technology website that reportedly charges $10,000 a year to subscribers for its market-moving insights and scoops. Just last month, Axios launched its fifth vertical, which covers the energy sector. And over the course of its existence the company has hired a host of well-respected reporters, including David Nather and Dan Primack.
That said, its political coverage remains its most visible product. Allen’s newsletter is the face of the enterprise, and it guides the style and tone of the rest of the venture. The election of Donald Trump suggests that VandeHei’s manifesto isn’t wrong: People really are sick of business as usual, especially from corporate media outlets that are beholden to either ratings or their sponsors. But that doesn’t mean that Axios, which is sponsored by several large corporations—BP, Walmart, and Koch Industries are “launch partners”—is the answer. (Of course, Axios is hardly the only media company wrapped in corporate tentacles.)
It certainly doesn’t treat the powerful with all that much skepticism. Donald Trump, for instance, has yet to make a significant deal in office and has been removed from much of the horse-trading on the Hill, but he is nevertheless referred to again and again as a “dealmaker” and a “salesman.”
Rather, it’s driven by a style of reaching the modern (business)man in a hurry. Allen seems to be the godfather of that style. He is enormously energetic, both as a journalist and as a writer, and that comes through in his prose. Within two weeks, for instance, Allen and reporter Jonathan Swan used the phrases “popped the shocker” and “popped a meaty interview,” respectively, both of which made my eyes bug out of my head. But awkward, energetic phrases are Allen’s stock-in trade and they’ve become Axios’s too. “Mike Allen is still very good at doing that thing,” Shafer said.
Similarly, most Axios stories are between 200 and 400 words.” I think that short is a good guideline,” Shafer told me. “Without being critical of Axios I would say that writing intelligently is the real thing to shoot for—if you can do it in 250 words, god bless you.” Axios’s goal appears to be to make every post short enough to be fully read, not skimmed. The information is arranged like a memo. In fact, it’s not dissimilar to Trump’s reported dictum that all briefings fit on one page and include no more than nine bullet points—if it’s good enough for Trump, it’s good enough for Axios, I guess.
The problem is that contextualizing information is one of journalism’s most important duties, and the Axios model has almost no room for context. Every post feels like a briefing, but if you’re hungry for more information there’s nowhere else to go. “One of the main challenges for me in following this administration is that there is so much information and there are so many tweets and quotes,” Laura Hazard Owen, the deputy editor of the Nieman Journalism Lab, told me. “Bullet points are less helpful in that context because there’s no narrative: It’s just information being thrown at you all the time. If there’s no organizing theme, it just becomes a laundry list of things.”
Many items do end with a bit of analysis—a takeaway labeled “why it matters,” “what it means,” or “the bottom line.” Here, for instance is why the speech Trump gave on Saturday marking his 100th day in office matters: “This remarkable speech shows Trump’s inside-outside game. Inside, he’s sculpting his 100-days narrative and giving a raft of interviews, assuring Beltway reporters that he knows they still matter.... On the road, journalists are his go-to foil.” Allen ends with a bullet point of advice: “Be smart: Don’t over-interpret either half.”
Still, Axios deifies one type of journalism (scoop generation) at the expense of another (context), and the result is a blinkered experience. In this respect, Donald Trump and Mike Allen are almost perfect for one another. Trump generates a ton of chatter and Allen is an excellent stenographer of chatter.
The best parts of his newsletters are often (always anonymous) quotes from powerful people. In a breathless entry filed after Trump’s well-received speech before a joint session of Congress, one aide told Allen, “For once, we had the wind at our sails. We decided not to sh*t on ourselves.” That’s a good quote! But the problem with being a stenographer for the powerful is that many of these powerful people are extremely full of it. Furthermore, you have a White House with so many conflicting voices that it makes Rashomon look like an open-and-shut case. Yet Allen dutifully reports their words, which are then shuttled to your inbox before 7 AM.
This ethos bleeds into Axios’s other coverage as well. It’s more invested in technology and Silicon Valley than its business-oriented competitors like The Wall Street Journal—there are lots of features on Elon Musk and the coming AI apocalypse—but no one would confuse it for The Verge, let alone Gizmodo. Which is to say it has invested heavily in getting the kinds of scoops that investors care about—the kinds that will make them money—not necessarily in shedding an unflattering light on some of the most powerful and wealthiest people in the world.
This is a recipe for bad journalism, yes. But it also goes against the grain of what traditional news outlets are betting on. As far as the average consumer goes, skepticism sells, resulting in subscription surges for the likes of The New York Times. “Serious investigative reporting from The New York Times and The Washington Post is really important now,” Hazard Owen told me. “That has the ability to change the narrative.” Still, investors are a valuable commodity for a news organization because they will pay lots of money to get information before other people—the Bloomberg model—and because as an audience they command more advertising dollars.
As it builds its empire, the danger for Axios is that it could become a publication for powerful, important people by powerful, important people. There are too many incentives for it to continue to transcribe the talking points of moguls in big business and politics. At a time when the two are dangerously intertwined, a credulous publication becomes dangerous as well.