American media startup Axios brings you the news in small, information-soaked bites. Up to 60 pieces a day, 400 words on average, starting very focused on a given topic and then diving deeper. The goal – to occupy the niche between “Bloomberg and Twitter.”
So far that approach has served Axios well. Founded in 2017 by former Politico journalists, it now regularly hits 9 million views monthly.
“Bringing essential news in the shortest form possible” also wooed investors – less than a year after Axios went public it secured around $20 million to fund its expansion.
Axios’ website looks more like an improved Facebook or Twitter feed than a traditional news outlet. Readers see the picture, headline, lede and, most importantly, the nutgraph (why it matters). Just scroll down and click a “dive deeper” button when something interests you.
An important improvement on social media feeds: the button clearly warns the reader about the story word count, so you know how much effort to anticipate.
In three years the Axios team has grown to around 180 people, 60 of them in the newsroom. The company makes millions in revenue ($25 million in 2018, with plans to double in 2019) mostly on short-format native ads. It’s hoping to break even soon.
The Fix talked to Axios’ chief editor, former Bloomberg reporter, Nicholas Johnston to see what we can learn from our American colleagues’ success.
Lesson 1 – Don’t underestimate planning – sit, plan, act
Axios founders, former Politico employees Jim VandeHei, Mike Allen, and Roy Schwartz, took around a year to plan their new venture. When Johnston joined the team spent a few more months on editorial planning and launch preparations.
NJ: We spent a lot of time trying to learn about [media market trends, readers insights]. I joined in the summer of 2016 and we spent three or four months just researching things. What are the consumption trends for the news? How are people reading and writing?
So once we got to the point of launching, I wasn’t very worried at all. I knew that we were honest, we understood how people were consuming information, that there was a space in the universe for this kind of journalism.
Lesson 2 – Compete with everything that grabs readers’ attention
Long gone are the times when media just had to compete among each other. People no longer have separate time slots for reading newspapers and watching movies – everything is jumbled together, on demand at a moment’s notice.
A big part of the Axios team’s work was finding ways to work around new consumption habits and compete with all the possible distractions.
NJ: We compete with everything. Think about it: what can I do on this phone? I can do anything. Watch a movie, write a book. Google wants my attention, Amazon wants my attention, Facebook wants my attention, Instagram wants my attention.
So we’re pretty much figuring out what can you do in a way that’s compelling enough to draw attention in that same fight, with Tinder, Uber, with everything.
You have to be compelling enough – either your content is so engaging and amazing that I’m going to engage with it a prolonged amount of time or you’re providing the service, which I hope we provide. We help our readers get smarter faster
Lesson 3 – Journalists alone don’t make a media company
Content might be king, but a king can’t do much without an effective court to run. Out of around 180 people in Axios staff – 120 are *NOT*journalists.
NJ: The whole company has maybe 180. Maybe a little under 60, that’s the newsroom. We have a lot of technology people, we built our own website and upgrade it. Let’s say another 30 or 40 are tech. We also put a lot of design work into how our news centers look and how they work.
Sales is a big chunk too, people who manage our client partnerships and go out and find advertisers to help us advertise in the newsletters, on the website. That’s probably another 20 people in sales and they are probably the biggest chief piece.
Our events team has maybe 10 people who sort of arrange and create and put on [Axios events]. Then the rest are support staff and people making sure we follow the strategy, run the company, do administrative things of all sorts.
Lesson 4 – Think more about why you’re writing something and what actually matters
To bring the important facts closer to their readers Axios editorial team decided to highlight its essence, to explain “why it matters”. Axios chief editor also gives an important tip on how to make editing more efficient – edit before the story is written.
NJ: I look at word count to see how angry I’m going to be when I edit it and then I really spend a lot of time thinking about, okay, what’s your headline? What’s your first sentence?
Then – what is your axiom? For us, that third sentence that puts the sense of it within the context would be the key point of engagement for a reader, and I’ve been thinking about this a lot more lately.
I’d like to spend a lot more time editing before the story’s even written. To have a conceptual conversation with the writer saying, okay, what do you think? What are you about to write in here? Why is this important to me? And I think if you do a lot of work there, you can save a lot of time on the backend.
Lesson 5 – Experiment and take yes for an answer
Being a startup in a fast-changing media environment is challenging to say the least. But it gives you room to try new things. The Axios chief editor says the newsroom has an important rule that helps them experiment and move forward.
NJ: My favorite thing to say in the newsroom is “take yes for an answer!” When people come to me with ideas saying they want to do something, I’ll be like, okay, do it. And then they’ll keep saying they want to do it and I am like, I already told you to do it.
Pick yes for an answer. That is the fun thing about being a startup, it is very much a culture of activation. It’s sort of like: “Who is there to tell us No?!”
I’m the editor in chief. We do whatever we want. Right? The CEO is not going to come over here and tell us not to do what people like and what we want to do. I think that’s what’s really fun about working in a startup newsroom.