The concept of “smart brevity” — stories only as long as they need to be to impart information fast and accurately to an informed audience — has long been at the center of the Axios promise: it’s a promise baked into its ethos but also its content management system.
Cox Enterprises put a value on that newsroom innovation by paying something like US$525 million for Axios, its staff, and its CMS (excluding its Axios HQ business-to-business services).
Axios Publisher Nicholas Johnston explains where that value lies, how his team works daily to retain it, and how the company is spreading its recipe to a 100-city local news project. He also talks about being too slavish to metrics and how distorting that can be. You can catch the first part of my interview with him on newsroom lessons here.
Axios started on the Rebel Mouse CMS that grew out of the origins of BuzzFeed but has developed its own production platform and branched that to create Axios HQ.
“I think the CMS is very important,” Johnston said. “If you sit down and you’re in some newspaper CMS, you feel differently about it.”
In this installment of the interview, Johnston and I talk more about culture, the value Cox saw in the Axios methodology, and where Axios is going with a local news product that is moving into areas where newspapers are struggling but where it sees growth and potential.
Here’s the second installment of the interview with Johnston, edited for clarity (if not brevity). It’s in question-and-answer format so you can grab his critical points without my intervention.
INMA: Everything you do seems to be based on the experience of the founders and their determination to avoid wasted effort and wasting the time of the reader.
Nicholas Johnston: Jim VandeHei, our CEO, tells a story about the clarifying moment for him at Politico where the CMS broke the stories up into four sections: the first piece got a million views, the second piece gets 300,000 views, and the third piece gets 30,000 views, and the fourth piece gets ignored. So, “why did I write that fourth piece — the reader is clearly telling me something.”
INMA: As well as the smart brevity mantra, you talk about honesty in the newsroom and being real about what stories are worth — such as letting Jonathan Swan write thousands of words in his multi-part expose of preparations for a Trump 2024 campaign.
Nicholas Johnston: People asked, “Why can’t I do that?” And I say, “Well, look, if you have reporting from inside the Oval Office of a president of the United States trying to overturn the government, you know what, I'll give you more space. But you probably don't have that. Right?”
INMA: It makes the edit and commissioning process critical.
Nicholas Johnston: Most of the time, you’re not writing about a president trying to overturn the election, you’re not writing about the fate of the universe in an all-encompassing way. So you know, “Dude, say it in 150 words.” It’s just been about being very rigorous about that.
INMA: You’re strong on the unintended consequences of forcing newsrooms to align with particular metrics, rather than whether a story was good or poor.
Nicholas Johnston: Where there’s a danger for newsrooms is where they want to put numbers on it: Bloomberg measured things to two decimal points and there’d be a war on certain things like a period when they would track the number of scoops you would get; then it’s ok, “what is a scoop?” They would track the number of corrections you got and people thought “maybe I will just do fewer corrections.” I know if your newsletter is good or not good. Jim and I will read it, and if he tells me it stinks, well then I know.
INMA: You have kept Axios HQ — your business-to-business set of production tools — separate from the Cox transaction. What’s that about?
Nicholas Johnston: All these things we’ve learned about delivering information, as journalists, apply to anyone delivering information. Jonathan Swan writing a newsletter that he wants people to read is at a molecular level the same as you writing an update to your board of directors. So why not write it the same way, in a shorter, more engaging fashion?
We have our own CMS. We have built our CMS from scratch. Axios HQ is a software product similar to our CMS: It’s far more prescriptive, that we sell. That will become a separate company under this deal.
INMA: How important is the CMS to you?
Nicholas Johnston: We were originally built on Rebel Mouse. I think the CMS is massively important. We built it from scratch and so it does a lot of the things that we want it to do. Whenever we hire people they say, “The CMS is the greatest thing I’ve ever worked with.” I think the CMS is very important. If you sit down and you’re in some newspaper CMS you feel differently about it.
INMA: How important is it to own rather than have bought your CMS?
Nicholas Johnston: It was expensive and it took a lot of work, but now that we’ve built it, we can do a lot with it and there’s lots of things we can edit to it. It has a word count that is very prominent and we have experimented sometimes with like if you hit a word limit the letters turn red, being very prescriptive … but it’s better to instill that principle into writers, to make them believers in it.
Nicholas Johnston: The difference is Substack doesn’t support reporters. If you are an Axios Local reporter, you’ll have a reporting partner because we hire a minimum of two. You’ll have an editor and a copy editor and possibly a bureau chief as we grow. You’ll have access to Jonathan Swan or Sara Fischer if your story touches one of their beats. You’ll be able to request data visualisations. I’ll get you a Getty log in. You can take a vacation and I will continue to pay you. There are a lot of people who want to be a journalist in a newsroom; it’s just more supportive.
INMA: You say you’ve moved permanently to remote working.
Nicholas Johnston: I don’t think we have a choice. During the pandemic when we were hiring for Local, the number of reporters we were hiring outside of LA, Washington, and New York exceeded the ones we have there so it wouldn’t make sense. I have two people in Houston and three people in Dallas. We’re in 24 cities and we are hiring for number 25.
INMA: How is Local working out and was that Local initiative a key element for Cox?
Nicholas Johnston: I think Cox like that very much because it’s like Cox’s roots; their history is in local journalism. I think that’s probably what first attracted them. They used to be a newspaper business, and I think are still interested in that.
I think [Axios] Local is going very well. We haven’t “solved” it, yet it’s only barely 18 months old and in 24 cities … . There is a model that we know works and we are still growing. It is certainly working well enough to where we are going to be in 100 cities. It’s not a terrible idea.
INMA: Is it again about doing it differently from the traditional local newspaper model?
Nicholas Johnston: It’s without the legacy of a newspaper and it’s being very deliberate about it. If you look back to folks who have not done well in local, like Patch, where you hire a bunch of people and the business model [isn’t there]. You misjudge, it becomes too big and it comes collapsing down on itself.
We have been very deliberate. The teams are small. We start with two in most places and support them and then don’t add reporters until we’ve established: We’ve just added to our reporters in Denver and Minneapolis, for example, two of our cities. There’s more than 100,000 people on those newsletters, really strong ad market(s), we’ve got great traction, we hope to move into public events. OK, it’s time to invest in the journalism.
Thanks to Nick. And if you like where that came from, Nick has agreed to speak in the INMA Newsroom Initiative master class on Newsroom Leadership in December. Register here.
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