Axios Local is coming to Boston. Will it find a place on your smartphone?

Axios CEO Jim VandeHei on “Morning Joe.” Photo (cc) 2018 by MSNBC.

Previously published at GBH News.

Axios is building out its network of local newsletters. Here’s what it means to you:

  • Axios Local, as the initiative is called, will grow from 14 to 25 cities in the coming months, according to CEO Jim VandeHei — and could eventually reach as many as 100.
  • Why it matters: Boston will have its own Axios Local newsletter by mid-2022.
  • What you can expect: Axios says that “local reporters will deliver scoops, offer sharp insights and curate the best local reporting in our proven ‘Smart Brevity’ style.”
The big picture: Go deeper (1,038 words, 5 min. read).

All right, all right. You get the idea. Axios, the jittery, made-for-mobile news site that battles short attention spans with quick takes, boldface type and bullet points, has been expanding over the past year from national to regional news by unveiling a number of local daily newsletters.

Shades of its archrival, Politico? Well, not really. Because while Politico has gone deep with insider information for political junkies with newsletters like its Massachusetts Playbook, Axios is pursuing something different: general-interest news, heavy on business, lifestyle and entertainment, designed mainly to appeal to the young urban tech crowd.

In a “manifesto” released over the weekend, Axios put itself forth as nothing less than the savior that will solve the local news crisis. “Everyone needs — and deserves — high-quality reporting to understand the changes fast unfolding where they live,” the statement says in part. “Axios Local is the solution, synched elegantly to your smartphone.”

The trouble is, Axios Local is setting up shop in places that could hardly be considered news deserts. Instead of, say, Axios Worcester, Axios Newark or Axios Small City without a Newspaper, we’re getting newsletters targeted at affluent urban audiences in places that are already reasonably well served. And the Axios sites are so thinly staffed that it’s going to be difficult for them to make a real difference.

Let’s take Denver as an example. Thanks to the hollowing-out of The Denver Post at the hands of its hedge-fund owner, Alden Global Capital, Denver is often cited as a place that no longer has reliable regional journalism. But is that actually the case?

Not really. Consider that, even in its diminished state, the Post has a newsroom of about 60 full-timers. Colorado Public Radio has more than 60, including its Denverite website. The Colorado Sun, a highly regarded digital start-up, has 23 and continues to grow. About 90 full-time journalists work for a combined newsroom operated by The Gazette of Colorado Springs, Colorado Politics and the start-up Denver Gazette. Denver’s venerable alt-weekly, Westword, has about a half-dozen.

And Axios Denver? Two. As staff reporters John Frank and Alayna Alvarez put it in the introductory message you get when you subscribe, their aim is to provide some original journalism, curation from other news sources and “a little fun at the same time with everything from local beer picks to new outdoor adventures.”

Tuesday’s newsletter, for instance, ranged from an update on Denver’s homeless crisis to the latest on the Colorado wildfires, as well as how to take part in “Dry January.” (No, thank you.) The past week or so has consisted almost entirely of fire updates along with changes to the trash pickup schedule, things to do during the holidays and Colorado’s best beer and breweries.

Now, I can imagine that this would appeal to younger, well-educated professionals who don’t have much time for news and who are looking to connect with those of similar interests. But it’s certainly no competition for other news organizations in the Denver area.

And if that’s the case in Denver, it’s hard to imagine what sort of mindshare Axios is going to be able to command in a place like Boston, which has a healthy and growing daily newspaper, two thriving news-oriented public radio stations, a second daily, a multitude of television news operations and a number other niche and hyperlocal media. Even Politico’s aforementioned Massachusetts Playbook has competition in the form of State House News Service’s Masster List and CommonWealth Magazine’s Daily Download.

Nor will Axios Boston have the quick-hit general-interest-newsletter field to itself — although it is likely to be more robust than BosToday, a newsletter that launched recently under the auspices of a national network called 6AM City. BosToday promises “the inside scoop into what’s happening in your city in 5 minutes or less,” which I guess means that you’ll be a well-informed citizen by 6:05.

It will be interesting to see whether these advertising-backed new ventures can make enough money to justify their investment. In September, Sara Guaglione of Digiday reported that Axios Local was claiming it would pull in ad revenues of $4 million to $5 million in 2021, which isn’t bad for an estimated 30 to 40 full-time journalists; the eventual goal is to triple its staff. Rick Edmonds of Poynter reported around the same time that 6AM City has similar ambitions — a staff of about 30 that its executives hoped to build to around 100. The operation is being funded by venture capital, so look out below.

Axios Local is just the latest act in a drama that goes back to 2007, when Washington Post journalists VandeHei and John Harris left to found Politico after being turned down in their bid to launch a political website under their control inside the Post. They were joined by another Post journalist, Mike Allen, who wrote a widely read morning newsletter.

Politico is often accused by media observers (including me) of covering politics as a sporting event for insiders, and Allen’s newsletter was sometimes accused of crossing an ethical line by providing favorable coverage of advertisers, as the Post’s Erik Wemple has pointed out. But the project has certainly been successful.

Then, in 2017, VandeHei and Allen left to found Axios, setting up an intense rivalry with their former colleagues. Last year Politico was sold to a controversial German company called Axel Springer. According to Ben Smith, soon to be formerly of The New York Times, Axel Springer wanted to buy Axios, too, but VandeHei ended up nixing the deal. You have to imagine that there’s still some chance of that happening.

Axios Local began with Axios’ acquisition of the Charlotte Agenda in late 2020. The site, renamed Axios Charlotte, now has a staff of seven journalists, including an investigative reporter, according to its masthead. If the rest of Axios Local can grow into something equally robust, then VandeHei will genuinely have something to brag about.

For the moment, though, Axios Local is little more than an interesting project to watch as it tries to compete in a local news landscape that isn’t quite as barren as VandeHei and company seem to think it is.

It would have been nice if they’d genuinely tried to address the dearth of local journalism in places that have little or no coverage. Instead, they’re going where the money is. It’s an old story, and you don’t need boldface or bullet points to tell it.

3 thoughts on “Axios Local is coming to Boston. Will it find a place on your smartphone?

  1. pauljbass

    Love how this story begins as a spoof on the Axios writing template — then by offering nuanced depth, makes a case against that approach.

  2. Steve Ross

    All good points. The comparison with Denver, which is (like Boston) a large-city state capital, is also apt. Where the Globe and Boston broadcast media fail is in consistent coverage of all the local governments around Boston, and in small-scale (often “ethnic”) cultural events, restaurants, etc. that desperately need wider exposure to thrive. The geographical “market” the Globe is trying to reach is just too wide.

    If Axios divides the Boston media market differently — by age-related interests, for example — I think it can carve out a welcome niche — one that the Phoenix (ahem!), ethnic papers and others once helped fill. Not sure it can start this summer and have enough time to build a competitively comprehensive backlist that students coming back to campus this fall can use.

  3. Thanks, Dan. Your points are strong and well made, as usual. I subscribe to a couple of newsletters but very rarely read them. If I want to know something I go to the Globe/Times/Post. How many skimmers do you need? Even when working full time, I was always up early, reading before making a living. The problem with local news is where the local “knowledge” comes from. Local sources are just as manipulative as state and national ones. Discernment comes with time spent on the ground. There is more than enough blab out there…

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