Yet another small media outlet is coming to Boston — this one owned by the legendary Graham family, the former owners of The Washington Post.
City Cast is hiring a lead producer to oversee a team of three who’ll produce a daily podcast and newsletter in Boston, joining projects that are already up and running in Chicago, Denver, Houston, Salt Lake City and Pittsburgh. The project is expanding to six other cities as well. The journalist behind it is David Plotz, formerly the editor-in-chief of Slate (also owned by Graham Holdings) and former chief executive of Atlas Obscura, who announced his idea for a network of local podcasts in October 2020:
It will combine essential local news with smart, delightful perspective about your community. It will be the passionate, curious, connecting voice of your city and mine — framing and explaining the news and helping make us more informed and more empathetic — and better citizens in small but meaningful ways. [Plotz’s boldface.]
I spent a little time with the Denver and Chicago City Casts this morning, and my first impression was that they are more substantive than Axios Local or certainly 6AM City, which I wrote about recently for GBH News. (And let’s not forget about the specialty state political newsletters from Politico, State House News Service and CommonWealth Magazine.) That said, I’m not sure who the audience for City Cast Boston will be.
In his announcement, Plotz lamented that “where local news is sparse or feeble, communities suffer.” Well, Boston is certainly no news desert, and it’s hard to see how a small podcast is going to do anything about the suburbs, exurbs and satellite cities, where news coverage is truly lacking.
I suspect that City Cast’s target audience are young tech workers, many from out of town, who haven’t yet developed the news habit — in other words, the same people who’ve been targeted by Axios Local and 6AM City.
And maybe it’s time for the city’s major homegrown media outlets — The Boston Globe, of course, but also WBUR Radio, GBH News, CommonWealth and others — to think about why outside media organizations assume those readers are there for the taking.
Axiosis 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: Bostonwill 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?
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.
Like Axios Local, 6AM City is being described as a response to the decline of legacy newspapers. Like Axios Local, 6AM City employs two journalists in each of the cities in which it operates. So how are they going to compete with even the most hollowed-out daily newspaper, public radio station and digital start-ups that are already on the scene in most places?
The answer is that they’re not. Which is why the news that 6AM City is going to ramp up from eight to 24 markets (including Boston) later this year, broken by Sara Fischer of Axios earlier this week, should be taken with a grain of salt.
At Poynter Online, Rick Edmonds quotes 6AM City co-founder Ryan Heafy as saying that his project has little interest in the sort of journalism that actually matters. Edmonds writes:
As time goes on, Heafy continued, the selective editorial focus has sharpened. “We don’t do investigative reporting, and we steer completely clear of politics” — topics newspapers continue to emphasize as their strategic strength.
Instead, 6AM City is heavy on news about small businesses and development, local events and the dining scene and charity and philanthropy. That draws advertising interest in the local business community. “We even are beginning to have development groups — in Lakeland, Florida, for instance — invite us to come in.”
Take a look at LALToday, the 6AM product that covers Lakeland. I can see where some people might like that sort of thing, but it pretty much defines the term “non-essential.” This press release has a rather mind-boggling sentence explaining how the new markets were picked: “These cities were identified as expansion markets for 6AM City because of their level of Pride in Place™.” Yes, that’s right. A trademark symbol.
Fundamentally, 6AM City is about money — money it’s raising from private investors and money it hopes to pull in from advertising. Fischer’s piece is all about the $9 million they’ve raised, the $5 million they expect to earn this year, and the investors they’ve attracted.
Well, good luck to them. Local news is being rebuilt from the bottom up — not from the top down by masters of the universe whose interest begins and ends with what they can extract from other people’s work.