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.

The post-Trump media slump creates an opportunity for local news

A report from Axios on the end of the Trump effect is getting a lot of attention. What I’m referring to is the enormous boost that the Trump presidency gave the national media, especially in 2020 and into January 2021, as we tried to absorb a presidential election ending in insurrection, a global pandemic, an economic collapse, and a coming to terms with racial justice and police violence.

As I noted several months ago, news audiences were falling off as early as March. What’s notable about the Axios story is that the shrinkage has followed a pattern. Mainstream, relatively nonpartisan media outlets such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today and Reuters experienced the lowest amount of deterioration, a relatively modest 18%. Liberal and progressive media such as Mother Jones and Raw Story were off by 27%. And right-wing media such as Newsmax and The Federalist dropped by 44%.

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There have been some complaints about methodology — especially the decision to label Mother Jones as “far left” but Fox News as merely “right-leaning.” Clara Jeffery, the editor-in-chief of Mother Jones, certainly has a legitimate complaint:

Still, the notion that quality news has suffered less than right-wing outlets promoting Trump’s Big Lie about his election defeat certainly has some merit. The mainstream media are far from perfect, but the journalism they practice is built to last.

Another point: What this really speaks to is the nationalization of the culture and the opportunity this moment might present. For the past five years, Donald Trump has sucked all the oxygen out of the room. This has coincided with the collapse of local news — a collapse that began around 2005, but that accelerated during the Trump years.

The decline of interest in national news documented by Axios ought to be seen as healthy. Quality local news outlets can take advantage of this moment to re-engage their communities. Of course, local newspapers owned by corporate chains will do no such thing. But the rising number of independent news projects are already finding ways of connecting with their audience.

What local news can offer is journalism that’s relevant to people’s everyday lives.

Long knives, short tempers — and ridiculous theories about the election

Gen. Michael Flynn. Photo (cc) 2016 by Gage Skidmore.

On Monday, The New York Times published the results of a massive investigation into Donald Trump’s attempts to overturn the results of the election.

Today comes the tragicomic conclusion: a report by Axios on an insane meeting that took place at the White House on Dec. 18 at which the conspiracy-addled lawyer Sidney Powell tried to get herself named a special counsel to investigate Dominion voting machines while Gen. Michael Flynn (he of the two guilty pleas) and the White House staff screamed profanities at each other.

The reporters are Jonathan Swan, who conducted a hard-hitting interview of Trump last year, and Zachary Basu. The whole thing is so crazy that it’s hard to pick any one excerpt, but this will do. Below, Byrne is Patrick Byrne, the chief executive of Overstock.com and a Trump backer. Herschmann is Eric Herschmann, a White House senior adviser. Patrick Cipollone was the White House counsel. Swain and Basu write:

At one point, with Flynn shouting, Byrne raised his hand to talk. He stood up and turned around to face Herschmann. “You’re a quitter,” he said. “You’ve been interfering with everything. You’ve been cutting us off.”

“Do you even know who the fuck I am, you idiot?” Herschmann snapped back.

“Yeah, you’re Patrick Cipollone,” Byrne said.

“Wrong! Wrong, you idiot!”

Herschmann and others who were at least partly tethered to reality were afraid that Trump was going to go along with Powell and unleash her upon state and local election officials. As Swain and Basu write, “Trump expressed skepticism at various points about Powell’s theories, but he said, ‘At least she’s out there fighting.'”

In the end, though, Trump was somehow coaxed into listening to reason. How bad was it? Toward the end, we see that Rudy Giuliani actually had a calming effect on the situation, which is surely the first time anyone has said that about him in many years.

Correction: I originally misspelled Jonathan Swan’s name.

Axios perpetuates #bothsides journalism in the midst of insanity

Marjorie Taylor Greene. Photo (cc) 2020 by FYNTV FetchYourNews.

Many mainstream news organizations are genuinely struggling to come to terms with the current dynamic in Washington: an often feckless Democratic Party opposed by crazy and dangerous Republicans. It’s not an entirely new scenario, and has in fact been building since Newt Gingrich’s speakership in the mid-1990s. But it’s become acute since the Trump-inspired insurrection of Jan. 6 and the embrace of QAnon and sedition by large swaths of the GOP.

But while responsible journalists are trying to figure out how to navigate this reality, there’s another group that continues to embrace #bothsides-ism at its most mindless. At the center of this is Axios, which combines the politics-as-sports sensibility of Politico, whence it sprang, with bullet points and lots of boldface.

Take, for instance, “The Mischief Makers.” According to Axios reporters Alayna Treene and Kadia Goba, leaders in each of the two major parties are being tormented by “troublemakers” and “political thorns” within their ranks. And who are these feisty backbenchers?

Well, on the Republican side is House member Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has called for the execution of  Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other top Democrats and who believes that wildfires are caused by a Jewish-controlled laser in outer space. Also getting a nod are Matt Gaetz, Louie Gohmert and Mo Brooks, all of whom supported the insurrection.

What Democrats could possibly be as dastardly as that? Why, the Squad, of course! Because they’re liberal and/or progressive. So Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar and Ayanna Pressley all get a shoutout, as well as like-minded newcomers such as Jamaal Bowman and Cori Bush.

In the Senate, Republicans Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Josh Hawley, all of whom supported Trump’s coup attempt, are equated with Democrats Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin, who are more conservative than most of their party peers, and independent Bernie Sanders, who’s to the left of most of his colleagues but who’s been notably supportive of President Joe Biden.

But wait! There’s to-be-sure paragraph buried amid all this:

Not all are created equal. Democrats often contend with an outspoken, very progressive wing of their caucus and try to keep centrists from crossing party lines. Republicans have senators who led efforts to invalidate the 2020 election results and flirted with the same conspiracy theories that fueled groups involved in the Capitol siege.

No kidding.

So, does anything Axios publishes cause genuine harm? It’s hard to say. But Axios is aimed primarily at insiders — congressional staff members, lobbyists and other journalists. And many of them would love nothing more than validation that they can return to business as usual.

Cynical takes such as this can serve to normalize what’s going on in Washington, providing the narcotic drip we need to help us forget that many powerful Republicans attempted to overthrow the results of the election less than a month ago. Five people died, and we haven’t even begun to get to the bottom of what happened.