What will the sale of Axios mean for Boston news consumers? It’s too early to tell. But there are a couple of intriguing tidbits that emerged from the news that the digital startup will be acquired by Cox Enterprises for $525 million, a story first reported by Ben Mullin of The New York Times.
First, the sale appears to be good news for Axios Local. According to Rick Edmonds of Poynter Online, Cox isn’t looking to walk away from the local newsletters it’s been building out in order to concentrate on national politics. Instead, Cox wants to accelerate the growth of Axios Local. “Our goal of 100 cities is in reach,” publisher Nick Johnston told Edmonds. “I have a list of 384 metropolitan areas in my office, and we cross them off one by one.”
Second, Cox already owns is a minority owner of WFXT-TV (Channel 25) in Boston, the home of Boston 25 News. Two months ago, Axios launched a Boston newsletter produced by veteran journalists Mike Deehan and Steph Solis. Although I’m in no position to know what the strategy will be moving forward, it’s not difficult to imagine Axios Boston amplifying big stories from Boston 25, or featuring Deehan and Solis on its newscasts.
Of course, you should always follow the money. Jim VandeHei, Mike Allen and John Harris never had an opportunity to cash in after they left The Washington Post to found Politico in 2007. VandeHei and Allen were the marquee names who left Politico in 2016 to start Axios (Harris stayed behind). Monday was their big payday.
By the way, Ellen Clegg and I interviewed Deehan recently on the “What Works” podcast, so please give it a listen.
Correction/clarification. Axios has been acquired by Cox Enterprises, which spun off its television and radio stations to the hedge fund Apollo Global Management a couple of years ago. Those stations now do business as Cox Media Group. But wait: Cox Enterprises continues to hold an ownership stake in Cox Media Group, including Boston 25. Earlier this year, it was announced that Cox Media would sell Boston 25, but it’s unclear whether Cox Enterprises would keep its minority stake. So what I said above could still happen, but it’s a lot more complicated than I had realized.
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.
Earlier this month my wife and I were watching the news when Patrick Leahy came on to talk about something or other — I don’t remember what.
Leahy, 73, has been a Democratic senator from Vermont for nearly four decades. Normally that stirs up feelings that, you know, maybe it’s time for the old man to go back to the dairy farm and watch his grandchildren milk the cows.
But I had been reading Mark Leibovich’s “This Town.” And so I felt a tiny measure of admiration for Leahy stirring up inside me. He hadn’t cashed in. (His net worth — somewhere between $49,000 and $210,000 — makes him among the poorer members of the Senate, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.) He hasn’t become a lobbyist. He apparently intends to die with his boots on.
That amounts to honor of a sort in the vomitrocious Washington that Leibovich describes in revolting detail — a town of sellouts and suckups (“Suckup City” was one of his working titles), a place where the nation’s business isn’t just subordinate to the culture of money and access, but is, at best, an afterthought.
If you plan to review a book, you shouldn’t “read” the audio version. I have no notes, no dog-eared pages to refer to. So consider this not a review so much as a few disjointed impressions of “This Town,” subtitled “Two Parties and a Funeral — Plus, Plenty of Valet Parking! — in America’s Gilded Capital.”
Mark is an old acquaintance. He and I worked together for a couple of years at The Boston Phoenix in the early 1990s before he moved on to the San Jose Mercury News, The Washington Post and, finally, The New York Times. (Other former Phoenicians who’ve reviewed “This Town”: Peter Kadzis in The Providence Phoenix and Marjorie Arons-Barron for her blog.)
There are many good things I could say about Mark and “This Town,” but I’ll start with this: I have never known anyone who worked harder to improve. It was not unusual for me to leave the Phoenix in the evening while Mark was working on an article — and to come back the next morning to find him still at it. The result of all that labor is a finely honed sense of craft that most of us can only aspire to.
As virtually every reviewer has pointed out, “This Town” begins with a masterful description of the funeral service for “Meet the Press” impresario Tim Russert, an ostensibly mournful occasion that provided the media and political classes in Washington with an opportunity to carry out the real business of their community: talking about themselves and checking their place in the pecking order.
There are so many loathsome characters in “This Town” that you’d need an index to keep track of them all. And Leibovich puckishly refused to provide one, though The Washington Post published an unofficial index here. For my money, though, the lowest of the low are former senator Evan Bayh and former congressman Dick Gephardt — Democrats who left office but stayed in Washington to become highly paid lobbyists. Bayh, with his unctuously insincere laments over how broken Washington had become, and Gephardt, who quickly sold out every pro-labor position he had ever held, rise above (or descend below) a common streetwalker like Chris Dodd, who flirted not very convincingly with becoming an entrepreneur before entering the warm embrace of the film industry.
Also: If you have never heard of Tammy Haddad, Leibovich will remove your innocence. You will be sadder but wiser.
Because Mark is such a fine writer, he operates with a scalpel; those of us who have only a baseball bat to work with can only stand back in awe at the way he carves up his subjects. Still, I found myself occasionally wishing he’d grab his bat and do to some of these scum-sucking leeches what David Ortiz did to that dugout phone in Baltimore.
Mike Allen of Politico, for instance, comes off as an oddly sympathetic character despite the damage he and his news organization have done to democracy with their focus on politics as a sport and their elevation of trivia and gossip. (To be sure, Leibovich describes that damage in great detail.) I could be wrong, but it seems to me that that Mark was tougher on Allen in a profile for the Times Magazine a few years ago.
Thus I was immensely pleased to hear Mark (or, rather, narrator Joe Barrett) administer an old-fashioned thrashing to Sidney Blumenthal. It seems that Blumenthal, yet another former Phoenix reporter, had lodged a bogus plagiarism complaint against Mark because Blumenthal had written a play several decades ago called “This Town,” which, inconveniently for Sid Vicious, no one had ever heard of. More, please.
I also found myself wondering what Leibovich makes of the Tea Party and the Republican Party’s ever-rightward drift into crazyland. The Washington of “This Town” is rather familiar, if rarely so-well described. The corruption is all-pervasive and bipartisan, defined by the unlikely (but not really) partnership of the despicable Republican operative Haley Barbour and the equally despicable Democratic fundraiser Terry McAuliffe.
No doubt such relationships remain an important part of Washington. But it seems to me that people like Rand Paul, Ted Cruz and their ilk — for instance, the crazies now talking about impeaching President Obama — don’t really fit into that world. And, increasingly, they’re calling the shots, making the sort of Old Guard Republicans Leibovich writes about (Republicans like John Boehner and Mitch McConnell, for instance) all but irrelevant.
But that’s a quibble, and it would have shifted Mark away from what he does best: writing finely honed character studies of people who have very little character. “This Town” is an excellent book that says much about why we hate Washington — and why we’re right to keep on doing so. Hold the uplift. And make sure the shower you’ll need after reading it is extra hot.
Maybe my old friend Mark Leibovich is too subtle. Maybe it’s true that any press is good press. But I experienced some severe cognitive dissonance last night as I watched Charlie Rose and Ken Auletta congratulate Mike Allen of Politico over Leibovich’s cover profile of him in the forthcoming New York Times Magazine.
Earlier in the evening I had read Leibovich’s story, and was both repulsed and fascinated. Leibovich, with whom I worked at the Boston Phoenix in the early ’90s, operates with a scalpel. But in his precise, dauntingly well-reported way, he drew gushers of blood, portraying Allen — whose duties include writing “Playbook,” an influential daily e-mail — as the leading exemplar of the Politico sensibility: superficial, insidery and deeply biased in favor of power.
Politico produces good work. Allen produces good work — it was he who broke the story last summer about Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham’s Weymouth’s plan to hold paid salons in her home with lobbyists, Post journalists and government officials. There is a lot of talent and smarts at Politico, and I’m not suggesting that we ignore it.
But the overall sensibility of Politico is perhaps best described by Allen himself, who told Rose and Auletta last night (I’m paraphrasing) that his readers aren’t satisfied merely to know the score; they want to keep track of the entire game, inning by inning. You wonder if it has ever occurred to Allen that politics might not be a sporting event.
Leibovich reveals that Allen, like retired Post executive editor Leonard Downie Jr., does not vote, lest it compromise his neutrality. This is house-of-mirrors stuff. Politico’s ongoing celebration of the status quo, of Washington as it is, of a worldview in which Democrats and Republicans are players who should be covered ESPN-style, makes it every bit as biased as Talking Points Memo or National Review Online, only less substantive.
I was particularly taken with this Leibovich tidbit:
“I’ve been in Washington about 30 years,” Mark Salter, a former chief of staff and top campaign aide to John McCain, says. “And here’s the surprising reality: On any given day, not much happens. It’s just the way it is.” Not so in the world of Politico, he says, where meetings in which senators act like themselves (maybe sarcastic or short) become “tension filled” affairs. “They have taken every worst trend in reporting, every single one of them, and put them on rocket fuel,” Salter says. “It’s the shortening of the news cycle. It’s the trivialization of news. It’s the gossipy nature of news. It’s the self-promotion.”
The shame of it is that a pioneering online-mostly news organization like Politico turns out to represent the perfect distillation of every bad trend in political journalism.
Politico’s goal, Leibovich tells us, is to “drive the conversation,” and it has succeeded at that to a considerable degree. Too bad Allen and company neither know nor care where they’re headed.