Jim VandeHei, the co-founder of both Politico and Axios, has always had an admirably heightened sense of self. Asked once how he climbed from being a local reporter in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, to the media entrepreneur and C.E.O. he is today, he said: “Every new job or new step I took, I thought, ‘Oh, these people aren’t that much smarter than I am. And then the next step I’d be like, ‘Oh, these people aren’t much smarter than I am.’”
The self-confidence is hardly off-putting, since it is hard-earned. VandeHei also generously and evangelically leaves others with the impression that they are smarter, too. Once at Politico, where I worked from 2011 to 2015, VandeHei held an all-staff meeting where he implored journalists at the startup to believe that they were “better than the journalists at The New York Times, better than the journalists at The Washington Post.” The ability to instill confidence and inspire optimism rests at the core of his leadership style. It also has strategic benefits. Arguably, the entire premise behind Axios’s pitch to readers has been about pumping their tires: You are smart and you can be even smarter. Sign up here.
This year has, in many ways, been a vindication of VandeHei’s decade-plus run of remaking D.C. media in his own image. Over the summer, Politico sold to Axel Springer for $1 billion, and Axios, which had also been courted by Axel, sold to Cox Enterprises for $525 million. These deals have cemented VandeHei’s status as a seminal figure in the history of Washington media—a disruptive entrepreneur among complacent or patrician types that have populated the firmament for generations. And as I’ve noted before, both publications have radically altered the tenor and velocity of political journalism at large and brought to fruition an entire generation of all-star political reporters.
Now that the dust has settled on the Axios deal, I wanted to get VandeHei’s perspective on the media landscape, from Axios and Politico to the Times and the Post, as well as this season’s much discussed startup, Semafor. The Semafor co-founders, Justin Smith and Ben Smith, famously announced their new enterprise with VandeHeian chutzpah, promising a news organization that could compete with the world’s leading news outlets. As I’ve noted, they’re going to market with a more modest offering.
Herewith, a smart and brief conversation on the state of the media business, in D.C. and beyond. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Dylan Byers: You’ve now launched, or co-launched, two of the most successful news media companies of the digital era. In both instances, you seem to have recognized an opening—a chance to “fix” the news by breaking with staid, legacy media conventions and prioritizing the reader experience. At the same time, you’ve pursued different strategies when it comes to balancing advertising and subscription revenue, broad vs. niche coverage areas, and so on. Between the two companies, do you feel like you’ve identified a winning formula for success in digital media—or at least a list of dos and don’ts?
Jim VandeHei: There is no magical formula. This shit is hard and requires smarts, timing, and lots and lots of luck. People underestimate how much luck plays in this. It’s humbling.
But here are a few dos: 1. Do realize you will fail if you do not have a firm, realistic plan for how to generate revenue immediately. 2. Do realize you need to nail editorial and revenue and technology and marketing and get all four to work in synchronicity. 3. Do realize superstar talent is hard to find—cherish and spoil the best ones. 4. Do realize culture is the secret sauce and very, very hard to perfect.
Some don’ts: 1. Don’t assume money can solve your problems. 2. Don’t assume a little buzz in the beginning means much. 3. Don’t conflate Twitter applause with actual success. 4. Don’t conflate establishment criticism with failure. 5. Don’t try to do a slightly better version of something that already exists. Solve a new problem—way bigger upside.
Where did you fail along the way? Where did you try something that didn’t work, then have to pivot? If I recall correctly, Axios was going to launch as a paid subscription product, then didn’t.
Most big failures were allowing talented people with bad values to stick around too long. They are cancerous. In retrospect, I failed early on at Politico to temper myself and realize fast and furious can burn good people out—you need to be an activator, but allow for different speeds. We have botched a few small projects but thankfully gotten the big ones right. Oh, I failed in initially taking the PPP at Axios—I should have had more confidence in the creativity of our team.
Speaking of… how is your relationship with your Politico co-founders? We don’t need to rehash what happened there, but what’s your view on what Robert Allbritton has done with that business?
Politico is a terrific business, and what John [Harris] and others did after we left to keep it growing and expanding was awesome to see. All of us are proud of what we built. Remember: most people were rooting against us and most thought it would be an epic flop. When you do something like that, against the odds, it is a cool shared experience. I wish we knew during those white-knuckle days that it would be the success it is today. We would have enjoyed the ride more. I made it a priority to enjoy every moment at Axios and have faith it would be successful.
Fred Ryan does not get enough credit for the early success of Politico, by the way. He was the one who dreamed up and muscled into reality Politico co-moderating presidential debates when we were months old. That was a massive rocket booster for the company. He had a P.T. Barnum sense of the moment.
Fred is now C.E.O. of the Post, which experienced record subscription growth during the Trump years, like most news organizations, but is now backsliding even as its rivals like the Times and the Journal continue to grow. What do you attribute that to, and what do you think is the Post’s roadmap for future success?
No clue. I have no insight into their specific business performance and strengths/weaknesses. The question I would have for any media business is the one I pose to Axios execs all the time: do you have top-tier talent with a clear, executable mission working together at optimal velocity with minimal drama and distraction? If the answer is no, you’re probably screwed.
But the Times model suggests you need to diversify your business—which, in fact, is something you did at Axios with the software play HQ, the local news product, etc. I guess I wonder… is the Post too narrow in its ambition? Is it failing to make itself essential to subscribers outside of the D.C. news product, which is already competing in a saturated market?
I think the NYT has been genius with its business. Meredith [Kopit Levien] is an astonishingly successful C.E.O. Put aside your love or hate of their journalistic product. They have one of the cleanest, most usable sites; smartly hired podcast stars that could build and keep audience; created the best consumer subscription machine around; pounced on food and wellness and consumer products as profitable niches; bought Wordle and snagged The Athletic and its subs when their own sub machine was slowing. That’s some smart shit.
The Post seemed to rely on its core journalistic product plus its CMS technology platform. I assume it’s true they hit a subscription wall because, post-Trump, a lot of people wanted less news, not more. No clue if new niches would have helped them. But it’s The Washington Post, it’s owned by Jeff Bezos, and Fred is a smart, ambitious dude, so I would not overreact to a bad story or two.
Of course. But let’s say you’re running the Post. Are you pursuing M&A? Are you diversifying the business? Or are you just expanding the core news product?
I am not running it. Anyone who opines on how to run something they don’t understand is foolish—and should stick to Twitter.
Reasonable, and I suppose admirable, point. But I may ask you to opine on some things nevertheless. You’ve been through this rodeo twice now. I wonder what to make of the new class of D.C. startups, most specifically Semafor. They launched with grand ambitions—aiming to hire the Mt. Rushmore of journalists, and creating a global news product that could beat the Times, Bloomberg, et al. I think it’s safe to say they’re launching with a far more modest product of mostly domestic reporters who are hardly household names. What do you make of the Smiths’ effort, and what advice can you offer?
I would say this to anyone starting anew: simplify, then amplify… You need to first master one new core idea that meets a very clear market opening and need. Politico (politics for experts/junkies); The Information (be the Politico of tech); The Athletic (sports expertise for sports junkies); Axios (get smarter, faster on consequential topics); Punchbowl (own Capitol Hill). It is hard to be broad or many things to many people.
I assume Semafor is keeping its innovation, hires and true focus under wraps until it goes live next month. Only then can anyone begin to judge. Ben is a smart, mischievous, relentless guy with his own flick of P.T. Barnum. That will serve him well. Justin Smith is a very successful global businessman. The trick will be: can they offer something essential, different, and scalable in a hyper-competitive market for ad dollars and talent? I hope they do because I believe competition teaches and sharpens all of us.
By the way, the most impressive new startup of the past few years, Punchbowl, offers some valuable lessons. They are proudly narrow in their focus—Congress—and married a smart business thinker (Anna Palmer) with two very wired, workaholic, Capitol Hill experts (Jake Sherman and John Bresnahan) and proudly speak with authenticity and enthusiasm to a laser-focused audience of Hill staff and lobbyists. They raised no money and are profitable from the get-go.
I assume you’re not planning on launching a third media company—fair assumption?—but, if you were: What’s the opening right now? What’s the market opening, and what’s the core idea that would meet that need?
I will never start another media company. I will run Axios until I am run out of town. The space that seems ripest to me is health care as a business, or health, wellness and leadership for professionals.
I take it that means you’re not running for office, either, and “Jimmy from Wisconsin” isn’t an early campaign slogan?
I am running for… Axios. I love Wisconsin but I have not lived there in two decades-plus. Jimmy from Wisconsin couldn’t even get on the ballot, much less tolerate the B.S. Not sure where that rumor started—maybe from you!
Ok, one more: Axios entered the digital landscape as a second mover, after Buzzfeed, Vox, Vice, HuffPo, et al. started. What’s the end state of this generation? Will everything be a shingle on a conglomerate like Axel?
It will be a mix of consolidation and some more death—with a few one-off success stories. I admire Jim Bankoff and his persistence, patience, and smarts. He is the kind of person you want running media companies.
Axel Springer clearly wants to grow fast but I doubt any of those companies would be acquisition targets. But what the hell do I know?