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.