Should media be in the reputation-rehabilitation business?

Decisions were made.

Since starting in 2017, Axios has become a poster-child for the success of new media. A September 2020 Wall Street Journal report shows Axios taking in $58 million in revenue, with newsletter sponsorships its bread-and-butter, accounting for half of the company’s revenue. 

However, one of the biggest knocks on Axios from the commentariat is that it trades on access. Built by the folks who brought us Politico, and emphasizing that scoops are the coin of the realm, the outlet has raised a few eyebrows about its editorial mission.

Last week, it introduced its “Bill of Rights,” laying out its principles. They’re good and logical—like being transparent, or saying they’ll “sacrifice scale for quality.”—and something all media companies should think about, if not emulate. Codifying what you stand for helps readers.

It’s ninth Bill of Right says:

“We will always cover the topics of greatest consequence with clinical, critical and balanced eyes. (For more on the fact-based framework guiding our coverage, read our editorial manifesto)”

So it was a bit jarring to read this morning’s “sneak peak” newsletter that ran this brief item that is neither of the greatest consequence nor covered with the most critical of eyes:

(Photo by Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images via Axios)

Kellyanne Conway has seen power exercised as a pollster, campaign manager and senior counselor to President Trump. Now that his term in office has concluded, she shared her thoughts with Alayna.

Why it matters: If there's a currency in This Town, it's power, so we've asked several former Washington power brokers to share their best advice as a new administration and new Congress settle into their jobs.

  • "Power should be used sparingly yet strategically," Conway said. "A reluctance to exert power is also a necessary requisite for possessing it. Our Constitution reserves many powers to the individual and to the states. Washington often forgets that. Leaders are wise to respect, not rob, people of their power."

  • "In the '80s, Washington was known for the 'power lunch' and the 'power suit.' Cute. Increasingly, women in Washington have real power. Sometimes, the expectations for powerful women are different, but so, too, are the motivators and outcomes."

  • "The late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher offered words to live by: 'Being powerful is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you aren't.' This is true. Show it; don’t say it. Use it wisely; don’t underline it obnoxiously."

  • "If you have a choice between power and influence, go for influence. Power is conferred by one's birth, position, promotion or election. Influence is how things get things done, preferring negotiation, persuasion and elevating cooperation and collaboration."

I emailed the company’s CEO Jim VandeHei if he could walk me through the decision process of giving Conway, an architect and voice of the Trump administration’s worst communications and lies, a platform without providing any context of Conway’s loose relationship with the truth as a senior advisor to the former president. Especially as it seems to run counter to the publication’s bill of rights.

VandeHei punted to an editor, who passed along the request to a company spokesperson, who told me in an email: “The feature you reference is a Q&A featuring guests from a range of perspectives and political backgrounds. The debut interviewee was Rahm Emanuel.”

When I followed up with the spokesperson saying this isn’t an actual Q&A and if Axios could provide more details on the thinking about running Conway’s quotes as-is, the spokesperson responded with a response from the editorial team:

“The topic of the Q&A was limited to how power works in Washington, and Conway shared her insights.” 

Axios’s perception about access has been building almost since its inception. 

A 2018 New Republic article, for example, lays into Axios as being a “distillation of political journalism’s worst instincts.”

In a Reddit AMA, Axios’s founders Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen were asked about the outlet’s notion of access, and they argued that they distinguish between “journalism based on access and journalism that combines top sourcing with wisdom, skepticism and bluntness.”

And in a 2018 profile of Axios reporter Jonathan Swan, the New York Times notes

Still, his rise has come with accusations of coziness: that he favors access over accountability; that he irritates the White House, but rarely infuriates it. Many journalists here have lucrative TV deals (including at The New York Times), but some grumble about Mr. Swan’s gigs as a paid corporate speaker, including a roughly $20,000 appearance at Goldman Sachs that other news organizations would prohibit for their reporters.

Even so, Axios does do excellent reporting, even as it leans on the horse-race philosophy. The outlet consistently produces journalism that matters. (For whatever it’s worth, I think Axios’s media reporter Sara Fischer is the best in the business.) 

And the publication has done well across various verticals, building up a newsletter base of about 1.5 million and site traffic hovering around 20 million, with the WSJ reporting that 

Mr. VandeHei says Axios’s coverage is far broader than the ups and downs of Washington, with only about 10% of its reporting staff of around 80 focused on D.C. politics. He said much of Axios’s sponsored-newsletter revenue comes from reporting on technology, media and deal making.

But power is still at the heart of journalism, especially political journalism. When it appears that a publication rewards sources with unfettered access to a platform of millions of readers so that the source can try to rehabilitate their image, it creates significant problems of trust. Especially when the 2nd and 3rd bullets of a bill of rights is:

  • We take responsibility for all content that appears on our public platforms.

  • Every item will be written or produced to inform, analyze and explain. We will never have an opinion section.

Allowing one of the most visible liars of government over the last four years the ability to be seen as a serious person diminishes the work and power of journalism. 

Thank you for allowing me in your inbox, today and every day. If you have tips, or thoughts on the email, drop me a line. Or you can follow me on Twitter. If you arrived here via social media or through a colleague, please consider signing up. Have a safe and relaxing weekend, and I’ll see you on Monday.

Billy Preston, “Will It Go Round in Circles”

Some interesting links:

For media criticism:

  • The Washington Post Memory-Holed Kamala Harris' Bad Joke About Inmates Begging for Food and Water (Reason)

  • Fox News "purge" confirms network shouldn’t have White House credentials (Press Run)

For publishers helping people scrub their names:

  • Boston Globe launches ‘Fresh Start’ initiative: People can apply to have archive stories about them reviewed (Boston Globe)

For publishers experimenting with AR:

  • Explore WaPo front pages in 3D (WaPo)

For tech’s role in determining truth:

  • Demagoguery vs. Democracy: The Coming Trials of Donald John Trump (Technology Press)

  • An Australia With No Google? The Bitter Fight Behind a Drastic Threat (NYT)

  • Parler’s New Partner Has Ties to the Russian Government (Bloomberg)

For cracks in the ‘we’re all in this together’ philosophy:

  • Instacart laying off unionized workers (Vice)

For local media:

  • COVID-19 Is Ravaging Local Newspapers, Making it Easier for Misinformation to Spread (Time)

For TV measuring contests:

  • Biden inauguration TV ratings top Trump's (Axios)