Axios and POLITICO co-founder Jim VandeHei speaks with Moderator and vice president of journalism at the Knight Foundation Jennifer Preston at the International Symposium on Online Journalism.
Axios and POLITICO co-founder Jim VandeHei (left) speaks with moderator and vice president of journalism at the Knight Foundation Jennifer Preston at the 2017 International Symposium on Online Journalism. Credit: Courtesy / ISOJ

In today’s media landscape, it’s important for companies to develop content for a mobile environment. Not only that, but readers want the stories to be shorter and journalists should be focusing on making content cleaner and more shareable, said Jim VandeHei, co-founder and CEO of Axios and one of the co-founders of POLITICO.

VandeHei shared thoughts on his professional trajectory and new media trends on Friday during a keynote speech at the 2017 International Symposium on Online Journalism (ISOJ), which brings together academics, journalists, and industry professionals from more than 40 countries to the University of Texas at Austin for a weekend of networking, discussion, and learning. VandeHei’s session was moderated by Jennifer Preston, vice president of journalism at the Knight Foundation.

The business of journalism has to be a “lean, mean, technology-driven machine,” VandeHei said. The surge of digital content due to reader engagement on desktops and mobile devices means that media companies must have complete synchronicity among their editorial, business, and tech teams if they want to be successful in a rapidly changing digital world.

“You can tell if a media company is having fun and you can just feel it and they are doing great journalism built on great technology,” he told the crowd gathered at UT’s Blanton Museum of Art. “If you’re unnerved by change, get a different career. It’s gonna get a hell of a lot worse.”

VandeHei thinks these changes can be fun, and young people in particular should embrace them.

“In the design process of Axios I never looked at the site on anything other than mobile,” he explained, adding that 80% of his audience hails from mobile users.

VandeHei said Axios was created six months from the moment the first conversation about its foundation took place. His advice for new business ventures is to move forward toward innovation without overthinking too much.

“Screw up and then correct back,” VandeHei said, because before you know it technology or new platforms to engage readers will have changed again.

Axios, which means “worthy” in Greek, wants to deliver the cleanest, smartest, most efficient, and trust-worthy experience for readers and advertisers alike. The company has a staff of nearly 71 people, but VandeHei said he hopes to grow the team to 100 by the end of the year. The content, featured on a new and innovative mobile platform, focuses on politics, health care, business, and technology.

“For the first 90 days, Trump sucked up most of the oxygen and it was hard for people to pay attention to those other topics,” he said. But at the same time, he continued, the Trump-effect has made people more interested in news and people are taking it more seriously.

“We all see it in traffic to our sites,” he said.

Thanks to modern technology, entry costs for building a new media company have never been lower, VandeHei said, which is why “there’s never been a better time for a young person to get involved in journalism than today.” Cheap technology and free online tools make it easier to reach more people with more precision.

According to VandeHei, the most pivotal part of the formula is the reader. Getting to know your audience and becoming “obsessed” with it, knowing what it wants, analyzing the data, and building trust in it is what will propel the industry forward. Many in the industry still need to make that ideal shift, and make content not to get “high fives” from other journalists, but to serve the readers first.

“Build your audience organically to get a higher return rate at the site or click-through rate on your newsletter,” he said. “… The reader wants to get smart, share information, [not] be bombarded by banner ads … put focus on who the user is … this way you build a good business.”

In VandeHei’s view, journalists should be smarter about engagement and credibility.

“We want our content to be worthy. Most journalists do the right thing,” he said. “Never before has what we do been more important [and because] everyone is more hyper-connected than anyone could ever fathom … we need to be more engaged and live up to it.”

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Rocío Guenther

Rocío Guenther worked as a bilingual reporter and editorial assistant for the Rivard Report from June 2016 to October 2017. She is originally from Guadalajara, Mexico and holds a bachelor's in English...