Industry Preview: Axios CEO Jim VandeHei On Media Post-Trump

Axios Jim VandeHeiIndustry Preview is a special, limited-run audio series, featuring interviews with key leaders in marketing, media and technology who share their predictions and key priorities for 2021. This podcast is sponsored by IBM Watson Advertising.

Axios published its first article in January 2017, the same month Trump took office.

Now Axios CEO and co-founder Jim VandeHei is turning his attention to the next four years: how the Biden administration will “unfold in this wild and wacky media environment where roughly half the country doesn’t trust anything the mainstream media produces.”

Being a newer brand in this kind of landscape – as well as one that takes a “clinical” approach to sharing information – may put Axios in a better position than its peers, he said.

“For incumbent brands, it’s going to be really hard to win back the trust of those who distrust or mistrust them,” he said. “It creates new opportunities for companies like Axios – or companies that might emerge over the next couple of years – to rekindle a relationship with people who are skeptical.”

Axios’ next step is branching out into local news, an area where it can rebuild the trust in media that’s eroded in recent years. When people read local news, “they know if it’s real or not. They live in that community,” he said.

The challenge in local news isn’t just trust, but a workable business model. Believing a key problem with local news is that “the costs were just too damn high,” Axios is putting just a few boots on the ground in five cities early this year.

“Our bet is that we can create a daily habit for enough people in those cities, and that we can build a robust ad business around it,” VandeHei said. Over the next few months, he’ll find out if his bet on local news is right.

Axios advertising has taken advantage of two hot trends: “corporate social responsibility” budgets funding minimalistic, uncluttered native ads. Advertisers are finding they’re getting a “double bang for their buck,” he said. Messages about doing good not only boost a company’s reputation, they help with recruiting talent, especially among younger workers that care more about what a company stands for, VandeHei said.

Those advertising budgets also surged upward during the pandemic. Advertising at Axios went up 40% in 2020, strengthening the publication as it tries to solve for the big problem facing media today: People consuming content and debating and sharing that content in two completely separate bubbles, he said. “We have to solve for that.”

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