News

Jim VandeHei on AI-Proofing News and Defying ‘Twitter Nerds’

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Photo: Lauren Justice/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Jim VandeHei has a knack for being ahead of the curve. In 2006, he bolted from the Washington Post with John Harris for the upstart Politico, which shook up Washington journalism with its aggressive style. In 2016, amid squabbles with ownership, he left along with star reporter Mike Allen and co-founded Axios, which became one of the defining outlets of the Trump era. (It sold to Cox Industries for $525 million in 2022.) Lately, VandeHei has also been sounding the alarm about artificial intelligence, and attempting to position his company for technology that he believes will transform the news industry. He has also been dispensing life advice, both in his Finish Line column and in his new book Just the Good Stuff, where VandeHei tells of his evolution from small-town Wisconsin underachiever to media bigwig — all in the “smart brevity” bullet-point format Axios pioneered. I spoke with VandeHei about his hard-charging early days at Politico, the threats and possibilities of artificial intelligence, and why he thinks almost every article should be shorter.

A recent New York Times article about Axios’s approach to artificial intelligence quotes you as saying, “Fast-forward five to 10 years from now, and we’re living in this AI-dominated virtual world. Who are the couple of players in the media space offering smart, sane content who are thriving? It damn well better be us.” You also say that “AI will eviscerate the weak, the ordinary, the unprepared in media.” I’m curious how, specifically, you think AI will undermine modern news media. Because I’m having trouble envisioning how it would all work, and I’m somewhat skeptical of AI’s coming dominance, at least in that short a timeframe.
Listen, the skeptic case could be right. When you’re running a media company, your job is to look at the landscape and understand the technologies — what are the known knowns? — and then extrapolate from that. What’s the most likely outcome and how does your company fit into that? So I understand the skeptic case.

We spent a ton of time out there talking to Anthropic, OpenAI, Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, Google, mainly trying to better understand how they see the world unfolding, and partly to make sure that if they ever do deals and pay people for content, we want to be part of that mix. But that was very secondary for us. It’s much more about, Let me understand the world. You’re just trying to figure out what’s real, what’s not real and what’s hype. The way I walked away from those conversations is, you’ve got six or seven of the biggest companies in the history of humanity collectively pouring trillions of dollars into a technology that right now, I would say, is a little janky. It’s not that impressive right now. There’s moments where it’s impressive, but there’s a lot of moments where It’s terribly unimpressive. But I guess I believe the theory that whether it’s six months or six years, they’ll figure that out. There’s going to be so much computing power, so much intellectual power thrown at this problem, and they’re all so heavily invested.

Yeah, they’re certainly acting like it’s the future. 
Yeah, they’re acting like it. My assumption is even if you don’t take the most optimistic pro-AI scenario, it seems plausible to me that in some timeframe, whether it’s a year, three years, five years, 10 years —  that you’re going to have some kind of thing. That’s the only way I can really describe it right now is a thing, because I don’t know what that platform is. It could be a watch, could be a ring, could be glasses, could be a chip in your damn brain for all we know.

But I think that thing is going to know a lot about you. It’s going to know what you’re interested in, how you like to consume information. Do you like it read to you? Do you like it sung to you? Do you like it in bullet points? Do you like it longform? Do you like to see it through your glasses? So it’s going to know a lot about you, and it is also going to be really aware of the topics you care about. Here’s a thing that’s synthesizing that for you, alerting you of it. There’s going to be a platform like that. Maybe it’s as simple as it just lives on your phone as an app. I doubt it, but I do think that something like that will exist.

So, this goes well beyond just AI writing articles that a reporter would typically write.
I think that’s overhyped. Even if AI’s writing articles, it’s going to write essentially commoditized articles, which I think are fucked anyway. I think anybody who’s mass-producing commoditized, replicable content right now, which is a lot of general media — that’s going to go away because I do think AI will be able to do that or be able to synthesize it better.

Like summarizing last night’s baseball game or whatever.
There’s already companies doing that, or taking stock prices and turning them into quick stories. But that’s not interesting and it’s not that awesome of a tech solve, and it’s not even that great for the consumer. I think what’s going to happen is — is there really a reason that there’s 200 versions of the Trump trial story today? You’re going to want distinctiveness and you’re going to want that content delivered a lot more efficiently. And you’re going to want it delivered in your own style.

So I don’t worry about AI writing stories. What I think will happen is kind of the opposite. I think what will happen is that when commoditized content goes away and potentially gets replicated by machines, gets replicated by AI, what will have distinct value to both the AI but to the consumer is true subject-matter expertise or true human nuance or true human sourcing.

So, if you’re a reporter who has domain expertise or can get someone to tell you something they shouldn’t tell you or has a historical knowledge that allows you to add analysis and nuance to a topic that someone cares passionately about, I think there’s going to be a tremendous amount of value in that. That, to me, is already kind of what we do, but I want to do a lot more of that, which is —  how do I aggregate people who have true subject matter expertise? How do I get them producing that in a way that fits the way the consumer wants to consume content right now? How do I then, from a business perspective, figure out all the different ways that you can monetize that content?  I think a really safe place to be is expertise or distinctiveness. And distinctiveness could be the creativity of writing.

Oh, but AI can write. Who cares if it can write? You really have to be advanced to be able to think cleverly, see something with your eye and put it into a lyrical human language, like the best magazine article. I think stuff like that will have tremendous value. Whatever AI looks like a couple of years from now — it’s going to be a garbage pit for a while. It’s going to be ugly and there’s going to be mass amounts of just slush and sludge and slime.

That’s already happening.
It’s already happening. So, people will ask where they can trust the source, where they have a relationship, ideally pre-existing with a publisher, with a magazine, with a company. I think there’ll be a lot of value there. And I think there’ll be a lot of value in what we’re already witnessing here, which is that the more the world feels artificial or virtual, the more people want human connectivity around passion topics, particularly professional passion topics. For us, that’s a booming events business. It’s a membership program where you maybe have more interactivity with the subject-matter expert. I think that’s a really good place to be.

So that was kind of the point I was making in the New York Times piece, which was Listen, I think there’s a reasonable chance that this is kind of what the future looks like. I’d rather get on the front end of it because even if I’m wrong, these changes are good for our company anyways. I think it’s what the consumer wants. And if we’re right, then we’re not blindsided by a technology that in some ways is being telegraphed to us. I do waver — there are days where I share your skeptic’s view of this. But I probably have PTSD from the transition from newspaper to digital, and our industry getting blindsided. And I feel like in some ways, we were told a couple years ahead that the Internet was coming, that You really have to take it seriously and make these changes now. Boy, guess what would’ve happened if media companies had done that.

That feels like slow-motion compared to this. 
AI could be that too. We did a readership study, and we have a category we call “influencers.” The number one topic of interest for our readers who are C-suite, political leaders, tech leaders, is AI. But once you get to the tier below influencers — so just: I’m really interested in news on a daily basis — it’s not in the top 10. It hasn’t penetrated as deeply as those of us who marinate in it, and I do marinate in it, might think. But it’s coming.

I think a lot of people used it as a novelty but then thought,“How do I actually incorporate this actually into my life?” It’s something that has to be pretty damn close to 100 percent reliable, and there’s a huge difference between  99 percent and 100 percent. That’s the way I think about it.
But my guess is they’ll clean that up. The way I think of AI is it ate the totality of human information on the internet, and guess what? A lot of that’s garbage information. So until you filter out the garbage, you’re not going to have a really intelligent thing. But each version does seem to be more intelligent, and does seem to be slightly better than the one before. And I think where it starts to get really interesting is if you really could clean up the model and you could just train it on proprietary data, like a clean data set around medicine or something like that. That’s where you can start to see it really transform society pretty quickly.

I think about it societally, but I selfishly think about it just for media. I care a lot about media. I want to keep running a media company. I want to keep being a reporter. I want to keep funding reporting. And so I just want to make sure that we’re thinking about it constantly. And thinking about it in a way of How do we exist alone? What I don’t like is the welfare-state mentality of companies begging OpenAI and Google for money. I do think these companies, because they’re training their machine on all of our collective IP, they probably should pay us something, and I’d be happy to take that check. But I don’t like the idea of doing what a lot of digital media companies did five, 10 years ago, which was like, Come on, Facebook. Please give me a big check so I can do something that’s not sustainable. I want to make sure that that’s not the mentality that we carry into it.

It’s notable to me that many recently successful media companies, places like Puck and Punchbowl, share the sort of model you were describing: Subject-matter expertise, connections between readers and reporters. They also cover very specific areas, like Hollywood, Congress, etc. Axios is quite a bit bigger than these places, but are there any you particularly like or admire? And do you think the lessons of those places can be scaled up to bigger, more traditional something-for-everyone news outlets? 
Well, they are two different questions. Take Puck and take Punchbowl. I know the founders well. I talk to them all the time. I greatly admire the business models that they’ve created. They’re very small, right? They’re not trying to build a $100 million revenue company at this point. They’re trying to create relatively small companies that produce high-end content and that are not so underwater in losses that they die. And they’re trying to create these scalable, durable models based on monetizing niches and a responsible growth rate. I think that’s brilliant. I think there’s a really robust future, and I think by the way, you could be a very powerful media company and only do $20 or $30 million in revenue. If you’re profitable and you’ve got the right reporters, you could make a massive difference with 20 million bucks. Huge difference. You make a huge difference with 10 million bucks.

And so you don’t necessarily need to aspire to be CNN circa 2000 or NBC circa 1995. Those days are over. It would be very hard for anyone to build a mass media, multi-billion dollar company in this environment based on the known knowns right now. This is the age of niche. It really is. And I would argue all of us are niches. You could say our niche is much bigger because it’s smart professionals. So maybe that niche is 20 to 40 million, but it’s still people that have possible readers, but it’s still a niche, right? It’s not a mass audience play. Your magazine is not a mass audience play. It’s a niche of people who have the time to read, have the money to pay for it, and have the intellectual curiosity to jump into it. For Punchbowl, you’re not going to read it unless you probably work on Capitol Hill and have a screw loose for congressional governance. You’re not going to read Puck unless you really care about media, care about Hollywood, care about fashion. So, they’ve picked some interesting verticals and they’ve run them really smart.

So far, it seems to be working. 
And I don’t think it’s an accident that the new generation of companies that are working are run by journalist founders. I think that’s a huge distinction. When you think about Jon Kelly at Puck, or you think about Jake and John and Anna at Punchbowl, they’re journalists first who became entrepreneurs, much like we did with Politico and Axios. Jessica, at The Information, journalist turned entrepreneur, turned CEO, took a very similar path to my own. And I think that allows you to really be close to the product, and to be really aware of: How am I serving my customer in a way that I ultimately can monetize it? And you just have more credibility with the full newsroom to be thinking about both content and the business of content, which is fine. We don’t have to be so purist about it that we’re not thinking about how to make money off of really high-end content.

I like that model. Listen, there’s a lot of things you can’t cover with that model. That would be the weakness of it. You basically got to go where the money is to be able to fund it, and they’re doing that. But I think you have a bunch of those and some of that content is free. There’s going to be an abundance of really good content out there. And some of the bigger players are built to last, like the New York Times.

I was going to say they’re the exception to this. It’s not exactly a novel observation here, but as the middle ground has collapsed, they’ve disproved the idea that you can’t be mass market right now.  
And they’ve done it with brilliant decision making, but again, and I don’t say this as a critique, but pull back the curtain on the New York Times and the growth isn’t necessarily in news. It’s in games, and it’s in food, and it’s in wellness, and it’s in sports, which was a very smart move. Because what did the Times do? They looked at their company like Jeff Bezos would’ve looked at selling shoes at the height of Amazon’s growth. And he said, “What does a customer need?” And well, it turns out a liberal, well-educated, big-city person likes to eat, they like to play games —

I didn’t realize how much they loved word games.
They love the shit out of word games, apparently. My God. So that was smart. And I think they’re fine. They’re built to last. The Journal’s probably built to last. There’s a lot that aren’t necessarily built to last based on the known knowns right now. TV looks like it’s going to be a really hard business going forward.

Maybe they’ll figure out an adaptation, maybe they won’t. I don’t think we know. But I think the job when you’re sitting in the seat is just to say, Okay. What’s going on? What’s coming next? How do we protect the sanctity and quality of the content, but also have a shrewd business model that matches the reality on the ground? And I think we’ve been good at that, starting at Politico and then here. We’ve been good about balancing content and business and not getting out over our skis, and that’s our thing.

In your book, you wrote about how hard-charging you and John Harris and others were in the early days of Politico, and how it led to staff burnout and turnover, and the lessons you learned from that. What do you wish you could have done differently, if anything, going back to that time?
You’ve got to look at these things in the context of that moment. I don’t know, maybe I would’ve toned it down publicly. There was probably a little too much chest-pounding, which made people root for our demise, but internally, the intensity and the high demand, it was us against the world when we did Politico. People didn’t start media companies back then. You sure as shit didn’t leave the Washington Post and proclaim that you’re going to take on the Washington Post. It was a ballsy move. And it really, in my mind at the time, required us to do the impossible. And so we were maniacs. We worked 18-20 hours a day. We tried to hire other people who were wired like us. We had early success. So there probably was a cockiness that developed from it.

It wasn’t sustainable. It was sustainable for a year or two, but it probably wasn’t even sustainable for myself.You can’t eat glass every day and think you’re going to survive. At some point, you’ve got to have a real company and you’ve got to have a real pacing, and maybe you need some people who are maniacal, but you need some people who are really thoughtful to balance everything out.

So, going back in time, would I change that much about what we did? I think we did what we had to do to survive. And I think that’s just how it is when you’re starting a company. Is it how we operate now? No, now it’s just a different work environment. It’s a different reality on the ground. I think I’m just as intense as I’ve ever been and certainly as ambitious as I’ve ever been. But I’m also 53 now. I’m not a punk. I’m an old guy who’s trying to figure out , Okay. How do I get this younger generation to work with people of my generation to do more than they think they’re capable of doing in a hyper-competitive environment? And that requires some people who are really hard-charging and intense, but it requires other people who have different personalities, different mentalities, and it’s much more of a symphony than it would’ve been back in that day.

There was a lot of criticism, especially in the early days over the “win the morning,” horse-racey coverage of politics, which some people thought was unseemly. Did any of those critiques resonate with you at the time or since. Is there anything about what Politico wrought, so to speak, that bothers you?
I don’t think so. Again, you’ve got to go back in time. This was 2006. We were trying to build something different that was built for the internet and cable TV era. If we were just going to be the Washington Post, I would’ve stayed at the Washington Post. So we were making a bet that political coverage needed more voice, needed more velocity, needed much more focus on the power and the intrigue of politics. And yes, tons of people copied that. And it probably did change the nature of political coverage, but I don’t know if it was for the worse. I thought it was for the better. I thought we were much more revelatory about what was really happening. And I don’t know that we were that horse-racey.

Perhaps that’s not the right word.
You could say “gossipy.” We were asking, Who has power? Who’s trying to screw over who with power? What does that mean in terms of what government’s doing and how they’re legislating on Capitol Hill? I loved the attitude and the coverage mentality that we applied back then. And I think readers obviously liked it, particularly in D.C. I think they loved it, and the broader audience seemed to like it. Hell, four months into launching the company, we were on stage co-moderating a presidential debate. The thing took off like a rocket, so we were really onto something.

And yeah, I think a lot of people copied the style, like with “win the morning.” There’s this weird thing where people go, Oh, I rolled my eyes at ‘win the morning. Well, how do you know “win the morning?” Clearly there was something we were doing in the marketing where people were like Oh my God. They try to get up in the morning and be more interesting before other people.

I think it was the “win” thing. 
But who doesn’t want to win? Who doesn’t want to be first to a story?

I don’t disagree. But there was a certain sense of treating journalism and politics like sports. 
Oh, that was all the Twitter nerds who were suited up and never competed. I’m sorry. If you’re in the game, you’re in the arena — I’m a reporter. You’re damn right I want to win. I want to make sure I beat my competition to a story. I want to be the smartest. I want to be the most authoritative. I want to be the best-sourced. And if you don’t, I really don’t want you working for us. That’s not what we’re looking for. We want people who love journalism, who have a curious mind, who have a fearlessness to them. We were unapologetic back then, and I’m unapologetic today. Those are the type of people who electrify me, and those are the type of people I want to read. And yeah, there were critics in the cheap seats, but they’re sitting in the cheap seats.

So, you’re a “Man in the Arena” devotee.
It’s so funny that you bring it up, but starting Politico was so effing different than starting Axios. Everybody was rooting for our failure at Politico, whereas by the time we did Axios, I felt like people were cheering for us..

In your book, you put forth a very American notion of work as leading to a fulfilling existence. Your advice is to find something you’re passionate about, grind as hard as you can, and become the best at it. That philosophy feels a bit out of fashion with today’s kids, for lack of a better word, who are more into work-life balance than an 80-hour work week. You frame that as a good cultural change, but I wonder if you’ve experienced any conflict about what work is, how much work people should be doing at your company, and so on.
For sure. There’s no doubt there’s a cultural clash, I think, at every company big and small. Listen, I readily admit I have a screw loose, and I’m not the role model on work-life balance. I love working. I work a ton. I’m very energetic and enthused by it. I don’t think people need to work the hours that I work or even have the amount of thought about work outside of work that I have. What I do think is that when you’re here — let’s say you don’t want to work the 80 hours. So don’t work 80 hours, work 40 really smart hours. But in those 40 smart hours you’re signing up for, you’ve got to try to be the best at what you do. You better be a high achiever. You better be a really good colleague. You better put the cause of Axios above your selfish ambition. And during those hours, grind it.

There’s nothing wrong with that. We should all, when we’re working, be working hard and enjoying it, and enjoying our colleagues. And while there is a cultural clash, there’s no doubt I’ve learned a lot from people who are, let’s say, under 30, who are in the workforce. And the big thing that I’ve learned from them that I’ve applied to the company is they are right and we were wrong on what should motivate our work. When I got into the workforce, it was about money, paycheck, security. For a lot of them, it’s about, This is a core part of my life and I want some kind of purpose and meaning. I look back now, and I’m like, Well, why the hell didn’t we think that way? All we’re doing is working or going to work or bitching about work. Why shouldn’t we want to find real growth and meaning from the work hours we’re putting in?

They’re right. And where that really profoundly affected me is when I’m talking to staff, whether they’re 25 or 55, I’m always, always emphasizing the purpose of Axios is to help people get smarter, faster on topics that matter. I say that over and over and over, because that’s what unites us, and that is a good calling. I get up every day energetic about work because if I can get a couple of people to pay attention to content that matters, and they ultimately make better decisions, that’s awesome. And we get paid to do that? Oh my God. I still don’t believe I’m a journalist. I just think it’s an awesome gig, but I digress. But I’ve found that that is the unifying piece of it, that you have to build it around purpose.

And you have to be okay being you.  Where these companies get into trouble is people my age trying to wear skinny jeans to seem cool. You’ve got to just be you. And I am no different talking to you than I am talking to my wife, than I am talking to my staff. I’ll answer any question at any point. I’ll tell you why we do the things that we do. I’ll tell you when we screw up. And guess what? When you do that and they feel like you have this authentic connection and you’re not bullshitting them, I don’t find young workers any less productive than we were. In fact, I might argue that a lot of young people are more productive than we were because they come into the workplace more fluent in so many of the cultural and technological trends that just weren’t as important when we got there. So you’ve got to motivate them differently, and you’ve got to take seriously the things that they care about.

Like what?
This dumb debate about, Oh, my gosh, should we stop talking about DEI? What the fuck are you talking about? How can you not think about it? You live in America. It’s a diverse country. When I was born, it was 92 percent white. It’s 60 percent white now. It just is! And if you want the most talented people, you better have a diverse workforce. And if you want the most talented people working for you, they want to know you care about that, and they want to know that you’re going to treat people equitably and that everyone’s going to feel safe and included. Why are those bad things? They’re only bad things because these other corporate leaders didn’t really believe in it. So, they did all these things just to make it seem like they cared, and it didn’t pass the smell test for employees or the public.

So, there was a backlash to it. But when you’re running a company, you’ve got to go with the reality around you. And the reality is, if you’re not diverse, you’re not going to be a successful company, period. You’re not going to have the talent that you need to do the job that you want.

It’s like these companies that think they’re going to call all workers back in five days a week.You just wait. Bullshit. How are you going to possibly do that? Some of the most talented people are technologists. Technologists moved to Austin and San Jose and San Diego, and they’re not moving back. So, either you’re going to get them by allowing them to be remote, or you’re going to miss out on having the most talented workforce.

So every workforce going forward is going to be diverse, and it’s going to be at least somewhat remote. We spend no time whining about that. We just spend time thinking about How do we turn those things into really positive attributes for Axios? And I think if you think about it that way, all the goofiness that you’ve seen in the last couple of years goes away.

Axios pioneered the “smart brevity” model. You write in the book that Proust and Melville might be geniuses, but they wouldn’t last a summer as Axios interns. There’s been quite a bit of criticism of this model over the years. For instance, here’s what Clare Malone wrote in the New Yorker a couple of years ago: “When it comes to smart brevity as applied to the news, there’s something good naturedly myopic about it. What’s dismissed as extra words are in other outlets, the contextualizing details of complex issues or arguments.” Do you think there’s any credence to that? And do you think every outlet should be doing more of it?
I don’t give a hoot what other people do. I care about what Axios does. And we set out to solve a problem based on overwhelming data that we were looking at at Politico and other companies, which was that people just weren’t consuming as much depth as they had in the past. They had less time and they had to learn more across more topics. So, to us, the obvious answer was what ultimately became smart brevity, which is — can you marry up really intelligent people and content and make it as efficient as possible? And that has been our secret sauce from day one, and it really resonated with the reader. It didn’t mean that you didn’t need more depth — occasionally you do. But a lot of content, a lot of news is ephemeral.

So for the content that doesn’t require a thousand words to give you 200 words of information, give the 200 words of information and provide links if people want to go deeper, or in some cases we provide the “go deeper” part within our site. So maybe that story is 1200 words, but if you only read 250 words, make it the best 250 words that person could possibly consume.

Is there a place for depth or length? Absolutely there is, but I think if you had a nirvana state of information consumption for the end user, 90 percent of it would be done in smart brevity. And then the other 10 percent would be really deep content that might be better in writing or more lyrical in writing, or might just require two, three, four, 5,000 words to really capture the nuance. But I think to get there, you’ve got to get rid of all that crap in the middle, which is what most content has been over the last 20 years. It’s just mushy words to fill space.

So, basically, most newspaper stories? An average New York Times news analysis piece — you think that is mostly fat. 
Yes. Most stories have two things in there that are really interesting to someone who cares. Tell me the two things. Our theory is that will free you up to spend time with a 3,000 word magazine piece that is actually worthy of your time. But I’d say even with 3,000 words, all 3,000 words should be worthy of my time. I don’t have that much time. Nobody does.

But I don’t hear as much of that critique anymore because I think people understand where we fit in the news ecosystem, but I think maybe the presumption of Clare or others would’ve been that we thought everyone should be doing everything in smart brevity. No, we think that a lot of the content can be done in smart brevity. I think we prove it each and every day. Hell, we wrote a book called Smart Brevity and sold 200,000 copies, so it must be resonating with people. And we started a spin-off AI company that helps people communicate in smart brevity. So, there was something there. I would actually say it’s one of the best journalistic conventions of the past 20 years, because we’ve been able to turn it into other products.

But it’s us. I don’t think everyone should try it. I know the New York Times tried it. They went through this phase where they were trying to do why it matters and it just didn’t work because it’s not how they do it. It’s not why people are even coming to the New York Times. Because they don’t really believe in the efficiency of content, it’s just a kind of crappy knockoff. That’s why we don’t try to pretend to be the Times. If we’re distinctive and useful to a large number of people now, or post AI, we’re going to be a really successful media company. If we’re just producing foggy, blah, mushy, conventional content, then we’ll die a rightful death.

How’s that for a kicker?

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.



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