On this episode of Recode Media, Peter Kafka spoke with Mike Allen, the brains behind the Axios AM Mike’s Top 10 newsletter. Allen stopped by the Standup New York Comedy Club (a.k.a. the podcast studio) to talk about how his media startup, Axios, is bringing “smart brevity” to consumers drowning in news and information.
You can read some of the highlights from the interview at the link above, or listen to it in the audio player below. We’ve also provided a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.
Peter Kafka: This is Recode Media with Peter Kafka, that’s me. It’s powered by Digital Media, that is a real company, they have a funny name but they’re a real company. I am here with the real Mike Allen from Axios. Greetings, Mike.
Mike Allen: Oh, Peter, what a treat. And do your listeners know that we’re in a stand-up comedy club? Is that kosher?
We talk about it sometimes, we talk about the way it smells sometimes, kind of a beer smell.
I think it’s something better not talked about.
Some people love it. I have become fond of it over a year. By the way, we’ve been doing this for more than a year, we’re now at a million streams, so thank you guys for listening.
And thanks again to Mike for joining us.
We’re going to two this week.
Yeah, we’re gonna bump it. Thanks for making time, because you are one of the busiest men in journalism because you crank out every morning since January 10th? When do you start this year?
The morning newsletter, through Axios, you should be subscribing if you aren’t already. You probably are. You won’t stop, you have not stopped — it comes out Saturday and Sunday?
Oh, yes. So seven days a week, 365. And the reason for that is, Peter, when I started my morning newsletter at my previous employer it first was five days a week.
Politico. I’ll fill that in for you.
But what we discovered was that people actually want it more on the weekends because you’re not plugged in all the time. And we discovered that people love it on holidays because you’re maybe traveling, like the blue bag maybe isn’t in the driveway. So Axios AM Mike’s Top 10, so it’s just 10 items, is 365 days a year. I did PlayBook, my previous one, something like 3,400 days in a row so I only have 3,352 days to go to break my streak.
I have many questions for you, but one of them is how do you keep the pace? Because I get that people want to read things on the weekend, I want to read things on the weekend. Sometimes I actually want to know about them, sometimes I’m just trying to avoid doing other things I might have to do on the weekend. You’re cranking this stuff out at a high volume, you’re producing it yourself overnight, in the morning you send it out. I think on weekends you give yourself a little break and it comes out maybe at 8:30 instead of 7:30?
You can tell how much fun I had the night before by how late Axios AM is.
But you are a middle-aged man, I think you’re probably in your 50s at this point? It’s a brutal pace. How do you do it?
Tom Brady is keeping it up, so.
And you are not getting tackled, so there is that.
Exactly. No, it’s so much fun. Like two things. One is the fact that people like you and your listeners read it is so awesome and makes it fun to do. There’s never in the 3,500 or whatever days it is, there’s never been a single day that I didn’t wake up and wasn’t excited to do it. I don’t have an alarm clock, I just wake up. The times that we have — we were just chatting here with Beth before we started — like the fact that you have a year of news in a day, it just makes it so fun. And so I wake up and can’t wait.
I think most people who are listening to this, reading your newsletter, they get what you do. But we’ll talk about all of that ...
It’s part of a good breakfast.
But I do want to talk about just today’s newsletter and the risk ... I know this will be outdated because it’ll be outdated when it comes out tomorrow and this podcast will be a few days after we talk, but today ...
Behind the curtain.
... today your lead story is the attacks in Syria. No. 2 is a scoop from you, you say that Reince Priebus may be out, you list potential candidates. You say Bannon may also be going out. What was the No. 3 item?
So, No. 3 was more about the ...
The leader of the the free world meeting with China? No.
No, you’re right. So that’s how crazy it is. No. 3 was Get Smart Fast, our quick catch-up on what happened last night in Syria. This is a big part of the Axios idea, and that is that people who are smart, interested, interesting, engaged news consumers want to get smart fast and don’t have the time and probably shouldn’t read all these long articles.
It’s a headline plus two more things you should know, essentially. Or one overview and we’re not gonna make you read eight paragraphs or listen for two minutes.
And gets to the point, so you’ll see on Axios every item is roughly an iPhone screen. You go onto axios.com, our stream, where you’ll see our coverage of media, tech, business, politics, and as you swipe — it’s the Facebook architecture — as you swipe every story an iPhone screen, you can catch up very quickly, you can drop down or click to get more. But one of the big ideas behind Axios is that so many of our great journalistic brands cater to the journalist, not to the people reading it.
Right, this is part of ... Jim VandeHei was on our conference in December and made this pitch.
It’s not a pitch, we lived it. So I came up through newspapers, worked for the Richmond Times Dispatch, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and all the time that we were coming up, we were taught that, you know this, like almost any story has one awesome quote, one great stat, one new idea. But then when you and I were coming up we were taught to write 780 words around it to try to get on the front page.
Right, and also that the longer story connotes the more important story. And you always see this, you see this at the end of the year when everyone has their award submissions. They don’t call them award submissions but these are the big heavy stories that come out at the end of the year. They’re multi-part. Many times they’re very good but they’re all very long because that means they’re serious and, by the way, we put in months of work to do it so here are many thousands of words.
You’re so right. You get it right into the wire the last week of December and you know the last week of December, that’s when people really want to curl up with a long story. It’s a perfect example. And in those long pages, long stories, there’s a couple of important ideas. What Axios does is surface that and we’ll signal you if it’s worth reading more.
Axios means “worthy” in Greek. The idea is worthy of your time, worthy content, worthy audience, worthy journalists. So you’ll see in Axios, I’ll say, “Worthy of your time.” And that’s something that you should read the whole thing. But you had time to do that because you’re not wasting it looking for things or diving into an article that doesn’t deliver.
So let me go back to today’s newsletter. We’re working our way through what was in there. No. 4 was ...
The two most powerful people in the world having dinner.
Right, and then the nuclear option. The new supreme court justice.
Republicans push the button.
These are all huge stories. On a normal day, in a normal world, these would all be page one stories, they would dominate the news, here you’ve got five or six of these things jammed in there. So not only are you reporting at speed, but just because of the nature of Trump, I think, there’s just so much shit happening, shit’s the technical term. Is that great for you because there’s just so many more vectors for you to go in on or is it, even for someone who’s as kinetic as you, hyperkinetic as you, is that really a challenge to figure which one of these things is most important? How do you prioritize this stuff?
No, it’s a fantastic time. This is part of the reason this is a golden age for media. So with Trump, as you know, all boats are up, everybody’s traffic is up, but so many people ... it’s because of what I call the Nascar effect. People just like to look at the crash, the spectacle. The reason that it’s fantastic for Axios on Day 80 or whatever it is, is that you know this from your private social conversations, people are starving, hungry, desperate for illumination about the Trump White House about what’s going on. And we’re able to do that. So it got us off on an incredible start. We’ve taken off like a rocket ship, even more than we could’ve thought of. And the big part of it is because we can help people understand this crazy world.
Now part of the big idea of Axios is that you take those four big topics, business, tech, media trends and politics, and it used to be that if you ran a company or a government or a philanthropy that you were probably smart in one or two of those. But this is part of the Recode idea and this is the water you swim in that now those things are all the same: That business is tech and media is business and politics is media.
I think particularly in tech what’s happened, because of Trump really, is that you could spend most of your life in technology and pay glancing attention to Washington. Sometimes it would bump up against you if you were talking about net neutrality or some obscure lobbying thing, but generally you just did your thing. And now because of the man occupying the White House, everyone has to be interested in politics whether or not they’ve ever cared about it before. I think that’s the difference that’s really benefited you. I think before, you could remain in that silo, and now you can’t.
Even before Trump, we realized ... My two partners Jim VandeHei and Roy Schwartz and I did a listening tour around the country as we were developing this idea, and you go out to Silicon Valley and you talk to CEOs there and they say, “Members of Congress come west to see me,” and one of them said, “It’s like someone with a master’s degree talking to a third grader.” Now in this example the CEO was not the third grader.
They talk completely different languages. So one of our animating ideas is that if you can help the Valley understand D.C., if you can psychically and even literally connect them, that’s great for society and it’s great journalism and it’s ultimately an awesome business.
Can we talk about some of the mechanics of how you do what you do? You’re doing something similar to what you did at Politico, right? At Politico you had the PlayBook email, here you’ve got ... What is your newsletter called?
Axios AM Mike’s Top 10.
It’s Mike Allen’s newsletter, it what it is. But all right. Thank you for the proper branding, I appreciate it. And it’s a similar idea, right? I think the idea with Politico was broader, right? Here’s a lot of what’s going on in D.C., and here you’re more focused on the White House specifically. But is it still the same sort of premise? You’re out looking for news tidbits, you’re sorting and winnowing what’s important, what’s not. It seems like it’s very dependent, in particular right now in the White House, on you getting access to a handful of key people for information. Am I summing up your job correctly?
Well, it is, and what Axios AM does is actually look beyond politics and takes in the wider world. So we often have Recode, we have media trends, we have big social science research.
But that’s sort of a dessert, right? The reason I’m opening you is you figure out what you think is going on inside the White House.
Yeah, so one of the ideas behind this newsletter and one of the ways that I decide what order things are gonna be in and what’s gonna be in, so it’s just 10 numbered items. We start with one big thing and you’ve got two through nine and then at the end we have one fun thing. Sometimes one healthy thing, sometimes one surprising thing. And the idea behind Axios AM and when I’m on my game, when it’s really in its sweet spot, here’s what it is, it’s exactly what it would be like for you and me to have breakfast. That if we were to sit down at one of the fancy places that you guys breakfast, what would we do? We would talk about a scoop, something new that I know, we would talk about ...
What do you hear?
Yes. Perfectly put. And we would talk about what others had that we missed, what we got scooped on, we’d talk about what we’re gonna do today, and we’d talk about what we did last night. And if I can replicate the conversation that you and I would have had, that is fire.
The difference, though, is that the people in the White House and the prior life in the wider world and D.C. knew that you produced a newsletter and so what they were doing is that they would talk to you in the hopes that you would get something out that they wanted to get out. They would tell you because they wanted you to spread information out.
I was reading a great profile of you from a few years back in a Times magazine. It’s a great profile. It talks about you marketing information on behalf of your sources, essentially. And I get it. My question is when you’re doing this in this White House where it seems like there’s Donald Trump, there is a Bannon camp, and there is a Kushner camp.
Wait, there’s lots more camps. It’s a long list.
Because from the outside it looks like, if I’m reading you, one of the parlor games I play in my head, and I’ve read every one of yours, is which one of these three camps does this come from? But you’re saying there’s more and that I’m already off my game.
It’s not that you’re off your game but it’s that if you look at how this president has structured this White House and it’s very much the way he ran his business, and that is that you have these competing centers of power and gravity. So in addition to the ones that you mentioned, you have the Kellyanne camp with direct access to him, the President likes having her there because she often gives him different advice than the guys do. And you have the Ivanka camp and you have Gary Cohn, the economic adviser who has much more sway than typically in that job. So we’ve named all these camps and we haven’t even got to the person who’s technically in charge of the chief of staff, Reince Priebus.
So what I was getting to is how do you think about saying, “All right, I’m hearing this from camp Bannon, or camp Priebus, or camp,” it’s the Ivanka? Do you use that term? “Do I want to go in and check this, do I want to triangulate this against four other people and provide a modulated ... One camp says this, but another camp says this, or do I just want to go look, this is the message from this person, this ideology and I want to deliver it because that’s useful”?
No, that would be a waste of your time. Because then you would have to try and figure out what’s reality, how does that mix? I was trying to reflect the world as it is, to the degree that we can. And people come to us for inside understanding, they know that we talk to the different camps and can translate it, narrate it, for you.
The nirvana is when the people who are making the news look at that and say, “Yes, this is reality.” Something that we talk to our journalists about is when you write for Recode or when you write for Axios, you have the great privilege that the people who run the world are reading it. The responsibility that comes with that is the people who are reading it are in the room. They know what’s right. And if you have just one half of the boon, as you’re suggesting there, then they’re not gonna trust you and they’re less likely to work with you or help you understand things. You don’t want to just be literally accurate, like have everything spelled right and transcribed right, you want to be more broadly true. That you connect the dots correctly because so you see the real picture.
Because sometimes when I’ve read you I’ve thought, “Well, oh, this is clearly what Bannon and those folks think.”
But then it’s labeled that way and ...
Yeah, but sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it says, “It all looks like chaos.” Oh, remember that during the immigration ban turmoil in the first couple weeks, “It looks like a shit-show but this is all according to plan and everything’s going well.”
If it said that, it was the SH show not ...
Yeah. But ...
I don’t think it did say that but ...
And then there are other ...
There’s definitely more SH show.
And there are other weeks where I’ll read you and you’re saying, “Look, this presidency really has just been 73 days of missteps and they’re missing opportunities.” And it seems very clear that you sort of step back and this is your own perspective or multiple perspectives and it seems like, depending on what day I’m reading you, someone has more of your ear than somebody else. Is that fair?
Well, what’s important to do is label that and to make it clear, like this is the mind-meld from a particular world, because then it just gives you a new pair of glasses to see it. The people who are reading this, like some of them don’t swim in the water that we swim in, and so we want to show them quickly, “Okay, here’s what you need to know, let’s cut through the smoke.” This is what looks like it’s happening, this is what one side says, this is what the other side says, and that’s why what it means reading between the lines, we call them axioms, the little phrases at the end of Axios items that help you know what’s next, what we don’t know. That bottom line saves you all the time of sorting through all the verbiage from all the camps.
How many folks are reading your newsletter, the new one?
I haven’t seen the metrics lately, but it’s grown unbelievably and thanks to the Times and thanks to the fact that people know that they can come here and catch up quickly and get smart.
Same size audience as PlayBook? Bigger, smaller?
PlayBook’s existed for 10 years but we’re growing fast and grateful for every single reader that we have.
So this is a wind-up to getting this next question which — it’s more of a statement slash question: It seems like one of the other big changes between what you were doing at Politico and now is it’s a much bigger stage because you’re focusing on the White House instead of a lot of Washington stuff that only was really relevant to people inside D.C. primarily. And now there’s a much broader audience that’s interested in what you’re writing about and it’s much more competition. You have Maggie Haberman, Glenn Thrush, the Times, the Washington Post is doing a very good job, your old employer Politico is doing a very good job.
So on any given day I could read what you’re describing as happening in the White House and I can read at least three other pretty well-reported, well-sourced takes on it and I can get them either for free or easily through Twitter. And it seems like there’s a much bigger magnifying glass on the story and a lot more competition for the story and a lot more smart consumers comparing. You reported this, Maggie Haberman reported this, how do you view that world? Are you aware that you now don’t have that stage to yourself or are you just going ahead and writing what you’re writing?
Very much so. This is one of the beauties in the efficiencies of reading Axios AM is that in addition to my own reporting, we also reflect the best scoops or the best insights of others.
What about when they’re ... Sometimes I’ll see Ken Vogel was complaining about something you wrote I think as an aside in one of your newsletters, he thought it was dismissed. And recently Maggie Haberman was taking issue with something else you wrote. I think this happens with some frequency now, especially on Twitter where someone’ll say, “No, no, you got it wrong.” I don’t think you do a lot of that. Sometimes you’ll say that in the newsletter, you say, “Don’t pay attention to the smarty-pants who say this.” Or actually, literally, “Don’t believe other people saying this. I have it right.”
And we link to and call attention to Maggie and Ken Vogel all the time. Ken is, you may have seen I tweeted, but Ken is the gold standard in his lane. He’s fantastic. So many of my former colleagues at Politico, we so admire what they do, they’re awesome at what they do. Same thing with Maggie Haberman, Glenn Thrush, they’re some of the great reporters in America. Period. Let alone on this particular story.
But you are all elbowing each other for this story. In another era, I wouldn’t have been able to compare, as an average reader, that there were four different takes on the story, or two very different ideas in the story. Now I can.
And this is why you need Axios so that you don’t want to go to four websites to try to figure it out. What we can do both in Axios AM and on our website and the Axios stream, we will find the best nugget or insight from all those ... Justin Green, one of our editors, did a brilliant thing after health care fell apart. After the president’s health care bill fell apart, Politico, the Times, the Post, the Journal, everybody did their massive tick-tock about what happened, they’re behind the scenes.
Explain what a tick-tock is for people who don’t follow journalism day in and day out.
So your listeners know that this is a chronology of what happened, it is designed to take you behind the scenes.
And it’s usually a structured thing, usually the principals involved in the story help tell it. Sometimes they propose it.
And at the top, you’ll have some piece of detail, whether it’s telling or not, that often involves something on the menu or a description of something that signals the reader, “Yeah, we’re in the room.”
“We were inside the room when Mark Zuckerberg did the WhatsApp deal and he had chocolate-covered strawberries.”
Touché. So Axios’ Justin Green took all these, it was a Friday night, Saturday morning, he took and made a tick-tock of a tick-tock. He took the best golden nugget out of each of all these long stories, put them together chronologically, and there it was on a screen. It would save you so much time. And here’s the thing about it: It leaves you time to then read the New Yorker, or Vanity Fair, or listen to a podcast or something that you’re gonna get something out of. You don’t have to slog through all the self-involved prose that you and I used to be paid to produce.
I still like producing the prose sometimes. I have many more questions for you but we have to hear from our advertisers because that’s actually how we pay for some of this stuff. So we’re gonna hear from them, they’re awesome, and we’ll be right back.
And we’re back with Mike Allen from Axios. Mike, plug your newsletter one more time. Give it the full title, I won’t interrupt this time.
Yeah, thank you. So the morning newsletter is Axios AM Mike’s Top 10. And it’s called that because it is literally numbers one through 10, the 10 most important things in the world for you that morning, a way to get smart quickly. People love the discipline of that, people love the economy of it, it is very much is a thing ... I didn’t write a short letter because I didn’t have time. Boiling down the world’s news in the morning, getting it to 10, is more trouble but it’s also more rewarding, both for us and for our audience.
And I can get it for free, I can read all of Axios for free right now.
It’s all free. We started with, in addition to our stream axios.com, we started with three newsletters. There’s so much demand, we’ve added two more daily newsletters. We’ve added a Sunday night newsletter sneak peak.
Yeah, I heard my old colleague Ina Fried, she’s doing a tech newsletter for you guys?
Yeah. Login. We have Energies Generate and Jonathan Swan, a great up-and-comer, that does both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue for us. He does a Sunday night newsletter sneak peak that looks ahead to what’s gonna be happening both at the Congress and the White House. And very shortly we’re going to be intruding a science stream. A completely new topic out of our sweet spot but showing how powerful the Axios architecture is. On science, the place where every day, Alison Snyder who we hired from the Washington Post to do it, she came in and said, “Every day there’s a stack of science journals like this. And there’s three interesting paragraphs in them.” And we’re like, “You’re hired.” That’s exactly the concept. And people in science are gonna love it.
So that was a long pitch. Good. How are you gonna pay for all this? It’s all free right now, there’s some advertising. Well, actually, just skip ahead. We had Jim VandeHei onstage in December, he said eventually there’s gonna be a paid component. We got one of our reporters to ask him how much, he said $10,000. Who’s gonna pay 10,000 bucks and what are they gonna get for that that they’re not getting for free right now?
So at the moment everything is free, everything is in front of the paywall, you build the brand, it helps you attract the talent that you want to. Down the road, there may be a paid component, but at the moment everything is gonna be free. We have launch partners, sponsors who want to get their content in front of our audience, and they are loving Axios because we have no pop-ups, no banners. You go onto axios.com and the only advertising that there is is the sponsored message in the stream, it’s a separate card; it’s labeled clearly, but it doesn’t interfere with what you’re doing. So you read a story, move on to the next one, move on to the next one, and then I’m gonna get a message. And sponsors love that.
But the business model calls for a paid ... There’s gonna be a paid component, you had a paid component at Politico. How far into this will you start charging people for something?
There’s not a timeline for that at the moment. At the moment, everything on Axios, including those six awesome newsletters, are free.
I keep referring back to this interview with Jim, which you guys should go listen to, for free, over at Recode Replay. At the time, I think Jim had just announced the name but the site didn’t exist, your newsletter didn’t exist. He was trying to explain what it was and it was always sort of labored, but I think the best way to describe it is, it’s really similar to what you guys were doing at Politico. You’re doing really granular, fast-paced and important news delivered to a targeted audience. Now you’re doing more verticals than you were doing at Politico. But it seems very similar.
But a huge difference is the architecture of it. “Smart brevity” is the phrase that we use, and that is that we can give you the big ideas, the things you need to do, but in an iPhone screen or in a “what it means” graph instead of making you dig it out.
Well Politico is not a ... I mean, there was a magazine, but it was a short-attention-span publication as well.
So Politico magazine does ...
No, not the magazine, I mean the rest of Politico, the rest of what you were doing and what your co-workers were doing, they were cranking out really fast stuff as quickly as they could punch it into their phones.
What we do is take the smart brevity format and use it both to narrate and narrow what’s out there so that if you’re trying to catch up on tech or catch up on business, you know that when you come to us, you’re gonna see the best of what’s out there, including our own reporting and insights, and we’ll point you to a reporter like yourself who owns their lane and that is worthy of your time.
The other major difference in Politico is that you guys, in addition to some strategic investors and VCs, are owners of this publication. Prior to this you weren’t.
An awesome thing about it is all 65 of our colleagues are owners. Every single person at Axios is an owner, and so besides just being our psychic partners, everyone who works with us is our literal partner. And that makes such a difference. You get that metabolism, you get that entrepreneurial spirit, you get those people who want to do things differently.
One of the ideas that we have from the beginning is we really pushed ourselves to do something completely different. Not just do what somebody else does a little better, a little faster, a little smarter. But to do things completely differently. An example that’ll be super interesting to your audience on the way that we do things differently is we have a media trends reporter, Sara Fischer, who worked on the business side of the New York Times and Politico. And worked on the editorial side of CNN and the Washington Post. So that’s someone who has an unbelievable perspective and has done a fantastic job of helping people understand what’s going on with the platforms. What’s going on with how we consume news, what’s going on with how we produce news?
Something else we did that’s completely different. Right under the founders, we hired two executive vice presidents, two political operatives who are at the top of their game. So on the Republican side, Tim Berry, who was the chief of staff to the House majority leader, the No. 2 House Republican Kevin McCarthy. And on the Democratic side, Evan Ryan, who was an assistant Secretary of State under President Obama. News organizations in the past would’ve hired a political operative at the top of their game, would’ve made them a talking head. These are two people who are executives who help run our company. Something totally new and it’s really working for us.
But it’s still a news media organization working at a very fast speed, figuring out how to produce stuff with new platforms, everyone is trying to do it. They try to do it in different ways. So you would’ve gone ahead and done that no matter what, the difference here is that you were part of a different organization, now you’ve got your own organization. Is there something fundamentally different about what happened at Politico, what you did at Politico than what you’re doing now? Or is it just sort of the same through-line, different package, different structure.
Very much different in that we look at a much wider world. Our big four topics is we talk about tech, business, media and politics. A much wider world beyond what we looked at before, and trying to unify those worlds for people. Also the aesthetics, the architecture, very different. Like the smart brevity idea, which is very different from what we did before, but really fits the times. Both that people’s time is short and our attention spans are short, but also there’s so much more out there. That all of us have the fire hose coming at us and the result of that is we always feel like we’re missing something. There’s always something out there.
You know what it looks a lot like to me is my Twitter feed, where everything is packaged in 140 characters, comes by really fast. Guess the difference is I spend a lot of time on Twitter, so I see a lot of stuff. I probably spend too much time on Twitter. And your premise is, you don’t spend all your time on Twitter so here’s a newsletter that has the most important things.
People have called us smart Twitter, and there’re definitely some advantages to that, but in addition to you always feel like you’re missing something, the other problem for people like us who are smart, hyper consumers, the other problem that Axios solves is we’re so used to investing time in pieces that wind up not delivering. You get to the end of it and you’re like, “That didn’t do what I thought it was going to.” ... Yes, rescue from that, too. Either give you the one big idea, the hot stat, the hot quote, or say, “This is something that is worthy of your time. Make time to read the whole thing.”
Do you feel like Twitter — and Facebook to a lesser extent — are your competitors as much as Maggie Haberman and the Washington Post and Politico? In that, if I want to get up-to-the-minute stuff, I can get it immediately — free — from a million different sources. If I’m smart about how I use Twitter, it’s gonna immediately tell me that the Trump administration just dropped their suit against Twitter and I can get that really in real time.
The way that we compete is for your time and for your eyeballs. There are things those platforms do awesomely that we never will, we’re never gonna be the place to go to learn about your friend’s kids. But we are a place that you can go and very quickly learn what you need to know to make smarter decisions, to be ahead of your competition, or just to know what’s happening in this world we care about. My siblings live in Raleigh, North Carolina and Portland, Oregon, and they’re super interested in the news but their jobs are completely unrelated to it. So they can catch up very quickly.
Got it. That came out ruder than I intended. I try not to be rude.
We’re among friends here.
Just talking. Here’s an in-the-weeds question: When you guys go and speak, when you get a paid speaking event, does the staff keep that money or does that get kicked into Axios?
I don’t know the answer to that.
The reason I’m asking, I just happened to run into a VC who looked at your stuff but didn’t invest and said that was part of the business plan, that speaking fees would become part of the revenue stream.
I think that the plans may have evolved since then, I’m not sure what they were looking at.
This is your first startup, right? Prior to this you’ve been an employee at a fairly traditional news organization up until now?
Yeah. Politico started with ...
You were a founding member, basically.
Yeah, with three of us. It was John Harris, Jim VandeHei, and me. Three people in Jim VandeHei’s sunroom. Robert Allbritton was the great owner that backed it and we grew it from three of us on the sunporch to 460 people round the world. So we’re very proud of Politico.
I’m just trying to figure out what it’s like to start a media company in the summer of 2016 compared to a few years ago.
Ask Kara Swisher what it’s like to start a media company; she’s done it fantastically.
Yes. She did a good job and then she sold it. We share some of the same backers, too, so it’s all a fun family. But Kara’s not here so I wanted to ask you. Did you have any trepidation about going off and starting a new thing or did you think this is actually a fairly easy thing to do in 2016, to start a business?
Not easy, but it’s the golden age. There’s so much opportunity that if you have a great story to tell, if you are someone who wants to help smart people be smarter, the times are awesome because the technology is there, goodness knows the times in the world are perfect for it, and so both from an editorial sensibility and a business sensibility there has never been a better time for journalists.
I spend a lot of time talking to journalism students and I’m always surprised. I go into a journalism class and they are used to gloom and doom and pessimism and everybody thinks that business is shrinking or falling apart, but no, the business is thriving and growing, it’s different. We had a chart the other day in Axios AM that the Bureau of Labor Statistics from 2001 to 2016, over 15 years, half of the jobs disappeared from the newspaper industry. And so it fell apart, but we have Vox and we have Recode and we have Politico and we have Axios.
Yeah, it’s bad if you had one of those jobs that disappeared and it’s good if you’re working at Vox or Axios.
Well no, you and I used to work at newspapers and we changed with the times.
I never got a newspaper job. I could not get into newspaper.
Well I think things worked out.
Yeah, it worked out fine. Can we talk about some mechanics about how you do your job? You’re a phone guy, I was speaking of reading old profiles, talking about you clutching your BlackBerry. What percentage of your time are you talking on your phone versus texting versus email?
So all of those it’s too much. I love the idea of finding a way to get away from it. I had a great conversation with somebody out in California a couple months ago who does a phone Shabbat and so from Friday sundown ...
You would break out in hives.
No, it’ll be awesome. And I should find a way to do it on like Friday afternoons or something like that. But from Friday afternoon to Saturday sundown, they not only are off their phone, but they don’t cheat. The point they were making to me is you have to actually make plans and keep them. Something we’re not used to doing.
But again, you can’t do that since you’re producing a newsletter every weekend or twice a weekend.
But I don’t have to be producing a newsletter while I’m talking to you or while I’m having dinner with you, I can put this away.
Yeah, I gotta say, I was pretty impressed that you’ve kept the phone down until now. It’s good.
And now I’m just using it as a prop, I’m not looking at it. Two ideas for this one, both that I like. One, I have a friend how, in their front hall, they have a basket. And when you walk in the house, you put the phone in the basket. So you don’t forget it, you see it when you come out, but you’re not on it. Another thing, I have some friends who, when they sit down to dinner, everybody puts their phone in the middle of the table, it is a complete party foul to touch it.
A great variation of it is, if you touch the phone, you pick up the check.
But I’m not interested in life-work balance, I am, but I think with you you’re probably mostly work.
No, I’m very for the balance.
I’m just curious how much of your information comes from talking on the phone versus some sort of text versus talking to an actual person face to face?
As you know from your own work, people have different preferences, and one of my little life lessons is you have to have a sense of the room. And the sense of the room can include whether or not you prefer or like a text. Some people, as you know, you want to talk about party fouls, to actually call certain people, really a party foul.
Do you think that’s generational now? Or do you think that someone in their 60s is just as happy to text with you as someone who’s in their 20s?
I think it probably depends on the person.
I’m struck when I’m in a newsroom and it’s quiet because everyone’s typing and I think that’s weird.
That is generational. That is a change.
I don’t want to sound too old mannish but ...
No, it’s right. You go in and you’re like, “What, is this a call center?” But they’re on slack, whereas we would’ve been like, “Hey, have you seen this whatever?” I was thinking that if you were to write a book about a media startup these days, the book would be called “Slack It To Me.”
Presumably some of your sources who are older, probably are not spending a lot of time texting and emailing? Or maybe I’m wrong, maybe they’re perfectly happy to do that at this point?
Maybe a little WhatsApp, maybe a little Confide, like everybody has their own ...
I was gonna ask about that, if people are intentionally trying to use more secure or disappearing messaging like Confide, WhatsApp, Signal, Telegram? You just have all the apps, however someone wants to reach you is the way you’ll communicate with them?
That’s right. And it’s partly how — and Recode and Vox are great at this too — just as people want to deliver information to you or interact with you differently, people want to consume their news in different ways. I like to think of the news as a buffet. If you want your news on Facebook, like we have fantastic Facebook products, very elegant, very efficient. You like your news on Apple News? We have a fantastic stream for Apple News including at the end of each day the top five things in tech that day, does awesome in Apple News. And it’s a different consumer than the person who wants my newsletter or my email, but it’s someone who cares about what’s happening in their world.
What’s your bat-phone, if someone says, “I really got to get ahold of Mike immediately.” Are they calling you, are they texting you, are they ... They’re not slacking you?
Any or all. I’m super easy to get because, besides the fact that my email address isn’t too hard to figure out, email@example.com, don’t tell anybody.
My newsletter actually comes from me, so if you take Axios AM Mike’s Top 10, it pops into your mailbox, if you reply to it, it comes to my only email address. It’s my real email address and I will answer you. Any personalized email to me I always answer.
Have you ever considered getting an assistant, having someone help you just sort out the deluge of stuff that’s coming in?
No. The beauty of it is the personal contact, and that way you know your audience. And that’s the key to the Top 10 is that because I’m in constant touch with the audience, I know what they want. I know what they need. And I know what’s too much. And I know what they probably already know.
On the way in we were talking about how you sort out the 10, and one thing is — you’ve probably seen something, like we’ll move on and make sure that you see something fresh, so I would love for every item in the 10 and every item in our stream, even if you ... No one except maybe you and some of your colleagues. Nobody reads everything, but even if they read everything, they would still get value from our newsletters, from our stream, because our subject matter experts are bringing their expertise to it. In the example that you were giving, it’s not just reading Maggie Haberman but also reading our other competitors and making sure that if you want to get smart fast on Bannon or whatever it is at this moment, you can do it in a screen and you’re gonna trust us that we’ve gotten it right and that we’ve gotten what’s important out there.
One thing that we talk to our young journalists is, there’s three things that we want people to say. We want people to say, “They’re smart. I trust them.” And that’s so big right now, people just don’t know what to trust. “They’re smart. I trust them. They don’t waste my time.” And that is so big.
Politico was born in the Bush administration?
Then grew up during Obama, and when Trump showed up you guys had early access. You were filing stories from Trump Tower, when you kicked off you had interviews with Trump, clearly had a lot of access to Trump and his team. How do you convince that team to give you that access early on out of the gate?
And you’re a genius at this, the way that reporters do that is convincing the people that you understand what’s happening. You’re gonna give people a fair shake. That you are going to describe what’s really happening. That you’re not just gonna be literally accurate, that you spell everything right so you don’t have to run a correction, but also what you write is gonna be more broadly true. That you connect the dots. And if people know you do that, if you have a track record of doing that as we now do over many years, people want to work with you because they know that you’re gonna explain their worldview to a very influential audience. And that is fire for them.
Your stories at the beginning of the Trump administration, saying these guys are really going to be destructive, that they’d get a lot of stuff done, Republicans had very high hopes these could be the most productive people. As it became clear that this wasn’t happening really and over the last couple weeks and you reported that, because it’s super obvious, you can see it.
Much more than a couple weeks.
Yeah. But I mean really as the wheels have fallen off, we can pick the metaphor, right? The coverage has become more negative because the facts are more negative, does that team pull back from you? Say, “We’re not as comfortable with this coverage anymore, we’d rather go to InfoWars.”
Well, I wouldn’t say it as positive and negative, it’s like we reflect reality. And sometimes reality’s more ...
Yeah, but as you know, sometimes people don’t want to hear reality.
But when they’re fighting a fight, when they’re in the war, then they need to explain themselves more than ever. Your coverage reflects this often when someone is fighting a tide, like they’re even more eager to explain something to you so you understand it. Because by and large, people think that they are ... They believe in what they’re doing. If you believe in what you’re doing at all, whether you’re on the defense or you’re on the offense, if you believe in what you’re doing, you want me to understand it and you want me to explain it and convey it.
So again, we’re recording this on Friday, April 7th, you guys will hear this on the 13th, is that right? So the narrative right now is Kushner is ascendant. Bannon has been sidelined, he’s on the way out. It seems that there’s a Charlie Brown on the football, we shouldn’t assume that this narrative is gonna continue down this path that there’ll be other twists and turns. Can you give us a forecast?
Sure. What we’re seeing is the president thinking that he needs to make some changes. He spends a lot of time calling people. As you know, this president has always, over his career, that’s been a big way that he’s taken in information. A big way that he formed his opinions is calling around. He loves his cellphone and calling other people on their phones. As he calls around, often at night, so as you know he’s a bachelor in the White House, when he calls around people are saying, “You need to do something differently.” And he wants to win on health care and other issues, he hasn’t been winning. So that’s one of the reasons that he’s looking at changes, looking at, could responsibilities be moved around? Like, are we paying a price for this understaffed White House? Which is partly their fault, partly not. Partly intentional, partly not.
So we’re in an exciting time because as they head toward 100 days on April 29th, which by coincidence may be the day that the government shuts down, definitely trying to avoid that. Democrats recognize how much leverage they had because when you control both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, very difficult to blame a government shutdown on anyone else. But as they head toward 100 days, they definitely are looking at, “Should we make more changes? Should we bring in more people? Should people ...”
Right, so your story today was Reince could be on the way out and then secondarily Bannon might be going. People have been talking about this around the edges for a long time, and the short conventional wisdom is, well, if it’s between Bannon and Kushner, Kushner’s his son-in-law, family’s always gonna win out. Is there a real possibility that Bannon — who was so important to his victory and then the first six months of the administration through the transition — is it really possible that he cuts ties with him in a real way?
Oh sure, and it’s possible of course that he could remain engaged on the outside. But they’re definitely looking at the possibility of a change there and Steve Bannon may want it. He gave a great quote yesterday to Axios’s Jonathan Swan. There was all this barrage of negative information out there about Bannon and there were two great quotes, one is Bannon said to his associates, “I like a knife fight.” So he’s ready to fight back. And another great quote that Jonathan had in his story is, “It might be about time for some negative news about Jared Kushner.” So it’s gonna be an exciting week and your listeners will know the ending, for us it’s still a mystery.
Oh, should we leave it there? I have other questions but you buttoned it so nicely. You’ve done this before. All right, let’s leave it there. Let’s give Mike a final plug. Go to axios.com and get his newsletter, many other newsletters.
Axios AM Mike’s Top 10, all free.
It’s all free.
It’s all part of a good breakfast. And congratulations on what you have built and specifically podcasts, it’s amazing what you learn from them and so thank you. It was a great privilege and honor to be in here in the Standup New York Comedy Club.
We’d love to have you back in the Standup New York Comedy Club. Come back any time.
I’ll be back.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.