Axios publisher Nicholas Johnston is a true believer in the “smart brevity” concept Jim VandeHei developed at Axios. Johnston has driven it as a mission through the Axios team and now a network of Axios Local in big cities across the United States.
“We’re not short for the sake of being short,” Johnston told me.
It’s about being honest about the true value of the story and the appetite of readers to consume it, he said: “It is about being rigorous and you have to say it over and over and over. It’s not brevity, it’s smart brevity. Don’t overlook the smart part.”
It is a recipe that requires a rethink of why we produce journalism and who for. The critical question is whether other publishers and journalists are brave enough to do it or — as Johnson suspects — they are too tied up in legacy culture and business models to change. You can see the second part of my interview with him on culture and CMS here.
Johnston speaks of an insurgency in legacy news organisations where people try to drive change or digital transformation, often only to confront the barrier of history and be crushed.
“To take a newsroom culture as it exists and to bend it … there’s this weight being carried. I think it’s impossible,” he says, which is worrying to someone trying to promote that idea in the INMA Newsroom Initiative and counsel of despair I’m not yet ready to accept.
Here are some key takeaways from my conversation, before the full question and answer session below:
Stop being in denial about what user behaviour is showing you about how little people read and for how long, embrace it as an “apocalypse of illumination” and change.
Even at Axios, the feedback is almost uniformly “this should be 200 words shorter.”
Core priorities come from the top and need to be demonstrated daily in newsrooms.
I regret that this piece may not confirm to Axios brevity, but I reckon Nicholas offers something of a master class on how to serve readers, be honest about what that means for the kind of journalism you need to produce, and how to change or burn down cultural limitations.
It is a manifesto to start afresh, but I have to believe there’s scope to use it as a manifesto to reform or challenge moribund and hard-to-move newsroom and publishing shibboleths. I’m doing it as a question and answer because I want you to have access to his full answers — some of them may be worth cutting and putting around your newsrooms.
Here’s the first installment of the interview with Johnston, edited for clarity (if not brevity).
INMA: The Newsroom Initiative is all about connecting the journalists to the business they’re in. That seems to be the essence of the Axios sale: Your team gets what you are trying to do.
Nicholas Johnston: In my entire career as a journalist, we never thought about the business side. We would view the business side with contempt — why would I even want to hang out with a classified ad salesman? They’re losers. And that’s when we realised when those eight classified ad salesmen got laid off, the paper went out of business.
INMA: The “smart brevity” and discipline at Axios remind me of the early days of Bloomberg and the way The Bloomberg Way style guide by founding Editor-in-Chief Matt Winkler was enforced to create a coherent news file. I think of him yelling: “Show, don’t tell.”
Nicholas Johnston: I have a complicated relationship with The Bloomberg Way. It’s very true that when Matt wrote that it was very rigorous as far as thinking about what the reader wants. That prescription, like the basis of a nut graf, was hammered in. At that time, the template that was hammered into you as a journalist was very effective.
INMA: You’ve told me you talked to many Bloomberg users when you led the now-abandoned Bloomberg First Word product, which sounds like an early attempt at speed and brevity.
Nicholas Johnston: We spent a lot of time going to see Bloomberg Terminal customers and eventually Bloomberg Government customers and asked, “What do you want?” There was a massive disconnect between what we were producing: long-form, profiles, meandering narratives — things that we wrote for ourselves or our editors versus what readers wanted.
INMA: That rejection of the idea of journalists writing for themselves — almost vanity publishing —is a core value of Axios. Plus, the answer was in the data.
Nicholas Johnston: That was borne out in reader feedback and analytical data. When you see what people click on, and how much time they spend on a story, it’s an apocalypse of illumination. The reader is clearly telling you something.
All journalists know this: We know stories are too long and too boring, and we know there’s too much b-matter. We know how we consume information, and we see Google Analytics and Chartbeat. If someone is telling you very explicitly that they don't want to spend more than 30 seconds on something, why don't you give it to them in 20 seconds and give them 10 seconds of their life back?
INMA: How do you change newsroom culture to break out of that?
Nicholas Johnston: The challenge of changing newsroom culture. It’s almost impossible.
INMA: You tell a story about media foreign exchange visits where newsroom leaders ask you how to change their culture towards digital objectives.
Nicholas Johnston: Very often the conversations are, “We’re the largest, most successful newspaper in Poland, or in Spain, or in Croatia. And we need to get our newsroom to begin thinking in a digital way or to think in a mobile phone way.” And I tell them: Well, you should quit and start from scratch, because they’re never going to change.
On culture, part of the reason why I joined Mike [Allen], Jim [VandeHei], and Roy [Schwartz] when they started Axios was to try and test this from scratch. No one joined Axios and thinks they’re joining a place that publishes magazines. It’s a framing mechanism from the get-go. We are a company founded on the tenets of smart brevity. We say all the time that things should be short and smart, and it’s still a constant battle with journalists to write short.
INMA: You say these messages require constant reinforcement and that they have to come from the very top of the company.
Nicholas Johnston: People do their jobs. People work for their bosses and see what the organisation values. If every day at 1 pm the organisation’s senior leaders go into a newsroom and plan the front page of the paper, then that is what is valued.
There’s an old New York Post subway ad I love: “No one ever said, tell me a boring story the longest way possible.” Tabloids understand this. It’s being relentless and disciplined about what the real value is. Asking: “How many words do you really need to say this?”
INMA: How do you drive this all through your goals or staff reviews?
Nicholas Johnston: We’re not that systematic about it. I don’t put in people’s annual reviews the number of words they’ve typed and ding them if they’ve gone over 3,000 words in a quarter. A very big challenge in running a newsroom is the level of art versus science. This isn’t a sales team, I can’t say, “You’ve hit your numbers.”
INMA: How much of the business is exposed to the journalists?
Nicholas Johnston: This is something that Jim and the founders have been very emphatic about from the beginning, the level of transparency. People know our quarterly revenue figures, they know our revenue goals. I’m happy to share subscriber counts or search advertising sell-through rates. People should care about it, but not worry.
If you’d like to subscribe to my bi-weekly newsletter, INMA members can do so here.