Formats Unpacked: Axios

How a news format used Smart Brevity to build a huge audience

Hi All,

Last month I asked you if there were any news formats that you’d like to see unpacked. In the blink of an eye, Eliz Mizon came back to me with this excellent unpacking. It’s a format we’ve been admiring for a few years and should have done sooner.

Eliz is a media critic, organiser, and a huge documentary nerd. You can find her on Twitter @elizmizon, on TikTok @elizmizon and on Substack, writing about the intersection of power and pop culture in her weekly newsletter, Chompsky. Eliz previously unpacked RuPaul’s Drag Race.

Over to Eliz…

What’s it called?

Axios (online publication).

What’s the format?

Axios is a short, sharp, cleanly formatted news website adhering to the concept of Smart Brevity® (yes, they’ve registered their format as a trademark). Each article starts with a brief introductory paragraph, like this, followed by a series of sub-headed paragraphs that split the information into bitesize chunks…

What’s the magic that makes it special?

…for example:

Why it matters: Our desire for information needs attending to, but so does our concern with information overload, phone addiction, and opinion, polemic, and downright misinformation presenting itself as fact. Axios’ format is ruled by concise, clear “research and writing techniques that make it deeply engaging to busy readers”, while “resist[ing] traffic-based assumptions to dumb things down”.

The big picture: You’d be hard pressed to find a news topic not catered for by Axios, and also to find one that a newbie wouldn’t find approachable. By “obsessing about simplicity” at the same time as covering a plethora of topics from space travel, to trade, to sports betting, to extreme weather and climate truths, Axios has managed to make its niche news itself, growing into a serious - and crucially, trusted - industry player in only 5 years. (You may remember Jonathan Swan’s famous Trump interview, which helped put them on the map.)

Details: Axios also has a software and consulting arm, Axios HQ, which promises to bring their format to companies’ internal comms. Axios is run by former Washington Post White House correspondent and co-founder of Politico, Jim VandeHei, who is regarded as not only a top journalist, but also a savvy businessman.

By the numbers: Where many other newsrooms are currently facing mergers, or worse - layoffs or closure (not necessarily due to a lack of quality, or financial instability…) Axios appears to be thriving. With more than 400 employees, they’ve announced $30 million for expansion this year, after a valuation of $430 million. They expect revenue of more than $100 million in 2022, up from $86 million last year according to the New York Times.

What they're saying: “America is screwed if we don’t restore fast a common connection, a common truth and a common reality,” says VandeHei, “You do this with smart, clinical news and information — devoid of opinion and needless noise — pushed to consumers in an efficient, quick, respectful way.”

Go deeper… Any of the ‘Sections’, as pictured below, will take you to an endless scroll of ‘smart, clinical’ news, but you can also check out their video content, produced in partnership with HBO, and this Digiday podcast with Axios president Roy Schwartz: ‘It’s too early to sell’: Why Axios is set on investing in internal growth, versus pursuing M&A in 2022

Favourite episode?

Given I’m a media critic you might be able to guess which section I follow most closely, but in terms of their video content, I suggest this lesser-known companion piece to The Trump Interview: an equally fierce interrogation of Steve Bannon by Jonathan Swan:

Similar formats

Many newsletters - Formats Unpacked, and my media newsletter included! - take the tack of a repeated, segmented format delivering brevity but curating important detail. Others to highlight are Why Is This Interesting?, another Substack newsletter, and an aggregated variation: News In Bullets, part of the Newsreels app, which takes mainstream outlets’ news articles and simply lists their main points.

Thanks Eliz.

Sign up for Eliz’s newsletter and check out her most recent video essay for Netflix: Can Documentaries Change The World?

Would you be interested in unpacking a favourite format? We’re open to all ideas but if you need something to get you thinking here are 5 formats I’d be interested in seeing unpacked:

  1. The TV show ‘Taskmaster’

  2. A TV ad fromat

  3. A live event format

  4. A comic format

  5. A report format

Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed this week’s newsletter please hit the like button and share it with all your friends.


Join the conversation

or to participate.