Interviewer: Esther Kezia Thorpe
Esther: Axios’ Media Trends newsletter has just hit 100,000 subscribers. Was that a target you had in mind at the start?
Sara Fischer: I think it was more of the fact that we would start and see how it would go. And we did have a formula that we wanted to follow, which mimicked some of the other newsletters that we had already launched. We had launched three others before mine; a health, a tech, and a general newsletter in the morning. And so we kind of got to see what worked and what didn’t work.
We figured if we followed a similar playbook; keep the work short but not shallow, leverage smart data visualisations, and really focus on the intersection of business technology and politics to talk about media, I think we thought it would be successful.
Are there changes you’ve made since it launched, anything significantly different in the way that you do it now from how you started out doing it?
Yeah, I think we focus more on breaking news than we used to. And part of that’s just because we’ve matured as a company, I’ve matured as a reporter, and so we have a bigger audience that people want to come to us to tap into and to break news in. So there’s a little bit more breaking news.
I think we are still mostly however in the newsletter focused on big trends and analysis to help people do their jobs. I’d say the last thing is that we’ve noticed length really matters, even though it’s a weekly newsletter. When I first started publishing it, we were around 2,000 words. And now we’re really aiming to be closer to 1,500 words a week.
It doesn’t mean that I publish less items, it means that I just publish shorter excerpts of stories that are published to the website and link out.
That’s a more traditional way of doing it, isn’t it, where you have a bit less in the newsletter, and then if people are interested, they’ll click out to it. But that’s definitely not something that Axios used to do.
Not as much, we do it more so now. And I think what’s helpful is that it provides people who are interested in a particular item or subject to link out and go deeper. But it also gives them enough exposure to it so that they can learn about it, even if it wasn’t something that they thought they really cared about.
So for example, we’ve been writing about the rise of audio advertising for a long time. If you were a digital media executive that had no presence in audio, dynamic ad insertion in podcasts didn’t really matter to you. But we wanted you to know about it, because we thought that in a few years time, it would matter to you that most newsrooms, digital newsrooms, traditional would get into podcasts. And that’s turned out to be true. Heading into 2021, I think most newsrooms care about podcasts.
So that’s always been the strategy, is give people enough content to give them exposure to things that we think should be on their radar, but give them the option to go deeper or not go deeper, depending on their interest.
And when you’re shaping your coverage, because I think, are you still the only Media Reporter at Axios?
Yes, but I heavily rely on a lot of my colleagues to help me. A lot of the coverage that I do, let’s say if it’s around misinformation, we want to talk to cognitive and behavioural scientists about the spread of misinformation. I’ll work with our science editor on that. Or if I’m covering some of the social media platforms in their negotiations with publishers, I might talk to our tech policy correspondent who knows a lot about copyright. Again, if I’m working on a big media deal, I’ll work with Dan Primack, our deals editor.
So even though I’m the only media reporter, per se, so much of my coverage is crafted in conjunction with the expertise of different beat writers at my company.
And that means you can keep the coverage broad rather than getting particularly focused on a beat, which I mean, it’s quite easy to do in media because it’s such a huge area!
Yes! I always had really cared about advertising. I had a career in ad sales before I was a reporter. And when I started out, I loved that focus on advertising. I felt as though that was an area where we could bring depth to an otherwise broad topic area.
But then we had Cambridge Analytica, and a bunch of privacy focused scandals. And a lot of the big tech companies, a lot of people stopped talking about ad innovation. So it really forced me as a reporter to start to think about other focus areas that we could dive deep into.
And it’s ironic because now ad tech is hot again, the publicly traded ad tech companies are doing really well, people are trying to figure out how to do dynamic ads, digital ads for television and radio.
So I look forward to bringing that more into the coverage in the next year. But for a few years, we had to really kind of shy away from that.
Do you have a particular type of person in mind when you’re writing for them? 100,000 people is a lot, you must have quite a variety of job titles, but are you targeting particularly senior, time-short people, or are you targeting ad execs…when you’re writing, who do you have in mind when you’re writing for?
When I was on the business side and I sold advertising, I felt as though a lot of the coverage did not cater to me, which is your average everyday aspirational employee in media and advertising. It was either too catered to the power players, so what did this very top executive eat for lunch at this top secret meeting with another heavy hitter. Or it was too too too niche, which is like some of the ad trades, which is very helpful but again, I was looking for something that was authoritative, not over my head, not too insider-y, but at the same time, not too technical.
So I’m thinking about anyone that does media for their job, that to your point, is time constrained, but doesn’t want to be spoken down to, doesn’t want to be spoken over, just wants to be spoken very plainly to in order for them to do their job better.
And I saw that as a whitespace in the industry. I didn’t see many newsletters that were catered to that type of aspirational professional at any level. And I’m very particular about that.
I try to use as plain of a language as I possibly can to explain some complicated things. So for example, I want a CEO with very limited time to be able to understand some of the complicated infrastructure around something like ad tech or whatever. But I want to be mindful of their time. So if you do it using first grade language, that’s actually really beneficial to them.
And the same thing goes for an intern at a new media company. I want to be able to explain something, a trend to them that’ll make their job better, make them do a better job, and explain it in really simple terms.
So it’s catered, I guess this is a long answer for you, but it’s catered to everybody. But the goal is to make it consumable so that you could do your job better. It’s not to necessarily make it sexy, or make it hyper entertaining. It’s to be a utility.
It does tie beautifully into my next question, though, which is actually about what it’s like writing in that style. Is that quite a discipline to be able to just, you’ve constantly got to be stepping back and saying, would somebody who doesn’t understand this quite complex procedure actually understand what I’m saying about it? Is that a style you’ve evolved over the years?
It is, I’ve gotten better at it. My boss, Mike Allen is the best at it, he can take a very complicated topic and distil it down in a way that’s not only easy to understand, but also interesting.
I think that latter part is something I need to work on, is not just making it easy to understand, but also make it interesting. That’s what’s really challenging, especially when you’re talking about some of these wonkier topics, like deals and valuations and technology, and policy, etc.
I think the North Star is, I always ask myself, and my bosses have told me this, how would you explain it to your grandma, or a good friend at a bar? How would you explain it to someone that is close to you? And that is something I think about a lot before I start writing.
Have you got any guidelines around what what is too long, or what is too short for pieces? I noticed that it varies quite a bit in length on the media trends.
It depends on the item. The top item, I try to give a little bit more space to than the others as a signal that it’s the most important thing. It’s the one big thing. So that’ll typically be a little less than 400 words. And then the other items I try to make between 150 and 200 words.
Again, the challenge is how do you take from a 600 or 800 word piece on the website and pull out what’s the most important 100 words? And a really, really helpful way to do that is to give yourself time and space.
I try to write out a lot of my newsletter on Sunday, at least in terms of where I want it to go. And then the period of sleep between Sunday and Monday really helps me to reflect and refine what matters and what doesn’t. And then the same thing, the period of sleep between Monday and Tuesday helps me Tuesday morning to go in and say, you know, I don’t really really need that.
I think with time, your mind can simplify things and you don’t overreact to things as much. So it really just kind of comes down to giving everything chance to breathe.
So that must really help then that Axios is a lot less focused on publishing content online and being the first to it, and more, you’ve got this point on a Tuesday where you’ve got the whole week before it to kind of think about things. I mean, from somebody who cannot write less than 2,000 words, the idea of writing 150 is just incredible!
Yeah, I think that our economics and incentives to your point are not necessarily to be so traffic optimised that we have to jump on everything first. Our business model is contingent upon being authoritative. And so giving reporters the time to do due diligence and to reflect is really helpful.
And then in terms of writing shorter, I mean, it’s harder than writing longer, because you have to make tough decisions about what matters and what doesn’t. It also forces you to use very simple language. Industry jargon takes a lot to explain. So if you can do good explanations with simpler terms, you tend to write shorter.
Again, though, it goes back to that old saying, I would have written 1,000 words less if I had more time, or whatever it is. It does take time to be able to be thoughtful, so that you can be shorter.
Do you think there’d ever be an occasion where you’d think, oh actually this particular piece of news demands a special email or something quicker and something a bit faster off the beat? Or does everything really benefit from just stepping back and breathing a little bit?
We used to do that. I remember when Facebook changed its algorithm, I did a special edition of the newsletter the next day, and our audience really liked it. I think we would do more of it. The problem is, again, we’re still a startup, we have limited resources, limited people. I’ve pitched a few of them. And I think nobody’s opposed to doing it.
But the first question that’s always going to be asked is, does your reader need this right now? Or could they wait for another day or two? And if they could wait, what resources could you bring within that day or two that could make it stronger? And that’s helpful.
I will say I do jump on news a lot. Even though I only write my newsletter once a week, I publish probably at least 10 pieces throughout the week between them. I don’t know that everyone necessarily accesses them, because a lot of times they just go on our site, and I’ll tweet them, or they go into some of the other newsletters.
You’ve been involved in newsletters since, I think you were involved in CNN’s Gut Check before you joined Axios. So does the recent rush to them feel like a bit of a vindication of the work you were doing earlier? Or is it a case now that everybody’s jumping on the bandwagon and somebody says newsletters are hot so everybody’s got to suddenly launch one?
I wouldn’t say it’s a vindication because when we were doing that at CNN, and that was a little while ago, we were doing it because my boss launched it, Michelle Jaconi and Mark Preston, my bosses launched it, because they were trying to help out the television shows that the network sort of arrange their priorities and how they were talking about political news. And so it served a utility internally, really more than anything.
I think the mad rush to newsletters now is interesting, because the technology is so much better. One of the reasons that newsletters felt difficult back then was, it was a lot of work. I mean, so much of the work when I look back to that process was the physical publishing of the newsletter, going through and formatting and doing links. There’s this, people will laugh, if you know, you know, like what a WYSIWYG is. But all of that was very time consuming and tedious.
Now, I’m so hyper focused on writing and reporting, and I barely think about the tech. Axios has a proprietary newsletter platform that’s very effective. The tech is so good, I don’t have to worry about it. But back then, it was very hard.
And you cover media companies, you’ve spoken a lot about M&A and all that sort of thing. Are there lessons that you’ve taken from your time reporting on what works in media businesses that you apply to your own work or what happens at Axios?
I think for one, culture matters a lot. And I’m seeing a lot of media companies that hit bumps in the road, it’s because they didn’t have a culture or a set of processes or priorities that helps to guide them through tough decisions. And that’s hugely, hugely important.
We never had a focus on diversity as an industry and news media. And part of that is because the industry started out largely focused around a few newspapers and magazines, particularly in the northeast, where the people who participated in those ventures were predominantly white. They came from northeastern states which tended to be liberal.
And that lack of diversity was a huge, and continues to be a huge problem in not only navigating coverage and selecting the right stories and elevating the right sources and voices, but also just in how to function as an industry in a country that’s so diverse.
It got to a point – we’re still at this point – where news media, as a whole is so much less diverse than the workforce of the United States. I mean, how can you possibly be an innovative company or industry when that’s your reality? So that’s one thing I’ve learned is huge.
Another thing I’ve learned that’s huge is funding structure really matters. We saw a few years ago that a lot of companies took on tonnes of private investment from investors that were used to investing in companies that have very high returns that grow very quickly, typically, software companies, and media and journalism doesn’t scale quickly. It’s not designed to.
And especially by the way, local, it’s not designed to scale, right. It’s designed to be for one particular community. And so that conflict of interests only became apparent after a few years when the growth trajectory wasn’t meeting the expectations of investors.
And I think the last big thing that I’ve recognised is that media companies were built, a lot of them, around an infrastructure, around products that are dying, and the transition to new products that are high growth areas; newsletters, podcasts, streaming, is more painful than I think a lot of people realise, because they are strapped to legacy institutions and infrastructure like labour unions. Their real estate value is tied to a size of a newsroom and printing staff and plants that don’t make sense anymore.
And so unwinding all of these decades old infrastructure sets is very difficult. And that’s one of the big reasons you’re seeing these massive newspaper companies flounder right now. It’s one of the reasons you’re seeing a lot of television companies struggle, traditional television.
I worry about those companies, because you have a lot of strong journalism there and journalists. But without being able to pivot quickly, it’s going to be very hard to support the journalism they create.
And you mentioned local news just there. Axios has recently bought a digital startup, the Charlotte Agenda as part of its push into local news. And it’s doing newsletter launches. So at a time local news is under really quite immense pressure, is this a model that can work?
I think so. I believe in it wholeheartedly. I think our company is doing the right thing and the smart thing. I think local news is interesting, because they don’t have the branding that big national news companies have to be able to lure high volumes of consumer dollar subscriptions. And that makes it really hard for them to fully pit it from advertising.
And advertising is transitioning a lot, obviously, at the national level, but also at the local level. If you used to run classified ads in a local paper, now you run them on Facebook.
And I think that the promise for local news is, how do we tap into the need? The need has not changed. People still want local news. And how do we tap into the talent? The talent is still there, people still want to be journalists, even in local communities, and marry those two things talent in need with a business model and an infrastructure that meets the 21st century.
When you try to pivot a legacy news company – this is going back to what we were just talking about – and create high growth areas for them to transition to; streaming podcasts, newsletters, oftentimes it’s too many pain points, that it doesn’t happen fast enough, or it doesn’t happen seamlessly enough.
And so what Axios is thinking is, maybe we can go into some of these local communities, and try to apply the lessons that we’ve applied to national news to local, and create more jobs and serve people really well. I think it’s a mission that I’m proud of, I think it’s something that will work.
And I’m just excited broadly, to be a part of a company that thinks that it’s a priority, because we could have very much doubled down on more national news topics. And we will, it’s a priority for us. But I think we see it as part of our mission as a news company to think about local.
That’ll be, I know that you just started with four newsletters, but I presume if that works in those four regions, it’s quite quick to launch other ones in other areas if you’ve got a model that works in those four?
That’s right and part of why, I don’t want to speak on behalf of my company because I’m not an executive, but part of why I think the acquisition of the Charlotte Agenda makes so much sense is, we also want to understand how do small businesses work with local news? How do advertisers work with local news? How do communities respond to it?
And so by bringing on the Charlotte Agenda’s, full staff of 11, which about half of them are in the newsroom, and half of them are not, we can also learn from them some lessons that we can apply to these other four markets that we are experimenting with. So we can see where we need to make further investments.
One of the newsletters that we launched, let’s say in Denver, that’s one of the four cities that we’re hiring for, takes off like a rocket, we might want to start to understand, okay, how do we expand? How do we fulfil the mission there better? And having a sort of mini blueprint with Charlotte Agenda, I think will be invaluable to us.
Media people love making predictions, but are everybody’s expectations for 2020 ended up being completely wrong. So is there anything big that you’re keeping an eye on for 2021 that you think will be dominating headlines in terms of media trends?
There’s a few things. I think the big foundational one is, everyone’s looking to understand how the advertising market bounces back. There are a few verticals that we don’t think are really going to come back in the same way. Auto, really is the lifeblood of local in terms of revenue, and as well as political, and it doesn’t look like car buying is going to be a thing of local dealers anymore. So that’s a huge, huge shift.
We’re also curious to see how direct to consumer advertising changes the market and recovery next year, and the ad market will dictate a lot of the media recovery. So that’s one big thing.
Another thing we’re looking at in terms of, I also cover movies and Hollywood, is what’s going to happen with theatres? My prediction there is that theatres were becoming a very niche thing. It’s where people who loved action and adventure films would go to the theatre for the experience. But things like dramas and romcoms, comedies, you would watch that in your home.
I think that delta is going to continue to get even bigger. And we’re going to get to a point where there are fewer theatres, but those theatres cater to a very specific type of experience, which is like a high impact action Mandalorian Star Wars type of drama.
And then, the final thing I’m thinking about is regulation. The Biden administration is expected to be a little bit tougher on big tech than the Trump administration. Not to say that the Trump administration hasn’t been, I mean, the Trump administration’s FTC and DOJ have levied some serious fines and now investigations into these companies. But the Biden administration will be responsible for helping to continue carrying them out alongside some of the States.
And I think the outcomes of these investigations into Big Tech will have a huge impact on media and entertainment, in that the power imbalance between the two has been an open question for a long time.
So those are the three big things I’m looking at and thinking about. In terms of making solid predictions, the one thing that I think everyone is kind of curious about is the rollout of this vaccine. If we have enough doses, and the rollout goes smoothly, and the economy opens mid next year, that’s a very different trajectory for a lot of the companies I cover. If it doesn’t, that’s a very bleak trajectory for a lot of the companies that I cover, particularly again, in the movie and theatre industries.