TL;DR Axios Wants to Change the Way the World Writes
A professional service for corporate clients is meant to help communications professionals — and the rest of us — think in bullet points and creative bolding
Axios’s trademark “Smart Brevity” is not just an easy-to-read news item format, but, if you listen to the media company’s latest pitch for corporate clients, a philosophy of life to be studied and mastered. “We had this great saying early on, that brevity is confidence, length is fear,” said Axios CEO Jim VandeHei in a live webcast earlier this year pitching the Axios HQ service, which includes software using a machine learning model trained on Axios stories. “Our reporters when we hire them, like the number of reporters who really can’t write that well and that really have to be taught and sort of have a machine or have a human assistance,” he said, “in just writing tighter, like, what’s new? Why does it matter?”
A happy Axios HQ client, Lucy Yurek, the global head of reputation at the bank HSBC, added, “I think the possibilities for this are really quite endless. I would love to see us start speaking to each other in this way as well.”
Debuting at the beginning of the Trump era, Axios has centered its brand on clear, concise, and unbiased information in a landscape cluttered with misinformation and noise. The outlet has become known for a staccato story format style that is heavy on bullet points and oft-repeated bold headings like “Why it matters,” “The big picture,” and “Yes, but.” A video promoting the software promises, “Axios can put an end to lost time.”
According to Digiday, the eight-month-old Axios HQ division has generated over $1 million in revenue (plus another $2 million from even more hands-on professional services). Axios says it’s already onboarded over one hundred clients this year, including Delta, Edelman, and EVERFI. When Axios was in talks to be acquired by German media giant Axel Springer, the company reportedly sought a valuation of more than $400 million.
In an Axios HQ product demo attended by The Fine Print, a representative for Axios HQ explained how corporate clients can use the new software-as-a-service to optimize for “scannability, comprehension, and memory.”
Potential clients were also offered quick pointers for writing in Axios-style. To write a “Why it matters” section, “Picture your reader: Why should they care about this update?” (And keep it under 300 words.) Headlines should “Grab readers by the shoulders.” (And be under ten words long). Other critical components of Smart Brevity are “muscular, vivid words,” lots of bullet points, and bolding.
Axios’s concision mission would not be the first attempt by a media startup to change the way people talk. When recent Yale Daily News alums Brittain Haden and Henry Luce launched Time in 1923, the magazine developed its own compressed, clipped, and oddly syntaxed “Timestyle” to further its original mission to save people, well, time while absorbing the latest news. “Yet to suggest itself as a rational method of communication, of infuriating readers into buying the magazine, was strange inverted Timestyle,” wrote Wolcott Gibbs in a 1936 New Yorker profile that gave birth to the famous line, “Backward ran sentences until reeled the mind.”
Axios, though, is looking beyond the universe of print with Smart Brevity. A representative pointed out in their product demo that the 800-word format “that so many of us are still guilty of” derived from the space available in a standard broadsheet column. Theirs is not the first effort in the age of computers to shrink human verbiage into more meaningful chunks. In 1997, Microsoft Word’s AutoSummarize feature spooked writers at The New York Times and Slate (which at the time was owned by Microsoft and offered editions in Word files).
Microsoft’s more lasting impact on human communication is its presentation software Powerpoint, which statistician and design theorist Edward Tufte has accused of making humanity more stupid: “Imagine a widely used and expensive prescription drug that claimed to make us beautiful but didn’t. Instead, the drug had frequent, serious side effects: making us stupid, degrading the quality and credibility of our communication, turning us into bores, wasting our colleagues’ time. These side effects, and the resulting unsatisfactory cost/benefit ratio, would rightly lead to a worldwide product recall.”
And as Politico learned the hard way this week when a poorly phrased summary of the Congressional debate over climate policy was ridiculed across Twitter, there are risks to oversimplification. Nonetheless, in our age of endless media consumption, brevity does appear to be winning out over length. In 2017, Axios co-founder and president Roy Schwartz explained their distinctive format was a mere adaption to the way people think today. “So much news, so many emails to read, so much social media. It just felt overwhelming. We picked up on the change in people’s habits and attention span,” he said. “Literally, our brains have been rewired where we tend to read only the beginning paragraph or two of an article.”
It’s worth pondering, though, is it our brains that are reshaping the writing, or the writing that’s reshaping our brains?