Axios Sees A.I. Coming, and Shifts Its Strategy

In the view of Jim VandeHei, the chief executive of Axios, artificial intelligence will “eviscerate the weak, the ordinary, the unprepared in media.”

The rapid rise of generative A.I. — and its implications for how people will discover and consume news — has unsettled many media executives. Like them, Mr. VandeHei has spent the past year or so pondering how to respond.

Now he’s becoming one of the first news executives to adjust their company’s strategy because of A.I.

Mr. VandeHei says the only way for media companies to survive is to focus on delivering journalistic expertise, trusted content and in-person human connection. For Axios, that translates into more live events, a membership program centered on its star journalists and an expansion of its high-end subscription newsletters.

“We’re in the middle of a very fundamental shift in how people relate to news and information,” he said, “as profound, if not more profound, than moving from print to digital.”

“Fast forward five to 10 years from now and we’re living in this A.I.-dominated virtual world — who are the couple of players in the media space offering smart, sane content who are thriving?” he added. “It damn well better be us.”

Axios is pouring investment into holding more events, both around the world and in the United States. Mr. VandeHei said the events portion of his business grew 60 percent year over year in 2023.

The company has also introduced a $1,000-a-year membership program around some of its journalists that will offer exclusive reporting, events and networking. The first one, announced last month, is focused on Eleanor Hawkins, who writes a weekly newsletter for communications professionals. Her newsletter will remain free, but paying subscribers will have access to additional news and data, as well as quarterly calls with Ms. Hawkins.

Membership programs will next be built around Sara Fischer, a media reporter, and the business editor Dan Primack, who writes the daily Pro Rata newsletter, according to a person familiar with the company’s plans.

“I’m trying to align the company with the people who have a ton of talent: They thrive, we thrive,” Mr. VandeHei said.

Axios will expand Axios Pro, its collection of eight high-end subscription newsletters focused on specific niches in the deals and policy world. The subscriptions start at $599 a year each, and Axios is looking to add one on defense policy. The company just hired an executive, Danica Stanciu, to oversee the expansion into more policy areas. Ms. Stanciu was instrumental in growing Politico Pro, Politico’s premium subscription offering, into a thriving business.

“The premium for people who can tell you things you do not know will only grow in importance, and no machine will do that,” Mr. VandeHei said.

Part of the pivot entails a restructuring of Axios’s leadership team. Sara Kehaulani Goo, the editor in chief of the Axios newsroom, will head up the editorial side of events and running new platforms. Aja Whitaker-Moore, the executive editor of the newsroom, will be promoted to editor in chief and will oversee all published content.

“I hope the next leg of this journey can really be focused on how we take the subject matter expertise to the next level,” she said.

Axios was started in 2017 by Mr. VandeHei, a co-founder of Politico, along with Mike Allen and Roy Schwartz. In August 2022, Cox Enterprises acquired Axios in a deal that valued the company at $525 million, with its founders staying on as minority shareholders.

Mr. VandeHei said Axios was not currently profitable because of the investment in the new businesses. The company has continued to hire journalists even as many other news organizations have cut back. An Axios spokeswoman said that Axios Local now had nearly two million subscribers across 30 newsletters, and that Axios’s national newsletters had about 1.5 million.

In addition to figuring out how A.I. could change news consumption by the public, many media companies are racing to figure out how to address the ingestion of their content by A.I. chatbots. The New York Times, for example, sued Microsoft and OpenAI in December for copyright infringement, arguing that millions of articles were used, without authorization, to train the tech companies’ chatbots.

Mr. VandeHei said that while he thought publications should be compensated for original intellectual property, “that’s not a make-or-break topic.” He said Axios had talked to several A.I. companies about potential deals, but “nothing that’s imminent.”

“One of the big mistakes a lot of media companies made over the last 15 years was worrying too much about how do we get paid by other platforms that are eating our lunch as opposed to figuring out how do we eat people’s lunch by having a superior product,” he said.

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