5 reasons a pivot to an Axios writing model might not help improve the readership experience of your student newspaper

(When in doubt, pivot…)

A journalism colleague I hold in high esteem mentioned his frustration with how traditional news formats just weren’t doing the job for his readership:

How I got here.
  • For years, I’ve shown students lots of ways to make articles more snackable, scannable, graphically appealing, etc.
  • I think I’ve failed because it was too much to expect they’d look at every story, evaluate multiple ways of packaging it and decide what to do. It’s soooo easy to just “write it.
And it probably wouldn’t have worked anyway.
  • When I look at how people read our email newsletters and print newspapers, it’s clear they are not interested in reading ANY paragraphs stacked into a column.

His solution to the problem is to promote the “Axios Approach” to content for his students at his publication.

The Axios method of content dissemination takes several key things into account. At the core is the “smart brevity” dictum we’ve discussed here before. Beyond that, the company uses bullet-pointed articles and news letters to hit on the key “What?” “So What?” and “Now What?” elements of material before moving on to the next story. Deeper digs are available for bigger stories.

Here’s a clipped example from a Mike Allen newsletter:

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said during an Axios NewsShapers interview with Jonathan Swan today that he has “an obligation” to support former President Trump if he’s the Republican nominee in 2024.

  • Asked where he draws his moral red lines, McConnell said, “I’m very comfortable with my moral red line.” (Watch a 3-minute clip.)

Why it matters: This was the first time McConnell was pressed on the contradiction between his Senate floor comments in February 2021 saying Trump was “morally responsible” for Jan. 6 — followed two weeks later by saying he’d “absolutely” support Trump if he were the party’s 2024 nominee.

Not everyone is keen on this or the long-form approach Axios takes, but it can’t hurt to try something to break through the doldrums of blathering text that people are already ignoring. Or as my grandfather used to say, “If it’s already broken, try fixing it. You can’t really break it worse.”

That said, here are five quick reasons why this approach isn’t a Golden Ticket for improved journalism:

WE’VE BEEN HERE BEFORE: Every time a media organization loses reader eyeballs, the answer always seems to be to “pivot” to a new way of putting out the content. This was particularly true of the journalistic shifts of the 1980s, when the “Wall Street Journal” format became popular in writing long-form stories, the 1990s with the “alternative-storytelling-graphics” approach, the 2010s “pivot to video” moves and the 2020s “shift to social” maneuver.

In each case, it met with a minimal amount of success across the board, as some places got some value out of it while others continued to fail.

This leads us to point two…

AXIOS ISN’T REALLY DIFFERENT. IT’S JUST GOOD: What Axios is doing isn’t any different from what good journalists have done for generations:

  1. Tell me what happened.
  2. Tell me why I care as a reader.

The format emphasizes these two elements in a more-direct fashion than other publications, but if you read any decent news lead, you’ll find those things:

The Cleveland Cavaliers defeated the Milwaukee Bucks, 133-115, on Sunday, securing the No. 8 spot for the play-in tournament in the NBA playoffs.

Despite continuing sanctions, Russia’s oil profits continue to stabilize the country’s economy, making a quick end to its war with Ukraine highly unlikely, experts say.

A bald eagle captured in Bay View died of avian flu this weekend, with veterinary experts saying this is likely the first of many such deaths among birds this year.

What distinguishes these leads and the Axios model from the content we grouse about is the failure to hit the target quickly and efficiently. The writers at Axios know what matters to the readers and they quickly draw a big circle around it before moving on.

In short, it’s as much about value as it is about format, if not more. I can take a terrible story one of my students wrote about a meeting and put it in the Axios format:

The Oshkosh Student Association held a meeting  Monday, where they talked about several topics.

      • Can students opt-in for online learning next term? Co-adviser Jean Kwaterski said it’s under discussion.
      • When will election results be available? Kwaterski said students have “until Friday at noon to turn in any violations” of voting protocol before votes will be certified
      • Will mask mandates be lifted? Co-adviser Missy Burgess said we don’t know.

Key Quote: “We will look at the data and make sure that it is good. Another reason is that faculty needs time to prepare for no masks.” -Burgess

Why it matters: OSA is the student government of UW-Oshkosh, which means it represents the students. Student representation is important on any campus.

Next moves: OSA will meet again May 3.

(This is the guts of the story. It only took 21 paragraphs for me to find out that apparently the mask mandate was actually being lifted on a specific date, barring an outbreak.)

The point is, if you can’t write a decent lead that tells me the answer to those original two questions along with some focus on the FOCII elements, you can’t make the news work in Axios format.

AUDIENCE-CENTRICITY 101: The reason Axios is successful with its content and with its format is because it knows its audience. As mentioned before, Axios co-founder Jim Vande Hei is a political junkie with a ton of key sources and readers inside the beltway. When he came to UWO to speak as an alumnus, he outlined a lot of the things Axios tries to do, the most important of which is knowing the audience and catering to its needs.

The people reading this stuff already like the content because it’s micro-targeted and niche-specific. If people like the topic and are targeted clearly, they’ll read anything decent. Generalized and generic content doesn’t do the work.

Student media outlets have some of those opportunities (specific demographic range, certain campus interests etc.) but they often fail to reach the readers because they don’t learn enough about the readers to make that work for them.

Every year, I ask my students to define the campus at UWO for me. They always define it in one of two ways:

  1. The most generic way possible (“We’re college students of a regular college age and we are going to school to get a degree…”)
  2. The most self-centered way possible (“Everyone here is JUST LIKE ME!”)

Neither of these things are true, so I force them to find out stuff that nobody else would likely know about UWO’s student body. This is how they started to figure out we had a really strong gymnastics program, more parking than other UW campuses, the tightest geographic density of any Wisconsin campus, a strong ROTC and veterans’ program, a series of majors unavailable elsewhere in the UW system and more.

Every campus has a unique feature that draws in readers. That’s why one campus will run it’s “Party Animal” edition to great fanfare every year while another school has a “Bridal Guide” for its graduating seniors. The key to getting readers is figuring out that niche interest and catering to it.

THE LAW OF THE INSTRUMENT IS A BIGGER PROBLEM: This “law” is often attributed to Abraham Maslow and is best captured in the saying, “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” As my colleague mentioned initially, his students tend to look at a situation, an incident or a project for some new or innovative ways to tell the story before eventually saying, “Screw it. Let’s just write it.”

There is nothing wrong with “just writing” anything, so long as writing it is the best solution to the problem. Unfortunately, even when that’s not the case, a lot of writers just go back to their favorite tool and use it to the best of their ability.

This isn’t a text-only problem. I remember co-teaching a “converged” class with a veteran broadcaster who thought every story could be told on TV. When I mentioned stories like budget analyses or data-driven pieces, he told me how he’d take video of someone tossing a budget on a table or use close-up shots on fingers turning pages. He was right that the story COULD be told via video, but it wasn’t the BEST way to tell that story.

We had a similar situation at Mizzou, when we hired a graphics expert and suddenly every story needed a box, a chart or some other visual cue. In one case, we wrote a story about an upcoming snowstorm and the graphics guy immediately chimed in with, “You need a box of safe driving tips with that!” My response: “Is this going to be anything more than what 75 other Missourian stories and common sense have told you about not driving like an asshole?” He got offended. The box ran. It was literally what I thought it would be.

The point is,  you can tell stories in alternative formats, but we often gravitate to the tool most familiar to us. We also tend to become enamored with a particular tool if it’s a shiny new toy that we want to take with us on every adventure.

The Axios format might be a great tool for telling certain, specific stories, but not others. I have seen students build amazing graphics that tell stories better than text. I’ve seen video do a job that audio could never do. I’ve also seen the exact opposite of all of these things.

In short, the key in getting the stories told better is to put more tools in the students’ tool boxes and then teaching them how and when to use each one to its optimum level.

YOU CAN’T PIVOT OUT OF CRAPPY CONTENT: The reason most of these things fail is because of the “garbage in, garbage out” truism that journalists don’t want to confront. If you aren’t covering things that matter to people, you can’t improve readership through repackaging those things in a new format.

While I was speaking to a college newsroom, a student asked me if I had any tips on how to make their meeting coverage better. When I asked what kinds of things were happening at those meetings that made them valuable, I got dead silence.

It seems that they covered the meetings because they always covered the meetings, regardless of what was going on at those meetings. My first bit of advice was to stop covering meetings unless they could determine that something important to the readers would be happening at them.

In other words, they could do their meeting coverage in Axios format, audio, video or virtual reality, but it wasn’t going to make people engage with the content.

When all is said and done, I hope the Axios approach does make a difference for the people deciding to make that move. My sense of the matter is, if the underlying stuff is good, the model will move the needle more than a bit. If not, it’ll be one more pivot that won’t get the job done.

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