Axios sees AI coming, and changes its strategy.

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According to Jim Vandehe, chief executive of Axios, artificial intelligence will “expose the vulnerable, ordinary, unprepared people in media.”

The rapid rise of generative AI — and its implications for how people will discover and consume news — has many media executives worried. Like him, Mr. Vande has spent the past year or so pondering how to respond.

Now he’s becoming one of the first news executives to adjust his company’s strategy because of AI.

Mr VandeHei says the only way media companies can survive is to focus on delivering journalistic expertise, reliable content and a personal human touch. For Axios, that translates into more live events, a membership program focused on its star journalists and an expansion of its premium 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 the shift from print to digital.”

“Fast-forward five to 10 years from now and we’re living in this AI-dominated virtual world – who are the players in the media space that offer smart, intelligent content that thrives?” he added. “It’s best we stay.”

Axios is investing in holding more events around the world and in the United States. Mr Wendehe said his business’s share of events grew by 60 per cent year-on-year in 2023.

The company also introduced a $1,000 annual membership program for some of its journalists that will offer exclusive reporting, events and networking. The first, announced last month, focuses 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.

According to a person familiar with the company’s plans, the membership programs will be built around Sarah Fisher, a Next Day media reporter, and business editor Dan Primack, who writes the daily ProRata newsletter.

“I’m trying to connect the company with people who have a lot of talent: they grow, we grow,” Mr. Wendehe said.

Axios will expand Axios Pro, its suite of eight premium subscription newsletters focused on niches in the deals and policy world. Subscriptions start at $599 per year, and Axios is looking to add one to the defense policy. The company just hired an executive, Danica Stancio, to oversee 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 don’t know will only increase in value, and no machine will do that,” Mr. VandeHei said.

Part of the pivot includes a restructuring of Axios’ leadership team. Axios Newsroom Editor-in-Chief Sarah Kiholani will lead the editorial side of running Go Events and the new platform. Aja Whitaker-Moore, executive editor of the newsroom, will be promoted to editor-in-chief and will oversee all published content.

“I hope that the next phase of this journey can really focus on how we take subject matter expertise to the next level,” he said.

Axios was launched in 2017 by Politico co-founder Mr. VandeHei, 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 retained as minority shareholders.

Mr. VandeHei said Axios is not currently profitable due to investments in new businesses. The company has continued to hire journalists even as many other news organizations have cut back. Axios Local now has about 2 million subscribers across 30 newsletters, and Axios’ national newsletters number about 1.5 million, an Axios spokeswoman said.

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

Mr. Wendehe said that while he believed publications should be compensated for the original intellectual property, “that’s not the point.” He said Axios has spoken to a number of AI companies about potential deals, but “nothing has materialized.”

“One of the big mistakes media companies made over the last 15 years was that we were too concerned about what other platforms were eating our lunch, instead of figuring out what we, the people, were doing. How to eat lunch. Products,” he said.

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