Two innovative online American publishers believe they have found a formula that can reverse the decline of local news.
Between them, Axios and 6AM City have launched 42 local newsletters, covering cities across more than 20 states (see map below).
By the summer, that number will have grown to at least 49. And both companies believe that their business models can be successfully rolled out to 100 cities or more.
Around 1,800 US newspapers closed between 2004 and 2019, according to ‘news desert’ research by Penny Abernathy, a visiting professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.
Poynter estimates that more than 100 local newsrooms have closed since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has placed even more pressure on local news publisher revenues.
Both Axios Local and 6AM City are confident they can buck this trend and are reporting promising figures. Both say they generated around $5m in revenue in 2021, and 6AM co-founder Ryan Heafy told Press Gazette that his company expects newsletters to become profitable within 18 months.
The map below illustrates the coverage that both 6AM City and Axios Local currently have, or will have once their latest expansion plans are complete.
By the end of this month, 6AM City will have 24 newsletters covering large cities in 15 states.
Axios Local currently has 14 city newsletters and is actively building 11 more. By the summer, under its current plans, Axios Local will be active in 25 cities across 21 states and Washington, DC.
Where Axios and 6AM compete
Intriguingly, the publishers will soon be directly competing in seven cities (see list below).
Axios Austin launched in September 2021, while 6AM launched ATX for the city in October last year.
BOStoday, a 6AM newsletter, has been published since November, and Axios plans to move into Boston this year.
Axios Columbus launched in September 2021 and the launch of CBUStoday followed in December.
NASHtoday was born in April 2021 and Axios Nashville in September 2021.
Axios has announced plans to launch in Raleigh, Richmond and Seattle later this year. These cities have been home to 6AM newsletters since April 2019 (Raleigh), July 2021 (Richmond) and October 2021 (Seattle).
Nick Johnston, Axios’s publisher, said he welcomes “healthy competition” from 6AM City. “More is better,” he told Press Gazette.
He noted, though, that Axios Local and 6AM City have a “slightly different philosophical approach” to their newsletters.
Axios Local, like its national brand, has a grounding in hard news, while 6AM City actively avoids politics and crime coverage.
“We’re a little different in the way we approach it journalistically,” said Johnston.
The Axios model: ‘This sounds insanely ambitious (or just insane)’
Jim VandeHei, the chief executive of five-year-old US national news outlet Axios, began 2022 with an ambitious New Year’s resolution: to “save local news”.
On New Year’s Day, VandeHei emailed Axios subscribers a manifesto explaining how he plans “to solve a massive societal problem: the death of trusted news in America’s cities and towns”.
His plan, also laid out in a Press Gazette interview last June, is to launch daily newsletters for cities across the United States.
Axios Local newsletters are already operational in 14 cities across the country. It plans to move into 11 new territories by mid-2022, taking its total to 25, and VandeHei has said wants to hit “100 soon thereafter”.
“We want to bring smart, modern, trustworthy local news to every community in America,” said VandeHei. “This sounds insanely ambitious (or just insane). But you don’t solve gigantic societal and business problems by thinking small.”
To many in the news industry, VandeHei’s vision will sound ambitious, or even unrealistic. But, so far at least, Axios Local’s experiment appears to be working.
A spokesperson for the company told Press Gazette that Axios Local generated $5m in revenue in 2021, its first year of operation.
Axios’s biggest single brand is Axios Charlotte, which was first launched as the Charlotte Agenda in 2015 and was acquired by the company in 2020. Today it has seven journalists.
As reported by Press Gazette last year, Axios Local newsletters generally start out with two or three dedicated reporters. With support from centralised teams, the journalists send out early morning newsletters each weekday.
Shane Savitsky, the editor of Axios Local, told Press Gazette that his journalists aim to be a “friend to local media” by sharing, or aggregating, their work in newsletters.
The Axios spokesperson said that its local division ended 2021 with more than 600,000 subscribers to its 14 free newsletters.
Arguably, the biggest sign of encouragement for Axios – and for those willing a new local news business to succeed – is the fact that it is not alone.
The 6AM City model: Building audiences by dodging politics and crime
Headquartered in South Carolina, 6AM City launched its first newsletter in Greenville in July 2016 and has steadily built up its business since then.
Today, it has newsletters covering 22 cities. It plans to expand with editions for Sacramento and San Jose, both in California, on 31 January.
Co-founder and chief operating officer Ryan Heafy told Press Gazette that his newsletters currently have more than 750,000 subscribers and are on course to surpass one million by the end of March this year.
Heafy said 6AM generated a turnover of approximately $5m in 2021 and is “on pace for a strong eight-figure revenue in 2022”.
Newsletters from 6AM are far removed from local newspapers.
In an interview with Press Gazette last year, Heafy explained that 6AM newsletters avoid covering crime and politics to create a “safer place for both the reader and the advertiser”.
Under the 6AM model, two dedicated city editors send out there newsletters at 6am each workday morning. Senior editorial staff and sales teams work across multiple titles.
Heafy told Press Gazette that 6AM “sees the opportunity to expand into 100+ US markets where local pride in place aligns with our company’s value proposition in supporting growing communities”.
Other than Sacramento and San Jose, 6AM has not said where its next newsletters will launch.
Heafy said: “While 6AM is planning to fund expansion into a handful of new markets in 2021, the company is actively exploring several relationships that could expedite expansion into 10 or more new markets. As we progress through the first quarter we will be able to provide a better forecast on new market launches this year.”
In the first quarter of 2021, Heafy said 6AM is focused on establishing “maturity of our 16 new cities, driving them all well over 50,000 subscribers and focusing on strategic revenue partners. We are also significantly focused on our new referral program, e-commerce platform, and membership program that are all being actively rolled out.”
‘This isn’t the end of the local news problem’
For many journalism advocates, the ambitions of Axios Local and 6AM City provide some hope that there may be a commercially sustainable future for local news.
But both companies have their critics, and some journalism purists are far from convinced by the spread of these new newsletters.
Dan Kennedy, a professor of journalism at Northeastern University and writer of the Media Nation blog, is sceptical about the prospects of Axios and 6AM in his home city, Boston, which already has a vibrant media industry.
In a comment for GBH News, he wrote: “The trouble is, Axios Local is setting up shop in places that could hardly be considered news deserts.
“Instead of, say, Axios Worcester, Axios Newark or Axios Small City without a Newspaper, we’re getting newsletters targeted at affluent urban audiences in places that are already reasonably well served.
“And the Axios sites are so thinly staffed that it’s going to be difficult for them to make a real difference.”
Penny Abernathy, a visiting professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, told Press Gazette: “The loss of local newspapers has disproportionately affected economically struggling communities. And that is where you do not get a replacement – either another digital start-up or a newsletter.
“Axios is going into large metros. The newsletters are largely aggregations with two or three sentences with what is already being produced by local newspapers and other local publications.
“This isn’t the end of the local news problem. The real struggle for many metro papers is being able to continue to provide the daily bread and butter material while at the same time investing in major investigative and analytical pieces.
“The Axios Local newsletters may give you a headline and a few sentences about what’s important that day, but the newsletter is not going to provide the sort of in-depth news coverage that surviving local metro strive to produce.”
Abernathy does not begrudge Axios’s decision to expand into local newsletters, but she does not believe its expansion is a cure for the local news industry’s demise.
“This is a business decision made by Axios that doesn’t necessarily address the weaknesses in local news economics that publishers of local newspapers are experiencing right now,” she added.
Nick Johnston, the publisher of Axios, rejects much of this criticism and believes his newsletters should be judged on their content.
“Axios has been around for five years doing new things, and I spend all of my time hiring journalists,” he told Press Gazette. “And the most criticism I get for doing that is from other journalists and journalist academics. So, huh, what are you gonna do?
“So, how much of the newsletters are original, off-diary? I would encourage people to read the newsletters and see some of the reporting that we have done, some of the scoops that we’ve had, some of the awesome journalism that’s original that we’ve done.”
While Axios Local newsletters start with a small editorial staffing – generally two reporters – Johnston says his company wants to hire more journalists and will expand when it is commercially viable to do so.
Axios Charlotte, which dates back to 2015 when it was the Charlotte Agenda, has seven journalists, including an editor and an investigative reporter. Johnston says he wants other Axios Local titles to emulate the success and growth of the Charlotte edition.
“That’s our plan,” he said. “Something that Axios is very deliberate about is building sustainable journalism businesses. I’m not interested in hiring 30 people in a community and hoping for a business model or a philanthropic organisation [to support it] and, if we don’t, laying all those people off in 18 months.
“And so, by being very deliberate, we start with two [journalists] in a lot cities. And as those business models mature, we add a third – which we already have in some cities and are actively doing in others – and then continue to grow it. And I look 100% at Axios Charlotte as the model.”
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