Technology, climate change, China deserve front page too, says executive producer Jim VandeHei

Just before the midterm elections, Axios will debut on HBO. The four-part documentary series highlights what is happening in politics, business, technology and other hot topics. Matthew O’Neill and Perri Peltz direct and produce.

Axios co-founder Jim VandeHei

Axios co-founder Jim VandeHei

Greek for “worthy,” Axios launched in 2016, as a website offering a fresh take on news and global events. Co-founder and CEO Jim VandeHei, who previously co-founded Politico, is an executive producer on the series, which starts Nov. 4. He spoke with Multichannel News about what news organizations get wrong, and how Axios is different. Edited highlights follow.

MCN: How did the partnership with HBO come to be?

Jim VandeHei: We’ve known Mr. Plepler [Richard Plepler, HBO chairman and CEO] for several years. He’s been both a reader of our work and someone we talked to even before we launched a couple of years ago. He’s obviously a student of media and very passionate about the political space. So we had a rolling conversation that came to a head a couple months ago in conversations with him and Perri Peltz and Matt O’Neill [documentarians who’ve worked for the network]. It came together really quickly, because all of us had a shared passion, a shared belief that there’s so much noise and nonsense out there. One thing Axios has been able to do in digital is bring clarity to what’s important in the big topics — politics, technology, business — by being able to really connect with audiences in a way that they understand what we’re talking about and they see what’s important and feel a level of faith and trust in the content because it comes from experts.

All of us had a shared vision that it could make for awesome TV at a really important time for the country.

MCN: Any news programs that are influences?

JV: We very purposely tried to not model this after anything that’s out there. At Axios we have a great digital background, a very non-TV background. Matt and Perri have a documentary sensibility about them. Almost everyone involved has not been involved, by design, in TV news.

We really believe there’s an appetite, a need for something new and different, not just traditional talking heads. What we were looking for is, is there a way bring our sensibilities to the big screen? We have awesome awareness on the topics, great reporters, awesome access to newsmakers. How do you bring that to life in a way that looks unique, where it feels profound and important for viewers, and they walk away saying, “Oh wow, that was different. That made me smarter.”

MCN: What’s different about the mid-term elections this time?

JV: I’ve never seen the American public even remotely this interested. Most people don’t give a damn. Most sit out midterm elections, which is why turnout ends up being a third of the electorate. Mainly because of [President Donald] Trump, there’s an enthusiasm that in many ways makes it like a presidential election. I wouldn’t be surprised if we had turnout that is exponentially higher than previous off-year elections.

People are just engaged, they’re more interested in the news than ever before. People saw how close that last election was, and how profound the consequences of your vote are. For all the hand-wringing about Trump, one of the very good things is people are much, much more interested in politics and governance.

MCN: What is TV news is getting wrong?

JV: I could probably talk for hours on this topic. We’re not supposed to spend this much time thinking and debating and arguing about politics. If you turn on cable TV, it’s all politics, all the time. Politics is not meant to be a never-ending show. It’s meant to be part of the news, and there are massive things happening in the world. You have a broad public rethinking of our relationship with Facebook, Twitter, Google and all these beautiful toys from the technological revolution. It’s happening in real time, yet there’s almost no coverage of it. You’ve got China rising as a massive, urgent, imminent threat to the United States — a security threat, technological threat, economic threat. There’s almost no coverage of that. You have the climate obviously warming, causing huge storms and real changes to our economy. Almost no coverage.

What I think the news as currently constructed gets most wrong is, it’s just way too all politics — way too [much] about the combat of politics and not nearly enough about all the other big topics that are happening in real time that are going to reshape our lives big and small in the next five years.

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