How Can Axios Report on Trump Admin—And Take Their Money?
The well-connected Beltway outlet received a government loan to stave off coronavirus-related business struggles, posing potential conflict-of-interest concerns.
When Axios co-founder and chief executive Jim VandeHei announced his D.C-centric news site’s good fortune Wednesday—a nearly $5 million low-interest pandemic-related loan from the Trump administration’s Payroll Protection Program—the obvious question was how this supremely well-connected outlet will avoid going soft on the government officials they’re supposed to be holding accountable.
“That’s a little bit weird,” said a prominent news executive who asked not to be further identified, and whose organization is too large to benefit from a program designed to help small businesses with 500 employees or fewer.
“It strikes me as one of those appearance-of-conflict arguments that are obviously pretty compelling inside traditional journalism and ivory tower-ish circles,” Mark Leibovich, chief national correspondent for The New York Times Magazine, told The Daily Beast concerning Axios’s windfall.
“There are all kinds of appearance things you could cry foul on… It’s a perfectly good target, and it’s a perfect kind of boutique hypocrisy to point out,” said Leibovich, whose 2013 book about Washington’s media-political complex, This Town, lampooned the insular culture of preening Washington egos arguably personified by power players like VandeHei. “But having said that, I’m for anything that saves journalists from being furloughed.”
Lucy Dalglish, dean of the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism, said the ethics question is potentially troubling, but rated it “only about a 6 out of 10” in terms of her level of concern, and added that saving journalism jobs is more important, in this case, than debating ethical niceties.
Addressing the ethics issue, VandeHei told The Daily Beast: “To me, the obligation is to do what we did [Wednesday] morning, which is to be very transparent—not only tell our readers that we took the money, but also be clear that anytime we write a story that’s predominantly about that topic, we make clear that we took the money. We don’t have to do that. We don’t have to disclose it, but I think we have an obligation to our readers.”
Axios—whose participation in the program would likely have been difficult to keep secret—was among 1,661,367 recipients, according to the PPP web site.
“Everything that we write is in front of the paywall,” VandeHei continued, “so people can judge us based on the quality of our work. Do you feel like we’re being aggressive? Do you feel like we’re being fair? Do you feel like we’re being clinical? If so, you’re going to continue to read us… If you think we’re pulling punches because we got a loan, then you shouldn’t read us.”
He added: “We’re not stupid so we knew that we could, and probably should, get additional scrutiny… The debate is knowing that I’m going to get a question from [a media reporter] about how you’re an institution that covers government, and you’re taking money from the government.”
VandeHei predicted that Axios—which, like every other media outlet, has suffered declining advertising and has already sustained a 15-percent revenue hit as its live events business vanished—will endure a terrible second half of 2020, losing at least $10 million.
In a follow-up email, he wrote: “Every small business CEO in America is confronting the stark reality of big chunks of their business disappearing before their eyes. So you unapologetically do every damn thing in your power to protect your people and brace your company for the very worst.”
In fairness, Axios is not the only journalistic outlet taking money from Trump’s PPP. Also on Wednesday, The Seattle Times announced that it received $10 million in federal aid, which the publication’s chief financial officer said was a temporary “lifeline” to help the company avert layoffs and cutbacks over the next several months. The Tampa Bay Times—which is owned by the non-profit Poynter Institute for Media Studies—also announced this week that it had received an $8.5-million loan as part of the government’s aid program.
The already thinning ecosystem of local media, however, has become increasingly fragile as the coronavirus has resulted in mass layoffs and furloughs at many alt-weeklies and newspapers, including those owned by mass-media company Gannett. Such outlets often perform a public service at the local level, one that cannot necessarily be replaced by Beltway-centric outlets like Axios.
The owner of another of Axios’ D.C. media peers, Politico—which was co-founded in 2007 by VandeHei, a former Wall Street Journal and Washington Post reporter—also considered using PPP to shore up the financial situation of a sister publication.
Politico publisher Robert Allbritton told staffers on a conference call Wednesday that he could not apply for a government loan in order to avoid cuts at Protocol, his recently launched tech website, which laid off over a dozen staffers on Tuesday. According to Allbritton, because of Protocol’s common ownership with Politico, it did not qualify because the two publications combined boast over 500 employees.
It’s also fair to wonder, of course, how Axios, a three-year-old, almost 200-employee media company, unlike thousands of others in desperate need during the COVID-19 crisis, quickly obtained the taxpayer-guaranteed loan, which is designed to be largely forgiven if Axios maintains its payroll at pre-pandemic levels for at least eight weeks.
Axios, a privately-held company with a reported $200-million valuation, is hardly without means, and neither VandeHei nor anyone else at the company plans to take a pay cut—a sacrifice that executives at other businesses are reported to be making during the economic crisis.
“We have not cut anybody’s wages. You have to remember, we’re at a startup, so we’re not drawing massive salaries,” VandeHei said, while declining to disclose his own. “Even with our employees, the reason you’re at a startup is you tend to take a lower salary, and then you have ownership in the company—and everybody in our company has ownership.”
Axios has raised around $30 million in venture capital from blue-chip investors such as Emerson Collective founder Laurene Powell Jobs, Huffington Post co-founder and former BuzzFeed chairman Ken Lerer, former Atlantic Media owner David Bradley, and NBC News, and was investing heavily in new technology last year, including hiring 62 more staffers in the months before the coronavirus hit, VandeHei said.
VandeHei and his co-founder Mike Allen, along with star reporter Jonathan Swan, enjoy insidery access to Donald Trump, Jared Kushner, and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin among other top federal officials; Axios hosts an eponymous documentary series on HBO, and aspires to quick-and-dirty journalism that it has famously dubbed “smart brevity.”
The company secured federal largesse even as thousands of worse-off, less-impressively-wired enterprises that the emergency pandemic legislation classifies as small businesses—that is, 500-and-under-employee companies suffering severe financial stress—failed to get any taxpayer money at all before the initial $349 billion PPP fund went broke last week.
“A lot of it had to do with how fast your bank acted,” said Marc Goldwein, who has been tracking the government’s pandemic response as senior policy director for the Washington-based Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. After the Small Business Administration launched Trump’s PPP in early April on a first-come, first-serve basis, “a lot of companies didn’t get the loan because their bank was slow to get to the SBA,” Goldwein told The Daily Beast.
By mid-April the well was dry. While VandeHei’s business department, under president and co-founder Roy Schwartz, rapidly assembled the required documentation and Axios’ bank, J.P. Morgan Chase, certified the numbers and quickly applied for the benefit, Goldwein said the PPP money was doled out based simply on companies that met the complicated criteria—mainly that they were small businesses facing substantial economic harm.
“I can’t promise you that there wasn’t some company that called up the president directly and got a fast-track,” Goldwein said, “but there are no reports of that that I’m aware of.”
Rodney Ramcharan, a finance and business economics professor at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business, told The Daily Beast: “I don’t know, but there are rumors that maybe people with the connections in Congress or with the administration or with the Treasury Department got the funds a little bit sooner. And if you were a very small company and were banking with a smaller bank that didn’t have the administrative capacity to understand how the program was going to work, those people got the funds much later or didn’t get the funds.”
Ramcharan added: “We know from the financial crisis in 2008 and 2009, there’s been some research done that shows that firms that were more closely aligned with certain members of Congress were able to get some of the funds faster. And that was a time when there was a lot of oversight on how those funds were being disbursed. This is a time where the oversight is substantially less, so it doesn’t take a PhD to figure out that this might be going on.”
VandeHei said Axios received no advantage because of its influence and status in Washington. Yet it’s hard to argue that those things count for nothing.
As The Daily Beast reported, North America’s top media union, the 30,000-plus-member NewsGuild-CWA, is planning to hire a well-connected Republican lobbying firm in order to reap rewards from any economic rescue packages being considered by Congress.
“As a believer in the First Amendment,” said one of the union’s suitors, GOP lobbyist Sam Geduldig, “I believe everybody has a right to petition their government, even journalists.”
Steven Waldman, president of Report for America, a non-profit whose mission is focused on saving local journalism, told The Daily Beast: “I tend to think that in terms of government policies that touch on the media, this one [PPP loans] is pretty benign. The policies that tend to work the best are the ones that are very general and neutral and formulaic—as opposed to, say, there’s a department of local journalism that President Trump appoints Jared Kushner to be the secretary of. That’s a kind of media intervention we might not want.”
—With additional reporting by Maxwell Tani.