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Axios, Vice News Tonight, The Weekly, and the attempted reinvention of television news

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Media
August 3rd, 2019

Last month, HBO announced the cancellation of Vice New Tonight, a much-hyped attempt by the millennial-focused news outlet to “reinvent” the nightly newscast. The announcement followed the New York Times’ first foray into television, The Weekly, and the return of Axios on HBO, the prestige television spinoff of the Even Busier Man’s Politico. 

As digital media contracts and national newspapers are insurgent in Trump’s America, the moment seems like a turning point in one of journalism’s quietest revolutions: digital and print media’s attempt to reinvent the television news medium for the internet generation. These shows attempt to break the hegemonic structure of television news; the vast majority eschew the traditional “anchor behind the desk” model in favor of a more kinetic, documentary-style production. 

Fueled by the gold rush of digital media, many of these shows came from the expansion of online brands, not just Vice News Tonight and Axios on HBO but also BuzzFeed’s Follow This, Vox’s Explained, and Mic’s Mic Dispatch. Most of those shows are now dead, a victim of the horrific past few years in online journalism.

But in the surviving programs, we see a radical vision of a new television news, freed from conventions of broadcast journalism and charged with a filmmakers eye for visual immersion. Whether they will survive—or be journalistically worthwhile—is a much more complicated proposition. 

At Vice, a quiet and doomed success

Vice News Tonight premiered on HBO on October 10th, 2016, after months of buildup in line with the excesses of the growth era of Vice. Variety called the show’s announcement “a game changer...that should scare the shit out of TV news,” while former Vice CEO Shane Smith predicted it would “take news programming in a totally new direction.” With flashy, Web 3.0 inspired graphics and disembodied narration in place of traditional anchors, Vice News Tonight promised to look and sound different from any other newscast on television. 

The show premiered to middling reviews; Daniel Fienberg at The Hollywood Reporter dubbed it “Full Frontal or Last Week Tonight without the jokes and, honestly, with less on-air depth.” The New York Times questioned if a show as slickly produced as Vice News Tonight would ever be timely enough to compete with traditional newscasts, which broadcast live and prioritize breaking news over production values. 

To be fair, I remember the early episodes of Vice News Tonight, and they were bad. A segment from the premiere saw Shane Smith gallivanting around a ranch with a neowoke Glenn Beck, a mind-numbingly dumb story that only became stupider with age as Beck backslid into white nationalism. Launching a television news show so late into the 2016 election cycle also proved to be a mistake; Vice News Tonight was poorly sourced in the Clinton campaign and the eventual Trump presidency, creating a situation where most of their stories on the biggest political event in years relied on aggregation from other news organizations. It appeared Vice News Tonight was doomed to become another failed initiative of the Shane Smith era: built on hyperbole yet ultimately lacking in substance.

Since its rocky start, Vice News Tonight has quietly transformed itself into one of the most essential news programs on television. Led by Bloomberg wunderkind Josh Tyrangiel and a team of younger, new-to-television reporters, the show has cultivated interesting stories outside of the cable and broadcast news praxis. Vice’s team has been unflinching in their coverage of America’s immigration crackdown both domestically and on the southern border. Issues like police brutality gain new angles through the show’s commitment to cover and develop the beat. Correspondent Elle Reeve’s reporting on white nationalism was some of the first coverage on a nightly newscast of the resurgence of neo-nazis in America, building to a breathtaking account of the Charlottesville protest. Impressively, the show even builds on one of Vice’s few constant bright spots—international coverage told in a cinéma vérité style—by investing in foreign reporting at a time when many of its peers are pulling resources back. Few broadcast shows cover the Syrian civil war and the Yemen famine as often as Vice News Tonight, and none cover it in such a visceral, gripping way. 

The most audacious thing about Vice News Tonight in 2019 is that it almost—almost—proves Shane Smith’s bullshit correct. Looking at the show at its best, you see a boldly relevant and journalistically essential reimaging of the nightly newscast; deeply sourced reporting that builds on itself night-after-night, told in a style that recasts stories traditionally regarded as “vegetables” into something visceral and exciting. The show has never quite matched the breakneck White House reporting cycle that has propelled cable news and national newspapers to new heights of popularity, but in its absence, Vice has built a show uniquely positioned to the tell the stories that matter outside of Washington. 

Unfortunately, it appears that isn’t what the public—or HBO—wants. Vice News Tonight has never been a tremendous success; the show averages some 500,000 viewers a night, which is respectable if not groundbreaking. From the many examples of tremendous reporting outlined above, only Reeve’s coverage of Charlottesville has truly broken out in the public consciousness. Vice as an institution has also weathered a tremendously hard few years, with a massive sexual harassment storm that led to the dismissal of the news division's original editor-in-chief. HBO appears to no longer be interested in footing the bill for what must be an expensive show; VICE’s weekly docuseries got axed in April, followed by Vice News Tonight’s cancellation last month. The show will end in September. 

In its place, HBO renewed a documentary series co-produced with beltway megastar publication Axios. It is a dismal and depressing antithesis to Vice New Tonight’s ambition. 

The blindness of access journalism, but on HBO

The first season of Axios on HBO was an unmitigated disaster that straddled the line between mind-numbingly boring and journalistically ruinous. Presented as a random collection of short, tangentially news-pegged segments, the show lacked Axios The Website’s urgency or scoops. 

The sole breakout moment of the first season was Jonathan Swan’s interview with President Trump during the premiere episode, in which Swan joyfully coaxed Trump into revealing that he was considering ending birthright citizenship for children born in America. The chummy moment between the President and Swan became symbolic of everything wrong with the brand of access journalism Axios embodies: a choke-y, bootlicking relationship to power, even when power was being exerted in cruel and nonsensical ways. 

After Swan endured a brief outrage news-cycle, the show faded to irrelevance for three more episodes, with big name but boring interviews with tech CEOs and some bizarre “in the newsroom” discussion segments between Axios reporters who appeared to be held at gunpoint. Perhaps the biggest sin of Axios on HBO was its inability to translate the appeal of Axios while showing all of its weaknesses; the blitz of scooplets was nowhere, yet the subservient nature of its journalism was on full display. 

In its second season, Axios on HBO has solved some of its problems, but the project remains misguided. For what it's worth, Swan has taken the criticism of the first season to heart; so far he’s gone after Trump cronies Stephen Bannon and Jared Kushner in interviews that are undeniably combative. Kushner, a paperweight of a human being, crumped when pushed even slightly on his policy in the Middle East. Meanwhile Bannon’s boasting of helping the Italian far-right secure power was brutally crosscut with Swan interviewing the leader of that party, who said he met Bannon twice. Elsewhere, the show injects some life into its more mundane stories; the focus for business and tech coverage has shifted from interviews to more traditional newsmagazine segments. Hearing Elon Musk bullshit about self-driving cars is one thing, having a Ford executive show how the technology works is much more engaging. In an internal memo to Axios staff (later leaked to Huffington Post), Axios founder Jim VandeHei described the production of the first HBO season as “a shitshow,” something that any who watched it could tell. The second season appears more confident.

But much like Axios Dot Com, spending too much time watching Axios on HBO is akin to staring into a Lovecraftian void, except instead of a sense of unavailing terror it inspires a feeling of existential numbness. I learn little watching Axios on HBO, and what I do learn is generally useless. Let’s go back to Jonathan Swan’s hard-hitting interviews. Anyone who has been paying attention for the last three years knows that Jared Kushner is full of shit, and anyone with a brain could tell you a thirty-something rich son with middling business experience is not the man to bring peace to the Middle East. Swan reminding us of that serves some value, but it doesn’t change any of our preconceptions or teach us anything new. 

The same could be said of the show’s other political segments, which predominantly involve Swan, Executive Editor Mike Allen, or VandeHei talking to an Axios reporter (usually a minority or women reporter, which is notable because the show otherwise is mercilessly white and/or dude) about a topic. Usually, the conversation is a brief, poorly edited distillation of the topic, useful only because it showcases some galaxy-mind thinking from the upper-masthead (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, VandeHei casually reminds us, is the Democratic version of Trump.) Other segments, like an extended piece on LEGO’s attempts to be more environmentally friendly, seem like they’ve fallen straight out of a PR agent’s pitch email. The actual substance of Axios on HBO is that of noise; constant, self-important static. But there’s little beyond that.

Political news shows need not be exhaustively informative. Showtime’s The Circus skirts past its lack of depth through frenetic editing that conveys the sense of being immersed in the breakneck pace of this political moment. It’s part of the value of creating a television show in the first place, the fact we are engaging in something visually allows for a new emotional connection, even if the topic itself is already well-covered. Compared to The Circus, Axios on HBO's production just feels amateurish. There’s a constant shake to just about every shot, but not in a kinetic way or anything. You just wish they brought a tripod. Segments are awkwardly introduced and end with little sense of pacing. And frankly, the animations that truncate each segment or serve as infographics have a bizarre style that gestates between ugly and unsettling. 

And yet, none of Axios on HBO’s sins seem to matter. A third season will premiere in the fall, and HBO has ordered several supplemental specials, an agreement that feels somewhat familiar to the deal that birthed Vice News Tonight. Unless HBO’s new corporate parents decide they’d rather force some synergy with CNN, it seems that Axios is HBO’s new news friend, see ya Vice. 

This makes sense if you are trying to create a show with the most impact in today’s media landscape. In three years, Vice News Tonight has failed to drive the Trump White House news cycle. So far, Axios on HBO has scored interviews with Trump, Jared Kushner, Stephen Bannon, and its second season has broke a couple of major White House stories. In terms of pure attention-grabbing buzz, it’s hard to beat that, especially when it’s being made on a fraction of the budget of Vice News Tonight. (Axios on HBO is only weekly and much less reliant on international travel.)

The worst thing I can say about Axios on HBO is that it feels like a vanity project for all involved. Axios gets to say it has a show on HBO, while HBO gets to say it has a show that regularly lands interviews with Important People. Do viewers learn anything new? Does Axios ever make use of the medium of television? No, but it doesn’t seem like that matters to anyone involved with Axios on HBO.

A newsmagazine of the Times

Last month, ABC News scored a major exclusive: an interview with the President and roughly two days of access. They broadcast the results on a special episode of the organization’s newsmagazine, 20/20. There were all the makings of a Trump news cycle frenzy; the President threatening Mueller, criticizing Democrats, and repeatedly and transparently lying. 

Apparently, no one cared. While the interview breakouts did well online, the full special's ratings were lower than the previous week’s time slot, a rerun of America's Funniest Home Videos. I spent about an hour trying to find the special online the night after it aired, and another forty minutes the next morning. Eventually, I found it buried in ABC’s main website, mislabeled and without a photo in the last season’s list of episodes.

Such is the state of the American newsmagazine. Statistically, if you are not at least fifty years older, you probably don’t watch 20/20 or Newsnight or any of the various “long-form reporting” shows on TV. Yes, 60 Minutes still does well, but the hallmark show is the exception to the rule and currently beset by internal catastrophes. Ratings across the genre are amid years-long decline, and none of the legacy shows seem to have truly figured out how to build their audience online. How do you make a modern audience care about news magazines?

The New York Times is trying to solve that problem. Riding a new wave of relevance, the paper recently launched The Weekly, a television-based expansion of the wildly popular The Daily podcast. Much like The Daily, the show tackles a single topic each episode. Recent episodes have focused on a couple murdered by ISIS extremists in Tajikistan, the taxi medallion bubble in New York, corruption around Trump’s inauguration, and Facebook scams. The project represents a continued synergy at the Times; like The Daily, the show features correspondents from the Times and covers stories that appear in print and on the Time’s website. It’s part of a broader effort to bring the Time’s reporting to as many different audiences as possible, with the goal of turning them into digital subscribers. But does that make for good television or good journalism? 

To answer both questions: The Weekly is an earnest and human reimagining of the newsmagazine, although I struggle to view it outside of the context as a New York Times brand extension. 

As a media observer, it’s fascinating to see an organization like The Times—which continues to fight internally over reporters’ use of social media and just last year removed bylines from the front page—dip its toe into personality. Although none of the episodes delve into the reporter’s lives per se, their experience reporting is a constant subplot. They struggle with how publishing the stories could harm their sources and reflect on what they’ve taken away from their work. An interview with Stephen Bannon in a recent episode continuously cuts to star White House reporter Maggie Haberman as she scribbles in her notebook, a brief glance into the process of one of the country’s most important reporters. It’s reminiscent of Liz Garbus's recent documentary The Fourth Estate, which chronicled the Times during the first year of Trump’s presidency. Like that documentary, many of The Weekly’s most compelling moments come when it gives us a view into the minds of the reporters. 

As another first television series produced by a written outlet, The Weekly avoids many of the trap Axios on HBO falls into. The show’s producer is Left/Right, the team behind the nimble The Circus. Episodes pop with a dramatic visual style that feels engaging yet restrained in the manner expected of a New York Times production. Everything just looks good, with a cinematic grace that justifies its medium. There’s something charming and aloof about most of the voiceovers, it’s clear that many of these reporters have never worked in television before, yet the casual awkwardness of their performances increases the intimacy of the stories. 

Unfortunately, The Weekly is a show that struggles to justify its existence to an audience already familiar with The New York Times. Most of the stories presented already saw exhaustive coverage elsewhere at The Times. For example, ISIS murder episode, led by star international correspondent Rukmini Callimachi, mostly comprises reporting published on the Times website last August. Some more recent episodes have aired alongside the rollout of their equivalent print stories, yet many episodes have been weeks or months behind print. The Weekly isn’t trying to be as news-breaking as Axios on HBO or as comprehensive as Vice News Tonight, and it doesn’t need to be. But at some point the question becomes what is the purpose of regurgitating old news, even if it's in a different, visually engaging format?

The obvious answer is that The Weekly, at its core, is simply part of a broader push in The Times to expand how audiences interact with their journalism. The Daily has already proved the validity of this project; repackaging Times reporting in a friendly, more accessible format. The Weekly— which airs on FX before a digital run on Hulu—seems tailor-made to be seen by as many people as possible. Yet a docu-series television show is a much different proposition than a daily podcast led by a consistent host. You can't fit The Weekly into your morning commute, and there’s no Michael Barboa-type host to connect with. 

We don’t know how The Times’ first big experiment in television will play out. Middling reviews and a distinct lack of buzz make me feel bullish about its future. Yet what exists here is engaging. I just wish it didn't feel like an ad for a New York Times digital subscription, as it often does.

New creators, similar problems

For years, most television news was produced by major broadcast corporations supporting their own large news divisions. While this produced an obvious public good—journalism is important to a society—there has always a capitalistic self-interest beneath broadcast news. It explicitly exists to sell ads, and it implicitly exists to promote the corporation behind it. These two facts have always run in an awkward parallel with broadcast news’ record of journalism, a dichotomy that only increased with the rise of cable news.

Surveying the landscape of “new” television news, I’m left with a similar discomfort. These shows are fundamentally projects to increase the notoriety of their parent brand; existing either to drive subscription numbers, brand awareness, or online traffic. Years ago, their arrival came like a new age of television news; the digital wunderkinds coming into a traditional space with the goal of disruption. Now, it seems like desperation, an attempt to develop a new revenue model in the eye of an industry-wide storm of downsizing and layoffs.

Of course, all television news needs to prove their worth by the quality of journalism they produce. Vice News Tonight in all its sprawling ambition, its focus on under-reported subjects, and its gripping visuals, is perhaps the best example of good journalism coming from this new paradigm. And yet, its end is near. Its effective replacement, Axios on HBO, is perhaps the anthesis of what is possible: a dull, buzzy yet utterly substanceless advertisement for Axios Dot Com that underutilizes the medium of television. Both Axios on HBO and The Weekly feel like brand extensions that struggle to justify their existence, yet at least the New York Times is willing to hire people who know how to make good television. 

Despite the strengths of these new shows, it remains unlikely that ye-old broadcast anchors are going away soon.