On the pragmatic approach: A conversation with Ted Williams about the state of news media and its future

By Eric Frederick, NC Local Newsletter Editor 

Of all things certain, you can depend on this: The media business hasn’t seen the last of Ted Williams.

Williams’ passion for building businesses, and his success as a news entrepreneur in Charlotte, led him to the general manager’s role at the new Axios Local division in 2020. He’s stepping away from Axios Local, which he’ll advise through the end of this year as it grows to 30 newsrooms, to hang with family and contemplate what’s next.

I talked with Williams the other day, and he told me he’ll be spending some time with his wife and kids — his 8-year-old son and his daughters, 5 and 2. He’ll be coaching youth soccer and baseball, and I’m guessing he’ll be on the golf course now and then. 

He also has several visions for the future. The most immediate one, he said, is “being done with diapers,” but it’s a safe bet there will be a new business venture soon. 

Williams had some interesting takes on the news business and the future when we talked. Here’s our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity:

Ted Williams

EF: Why are you leaving Axios Local now?

TW: I love the building part of business. I really enjoy that, and I think I’m good at that. And after having some success at the local and then scaled level, honestly, it’s just a blessing to have some financial freedom to take some time to think about what’s coming next, spend time with the kids. And then ultimately build another spot one day. That’s just what excites me. Company building excites me. And so I’ll ultimately do that.

EF: I want to get back to that, but first, what are you most proud of about what you’ve done in the last 10 years?

TW: People. I think about team. I had three other people who had equity stakes in (Charlotte Agenda), and they all left before the acquisition — I bought them all out. Each of them started their own business. And I think for every person — and there hasn’t been a ton of people, pre-Axios I think we were 11 people — but it does feel like every person who I’ve had the opportunity to work with, it has been a transformational career opportunity for them. And I’m most proud of the growth and the challenge that people have had that I’ve worked with. 

It’s funny, that’s the thing that I reflect on and remember the most. Not how big is the biggest story, not how much money this made and this made, but the actual team and that feeling of working on a project that’s worthy of your time and effort with really, really smart people. It’s extraordinarily fun, and it’s a rare opportunity. And it’s something that, when people find it, cherish it — and then when you’ve had it, you want it again. 

EF: Great. I wanted to ask you a couple of questions about Axios. No doubt you’ve heard many times the critique that Axios Local is more a threat to metro newsrooms than a remedy for local news deserts. What do you say to that?

TW: Ah. I made the decision several years ago, probably four years ago, to lean out of the journalism conference crowd. I found some of that thinking to be not productive, odd, and it didn’t correlate with success of the projects. And so, staying laser focused on readers, not letting outside media Twitter chirp, “you’re not doing this” type of stuff, “you can’t save this” — and saying, you know what? We’re going to be pragmatic. We’re going to build great media brands that solve problems for people out there. And we’re going to try our best doing that. My answer (to your question) is, I spend zero time thinking about it. 

I understand the problem and the crisis of local news. And I don’t have a solution, a commercial solution, for news deserts right now. It’s not to say that can’t be developed over time. But one of the things that made me attracted to Axios is their pragmatic approach of going in with small, really good teams, being newsletter-first, in relatively major metros where you can get a big enough audience to generate enough revenue to cover some costs. It was just a pragmatic entry. I’ve seen the wasteland of local media startups that go in with more expenses and want to figure out revenue later. And that thinking is lazy and dumb.

And so, I think that critique is valid — because it’s what we’re doing. And I think that over time, there will be solutions that arise from that. They won’t look like things previously. And I honestly think the nonprofit space is really strong right now. I think it’s thriving. I think it’s smart. And I think it’s a good solution to some of the information crisis that’s out there.

EF: But if I backed you into a corner and said you have to solve the problem of news deserts in small towns and rural areas — any advice for somebody who wanted to take that on?

TW: I would think through the business model first. How am I going to generate revenue? And then given that amount of revenue, what type of journalism can I produce? Specifically, I would look first in the nonprofit space. Can I get grants? Can I get enough individuals in a specific region who care about a certain quality of coverage there? What is the amount of revenue that I can produce? If it’s only enough for one salary, I would have a newsletter-first product, and then I would pick and choose where I’m gonna go deep with my originally reported journalism.

I think a lot of people think, you know, I want to produce content first. (But) I can’t pay my mortgage with page views. The business of media is really freaking hard. The best operators think through that very intentionally. And so I would advocate for that.

EF: How has your philosophy changed? What have you learned?

TW: One of my biggest learnings is that there are not that many truly amazing creators and journalists, and that the top portion of that is probably worth two to three times, in terms of salary, what I originally thought, and the middle is getting taken out and will continue to get taken out. And so I have learned that the very best journalists can create a lot of value and are worth a lot of money. And that you can’t re-create that with a bunch of pretty good people. And so I’ve been amazed at the leverage you can get from truly unbelievable talent. And my perspective on that has changed. 

As a business owner, you know, you want to pay everybody really well. The truth is, stars create a lot of value.

EF: So what makes a great creator or journalist in 2023?

TW: They are truly original, and can produce things of great value that a lot of people are deeply interested in.

EF: There’s also criticism of the “smart brevity” format. What do you say to that?

TW: I think it’s a pragmatic approach. Axios is trying to reach smart professionals who are super busy. Not everyone everywhere needs to produce smart brevity, but I think the success of Axios in terms of audience kind of speaks for itself. People want information super fast. It’s not the only information in their media consumption diet, but wow, is it effective to be more to the point, shorter, for busy people.

EF: How much of the format that Axios Local uses now was born in your brain 10 years ago?

TW: It’s really funny because I was always trying to shorten our web stories, so I wanted our normal stories shorter, and our big stories bigger. And I thought, we don’t want to spend a bunch of time on the medium stuff. So how can we be more to the point where we just have quick stories, and then how do we go deeper and bigger with our big stories, and get out of this murky middle? 

I would always explain that to our local newsroom team, and they’re like, OK, yeah, yeah. And then Axios was born, I think a little bit after the Charlotte Agenda was born. And I didn’t know them for a while. Then, when I saw their format, it was like a light bulb went off in my head. I didn’t know the smart brevity name — I was like, we need to write more Axios style. So I would always walk around the office, you know, several times a day and say, “Axios style that. Axios style that.” I immediately saw the value of that in terms of return on effort. How do we minimize it and be straightforward for our shorter, more-to-the-point stories, giving us more time and energy and effort to go bigger on our bigger stories. So I think there was a lot of alignment in terms of thinking around story formats, reader-first approach to reporting news, and things like that. 

You know, smart consumers read a bunch of stuff. Smart brevity isn’t the answer to all things everywhere. I love reading long-form stuff. I love watching a documentary. There’s a bunch of forms that media can take out there. So to me, it’s more about, with limited resources, how do you get the best return on effort from a newsroom? And that is something that I thought we were incredibly good at, and remain very, very good at.

EF: What can Axios Local do better?

Continuing to build on the business side. How do we continue to grow the national book of business, the local advertiser book of business, and then introduce tools like a job board, event calendar, that kind of round everything out? 

I spend a lot of my time thinking through products, strategy, business model stuff. And I think over time we’ll get sharper and sharper in terms of our coverage in each market. Who are we specifically for and who are we not for, you know. I think we’re a little bit “general interest” now. And I think you’ll see us sharpen that and be a little more “smart professional” oriented.

EF: Got a favorite moment in your career so far? A day you’d like to relive?

TW: Seeing the impact of our coverage is really fun. Because you’re behind a screen a decent portion of time, and no one ever responds back like, “Hey, thanks for everything. You guys are great.” People do — but the majority is someone taking apart something, criticizing something — it’s just the way the internet works. 

So I was proud they were able to get to the other side, where we would have business owners say “the Agenda effect” around town. And so when we would cover something, business owners would scramble and newsmakers would scramble because of “the Agenda effect” of putting that spotlight on them. 

I specifically remember when we named Sandwich Max the best sandwich shop around Charlotte, and the owner somehow got our address — which is hard to find, because I didn’t want people coming after our team — drove over to our office because the line was super long around the block out of his sandwich store’s door, and literally gave us a poster off of his wall. I’m like, who’s this dude who’s walking in? He was like, kind of teary eyed. (It’s a photo of Bill Murray with “thank you” on it, hanging in the Axios Charlotte office now.) I thought it was kind of crazy. But I think that’s a good manifestation of something that’s fun and local, driving that Agenda effect. But also having a big impact around more newsy topics, too.

EF: So where’s the itch?

TW: Oh my goodness. I have probably 20 different business plans out there, thinking about different stuff. I enjoy advertising, communications, media, and I love certain areas of media that I think are going to be changed that also involve content mixed with tools. I love the careers and jobs space. I love the travel space. I love the personal finance space. I love the parenting space. And so there’s a lot of verticals that I’m passionate about for different kinds of reasons. 

I really like some type of community-related media products, where it’s a little less broad, but goes a little deeper. And I think that can be a vertical. I’ve got a business plan around a national fatherhood site. I think fatherhood is undercovered and will radically change. I also really enjoy a geographically constrained media product. I love local media, I love the state of North Carolina. And honestly, I’ve always wanted to compete with an Our State, too. I’d love to go head to head with those guys a little bit. So those are the things that rattle around in my head now. Also, you know, I like the advertising space. I think ad agencies are going to change, I think communication firms, consultancies are going to change. So I do like the business of media and marketing also.

EF: Speaking of change: Do you ever sit around thinking about how artificial intelligence is going to make what you’re doing totally unrecognizable five years from now?

TW: Yes. 

My first hot take is that it will first affect more SEO-dependent sites. Like if you can lower expenses and create an infinite amount of content, it seems like the internet’s gonna have basically an unlimited amount of text content out there. I also think that in the long term, there’s a ton of applications around shifting from a search box to some other method for solving problems, opportunities for different people. And my third thing is, I do think it will continue to create leverage for the most creative people. So it will be a tool for the best journalists and for the best creators. I think you could end up seeing smaller teams with bigger impact because they have better tools that allow them to solve different problems for different audiences. 

I don’t really know. There’s a lot of stuff to think about. I’m just a local media guy that’s ranking burgers.

NC Local News Workshop