The sale is a huge payday for Axios investors, including employees and founders. The site launched in 2017 and quickly became a well-read provider of news and analysis on politics, government, technology and media. Axios also had TV deals with HBO and MSNBC, which gave it an immediate promotional boost.
Axios’ early investors included NBCUniversal and Emerson Collective, the private company founded by Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. (Emerson bought majority control of Atlantic magazine in 2017 and owns a stake in Gimlet Media, a leading podcast producer.)
Cox, a 124-year-old media company, had already been a minority investor in Axios before the sale, which is the second major deal involving digital media company Beltway in the past year. In October, German publisher Axel Springer bought Arlington-based Politico for $1 billion after discuss an offer to buy Axios.
One of Axios’ co-founders, chief executive Jim VandeHei, was also a co-founder of Politico but left the company in 2016 in a dispute over its management. VandeHei, a former Washington Post reporter, launched Axios the following year with two Politico alumni, columnist Mike Allen and digital strategist and chief business officer Roy Schwartz, who is Axios’ president.
All three co-founders will remain in their current roles with the company, Cox said in an announcement Monday morning. They will also occupy three of the seven seats on the Board of Directors.
Axios, which uses a clean format on its articles which it calls “Smart Brevity”, is one of the few successful digital news startups of recent years. The digital media industry has been filled with new entrants over the past decade, but even well-funded titles have struggled to find stable audiences and revenue in a business dominated by giants such as Facebook and Google. The pandemic has exacerbated the challenges and uncertainties surrounding digital advertising.
That’s not the case for Axios, which became profitable two years after its launch, according to Dallas Clement, president and chief financial officer of Cox.
“Obviously, the media has gone through various disruptions over the past few years,” he said in an interview. “We were looking for new models [and] we thought Axios brought something new to the table.
“What Axios does is different” from its competitors, he added. “He does real reporting on real stories.”
Axio’s website attracted 19.4 million unique visitors in June, according to ComScore, putting it far behind leaders such as CNN.com (122.0 million) and The New York Times (87.9 million), but ahead of digital news offered by legacy organizations such as Time (14.6 million) and ABC News (14.3 million). The Washington Post website attracted 64.8 million unique visitors in June, according to ComScore.
Axios also publishes newsletters and local news sites in 22 cities, with plans to expand to dozens more cities.
The stars of the company are Allen, another former Post reporter who started the popular Playbook column while at Politico; and Jonathan Swan, who has published numerous stories as a White House reporter and conducted in-depth interviews with reporters on Axios’ weekly HBO show.
“We have found our kindred spirit to create a large, consequential and trusted media company that can outlast us all,” VandeHei said in a statement Monday.
Cox is privately held, closely owned by the descendants of its founder, James M. Cox. Its extensive media holdings include cable television systems, television stations and newspapers such as its flagship, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. It also operates an automotive division which owns Autotrader, Dealer.com and Kelly Blue Book.
Axios’ estimated value is similar to another digital startup, the sports journalism site athleticism, which one to The New York Times bought for $550 million earlier this year.
Clement said he expected the sale to close within the next two months.