Credit: Photo by Towfiqu barbhuiya on Unsplash

The average reader spends 26 seconds on an article.

'Write less, say more' is the slogan of US digital news outlet Axios. It has created a writing style called 'smart brevity' to help readers scan for the information they need and go about their busy lives.

It has researched reading habits and found people do not have the time or patience for lengthy news writing. Readers are turned off by big blocks of text, are under-informed on most topics, and can receive anywhere between 70 and 400 notifications a day.

In a podcast with, Axios editor-in-chief Sara Kehaulani Goo summed this up: "We’d all love to think people will read to the end of our 2,000-word story when in reality we know that's just not the case."

Smart brevity is not all about word count though; it is also about the format of news writing. Look at any Axios news article and you will notice bold phrases, bullet points, punchy sentences, clear data, plenty of white space and very few quotes if any. This is to improve readability for mobile readers.

Smart brevity on an Axios article designed for readability

There are six rules to remember:

  • Write for your audience, not yourself
  • Sum up key information in single sentences
  • Write like a human
  • Write in tight subject-verb-object sentences.
  • Use formats which are scannable, such as bullet points
  • Remember that fewer words are more powerful
Atomic units in action: An Axios article as viewed on a mobile phone

Axios has even come up with an internal term - atomic units - to capture how much of a story should be seen on the first loaded screen. The perfect atomic unit contains a headline, an image (i.e. illustration or data vis), and two paragraphs - the latter with an "Axiom".

Axioms are the bold terms or phrases that tee-up sections of an article. The first one is often (but not always) "why it matters?". There are around 50 other phrases in rotation, such as: 'reality check', 'by the numbers', 'the other side', 'what they’re saying'.

All new Axios hires learn smart brevity in an initial two-hour boot camp session, with follow-up training. But the news company also markets the writing style in the form of books and free workshops.

The added benefit, says Goo, is that this is a powerful tool in the screening process when hiring. Ask if they can embrace the style, and you will weed out the less serious applicants.

So why does this all matter? Nearly three quarters of UK consumers and half of US news consumers prefer text to video, according to the latest Reuters Digital News Report 2022. That holds true across all age demographics. The lead author of that study Nic Newman told that this is because text is the quickest and easiest way for readers of any age to consume the news.

Axios was launched in 2016 by the founders of Politico, with a focus on politics, tech and business. It started out focusing on newsletters but has expanded into online and in-person events, podcasts and special investigations, and content streaming.

Newsletters give readers short news summaries, with the option to click through to a longer version. It has 2.7m newsletter subscribers across 20 different sectors and verticals, such as economy and business, technology and future, health and science.

It also has 24 local newsletters covering US markets, having started an expansion into local news in 2020. That roster will grow to 30 by the end of the year after Axios agreed to a $525m acquisition deal with lead investor Cox Enterprises last month.

Goo says: "This really affects our growth going into 2023 and beyond. We are excited, we could even double the cities we’re in now within the next year or so. It’s really about finding talent and selecting those cities which is often the hardest part. But the model is something to be hopeful about in journalism."

Axios claims to be profitable and is expected to reach $100 million in revenue for 2022, most of which comes from advertising on the newsletters, website and podcasts. It has also recently launched a new subscription product called Axios Pro, designed for investors and policy professionals.

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