Tossing Out the Journalism Norms and Leaning into Weird Writing with Axios’ Michael Graff
This week’s guest discovered at a young age that there were people who got to go to Orioles baseball games for free – and the rest is history. While Michael Graff’s love for the Orioles hasn’t faltered over the years, his career path has shifted from sports writing to feature writing in his current position as the Southern Bureau Chief at Axios Local. Michael shares how his experience as an English major helped him explore the idea of being weird and looking for those unconventional stories. Plus, he recalls how he stumbled into writing his first book, The Vote Collectors, and how being an author has impacted his role as a journalist.
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Tossing Out the Journalism Norms and Leaning into Weird Writing with Axios’ Michael Graff
Kathy Fowler: Welcome to After Deadline: The Media Podcast. We’re your hosts Kathy Fowler…
Marc Silverstein: And I’m Marc Silverstein.
Kathy Fowler: We are veteran TV news reporters who turned to the dark side and now work as PR and marketing gurus.
Marc Silverstein: That may be you.
Kathy Fowler: What are you,
Marc Silverstein: Genius? I think the category is genius.
Kathy Fowler: I think our guest is a genius.
Marc Silverstein: That is true. This week, we’re talking with the Southern Bureau chief at Axios Local, Michael Graff. Michael’s been a writer covering sports and politics for nearly 20 years. His work has appeared in ESPN, Politico, The Guardian, Washingtonian Magazine, along with many others. He’s even written a book called “The Vote Collectors,” which he decided to publish after working on stories about an election fraud scandal. Oh, very relevant.
He has exclusive insights about the industry to share, so let’s jump right in. Welcome to the podcast, Michael. We’re glad you joined us. We are honored to have you, and let’s go back a little bit. What made you get into journalism?
Why did you get into journalism?
Michael Graff: Well, I was a young boy growing up in the grand state of Maryland, and I was a huge Baltimore Orioles fan.
Marc Silverstein: 10 in a row.
Michael Graff: 10 in a row, that’s correct. And I realized at a young age, we didn’t have a ton of money. So we would go to one Orioles game a year, and then I started reading newspapers, and I realized there were these people who got to go to games for free, and they were called sports writers. So I set out, I mean, I don’t know what grade it was, sixth, seventh, or eighth in middle school, to just, I knew this was what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a sports writer who got to sit and watch the Orioles or whoever.
And so I started my career as a sports writer working at papers in Winchester, Virginia, and then Rocky Mount, North Carolina, and then Fayetteville, North Carolina. And I quickly realized that as much as I love sports, sports writers work when everybody else is off. So I was, you know, games take place at times when most other people can go to them. And so I was covering some of the best sporting events that you can imagine. I was covering things like Duke and Carolina basketball and things like that, but I was doing it on Saturday nights at nine o’clock.
And I just thought, you know, I was late 20s, early 30s at the time, and I just thought, okay, I’m gonna try to do, you know, I need to find some kind of way out of sports writing now, as much as I love it. So I became a features writer at the newspaper and really sort of embraced it. And I got to, and I realized as a features writer, you could write about sports too, just in a different way without having to be there, be present all the time at the game. So that was my, that was my long and short career path.
Kathy Fowler: You majored in English, not in journalism. Is that because you don’t think journalists know how to write?
Michael Graff: No, I wanted… is it a satisfying answer just to say that High Point gave me a scholarship and that’s what, I just decided to go to High Point because I got a scholarship.
Marc Silverstein: We’re big fans of High Point University.
Michael Graff: So I left, you know, I was in, I got accepted in the two journalism programs, one at the University of Maryland and one at the one at Indiana University. But I did one visit to North Carolina and thought, “This is where I want to go, and I’ll make it work from here.”
I do think that the English background, the writing background, actually served me very well early in my career. I had one professor at High Point in a creative writing course who came in one day. He had this huge head of crazy white hair, and he just said, “Be weird.” I thought, “That’s great!”
So, in my writing, I’ve always tried to be weird, and I don’t think a lot of journalists start that way. I think a lot of journalism schools teach rules and things like that. I learned all the rules kind of along the way while doing the trade, like how to source stories and all that stuff. But I had the writing background, and I had that be weird mentality, and I think it really served me well because I wasn’t looking for the same stories that everybody else was looking for.
I’ve always been a fan of, you know, like in sports writing, the basic example is when there’s a gaggle of reporters around somebody, I never wanted to be in that gaggle. I wanted to go talk to the loneliest person in the room, like the loneliest athlete in the locker room, to try to find out what was really happening.
That was the background, I think, that High Point and the English department there gave me. It was just the freedom to try to see the world in a way that other people weren’t seeing it, and that really served me really well in journalism. I’ve worked obviously with a ton of people who’ve come through J school through the years, and I admire the background that they got, but I will never say that I made the wrong choice by being an English major first.
Marc Silverstein: Well, wait, let me get… so, what does “be weird” mean? Or does it mean different things to different people? And, or, was there like “be weird” and then somewhere along the line, the light bulb went off over your head and you go, “Now I get it.”
Michael Graff: Yeah, what he meant, I think, was that he was reading really boring stories, and he was tired of reading boring stories, what the professor meant, and to me, that just meant go try things with the language, try to write, you know, try be… write long paragraphs that are followed by one-word paragraphs, things like that. Those were the early stages of it.
But, be weird, to me, just means follow curiosities and not try to follow rules and follow other people. That’s what I was always looking for in things that I was writing. I was trying to write, even in college, I was trying to write stories that, you know, non-fiction stories, non-fiction essays, things like that, that were not the same as my classmates and trying to do things that would surprise a professor or surprise myself along the way. Because, you know, writing can feel like a job, and I never wanted it to be that way. I’ve always wanted it to stay fun, so just trying to entertain myself, I guess, is part of the “be weird.”
Is your writing still evolving?
Marc Silverstein: Is your writing still evolving? Is it always changing?
Michael Graff: Oh, yeah, yeah. The media business sort of demands it these days. I work for Axios now, which has a format of writing called “Smart Brevity.” When I started working there, colleagues and peers were saying, “How can you write in this boxy format where they have a certain… Axios has “why it matters” high up in every story, things like that,” and I thought, “well, you know, it’s like any good artist, they can try to paint different things with it. Like having, I guess, having boundaries is in some ways freeing because it allows you to be creative with it in those boundaries.”
And I’ve had a lot of fun with it. Like, there are times when I’ll write little things in the newsletter that I say, “you know, I’ll get to the ‘why it matters’ and I’ll say, it doesn’t really, you know, or something like that.”
Kathy Fowler: Can you say that? It doesn’t really matter to most people?
Michael Graff: You can. And then you just follow it up with, “but here’s why I find it interesting,” or something like that, you know, just try to be a little bit strange with it.
Kathy Fowler: That’s so funny that you brought up the book Smart Brevity because I was watching one of the cable news shows this morning, and I guess there must have been somebody on from Axios because I literally heard that book and I was like, “oh, I gotta go buy that book.” They’re just, you know, they were pubbing the book, as well as, you know, just talking about whatever brief, interesting topic, I guess.
What is Smart Brevity trying to do?
Kathy Fowler: So tell us a little bit about Smart Brevity; when you think about it, it’s a writing style. Is it because there is so much that is thrown at people, are trying to sort through it and get them the better stuff faster?
What’s the idea behind it and how is it working?
What is the response to that type of writing style?
Michael Graff: So right now we have a world where information is everywhere, stories are everywhere, and we’re trying to help people cut through it. And we, at the top of every newsletter, we tell people, “this is only going to take you four minutes to read,” even though we spent 12 hours working on it yesterday or the day before.
The whole goal is, especially with Axios Local, our local markets, we’re trying to help you understand your city better, trying to give you a little bit of something interesting, like, you know, whether it’s politics or whether it’s the latest restaurant opening, we’re trying to help people understand their city better and help them use the city better. And we recognize that all of us are busy, everybody’s busy, and readers are really busy. And so we give them the option.
For a long time, journalists tried to avoid, tried to fight the idea that people were going to read on their phones. Well, people are reading on their phones now, like that’s just the way it is. So let’s make it easier on them to read it on their phones. And we try little things like the bullet points. There’s science behind that, actually, and then in the Smart Brevity book, they explain that, but there’s science behind it. Readers’ eyes get tired, so you try to break up texts with bullet points so that they can move through the story and not quit.
I mean, the easiest thing for a reader to do – and this is the truth that is stayed true from my High Point days through my newspaper days through my long-form magazine writing days when I was writing 7,000-word stories and the same now when I’m writing 900-word newsletters – the easiest thing for a reader to do is quit. And it’s much easier now, and it will only get easier as more things are there to take their attention.
So we value that and every morning we wake up and we try to deliver a newsletter that tells people one or two interesting things that they can share with their friends. And that’s, you know, it’s not complicated. We just want them to have something to say, like ‘I got smarter today by reading this.’
Do you write the same way for politics and sports? How are they different?
Marc Silverstein: This is the really, this is really the art of writing and I love this topic. When I first got started as a reporter, I used to be able to do features and do a great job on features in my small market. But, I was always at the end of the show, and it was ‘And finally tonight, Marc Silverstein has blah blah blah,’ and “finally tonight Marc Silverstein” became my name. And then, I’m like, ‘Why am I doing the hard news stories any different than… why am I writing them different than I’m writing the features?’ And that made a big difference for me. I started writing them the same.
Do you go back and forth from politics to sports? Do you write them the same way, the same sort of construct, I guess would be the word, or the same sort of mentality of how you’re going to write these, or are they different? Is politics different from sports?
Michael Graff: In some ways, yes, and but the basic principle, I’m trying to imagine a reader and trying to, you know, I have a two-year-old son, and I try to imagine somebody like me sitting there with my phone in my hand and trying to navigate, you know, whatever needs he has while my wife says ‘I’m going to go work out,’ and like all this stuff is happening on the background, and I’m trying to get people to read to stay with my story.
That’s the, I just imagine that the entire time, whether it’s politics or sports or food or anything like that, is readers have a lot of distractions and I’m trying to give them a reason to care about the thing that I’m doing. So that never changes.
But, you know, yeah, I mean, you can have a little bit more fun with sports than you can have with politics sometimes. And increasingly, one of the bigger challenges, and you guys know this as journalists, is just trust in media is dipping. So increasingly, one of the things that we’re having to do more of is show how we’ve reported a story or really, like, proved to the reader that this is a well-sourced story, and we have multiple people from both sides of the political aisle or something like that to show in the story.
So that is one challenge that has popped up in the past six years or so that we’re trying to, I mean, we’re just everybody’s trying to navigate it. Not only are people blocking out media a little bit more and have reasons to watch Netflix and stuff like that, but they don’t trust the news as much as they used to, and we’re trying to rebuild that trust in some way. So, I think that Smart Brevity, and what we do at Axios, is trying to create a community around the stories we write, and I hope it’s working.
A lot of the feedback shows that it is, but we can’t please everybody every day. You guys had the call line to the newsrooms and stuff like that, that you heard. It’s our email every day, and so we get mean emails every day, but we also get really, really nice ones from people saying thank you for breaking it down in a very easy way for us.
How do you show people the behind-the-scenes work to demonstrate you aren’t biased and get them to trust you?
Kathy Fowler: How do you do that? Because sometimes people also think that in order for the media to be unbiased, they have to just give 50% and 50%, and I’m like “That’s not really true” because if 50% is lying, you’re not going to get 50% on the other side. That’s kind of the trap that a lot of journalists fall in. They’re like, “If you just get two speaking heads…”, but if this speaking head is not being truthful and this one is… how do you do that? How do you show people behind the scenes to get them to trust you?
Michael Graff: That’s a really good question. There are times when we will fact check. If we are writing a story and we have a quote from a politician that has an inaccuracy in it, we will put it in parentheses and say, “this isn’t scientifically true” or “this isn’t… there’s…”. Obviously, the most obvious case in recent years has been voter fraud and election fraud, and we have to put in parentheses, “multiple investigations have happened on this in Georgia or whatever, and they proved that the extent of the fraud didn’t change the course of the election”
You just have to keep trying to do it in a way that’s not condescending to readers, because I don’t know why some people believe things, but clearly, some folks are reading unreliable sources, and those unreliable sources turn into beliefs for them, and it’s our job to try to deliver it in a delicate way “Hey, this is not accurate what this person is saying.”
Do you use analytics to evaluate your format and improve your journalism?
Kathy Fowler: Since you guys are sort of on the new frontier of digital news, do you use the analytics and stuff to check and see if people are sticking with this story, and they’re reading all the way down? Are you constantly revising your storytelling tactics by using those analytics to help the readers even more or tell the story in a different way that makes sure you’re engaging them and not losing them?
Email newsletters and scrubbing
Michael Graff: With our newsletters, it’s a typical process now we call scrubbing. I think Axios scrubs its readership more than any other news outlet that I know, and the whole idea behind that is, if you haven’t opened our newsletter within 30 days, we’re just going to take you off the list because obviously, you’re not interested.
Michael Graff: The one analytic that really matters to us is our open rate – how many people open the newsletter on a daily basis? Right now, across Axios Local, we’re at about 45 to 50 percent, which is kind of unheard of in the media industry. I used to work at magazines where we would hope that like 6 percent of our newsletter subscribers would open.
So right now, for instance, in Charlotte, Axios Charlotte has 110,000 subscribers and 50 to 52 percent open it every single day. So every day, we can go into making a newsletter. I go and sit in the stadium – I like to sit in the football stadium – and think, like, when it’s filled up, that’s the number of people we reach every day, 60,000. You know, sometimes sixty thousand people. And so, that’s the one analytic that we really look at: the open rate.
Readership responses to personalizing the end of newsletters
Michael Graff: Another little trick that we do is at the bottom of each newsletter we’ll put like, “I’m listening to this song today” or “I’m watching this movie this weekend,” and you wouldn’t believe the amount of feedback we get on that stuff. It’s like very personal stuff. I’ll say something like, “Oh, you know, my son is sick this weekend, and I’m trying to figure out how we’re gonna navigate that,” and literally parents will write in and say, like, “Hey, have you tried this?” And so that’s – it’s not a trick, but it’s fun to know that people are reading all the way to the bottom of the newsletter, and we get tons of feedback on that part of the newsletter.
Marc Silverstein: So we should start putting those on media pitches.
Kathy Fowler: It’s like an Easter egg, you know, like Taylor Swift does these little Easter eggs or like Jeep has Easter eggs all over their cars. You dropped a little Easter eggs. I want to know if you’re really paying attention.
Marc Silverstein: That’s the first time you’ve been compared to Taylor Swift?
Michael Graff: It is, it is.
How Axios Local is filling the void of disappearing local newspapers
Kathy Fowler: So are you – I mean, you guys must see because the dwindling on disappearance of local newspapers – are you guys trying to fill, like, an underserved community when you’re trying to get into certain regions and like communities? And I mean, is that one of the goals?
Because, you know, I worry as a former journalist, you know, I used to work in those small towns, and my first job was a small-town beat reporter. I’d go to the police station and, you know, go through all the things and try to find what’s going on, you know, that’s like important stuff in this small town and small town newspapers are dying, and it’s, it’s, uh, it’s a concern. Are you guys helping to fill that gap?
Michael Graff: You know, I think that’s the overarching goal. Right now, we’re trying to build a business model in the cities that we have that works.
The business model in Charlotte works. Axios Charlotte makes a lot of money for the number of people that we have on staff, and we’re trying to replicate that in the other markets.
But the criticism, and it’s valid, is that Charlotte is actually not an underserved market compared to, like, Mount Olive, North Carolina, or places like that, small towns. So people do criticize us and say, like, “Well, you’re already going to these bigger cities or these medium-sized cities, and you’re going in there and starting newsletters.” And we say, “Yeah, but like, the goal is to grow, to keep growing.” We’ve already added, like, in a year and a half, we’ve gone from zero cities to 21 cities. Hopefully, next year, you know, another year and a half, we’ll be at 42 cities. And then, then let’s start branching out into the smaller towns and stuff like that. Once we’ve proven that we can make money and that we don’t have to lay people off. And with all the stuff that happens throughout the newspaper industry these days, our goal is to never lay a person off, so we’re trying to build a model that’s sustainable.
In Charlotte, we’re not trying to replace the news. I always tell people we’re trying to fit in and be a part of an ecosystem. We just started a partnership with WBTV, the local TV station here, because in our newsletter, we don’t have enough bodies to go cover things like crime and all that stuff, but we want to have it for readers. The TV station, that’s their bread and butter, what they do, they do crime and weather and stuff like that. With our partnership, we can share our stories with their viewers, and they can share their stories with our readers.
We’re trying to be friendly in all the markets that we go to. Of course, that’s not always the case, every journalist is competitive. We have some snippy people in some of the markets who are like, “Ah, we beat you on this story.” We’re like, “Yeah, you have a 300-person newsroom, we’ve got two people there, that’s fine. We’re going to beat you tomorrow.”
In some ways we see ourselves as concierges of the news, trying to make sure that… if it’s not offensive to me, if another outlet has a really good story, I want to tell our readers about it. If the local newspaper has a terrific story, we share it in our newsletter, “Here, go to this webpage, it’s awesome.” We are trying to be citizens of Charlotte, not necessarily trying to be competitive journalists. That’s sort of our approach to being part of the media ecosystem in each place we move to.
But I would love to see it expand and try to figure out how to bring coverage to all the undercovered places in North Carolina, for instance, and all these places.
Marc Silverstein: So you gave up your love of crab cakes?
Michael Graff: I did.
Kathy Fowler: They are not the same.
Michael Graff: They are not the same, not even close.
What was the first game you covered as a sports writer like?
Marc Silverstein: Before we get too far on that, I want to go back to something you said way earlier about how you get to go to these games for free. So what was the first time you went to a game, for free, covering it? What was that like? I mean, was it at Camden Yards?
Michael Graff: No, no.
Marc Silverstein: Was Camden Yards even around then?
Michael Graff: It was.
Marc Silverstein: It’s 30 years ago, so you’ve been doing this 20?
Michael Graff: Yeah
Marc Silverstein: But I mean, did you ever do a game at Camden or someplace where you’re like, “This is what I was dreaming of”?
Michael Graff: Well, the first time I covered a sporting event, for free, it was for the local High Point newspaper, and it was a high school football game. It wasn’t necessarily the Orioles or anything like that. I spent a lot of Friday nights working high school football for a long time to get started.
But I do remember the time I got to cover the Washington Football Team when I worked in Virginia, and that was just, I was 22, I think, and just being in the press box with the Michael Wilbons, the Tony Kornheisers, and those people was remarkable for me. My writing hero was always Shirley Povich, who was a long-time columnist at The Washington Post, who’s passed away.
Marc Silverstein: He’s an icon.
Michael Graff: Just an amazing writer, and so to be up there in the press box with them was really cool.
Marc Silverstein: Did they know your name? Did they say your name? Did you get all…
Michael Graff: No, no, I never really got into the… It was probably a flaw of mine. I was never very good at marketing myself with people like that, I guess. But I would watch them. That was what I would do. I would just sort of watch how they did their jobs and, and try to pick up little tips and tricks along the way.
Marc Silverstein: I grew up listening to George Michael.
Michael Graff: Yeah, yeah.
Marc Silverstein: He did radio in Philadelphia, and then he went off to New York, and then he was at Channel 4, and I was working at Channel 4, and I was doing news, but they had me cover some sports story. And, and I’m walking down the hall, and George Michael starts yelling my name. “Marc! Marc! Thanks for doing the thing!” And I was like, “Oh my God, George Michael knows my name! Holy cow!” It was like… that was it. I was good for the day.
Kathy Fowler: Good for the day or good for the year?
Marc Silverstein: Good for the year.
Michael Graff: He was my window into sports as a kid. I mean, that was what we watched, Channel 4. That’s crazy.
The Vote Collectors
Marc Silverstein: So you wrote a book called The Vote Collectors about election fraud. First tell us about that and then how close to what is going on today…
Kathy Fowler: Wait, was it before election fraud became cool or whatever it is now. I’m sorry, not cool, before it became mainstream? I don’t even know. It’s not mainstream, but whatever.
Michael: It was before it was fanned by the president of the United States, I guess you could say.
Kathy Fowler: There you go. Yeah, that was… you’re the writer, you’re saying it better than me.
The North Carolina 9th Congressional District Race
Michael Graff: No, it was before that. In a small county in North Carolina. Um, well, in 2018, we had a congressional race in North Carolina, the 9th Congressional District, that ended in a near tie. Nine hundred votes separated the two candidates after, you know, 30-some thousand votes cast. And, um, the board of elections decided not to certify the race after a month after the election day. And the reason was that there were shenanigans, they said, going on in this county called Bladen County, which is an outlying county in North Carolina that also is in a news desert, like we’ve talked about.
And for the first time, it shined the light on what had been really small town back-and-forth between neighbors practices of collecting absentee ballots and possibly absentee or absentee ballot applications and possibly absentee ballots, which is what the illegal part would be.
And so, you know, I went out there to cover the story. I was a freelance writer at the time, so I wrote a feature for Politico. I was working for Politico, and I wrote a feature about it and really focused on the place, like what made this a place for this happened. And of course, the answers were all pretty plain. They’re not… It’s not complicated. You have a recipe of a lot of poverty, not a lot of jobs. You have hurricanes that come through and tear this area apart all the time. So you have a lot of desperation.
So when you have desperation, these politicians come in and say, “Hey, I’ll give you a hundred bucks today if you go run around taking ballots and stuff like that.” So a hundred bucks to them is a lot of money. And what I saw through, well while a lot of folks were breaking a lot of news, was just how sad the story was that politicians who were so rich could take advantage of something like this.
How The Vote Collectors came to be
So, I wrote that story and then I had a friend who worked at WBTV who was breaking a lot of news, and he also had built a relationship with the person at the center of the case, a guy named McRae Dallas, who was the political operative who became sort of known worldwide as a Republican political operative who was stealing votes, supposedly. Nick had created, had cultivated him as a source, and soon this guy wasn’t talking to anybody else, but he was talking to my friend Nick who worked at the TV station. And when Nick and I went out and got drinks, and he said, “You know, I have exclusive access to this guy and I don’t know how to write a book,” and I was like, “I have a literary agent, and I want to write a book, so I’m gonna go ahead. Let’s do this.”
And so we did 40 hours of interviews with this person that nobody else has ever interviewed, and now that he’s passed away, nobody else will ever interview, and we have it all on tape. And I just thought, that’s why that was my first book. It was just that we had the access, and it was an important story, I think, and the country to show that election fraud can happen. It’s not to the scale that some politicians want you to believe, but it can. And it’s also not not happening. Like, it does happen, but it’s just not, you know, we’re not talking about 30,000 votes. We were talking about 900 votes.
Marc Silverstein: Well, they’ve got to start somewhere.
Michael Graff: Right. So, we spent a lot of time out there in this place called Bladen County that was just…
How was your reception in Bladen County while you were working on this?
Marc Silverstein: Was that? I mean, you’re dealing with people in a small town. They all know each other, and you’re in there looking under the rug there to see what they swept there. And so, how was your reception there while you’re working on all this?
Michael Graff: It was, I guess it depends on who we were talking to and what day it was. Um, the interviews with the one main person, he was our main character, and we knew that from the beginning, so that wasn’t hard. Like, we had done the hard part to secure his okay on the book. Other folks, if they were his enemies, they were hesitant to talk to us. Even some of his friends were hesitant to talk to us. But we just wore them down, essentially. We stayed there and just never, we showed them that we cared.
And so we just kind of, like I said, broke through a lot of barriers, I think, just by showing up, which is something that they, you know, folks in places like that don’t often see.
Distrust in media versus real reporting
Michael Graff: The reason that folks in places like that have this distrust of media and have this trust of news is because they don’t actually know any reporters, honestly. The reporters that they know are all in cable news stations, and you know, that’s just not the reality. Like, so, you know, this all boils down to because this goes back to the point you’re making earlier about, you know, showing up. News stations need to show up in these places.
Kathy Fowler: Yeah, and that goes back to the need to not have these news deserts but also to try to go beyond this. People think the news is like Sean Hannity, Lawrence O’Donnell, Don Lemon and that’s really… I mean there is some news in there, but a lot of those are pundits and talking heads, and those aren’t the reporters. Most of the reporters, even on the different outlets – most of them – are doing true reporting, and it’s just I think we need to educate people, don’t you? I think that people just don’t understand journalism in the media, and I just feel like the journalism needs some good PR. They need a PR agency as a whole, the whole industry, yeah.
Marc Silverstein: Kathy’s unveiling our truth.
Michael Graff: I love it.
Kathy Fowler: I’m like maybe they could hire us, the whole entire industry. But no, it’s sad, I think of this as just a former reporter, because you know Marc and I have both been in local communities and we’ve been trusted and thanked and you see reporters just want to make a change, want to make a difference, want to uncover a truth, want to help people, you know that’s really the goal. Most people don’t get that because they don’t really understand how journalists think and work and act.
Michael Graff: One of the phrases that drives me to quote the most nuts is “elite media” and that is is crazy because what they, you know, what folks really mean is somebody like a Sean Hannity who makes 25 million dollars a year but that’s not, you know, that’s not me, that’s not any of the reporters I know. We’re all, you know, I ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch today just like anybody else, you know. I wish we could educate them, but I think half of educating them is just meeting them and showing up and showing, yeah.
Nobody gets into the news industry to get rich, but the few people that do make it look bad for all of us I feel like, so…
Kathy Fowler: Hey, my first job, I made $3.25 an hour.
Marc Silverstein: I really like what you’re doing with Axios because I mean there’s thought to it, it isn’t just what’s there, you talk about the analytics and the open rates and do you also look at how long people stayed on the articles? I know you said you checked, you put the Easter egg at the end to see if they’re paying attention. Do you follow up like, “Hey, I saw you didn’t open this?”
Michael Graff: No, but we do make a point of trying to respond to all the readers, like we try to tell them that we’re, you know, we’re just your neighbors and if we made a mistake today we’ll try to make it right tomorrow, things like that.
We really try to personalize it, I mean that’s what we do on a daily basis and people are shocked sometimes. You will sometimes get the meanest emails about politics and stuff like that and I’ll write people back and say “Hey, you know, I hear where you’re coming from, but here’s what we were doing” and then sometimes, seriously, I have one guy invite me out to play golf with him afterwards, like it was just a simple response it was, was, was all he needed.
Marc Silverstein: Did you go?
Michael Graff: No, I did not. That didn’t happen. It’s just letting people know that we’re not bots. I mean, we’re really trying to do that too. We’re human beings making stories and trying to do it in a truthful way, as close to the truth as we can. Trying to cut through all the bull. And sometimes we make mistakes. We’re not perfect. When I was in magazines, we were perfect, I think most of the time because we had a long time to work on things, but on the daily news cycle, we’re not going to be perfect. We’re going to make mistakes and we just try to do better tomorrow.
How does social media impact journalism?
Marc Silverstein: So, one more question though, and then we’ll let you go. Social media. How does that impact what you’re doing?
Michael Graff: It is a great tool if you know how to use it, and it can also drag you down if you let it.
Axios Charlotte has an Instagram following that is like 280,000 people, and a lot of people get their news from our Instagram feed. So we’re trying to figure out ways now, because if we post a lot of food on there, they turn to it. For a long time, it was a lifestyle account, but now we’ve realized that if we can post news on there, people respond to it. So when the county updates its mask mandate or something like news like that, we’ll post it on there just to let people know, and the comments in many ways turn into like a town square where people are debating whether this should have been done and things like that.
So used effectively, social media can be a really good friend of yours. It’s just, yeah, it’s like anything else. You have to kind of realize that the negative things that you hear don’t necessarily represent the largest percentage of your audience. And because people don’t email nice things like that – it’s easier to not email a friendly email than it is to email a mean email or write a mean comment or something like that. Like, it’s, uh, whatever, for whatever reason, the internet has rewarded people for writing negative comments. But those aren’t the majority of our readers, and we know that because we have in-person events where people come up and just tell us how much they love us and hug us and stuff like that.
I have a love-hate relationship with social media, but I use it to try to… We try to meet people where they are, so on Instagram, for instance, we will try to summarize our entire story – if it’s a news story – in that caption rather than tell people “Hey, link in bio” or something like that, because the reality is like 3% of people actually click the link in the bio. So try to meet people where they are.
I have distilled three thousand word stories down into to 2,200 characters or something like that because that’s where people are getting it. And I think a lot of times so folks don’t realize, like social in terms of social media, that not every platform is the same. A lot of people will try to just copy and paste a tweet into Instagram or Facebook and stuff like that. Well, no, you have different audiences in each place. So, we try to meet people where they are and make an Instagram post an Instagram post. We call that one of our media outlets, that is part of our larger media outlet. A lot of times it’s an afterthought and it doesn’t have to be.
Kathy Fowler: Better them get the Instagram posts from you than the Facebook meme from Joe Schmoe down the road who’s like passing, you know, or spreading misinformation. At least you’re giving them valuable and accurate information via social media, which is part of the problem with people getting a lot of their media from social media but not getting it from news organizations.
Michael Graff: Yeah, crazy Uncle Tom doesn’t need to be your resource.
Kathy Fowler: Just avoid them at Thanksgiving.
Marc Silverstein: The book’s available where?
Where to buy The Vote Collectors
Michael Graff: Oh, it’s on UNC Press’s website. That was our publisher. It’s also on Amazon and it’s in bookstores. It’s all over the place. Barnes & Noble.com if that’s your thing. Like, it’s anywhere you want.
Marc Silverstein: The Vote Collectors, look for it, and Axios Charlotte, and Axios, a bunch of Axioses.
Michael Graff: Yeah, yeah. Which, subscribe to them in your hometown if it comes to your hometown, subscribe to it.
Kathy Fowler: Yeah. Be smarter, and they’re gonna tell you the stories with a way easier way to grasp them and remember them. You’ll be smarter when you go to the water cooler and talk to your friends.
Marc Silverstein: If I had a dollar for every time we told the people we work with to put it in bullet points, I’d beat one of those rich TV guys.
Kathy Fowler: And also, the book Smart Brevity, it’s actually on my list to download that book. I need to talk on sound bites. Sometimes I talk too long.
Marc Silverstein: Michael Graft, thank you very much. We really appreciate you joining us and all the insights. A proud alum of High Point University.
Michael Graff: That’s right. One more point on the book: If you buy Smart Brevity, all the proceeds go to our fellowship program. So like all of the money from it goes into hiring more journalists at Axios.
Kathy Fowler: Oh, I love that. Oh, now we really have to buy it. Now we have to buy hard copies because they cost more, they’re for a good cause.
Michael Graff: Yeah, thank you guys so much. It’s been a wonderful conversation.
Marc Silverstein: It really has been. Thank you so much, Michael. We really appreciate it.
Kathy Fowler: Wow, well I think that was a great interview.
Marc Silverstein: I think it’s very interesting how the way he looks at things, it’s from 30,000 feet, it’s from close up, it’s very localized. He just has a great attitude towards bringing people great angles on the news.
Kathy Fowler: Which all journalists should be doing. Well, we loved having Michael as a guest, and he shared some terrific stories and advice about being a journalist. That’s it for today’s podcast. After Deadline, the Media Podcast is a production of On the Marc Media.
Marc Silverstein: If you enjoyed it and want to hear more of our interviews with incredible journalists across the country, be sure to follow us on social media at On the Mark Media and subscribe to After Deadline: The Media Podcast anywhere you get your podcast.
Until next time, we’ll catch up with you after deadline.