Politico, Axios founder started at the bottom with a 1.39 GPA


Courtesy of TR Gleason

Axios CEO Jim VandeHei makes a point during his Department of Journalism keynote address.

Calvin Skalet, Editor in Chief

He may have co-founded Politico and Axios media companies, but Jim VandeHei said he was a late bloomer.

“I was not a very good high school student, sorry,” VandeHei said in his keynote presentation during the Department of Journalism’s 50th Anniversary celebration on Oct. 19. In fact, VandeHei said attending UWO after high school wasn’t an option without first going to UW-Fox Valley in Menasha and proving he could handle college work.

VandeHei’s motivation as a student finally hit rock bottom in 1991.

“I was coming off a 1.391 grade point average,” VandeHei said.

His first encounter with the media wasn’t exactly ideal, either. Although VandeHei made it into the news, it wasn’t from breaking a major story.

“My first brush with the media was not one that made my mom super happy,” VandeHei said. “I finally made the front page of the Oshkosh Northwestern. However, it was because I was protesting the drinking age and I was the only buffoon you could see standing there.”

VandeHei said that incident made him realize it was time he figure out what he should do with his life. And once he figured it out, his career took off.

VandeHei was one of about 50 journalism alumni who came back to UWO to present during a day of pro talks and media panels that celebrated the media. During his keynote address, VandeHei discussed his journey to becoming one of the more powerful journalistic voices in the United States, as well as the importance of facts in today’s tech-centric society.

He first thanked the many individuals who helped him along the way.

“There’s nothing that I’ve done where someone didn’t nudge me, push me or do something [for me] that they didn’t have to do,” VandeHei said.

VandeHei said his first idea was to become a sports writer.

“I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” VandeHei said. “I knew I was a good writer and I loved sports so I thought, ‘Hey, I’ll be a sports writer.’”

After realizing he wasn’t becoming the next NBA beat writer at ESPN, VandeHei picked up the phone and called every newspaper in the state of Wisconsin and asked if he could work for them for free.

After reaching out to newspaper editors throughout the state, VandeHei drove to Brillion, Wisconsin and asked for a job at the Brillion News. Little did he know that the newspaper owner would end up asking the then-19-year-old to run the entire publication for the summer.

“He looked at me and said, ‘I have an editor who needs three months off; I need you to run the paper,’” VandeHei said. “I had only taken one journalism class.”

Not only did VandeHei get a paid summer job, he was also given a car to use for transportation and a lake cottage where he could live, complete with a mini-fridge that he said was always stocked full of beer.

VandeHei said that’s when he really found his passion for journalism.

“I learned more in those three months than I’d learned in years,” he said.

VandeHei went on to graduate from UWO in 1995 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. He said his goal was to eventually cover political leaders in Washington, D.C.

“I thought if I could cover leadership at Roll Call, a small newspaper that covered Capitol Hill, then I’d accomplish everything I’d wanted to accomplish,” VandeHei said.

He landed a job at Roll Call, and after covering more and more stories, VandeHei created a name for himself. Notably, VandeHei said he was the first person to figure out that Republicans were meeting in the basement of the Capitol to plan the impeachment of then-president Bill Clinton.

Then, in 2000, as a young journalist in his mid-20s, VandeHei got a job offer from the Wall Street Journal as a Congressional and White House reporter.

VandeHei said once he started working for the Wall Street Journal, his career took off. Suddenly, the journalist who was at one point flunking out of school was now covering the President of the United States.

“It’s crazy, you literally had a front row seat to the president,” VandeHei said. “You just get this lens into the world that very few people get. I was always very appreciative of that. One day he’s on Air Force One, and you’re sitting next to him interviewing him.”

VandeHei went on to cover every story imaginable, from 9/11 to intense election coverage. In 2006, then working for the Washington Post, VandeHei saw a breaking point in the media before anyone else did.

“There’s no Facebook, no iPhone, no Snapchat, no Huffington Post,” VandeHei said. “But you could feel it in the air that something was going to happen that would change the industry.”

With very sparse digital content, VandeHei said he saw an opportunity to change the industry.

Politico was created after a simple conversation with a colleague. He compared the creation of the company to the New York Yankees.

“I said, ‘Why don’t we take a New York Yankees approach to this?’” VandeHei said. “Let’s get the five best journalists, and we’ll be off to the races.”

Six months later, VandeHei created Politico. From there, VandeHei and company would go on to create one of the biggest media companies ever. He eventually left Politico to start Axios in August 2016.

Along the way, VandeHei said he has seen the political world turn upside down.

“Politics in media used to be normal,” he said. “Your political consumption was 10 percent of your time. People just worried about living their lives rather than worried about politics and media.”

VandeHei said with all of the negative connotations that politics brings, it’s important to realize the need for democracy.

“As imperfect as we are, we are by far and away the most perfect experiment in government in the history of humanity,” he said. “There’s something about democracy and capitalism that works.”

VandeHei took to his own publication to continue the discussion in an Axios column where he discussed the importance of media outlets holding their reporters responsible for their statements made on social media such as Facebook and Twitter.

“News organizations should ban their reporters from doing anything on social media — especially Twitter — beyond sharing stories,” VandeHei said. “Snark, jokes and blatant opinion are showing your hand, and it always seems to be the left one. This makes it impossible to win back the skeptics.”

VandeHei also discussed the danger with the public having zero trust in journalists that cover political policy.

“The worst thing for a country is having people believe lies or trust nothing,” VandeHei said. “One day soon, something bad will happen, and it will take faith in information to fix it. You erode trust at our collective peril.”

VandeHei said that he will never forget the people who nudged him in the right direction.

“Don’t underestimate how much you can do, or what people can do for you,” he said.