Caitlin Owens is a reporter at Axios, a digital news organization based in Arlington, Virginia. She previously worked at Morning Consult and National Journal. In this interview, conducted by email, Owens discusses her work at Axios, the site’s approach to news and her journalism education.
Q. Describe your job at Axios. What is your typical day like?
A. I’m not sure I have a typical day. Right now my official job description is “health care plus” — meaning I cover health care politics and policy, usually from Capitol Hill, along with a few other policy areas when they’re making news. I’m responsible for writing bigger-picture stories that top the Axios Vitals newsletter a couple of times a week, as well as other stories for the website.
I spend a lot of time covering Congress, which I think is the coolest job in Washington! Congressional reporters get great access to lawmakers, most of whom answer questions from us all day long. It’s the most transparent branch of government, in my opinion. There’s no better place to ask decision makers anything you want with a high expectation of getting an answer.
Covering both health care and Congress has also given me the opportunity to appear on national and local television and radio shows – an added perk of the job.
Overall, I like to say that my job is really seasonal – some parts of the year are just much busier than others.
Q. Axios uses short posts that often include labels like “why it matters” and “the big picture.” How does that affect the way you write and report?
A. I think it helps shape my reporting. I only write stories that have a “Why it matters.”
Axios’ philosophy is that if we can’t answer “why it matters,” we’re wasting a reader’s time. These labels, which we call “Axioms,” are used to guide a reader through the news, which is written in our “Smart Brevity” format. The point is to give the reader the information they need while making it easy to digest.
Q. How do editing and headline writing work at Axios?
A. Our headlines need to be short and interesting without delivering false promises to a reader about what the story says. Reporters write initial headlines for their stories, which we often crowdsource when we’re stuck, and editors will occasionally change them before publishing to the site.
As far as editing goes, my editor is in charge of both content and copy when I file stories. A couple of unique things about Axios are that our stories are very short and written in a distinct style, which adds another layer to editing. I’ve had the privilege of being with Axios since the beginning (I’m employee #14!) so helped develop the style, but it’s turned out to be fairly intuitive and not hard to teach new hires.
Q. You are a 2014 graduate of the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill. What skills that you learned there do you use today, and what new ones have you picked up?
A. I could go on and on about this one! The media landscape is changing, and it’s going to continue to do so. But there are certain invaluable lessons the j-school teaches that are always going to be relevant.
Ethics, for example, is now more relevant than it ever has been; we have to hold ourselves to a higher standard in order to earn readers’ trust in this hyper-polarized time. Hard work and persistence are always going to be crucial. The ability to think through not just both sides, but all sides of an issue and then present those arguments in your own words or images or graphics is always going to be important.
The j-school teaches some very practical skills, like AP style and basic reporting, and it also gives students the opportunity to get relevant experience. A lot of the required classes are very hands-on, like reporting, video editing and “special project” classes. These classes gave me clips I showed or talked about to future employers, including the Los Angeles Times for an internship and Axios.
In terms of what I’ve picked up, I work for a company that is trying to present news in an entirely new way – which means I’ve also reworked a lot of the skills I was taught in j-school. I don’t write using the inverted pyramid, for example, and I often write using first person and bullet points.
I loved many classes I took at UNC, but one I often think about is my community journalism class I took with Jock Lauterer. I obviously do not work for a local news source, but something I love about my job is that Washington is very much like a little community. This is both very fun and also keeps me accountable; my reputation and sourcing depend on my ability to be both good and fair.