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When Aileen Lee originally coined the term "unicorn" in late 2013, she was describing the 39 "U.S.-based software companies started since 2003 and valued at over $1 billion by public or private market investors."
Flashback: It got redefined in early 2015 by yours truly and Erin Griffith, in a cover story for Fortune, as any privately-held startup valued at $1 billion or more. At the time, we counted 80 of them.
- Ours was the definition that stuck. And, last week, the number of such companies topped 800, per CB Insights, with a cumulative valuation of around $2.6 trillion.
Why it matters: With apologies to Justin Timberlake Parker, $1 billion just isn't that cool anymore. It's not rare if there are over 800 of them, and certainly not mythical.
- Plus, there's been a flurry of startups whose valuations have been inflated by investment dollars. Isn't it more impressive to be worth $500 million on $50 million of venture capital than $1 billion on $500 million of venture capital?
We need a new word: Dragons.
- Dragons are much bigger, stronger and more awe-inspiring than unicorns. They destroy whatever's in their path, and their own destruction is viewed as catastrophic (at least if "GOT" is any guide).
- To qualify, a company must be valued at $12 billion or more, net of venture funding. Yes, it's a somewhat arbitrary figure. But it reflects the >10x "unicorn" growth since the Fortune piece, and the rapidly ascending private funding trajectory.
By the numbers: Currently, there would be 19 dragons. Of those, nine are based in the U.S.
- That's an even more exclusive club than Lee's original framing, although this is the sort of thing where less means more.
- The U.S. dragons are: Stripe, SpaceX, Instacart, Epic Games, Databricks, Rivian, Chime, Fanatics and Plaid.
The bottom line: Welcome to the age of dragons.
Facebook plans to announce that it will de-emphasize political posts and current events content in the News Feed based on negative user feedback, Axios has learned. It also plans to expand tests to limit the amount of political content that people see in their News Feeds to more countries outside of the U.S.
Why it matters: The changes could reduce traffic to some news publishers, particularly companies that post a lot of political content.
Details: Moving forward, Facebook will expand some of its current News Feed tests that put less emphasis on certain engagement signals, like the probability that a user will share or comment on a post, in its ranking algorithm.
- Instead, it will begin placing a higher emphasis on other types of user feedback, like responses to surveys.
- The company will also begin testing efforts to limit political content in several new countries, including Costa Rica, Sweden, Spain, and Ireland.
Between the lines: These efforts are part of a gradual effort by Facebook to make its users' experiences less political and contentious.
- Earlier this year, the company began testing limiting political content in News Feeds in the U.S., Canada, Brazil and Indonesia. In January, it said it would stop providing recommendations for users to join civic and political groups.
- User feedback showed people liked these changes.
The big picture: Following the 2020 election, Facebook tried to limit the amount of political content users interact with on its platform, but it is still regularly criticized over the amount of political misinformation it distributes.
- Current events and breaking news content is most likely to be exploited by bad actors for misinformation, because stories on breaking news events are difficult to fact-check as they unfold.
- Facebook has said that political topics only account for a small amount (6%) of the overall content that users engage with, although it's unclear exactly how the company defines political content.
What to watch: Facebook plans to roll out these changes gradually, so as not to catch too many political and news publishers off guard. It's likely that it will expand its tests over time to more countries.
Amazon is investing heavily in a new live audio feature that's similar to other live audio offerings like Clubhouse, Twitter Spaces and Spotify's new live audio platform, sources tell Axios.
Why it matters: As with Amazon's efforts in podcasting and music subscriptions, the company sees live audio as a way to bolster the types of content it can offer through its voice assistant, Alexa, and its smart speaker products.
Details: The effort, which is being led by Amazon's Music division, includes paying podcast networks, musicians and celebrities to use the feature for live conversations, shows and events.
- The idea is that users could access live concerts or performances through their Amazon Music accounts. The company is in touch with major record labels about live audio events with artists.
- The feature is being built to focus on live music, but the tech giant is also eyeing talk radio programs and podcasts as an extension to that effort, according to a source familiar with the plans.
- Axios has previously reported that Amazon is looking to invest in localized podcast content, like news and sports. The company bought podcast subscription company Wondery for a reported value of $300 million last year.
- Amazon also plans to integrate live audio into its live video service Twitch, according to two sources.
The big picture: Live audio services exploded during the pandemic, and have since seen big investments from Silicon Valley.
- Clubhouse said Sunday that users create over 700,000 live audio rooms each day, up from 300,000 in May.
- Spotify earlier this year acquired Betty Labs, an app developer, and a live audio app developed by Betty Labs called Locker Room. It has since launched Greenroom, a live social audio app focused on talk, music and sports, and has launched a livestream feature for concerts.
- Twitter this week rolled out ticketed live audio events for its Spaces feature.
- Facebook earlier this year launched a slew of audio products, including a live audio app that could rival Clubhouse called Live Audio Rooms.
- Discord this year launched Stage Channel, a feature for audio-only chat rooms.
Yes, but: Sources familiar with the company's thinking say that Amazon isn't looking to build an audio social network like Clubhouse or Twitter Spaces, but rather a digital radio-like tool for live-streaming performances and conversations.
- While that will likely include podcasts and talk radio programs, the company is focused mostly on music and events for now.
Our thought bubble: The opportunity for disruption in live radio is paramount, but tech companies have a long way to go if they want to recreate radio for mobile.
- Terrestrial radio reaches more people on a weekly basis than any other type of medium in the U.S. — largely thanks to cars (per Nielsen). But, as Axios has previously noted, the radio business model has collapsed in the streaming era.
- Radio revenues dropped nearly 25% last year during the pandemic.
Amazon did not respond to a request for comment.
The powerful hurricane that plunged New Orleans into darkness for what could be weeks is the latest sign that U.S. power systems are not ready for a warmer, more volatile world.
The big picture: “Our current infrastructure is not adequate when it comes to these kinds of weather extremes,” Joshua Rhodes, a University of Texas energy expert, tells Axios.
- Climate science studies show extreme weather events, from wildfires to stronger hurricanes, are expected to affect the U.S. with greater frequency and ferocity than in previous decades.
- There is also the risk of "compound events" with concurrent drought and fires in one part of the country and floods and hurricanes hitting another.
Catch up fast: Entergy, the utility that serves much of Louisiana, said Hurricane Ida's "catastrophic intensity" knocked out all eight transmission lines that serve New Orleans.
- As of Tuesday morning, more than 1 million customers were still without power in Louisiana, according to PowerOutage.us.
- "There are about 10 parishes that the electrical grids are completely collapsed and damaged, smashed, out — however you want to put it," Jefferson Parish Emergency Management director Joe Valiente tells NPR.
Why it matters: The last few years have brought clear signs that point toward the conclusion offered by Rhodes and other experts.
- In California, the dangerous combination of drought and high temperatures is worsening wildfires and straining the grid. Outdated transmission lines touched off California's deadliest fire on record.
- California power giant PG&E, in June, announced a multiyear plan to bury 10,000 miles of lines underground at a cost of $15 billion-$20 billion.
- Texas suffered deadly outages last winter when Arctic air barreled far southward. Judah Cohen, a meteorologist at AER in Massachusetts, tells Axios that event may have had ties to climate change based on how a rapidly warming Arctic is affecting the polar vortex.
What they're saying: WIRES, a power industry group pushing for modernized transmission, said Ida's damage "only reinforces the need for a more resilient grid."
- "Extreme weather events like Ida show the value of investment in local transmission projects to replace aging transmission infrastructure with stronger more resilient build out," said Larry Gasteiger, the group's executive director, in a statement.
- Rhodes, for his part, has emphasized the usefulness of placing transmission lines underground.
What we're watching: How power companies and policymakers do — or don't — respond at local, state and national levels.
- The bipartisan infrastructure bill that passed the Senate earlier this month contains grid modernization and resilience funding, but is nowhere near the scale needed to fully address the challenge while building out new transmission, experts say.
- The bill's various provisions include directing the Energy Department to establish a $5 billion grant program for grid hardening to help reduce the impacts of extreme weather events.
The bottom line: Building resilience isn't cheap, even if it ultimately saves money and, more importantly, lives.
About 70% of adults in the European Union are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, said Tuesday.
Why it matters: The milestone makes the E.U. one of the world's leaders in inoculations, after an initially lagging vaccine campaign, the New York Times notes.
Driving the news: The E.U. surpassed the United States in vaccinations last month after campaigns taken across the bloc's 27 countries grew at a faster pace than anywhere else in the world.
The big picture: More than 55% of the entire E.U. population has been fully vaccinated, compared with 52% in the United States, 61% in Israel, and 64% in Britain, per the Times.
- The vaccination rate has slowed this month, but "it has yet to reach a ceiling that some experts and officials feared it would hit over the summer," the Times writes.
Between the lines: Discrepancies in vaccination rates between E.U. countries persist.
- More than 80% of adults have been fully vaccinated in Belgium, Denmark and Portugal, and more than 75% in Spain and the Netherlands, while 45% of adults have been vaccinated in Latvia, 31% in Romania and 20% in Bulgaria, per the Times.
What she's saying: "The pandemic is not over,” von der Leyen said. "We need more. I call on everyone who can to get vaccinated."
70% of adults in EU are fully vaccinated.— Ursula von der Leyen (@vonderleyen) August 31, 2021
I want to thank the many people making this great achievement possible.
But we must go further!
We need more Europeans to vaccinate. And we need to help the rest of the world vaccinate, too.
We'll continue supporting our partners. pic.twitter.com/VxdvZlrwYv
Go deeper: European Union surpasses the U.S. in COVID-19 vaccinations
Jury selection begins today in USA v. Elizabeth Holmes, with the actual jury trial to get underway on Sept. 8.
Why it matters: Theranos was the biggest fraud in Silicon Valley history, putting both hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of patients' health at risk.
Among the questions for potential jurors, per a court filing:
- Do they or anyone close to them have experience in such areas as venture capital investing, finance, blood testing, healthcare or blood testing?
- Have they ever received any form of medical treatment (including vaccinations) in a pharmacy and/or grocery store? You may recall that Theranos had in-store deals with both Walgreens and Safeway.
- Have they commented, liked or otherwise interacted on social media with anything relating to Holmes, Theranos or Sunny Balwani? They'll also be asked if they follow any of 15 listed journalists (via Twitter, podcasts, etc), or if they've seen or listened to a list of programs that have discussed the case.
The potential witness list includes former Theranos board members like Jim Mattis, Bill Frist and Henry Kissinger.
- Others include attorney David Boies, ex-Cleveland Clinic CEO Toby Cosgrove, Coatue Management's Philippe Laffont, ex-Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation CEO Sue Desmond Hellmann, and journalists John Carreyrou (WSJ) and Roger Parloff (ex-Fortune).
Go deeper: Silicon Valley's biggest fraud is on trial
The debate over the media's role in Afghanistan's fall is intensifying, as experts look to understand how Americans were so blindsided by the Taliban's rapid rise to power.
Why it matters: "This is the least reported war since at least WWI," says Benjamin Hopkins, a historian of modern South Asia specializing in the history of Afghanistan at George Washington University.
Driving the news: While the country's botched exit from Afghanistan has gotten significant coverage in the past few weeks, the decadeslong conflict has received relatively little media attention in the past 20 years, especially compared to coverage of other conflicts in the region.
- Today, much of the coverage is focused on retroactively evaluating what went wrong and who to blame, but media experts argue that a large part of what went wrong has to do with the press itself.
"I think there are two grounds where the press bears responsibility," Hopkins tells Axios in an emailed response.
- "The first is that the financial model of the press requires, at least to a certain extent, the reporting of news that will sell."
- "The second is that the Defense Department largely tamed the press at the beginning of the war on terror. It offered access, but on its terms," he says. "By and large, much (though again not all) of the media accepted this access, with all the limits it necessarily put on reporting."
Be smart: From early on, it became clear that the story would be a difficult sell.
- "Domestic audiences had no interest," says Thomas Barfield, president of the American Institute of Afghanistan Studies at Boston University.
- "The history, culture, and politicsare complicated and multilayered," Hopkins notes. "Add on top of this a lack of familiarity not only with the details, but the general terms (i.e. - 'ethnicity', 'tribe') and it is no wonder people struggle, and in many cases give up on understandings."
Yes, but: While the press bears some responsibility, experts have been quick to point out that the public's lack of interest drove the media away from the story, and much of that had to do with politics.
- "U.S. officials proved they had a poor graspof Afghanistan culturally or politically so the press has to stand in line in terms of blame for 'why we didn’t know X,'" Barfield says.
- Politicians never really made the saga a campaign issue. "Afghanistan has never been something politicians individually or as a class have wanted to invest political capital in (there are exceptions of course)," Hopkins says.
There was a perception of progress fostered by American officials who obfuscated how bad the situation was on the ground.
- "As casualties dropped while we withdrew the vast majority of troops under President Obama, the war in Afghanistan simply fell off the media and national radar," retired Admiral James Stavridis — who spent two decades dealing with the war in Afghanistan — wrote in TIME.
- Still, the press largely ignored that revelation when the Washington Post reported the "Afghanistan Papers" in 2019.
Between the lines: The past few years have given rise to some of the most progressive press conditions in Afghanistan in decades, but that didn't result in a dramatic increase in international coverage.
- "International media focuses on crisis, the bigger the better,"Barfield says. "Since they come in at the worst times there is little ability to provide context."
What to watch: The press in Afghanistan that provided U.S. outlets with context for decades is quickly being unraveled, making it harder to cover the region as the Taliban takes over.
- On Tuesday, the World Association of News Publishers wrote an appeal asking international publishers to help secure "meaningful work for the hundreds, likely thousands, of displaced journalists and media workers forced into exile by the dramatic resurgence of the Taliban."
The bottom line: "This is a generation-long war. It is tough to maintain attention for that long," Hopkins says.