Before Judge Neil Gorsuch was nominated to the Supreme Court last week, news organizations were largely reporting that Donald Trump had whittled his original list of potential nominees down to two and was playing reality-show with the nomination process, as both Gorsuch and another prospective nominee, Thomas Hardiman, headed to Washington ahead of the final reveal on primetime.
But hours before Trump’s primetime unveiling, the online outlet Independent Journal Review reported that Gorsuch was the pick — its story was greeted with somewhat of a cold shoulder by other outlets who were seeking their own confirmation. CNN, for instance, reported that a source suggested Trump would likely pick Gorsuch, but another suggested Trump “likes a contest” and might still change his mind. (In reality, Hardiman never made it to Washington.)
Some things IJR was 1st on since the election:
-Ivanka cold calling congressmen to craft childcare bill
-that damn painting
— Joe Perticone (@JoePerticone) February 1, 2017
In describing IJR’s scoop, Politico referred to the site as an “upstart” conservative online news outlet “best known for videos of Ted Cruz cooking bacon on a machine gun and candidates pardoning turkeys,” lumping the site in with “other lesser-known websites” that are hopeful the Trump administration’s efforts to reach out to media on the right will shepherd into the D.C. media scene a new set of players. But among its peer group, IJR is particularly serious about getting serious. It added eight new staffers — including several to focus on culture and entertainment in addition to politics, ahead of Trump’s inauguration — and on Sunday brought on a new White House correspondent with experience at places like NBC News and National Journal. Meanwhile, that some of its other reporters have moved on to giant outlets like CNN has been a point of pride.The site is also a newly minted member of the News Media Alliance, one of the first two digital-only outlets to join the group formerly known as the Newspaper Association of America. (The other is Spirited Media, Philly outlet Billy Penn’s parent company.) While it boasts of its high social engagement numbers, it says it’s looking to do more than just grow drive-by social traffic.
‘We already have a lot of traffic right now,” said IJR’s founder and CEO Alex Skatell, who previously held top digital jobs at the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the Republican Governors Association. “So what we’re focused on is not just how to grow that number, but how to build a deeper relationship with those users who come to us every month.” The site runs display and preroll video ads, but what’s the ultimate meaningful metric for IJR? “Eventually, it would be the number of paying subscribers.”
(IJR is one property within the company Media Group of America, cofounded by Skatell and longtime Republican strategist Phil Musser. MGA also runs the digital consultancy IMGE, also headquartered in the same Alexandria, Va. building as IJR. IJR has denied any financial and political entanglements with agency clients.)
My conversation with Skatell about IJR’s current audience (“we overindex in the Midwest, in Texas”), the organization’s plans to offer “experiences beyond content,” and its outside-the-Beltway approach to staffing is below, edited lightly for length and clarity.
There’s a difference between news content and entertainment content, and this is something they want to elevate to the public — so people really understand the value of these local news organizations in communities, and then these national news organizations for what they do, with all the fake news that’s out there.
On the front end, there are an infinite number of topics we can cover, so who is the lead on a certain beat helps us determine, of the infinite options, what are the stories, and pieces of the story we’re going to be able to cover. Then we want to present the articles in a way that is interesting and timely and relevant and conversational, with our audience — our community. And then we also have data analysis — what does the data look like on specific parts of our community, is it the best fit for them? Then there’s distribution — how are we putting it in front of the right parts of our community? Are we leading with it in the email? On the home page? Are we putting it into a sidebar? As a related article? Then there’s social, Facebook.
We publish about 50 to 100 stories a day — maybe closer to 100 per day. Our editorial team is now around 50. We’ve announced several hires — eight to our editorial team last month, and we added a White House reporter.
There are many different metrics that are important to us, and it depends on the end goal, and which team we’re talking about. There are things that are quantitative and things that are qualitative. It’s not just clicks and pageviews — there’s the depth of the visit, the frequency and recency of the visitor. And I think, at the end of the day, the most important thing and the thing that we’re really focused on is community.
Are you able to drive a deeper relationship, are you able to create a more engaged community member from the articles you produce? So for a lot of publications that means seeing someone take out a paid subscription, or it means creating a user profile, or leaving a comment. It’s a further level of engagement, and that is in my view the most important metric every publisher should be thinking. Have you built a community among your visitors, and one that identifies with you and one that has a deeper relationship with your work?
This is something we’re looking to launch this year, and this year will be the real testing ground for us. We don’t have a specific month-to-month timeline yet, but we want to start piloting things this year. It is the biggest initiative we have in the company — moving people beyond window shoppers, people who enjoy our content but don’t have a relationship with our brand, or the other people we who read our content. We have specific ideas, but none I’m ready to share, because they’re at very different stages.
One of the big opportunities overall for media, because distribution’s changed and trust in news is really low — connecting people with experts, with thought leaders, will be compelling. Finding thought leaders among communities that are built, whether that’s around an interest, or a value, a geographic area — anything that you can build a community around that’s not just trying to get people to connect with only a brand. That’s going to be valuable.
Right now, you can connect with influential people in these areas, but it’s not a two-way connection — they just put out content. That has some value. But where there havn’t been a lot of products built, and a lot of investment and thought put in, is: Where is the next step in depth of access? What does that look like? What are the tools that can be developed to facilitate a deeper level of access?
That’s what we want to help solve for. I don’t think this type of way of connecting exists in any scalable way right now, anywhere, as a product. It exists now, in that you can cobble together a lot of various existing tools and put together your own program, but I don’t think there’s one product out there that can do it efficiently, the way we want to.
We already have a lot of traffic right now. So what we’re focused on is not how to grow that number, but how to build a deeper relationship with those users who come to us every month. There are a lot of companies targeting the same audience — urban millennials. And that isn’t the audience we’re going to try to carve into. Vice, Mic, Vox, BuzzFeed — they’re all competing for the same audience, and we’ve built a community of people outside of those sites’ communities.
So how do we build a deeper relationship with what we’ve got? And I think that’s something they’re all also trying to figure out. But the difference is, they command higher ad revenue from the traffic that they generate, because the marketplace they exist in is the same marketplace a lot of these ad buyers exist in. So they’re more top of mind.
We want there to be a value proposition to joining as a member. And I think it won’t just be through access, through just our content. It’s connecting people who share similar values, ideas, or interests, in a way that rewards their activity, and connects them to influencers that are of interest to them, are of value to this community.
We actually have staff in Dallas, and we’re likely to open our next office, a fuller newsroom, in Dallas. We have a deputy editor out there, Jason Howerton. And we’re actually going to be leasing some space, and opening up a satellite office there. It’s one, to have a team who can work the evening news, and two, to have some local coverage as well.
Texas is one of the areas we overindex, Dallas as a city especially, and that’s been one of the things that is really important about our coverage. About half of our staff is remote. They’re full-time, but they’re working in different places across the country — California, Utah, Texas, Illinois, Connecticut, Florida. We have staff covering stories and can provide perspective that is local. It gives us perspective that is important and helpful inside the newsroom.
Our reporters are dispersed around the country and are exposed to very different coverage ideas. It’s important to us that we have reporters that are outside of these…these…typical bigger cities. They can surface stories that are being talked about in their communities but are being missed in New York and D.C.
We’ll definitely cover local issues as well. If there’s a story in Florida, we don’t need to fly someone in. We have someone who lives there who covers national politics, but is familiar with what’s happening in Florida and can jump right in and not have to do a crash course on what’s happening locally. That’s a differentiator for us.
I don’t know — I don’t think what we do is any different than what The New York Times or The Washington Post might do with some stories — you could scroll through The Washington Post top five stories every day and I think you’ll see there are similar styles in how they present information.
Of course, we have opinion pieces. Those are going to more conversational headlines. In general, the direction of reporting is: Who’s the reporter, who’s the organization? And then I think it’s fair to have a conversational tone in how you report the story. It still needs to be factual. That’s something we take very, very seriously. We follow the trends of every news organization in America when we approach the storytelling in a conversational manner. That’s not anything unusual.