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Feb. 8, 2017, 11:14 a.m.
Reporting & Production

Independent Journal Review wants to be recognized (and not just for its impressive traffic numbers)

“We’re still quite a ways off from that being a majority of our revenue, but for publishers in general, the ones that thrive I believe will be the ones that make subscribers and members the majority of their revenue.”

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.)

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.

Shan Wang: Hi — the phone line is kind of fuzzy?

Alex Skatell: I’m actually just out here in Arizona for my first board meeting as a member of the News Media Alliance.

Shan Wang: Oh yeah — you and Billy Penn.

Alex Skatell: It’s been fascinating to hear from organizations on what they’re working on, where the industry is going. There’s a lot of activity, not just on the advertising front, but on the business model side around subscriptions.

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.

Shan Wang: Do you feel like your organization shares any of the same challenges really, or shares any similar plans for growing or making money?

Skatell: I think some of the same challenges — obviously I can’t relate to what it’s like to have newspaper circulation numbers declining, or some of the other regulatory challenges that newspapers have — I can’t relate to that. But from a digital perspective, I was glad I was able to be in the room to share my perspective as a digital-only news organization.

Wang: You’ve been interviewed a lot recently, all with the narrative that “this little-known site” gets a crazy amount of traffic. I’m sure you’re sick of the “conservative Upworthy” or “Upworthy for the right” descriptions, too. So what is Independent Journal Review trying to be — and can you talk about that specifically, in terms of what’s your output like now, and how has that changed? How much aggregation, how much original reporting, what topics are you focused on?

Skatell: First, I think of everything we publish as original. We try not to publish anything someone else has already written, unless it’s really just breaking news we want to be on top of.

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?

Wang: You’re emphasizing heavily this idea of the IJR community. What are you offering beyond stories? Are there specific IJR Facebook groups around topics? Events?

Skatell: Well, it has to be experiences that go just beyond your content. Whether that’s connecting people with thought leaders, or connecting them with one another at real-life events — or in a digital sense. But there has to be an experience beyond the content.

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.

Wang: What do you mean by thought leaders? Which areas are you looking to focus on? Will the communities and the live events you’re thinking of building out be focused heavily on politics? Religion? Women’s rights?

Skatell: I think there are opportunities in faith. There are opportunities in family. There are a lot of communities that don’t currently have a home that exists online either.

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.

Wang: For an outlet like The New York Times, their ultimate metric is paid subscriptions. Your most important metric is what?

Skatell: Eventually, it would be the number of paying subscribers. Right now, it’s: Are our visitors creating a profile, and are they signing up for our email list? What is the next step in that funnel? We haven’t rolled out a paid subscription product in the same sense as The New York Times, but a user who is visiting the site daily on their own, and not finding our content through a platform, is really, really valuable.

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.

Wang: So how far down the line is this subscription product for you guys? You say you have 30 million readers. That’s a good number to start working on getting more money out of!

Skatell: We’ve piloted different things, and we’re testing a lot of ideas. But in terms of a more public-facing full rollout, I wouldn’t think it would be a majority of our revenue for at least four years. We’re still quite a ways off from that being a majority of our revenue. But for publishers in general, the ones that thrive I believe will be the ones that make subscribers and members the majority of their revenue.

Wang: Seems to be a direction a lot of places are moving toward, or fleeing toward.

Skatell: Yeah. We recently did a study of our audience. A lot of how we’re thinking about this is not: Where is our audience? It’s: Where do we overindex? We overindex in the Midwest, in Texas, and underindex in some of the larger coastal areas. That doesn’t mean we don’t have big audiences there, but in comparison to the population sizes in those areas, we’re underindexing.

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.

Wang: Wait, to cover local, Dallas-focused news?

Skatell: Not necessarily to cover stories in Texas. But we’ll have an ear to the ground, to communities, to hear about different topics we should be covering.

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.

Wang: I’ve been tiptoeing a bit around the question of where you guys are on the political spectrum, but would you say some of your stories telegraph a strong viewpoint, or might leave out important information? Feel free to correct me. Do you worry about pandering to those in your audience who might be looking for confirmation of their views and maybe compromising the reporting you want IJR to do?

Skatell: We strive to cover stories fairly. I think our headlines are what you’re referring to? If you read the articles, you’ll see we present the facts fairly.

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.

Wang: Oh, I’m not saying your approach is right or wrong. I’m just curious to hear where you think the site falls.

Skatell: Well, we try to do the best job we can. If you went through all 100 of our headlines, maybe you’d find some you wouldn’t agree with our framing of — but if you went through every news organization in the country and read through every one of their headlines, you’d find similar issues. I don’t pretend we’re perfect in how we frame our headlines, but I think if you read our actual articles, they are fair.

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.

POSTED     Feb. 8, 2017, 11:14 a.m.
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